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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 they were never deluded; and yet they rarely mention that the Gorbachev phenomenon took so many of them completely by surprise, that they had thought of the Communist Party as more or less monolithic and immutable. The liberal revisionists of the mid-Sixties and the Seventies insist they had a greater sense of the hidden diversity of opinion within the Communist Party and, therefore, a reasonable explanation for the arrival of Gorbachev as a reforming Communist; and yet they were not at all ready for (or necessarily pleased by) the way Gorbachev’s failed attempt at reform led to the utter collapse of the regime in August 1991.

In the various journals, some have suggested that one scholar or another “got it right.” The nominations are not wholly convincing. The French scholar Hélène Carrère D’Encausse, for example, is rightly praised for seeing early on the inherent instability of the multinational union; sometimes overlooked is her assertion that a rising Central Asian birthrate was the ethnic factor that would most likely bring down the union.1 Others, including Martin Malia, have suggested the late Andrei Amalrik as chief seer. Amalrik, a dissident who declared in his underground classic Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? that the regime’s attempt to preserve itself through cosmetic reform would prove futile and, ultimately, its undoing, may have come closest to the mark.

On the other hand, the academic who is dragged out most often for a ceremonial pummeling in the journals is Jerry Hough, a political scientist resident at the Brookings Institution. Where older scholars saw a Communist Party of rigidly totalitarian structure, Hough managed to see a pluralist, participatory, increasingly tolerant system—“a parliamentary system of a special type.” Where others talked of millions of victims in the forced labor camps during the purges, Hough actually told Robert Conquest in the early 1970s that the figure was probably closer to “ten thousand or so.”2 Perhaps the most egregious of Hough’s vanities was his revision (better almost to call it a reversal) of Merle Fainsod’s classic 1953 text, How Russia Is Ruled. Hough had been Fainsod’s student and, after the mentor’s death, the protégé paid strange tribute. In 1979, Hough issued the new version calling it How the Soviet Union Is Governed (“by Jerry F. Hough and Merle Fainsod. Revised and enlarged by Jerry F. Hough”). The shift from “ruled” to “governed” was a hint of the tonal shift within. As dominant political factors of Soviet life, the KGB and the Army all but vanished from the new version. As Conquest points out,3 Fainsod’s original index had sixty references to forced labor camps; Hough’s had none. Were Hough simply a marginal figure in the profession, this might not have mattered much. In fact, his revision of the Fainsod text was frequently assigned to undergraduates and graduate students, and Hough himself appeared as an authoritative talking head on television and in the opinion pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Robert Conquest suggests4 that it was another prominent revisionist historian, J. Arch Getty, and not Hough, who was responsible for “perhaps the most ludicrous book on the Soviet period ever published.” Getty’s Origins of the Great Purge (1985) suggested that only “thousands” had been executed and “many thousands” imprisoned; worse, he minimized the importance of terror when compared to the social and institutional development of the period; the purge, after all, made for a lot of job openings and social mobility. Strangely, Getty has recently been named by the Yale University Press to help edit a volume of newly released documents from the Soviet archives on, of all subjects, the purges.

The atmosphere of self-flagellation, boasting, and general re-assessment is not at all limited to professional Sovietologists. In speeches and campaigns, Republican Party leaders still claim that Ronald Reagan or, more ridiculously, George Bush won the cold war. The Reaganite notion that SDI, support for Solidarity, and other strategies to undermine Soviet resolve and resources brought on glasnost, competitive elections, a multiparty system, the liberation of Eastern Europe, and radical disarmament is preposterous—but it does persist. (Peter Schweizer’s new book Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Caused the Collapse of the Soviet Union is a coherent argument giving enormous credit to Reagan, but it suffers from a painful gullibility—every self-serving Reagan aide is taken at his word—that sometimes makes it read more like Tom Clancy than history.) It is true, the threat of the Star Wars program helped dramatize to Gorbachev the degree to which his economy—even his military economy—had fallen behind, but the evidence of decay had been all around him long before. The KGB, which helped to sponsor Gorbachev’s rise to power, made clear in its “eyes-only” reports to the Politburo that the regime was in grave danger unless the country could enter the technological era. Even now, in their moment of self-satisfaction, American conservatives might remember that there were plenty of right-wing intellectuals and policy-makers who suspected that the advent of Gorbachev was merely an elaborate Soviet deception. According to William Odom, Alain Besancon, for one, thought the collapse of the Eastern European Communist regimes in 1989 was nothing more than an enormous “trick” to fool the West.5 Fool the West? Toward what end?

And yet the left ought not allow itself much self-congratulation. There have been many on the anti-Communist left (Irving Howe, Theodore Draper, Robert C. Tucker) who have written extensively on the nightmarish cruelty of the regime and the dictatorship of the Party, but more often it has been conservative thinkers—a list ranging from Robert Conquest to Leszek Kolakowski to Raymond Aron—who have written with the greatest attention to the ideological foundation of the Soviet dictatorship.

Martin Malia, formerly a professor of history at Berkeley and the author of a seminal book on the thought of Aleksandr Herzen, Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism, is in that conservative camp and he has now produced a kind of history-manifesto which makes the case for the power of ideology in the disastrous history of the Soviet Union. Malia’s new book, The Soviet Tragedy, is, on one level, a compact history of the Soviet period from the ideological origins of the revolutions of 1917 to the collapse of the regime in 1991. The Soviet Tragedy is an essential coda to the literature of Soviet studies, and yet it ought not be read simply as a straightforward history. The survey course here serves as the base for a sustained polemic on Malia’s conviction that Soviet realities were, for the most part, “well-kept secrets” barely perceived in the West. He sees Soviet history as a tragedy not only for the people who suffered it, but for those, in the West, who failed to understand it. Malia blames Western intellectuals for savoring socialist ideology’s false promises of economic equality and social justice and looking past what he calls the real “logic” of Sovietism, its rapid development into a system of absolutism and terror. The lure of socialism as a higher stage of democracy and the insistence on seeing the Soviet Union as simply another variation of modernity, Malia writes, helped cloud the popular vision, and only now can we see the Soviet tragedy and our own failures clearly.

Although Malia does not conceal his disdain for particular movements in Sovietology,6 he leaves the names of particular scholars here for the footnotes. As a bow to academic tact, he will criticize, for example, various social scientists and their “value-free” approach to Soviet studies, but the scholars themselves huddle in the relative safety of the back of the book. Despite that decision of etiquette, Malia could not be much more severe in his judgments.

He traces the history of the Soviet Union to highlight what he calls the inevitable link between “real” socialism and slaughter. To have missed this connection was to be deluded, soft-headed. There is something arresting about Malia’s unabashed confidence. His is a tone that is probably passing from our times as global politics moves from the deceptive certainties of a bi-polar world to the more obvious muddle of nationalisms everywhere. Malia’s book is a last blast from that now faded battle.

  1. 1

    Hélène Carrère D’Encausse, Confiscated Power (Harper and Row, 1982).

  2. 2

    Robert Conquest, “Academe and the Soviet Myth,” The National Interest, Spring 1993, pp. 91-98. The issue of National Interest is of special interest; it is devoted to the questions of the collapse of communism and scholarship, including articles by Peter Reddaway, Richard Pipes, Martin Malia, Peter Rutland, etc.

  3. 3

    Robert Conquest, “Academe and the Soviet Myth.”

  4. 4

    Robert Conquest, “Academe and the Soviet Myth.”

  5. 5

    William Odom, “The Pluralist Mirage,” The National Interest, Spring 1993, pp. 99-108. Odom, however, cites Besancon in conversation.

  6. 6

    Malia has written extensively on Sovietology in the journals, especially, “From Under the Rubble, What?” Problems of Communism, January-April 1992, pp. 89-106.

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