Getting Russia Right

The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991

by Martin Malia
Free Press, 575 pp., $24.95

The fall of Sovietology was as cruel as it was quick. One may reasonably restrain one’s sympathy for the displaced men of the Central Committee, but it is a stunning thing to see what the collapse has done to professors on university faculties—to the historians, the political scientists, the sociologists—who studied them. An entire academic industry has been shaken. The cold war had been good for the Sovietology business (if not always good for Sovietology); a nervous government, obsessed with the great Other in a Manichaean world, showered cash not only on defense contractors and Central Intelligence Agency analysts, but also on academics who explored everything from the state of public health in the Soviet army to the living conditions of Yakutian Eskimos. Foundations of all kinds also showed their interest and largesse. The need to know was outsized, a national interest.

Now the study of the old regime has lost much of its academic cachet and its political urgency. Fewer students are lining up to learn Russian. Where once taking a course or two in Soviet politics was a prerequisite for understanding the world, the subject has become the province of history: Roman history, Ottoman history, and, now, Soviet history. As a result, such distinguished centers of scholarship as the Harriman Institute at Columbia or the Russian Research Center at Harvard have about them the serious air of re-invention. Of course, the subject has not disappeared. Some scholars are debating the wisdom of Boris Yeltsin’s shock therapy or his latest turn to blustery statist rhetoric. Others are taking up nationality studies, nation-building, the rise of neo-fascism, or comparative economic systems. Books are published, papers given. But somehow there is not as much heart in the discussion. Moscow is no longer the focus of singular American attention. Even the job descriptions are attenuated. Jack Matlock, Washington’s ambassador in Moscow during the Gorbachev era and now a fellow at the Harriman Institute, wryly calls himself “the former ambassador to the former Soviet Union.”

If there is a lingering obsession of the post-Sovietologists it is with Sovietology itself. It is hard to think of another profession that has had to ask itself such devastating and elemental questions: namely, How was it that we so grossly underestimated the weaknesses of the regime? Why was the collapse of the Communist Party, and then the union, so sudden? How could we have been so…wrong? (Journalists, for their part, do not much torture themselves with such questions. Something about the trade allows us to dip into one area and then hustle on to another assignment, all the while forgetting that we were guilty of many of the same sins of the scholars and had at least as much influence.)

Strangely enough, at a time when modesty seems required, all sides have declared victory. The conservatives in the profession, the cold warriors who saw Soviet power as inarguably evil and corrupt, insist they knew the regime for what it was, that …

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