Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime

by Richard Pipes
Knopf, 587 pp., $35.00
Richard Pipes
Richard Pipes; drawing by David Levine


Richard Pipes’s new volume takes its place beside its predecessor The Russian Revolution as a masterly account, which brings together the intricate story of the rise and consolidation of the Bolshevik regime, ending with the death of Lenin in 1924. Vladimir Brovkin, who earlier gave us an excellent study of the Mensheviks,1 has now admirably covered the role of the workers and the peasants, and of the political parties, in the Civil War. In many ways reinforcing and in other ways complementing Pipes, his book is a remarkable contribution to the history of the Revolution in its own right.

Pipes writes from a distinctive point of view, and explicitly rejects the call, heard from some academics, to be “non-judgmental.” He is quite right, for several reasons. First, as Lytton Strachey wrote of a work on the English Civil War by Samuel Gardiner, having no point of view it resembled nothing so much as a large heap of sawdust. Secondly, non-judgmental and supposedly “objective” historical writing merely conceals the unconscious prejudices of its proponents’ milieu. The right criterion (as Gibbon and Trevelyan saw) is whether a historian treats the evidence in good faith, and with Pipes the answer is clear:he does. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime is real history—a broad and human study of what has long been a misunderstood and misrepresented cycle of events. We can now, and largely because of Pipes’s work, see how the Bolshevik regime established itself.

Pipes tells us that recent research in Moscow “enabled me to modify and amplify certain parts of my narrative, but in not a single instance did it compel me to revise views which Ihad formed on the basis of printed sources and archives located in the West.” Vladimir Brovkin, a scholar now at Harvard who formerly worked in the USSR, might say the same. This is a major point for historians of the Soviet epoch. For there is a vast literature in the West, academic and other, which does not stand up to this test.

The period between 1917 and 1924 covered by Pipes and Brovkin was until recently the most poorly documented in Soviet history. Paradoxically the more recent and more repulsive Stalin epoch had been giving up some of its secrets as early as the 1950s, and many more were revealed in the 1980s. But in the USSR Leninism was repudiated later than Stalinism; and it remained a Soviet duty to uphold certain falsehoods concerning it, and therefore to prevent access to documents exposing its practices. Above all, the regime, as long as it lasted, was fundamentally committed to the idea that the Bolsheviks had the support of the workers.

Pipes was one of the first to do serious research on the actions and opinions of the workers in cities after 1917. As he says, the new material has thoroughly vindicated his view that the proletariat did not support…

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