Leonard Schapiro’s Russia

Russian Studies

by Leonard Schapiro, edited by Ellen Dahrendorf, introduction by Harry Willetts
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 400 pp., $24.95

In the introduction to his book The Soviet Political Mind, Robert Tucker remarks that the history of twentieth-century politics can be seen as a process of realizing the dreams of the nineteenth. Few scholars of Soviet history have been so passionately committed to demonstrating the truth of this view as Leonard Schapiro, and few have been more qualified to do so. Over the last decades Russian history and Soviet politics have separated into specializations whose practitioners have no common language. Schapiro never respected this artificial boundary. He is best known for his books The Origins of the Communist Autocracy and The Communist Party of the Soviet Union; but he also published a provocative study of nineteenth-century Russian thought, and one of his last books was a biography of Ivan Turgenev. Russian Studies, a posthumous collection of articles, reviews, and talks (some published here for the first time), reflects both the breadth of his concerns and the overriding vision that inspired and ordered them. From the Slavophiles to Solzhenitsyn, there are few Russian writers and thinkers of significance over the past one and a half centuries whose names do not appear somewhere in this volume—and all of them are measured by one dominant criterion: whether they embodied or opposed the “dreams” that led to the Soviet reality.

Schapiro was a leader of what from the 1940s to the 1960s was the dominant orthodoxy in Soviet studies, based on the premise that Stalinism was the logical successor to Leninism, and that the dynamics of Soviet history since 1917 can be explained by one determining factor: the ruling party’s commitment to total power. This, as Schapiro puts it in the first essay in the collection, is, broadly, the only valid approach to the study of Soviet government today. During the last twenty years of his life he expressed increasing alarm at new trends in Sovietology, which dismissed “totalitarianism” as a cold war term, saw power struggles within the Party as one among many conflicts of interest groups within the USSR, and even favored such approaches as “grass-roots sociology” under what Schapiro calls the “dangerous…illusion that at bottom the Soviet Union is reasonable and basically motivated by the same aims as the Western nations.”

The new “fashions,” as Schapiro dismissively labeled them, have destroyed the orthodox consensus in Sovietology, splitting the field into what the Princeton historian Stephen Cohen has called “totalitarianism” and “revisionist” schools.1 Among the leaders of the former (along with Schapiro) are Richard Pipes, Adam Ulam, and Zbigniew Brzezinski; the latter include Cohen himself, Jerry Hough, Moshe Lewin, and a number of younger Sovietologists. Recent events in the Soviet Union have increased the distance between the two schools of interpretation, as each attempts to influence Western reactions to Gorbachev’s reforms. Proponents of the totalitarian model of Soviet government (supported, it would seem from statements in the press, by many, but by no means all, Soviet dissidents now in emigration2 ) interpret these reforms as cosmetic changes, tactical maneuvers…

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