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.
Western Sovietology, especially in recent years, often foisted on Soviet reality “categories derived from a very different Western experience,” Malia writes.
The Leninist phenomenon was denatured, and the fantastic and surreal Soviet experience rendered banal to the point of triviality. In the eyes of most Western social scientists the Soviet Union came to appear as “just another society,” different only in degree, but not in kind from other “modern” nations. However, genuinely modern nations do not disintegrate as the result of a bout of mere reform as the Soviet system did in 1989-1991. What should have been the great social-science case study of the modern age thus was botched, and will now (hopefully) prove to be the starting point for a reexamination of social-science premises.
Malia’s conviction—and the heart of his argument in The Soviet Tragedy—is that “socialism” has been a free-floating term that has embraced everything from welfare liberalism to the Cultural Revolution in China; but in its utopian maximalist form as developed by the Bolsheviks, socialism has at its core the principle that political democracy is trivial, and unjust, without economic equality. As such, economic equality demands nothing less than the abolition of private property. The weakness of the Russian Provisional Government following the February Revolution of 1917 provided a particular group of ideologues—Lenin’s Bolsheviks—with a tabula rasa, the available ground necessary to force that ideology into practice. In order to accelerate the process of absolute nationalization and economic justice, a well-organized vanguard party (a tiny minority, to be sure) felt itself justified in seizing all power, suppressing all opposition, and forcing this all-consuming system on the people. Those who resisted—and millions more who did not—were reduced to corpses. In other words, the ideology, seemingly so humane, was the basis and justification for every institution and incident of oppression, from the initial concentration camps that Malia reminds us were erected under Lenin to Stalin’s brutal war on the peasantry during the collectivization of the countryside.
Malia is not unaware that “socialism” is a broad term, nor does he ignore thinkers like Orwell who thought seriously about economic justice without giving up belief in political liberty. Although he himself is a conservative, Malia recognizes that “so-called” democratic socialist systems, like Sweden’s, regulate, rather than suppress, markets and private property. But at the same time, Malia writes, socialist ideology, with all its overtures to justice, was able to delude and romance Western scholars and intellectuals in a way that fascism never could. It was especially successful at times when intellectuals were most dissatisfied with their own governments—during the Thirties, say, and during the Vietnam War. Malia is also convinced that the system could not have tolerated a “softer” variant for a prolonged period without leading to real collapse. After a limited “thaw” under Khrushchev, the system returned to a less bloody, and eventually gerontological, version of Stalinism. In fact, Malia points out, the one sustained attempt to reform the system radically, Gorbachev’s perestroika, led to its utter dissolution. The attempts by the KGB, the Party, and the military to re-assert control—an attempt which climaxed with the botched coup attempt in August 1991—came far too late, and the system collapsed.
“The Soviet system had its deepest origins in, and drew its justification from, the moral idea of socialism as the fullness of human equality,” Malia writes.
This moral idea necessarily leads to an instrumental program for the suppression of the prime sources of inequality: Private property, profit, and the market, an ensemble of institutions called capitalism. This program was supposed to emerge by itself from the logic of history (which is also the logic of democracy.) In fact, however, history refused to cooperate in producing the requisite instrumental program, and so the latter had to be implemented coercively through a new and unique political instrument: the Party….
For if we look closely at what basic socialism means, the obvious answer to the false paradox of good ends and bad results is that the Soviet experiment turned totalitarian not despite its being socialist but because it was socialist. Indeed, socialism—in the integral or maximalist sense of Marx and of the Second International—is the ideal formula for totalitarianism. For the suppression of “capitalism”—in the form of private property, profit, and the market—means the extermination of civil society and the statization of all aspects of life; and since such an unnatural order cannot come into existence of itself, integral socialism also means institutionalized coercion by the Party…Seen in this institutional context, the initial “noble dream” of socialism only makes matters worse because it has the perverse effect of legitimizing and thus amplifying the coercive concentration of power.
The Soviet Tragedy is among the first major polemics on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union to enjoy the sweetness of hindsight. It is a far more daring piece of work than the article that made Malia famous beyond the academy—“To the Stalin Mausoleum.” That long article, which was published in the winter issue of Daedalus in 1990, was among the first to see that reformed communism under Gorbachev would fail and give way to the more revolutionary politics of Yeltsin, the Baltic nationalists, et al. The old system simply could not survive under conditions of increased political liberty and decentralization. But while it was a bracing statement, much of the article’s notoriety is owed to the editor who, in a clever echo of George Kennan’s “X” article for Foreign Affairs, suggested that Malia use the pseudonym “Z.”
Malia’s career has spanned the length of the Sovietological profession. After studying at Yale as an undergraduate, he worked as a Navy interpreter with Soviet lend-lease ships in the North Pacific. In that job, he was able to talk in relative freedom with Soviet officers, some from the camp city of Magadan. Since they were officers, the Soviet captains had the right to invite Malia to their cabins without NKVD supervision, and there they often spoke harshly of the Soviet system. After the war, as a graduate student at Harvard, Malia studied with the émigré historian Mikhail Karpovich, whose nostalgia in exile was for the liberal Kadets. Malia also studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1949, at a time of Stalinist enthusiasm in Parisian intellectual circles. The conflict between the critical atmosphere aboard those Soviet ships and the blithe endorsement in French cafés made of Malia a fierce anti-Communist.
After World War II, when the study of the Soviet Union went into high gear in the West, the dominant view for over a decade was the “totalitarian” model, in which the Bolshevik and Nazi regimes were drawn not as opposites, but as soulmates in structure, origin, and butchery. Hannah Arendt’s magisterial work of historical synthesis and imagination, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), made clear the similiarities of the Soviet and German regimes, their parallel use of propaganda and terror, their attempt to create a system and social atmosphere of absolute state control. These were not merely common despotisms equipped with superior technology, but rather regimes of a “new type,” as the Bolsheviks used to say. Lenin’s Communist Party, with its command of every aspect of political and economic life, with its control over every institution from the schools to the marriage palace, had no real precedent in human history.
Five years after the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism, with Khrushchev’s “thaw” in only its earliest, and nearly invisible, stages, Arendt’s work of imagination and history was turned into a rather strict political-science model by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Friedrich in Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. They described the totalitarian model as one relying on six key factors: an all-consuming ideology, a centralized one-party system, terror, a monopoly on communications, a monopoly on weapons, and the centralized “command” economy. There were, of course, disputes about the model itself, but if there was a unifying orthodoxy for Malia’s generation of scholars, it was that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state. This was not merely an extension of tsarism, a variant on traditional Russian autocracy, but rather an unprecedented regime capable of previously unimagined oppression. Such pivotal works as Leonard Schapiro’s histories of the Communist Party autocracy, Adam Ulam’s history of the Bolsheviks and of Stalin, and Robert Conquest’s history of the purges shared a more or less common view of the history and the nature of the Soviet regime. And while Malia’s own subjects ranged from prerevolutionary Russia to European intellectual history, he, too, swam with their school. These scholars all viewed the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 not as a popular revolution but as a coup d’état carried out in a near political vacuum by a tiny, yet highly organized, group of radicals. The Bolshevik victory owed everything to the absolutism, skill, and ruthlessness of Lenin; the endurance of Soviet power was the result not of popular support, but of terror, ruthless, shrewd, and random.
There were among these scholars great differences, to be sure, over what had been the root causes of Russian totalitarianism. Richard Pipes, beginning with his Russia Under the Old Regime and then with his recent The Russian Revolution and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, tends to frame the problem of the everlastingly gloomy national fate as one of specifically Russian realities (as he, darkly, sees them). The peculiarities of Russian history—its lack of an enlightenment, its traditions of servility and autocracy—and even Russian topography, its isolation and cold, were to blame for the autocratic tsars and general secretaries. Pipes does not doubt that the Communists were far more brutal than the tsars, but he insists, as well, that they came from common ground: the pathologies of Russian realities and history.
Others, like Malia, took their cues from Solzhenitsyn and saw the root of Soviet evil not in Russian culture but in ideology; they described how utopian socialist ideology began, invariably, with fanatic idealism and ended in social engineering and murder. Malia’s favorite quotation from Solzhenitsyn is a kind of summary of The Soviet Tragedy:
The imagination and inner strength of Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers, because they had no ideology…. It is thanks to ideology that it fell to the lot of the twentieth century to experience villainy on a scale of millions.
Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 denouncing the crimes of Stalin against the Communist Party set off a limited cultural and political thaw in the Soviet Union. The real change in the weather of Sovietology, as Malia has written elsewhere,7 came eight years later with Leopold Haimson’s article, “The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia, 1905-1917.” Haimson, a professor at Columbia University, argued that there had been far more popular support for the Bolshevik uprising than had been previously supposed. In fact, Haimson claimed, Russia was experiencing a series of industrial strikes and was headed for a proletarian revolution on the eve of World War I. The war only delayed the revolt. Haimson’s critics, Malia among them, were quick to point out that under Nicholas II peasants outnumbered industrial workers by more than thirty to one—making a proletarian revolution rather unlikely. But the means to such a “proletarian revolution” was the oppression of the peasantry.
The revisionists were far from alone in recognizing that the Soviet Union had changed after Stalin’s death. In 1966, Arendt wrote a new preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism in which she said that while many of the most dehumanizing features of the Stalinist regime remained, a de-totalitarianization process was also in place. She was especially struck by the thaw in the literary and visual arts and saw it as a sign of even wider reform. Clearly, Arendt’s thinking was in flux where the Soviet Union was concerned, but she never did express at any length her reaction to the new Brezhnev regime’s efforts to wipe out nearly every sign of the reforms begun under Khrushchev.
Beginning in the Sixties, many younger scholars despaired that Arendt and the “totalitarian” school thinkers had done little to help explain the changes in the Soviet Union following the death of Stalin. Some of these scholars of the younger generation, including Hough and Sheila Fitzpatrick, proposed “modernization theory” as a way to look at the “new” post-Stalin Soviet Union. The theory proposed that ideology had become only a minor factor in the Soviet Union and that the regime was a force for economic and social development. Other scholars looked for inspiration to Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson or to the Annales school in France to provide a “grass-roots” view of political and economic life, to the fields of sociology and social history, and, in some cases, to New Left scholars such as Herbert Marcuse.
Despite the great diversity among revisionist scholars, a common theme was their sense of alternatives in Soviet history. Moshe Lewin, one of many to provide an “if only” scheme of Soviet history, argued that the proletarian revolution was genuine and would have acquired more proletarians to give it a proper social base and legitimacy if only Lenin had lived long enough to continue the New Economic Policy of the early 1920s. Stalin, of course, scrapped the NEP and created a working class and an industrial state through ruthless acceleration and extreme cruelty; Bukharin or some other alternative to Stalin would have done the job better and more gently than Stalin.
Malia, for his part, writes that while an alternation between “hard” and “soft” communism would become the regime’s pattern of dealing with shifting economic and political necessities, a permanent departure from Leninism, such as an acceptance of a mixed economy or a pluralistic political system, was simply unacceptable to the Party elites and would remain so until the end.
Just as the totalitarian school era generated some pseudo-scholarship memorable only for the ferocity of its jingoism, the revisionist period was not without its books of muddled leftism and moral relativism. But there were, as well, some genuine landmarks. Robert C. Tucker’s biography of Stalin, which portrays him largely as an extension of the most brutal tsars, Stephen Cohen’s biography of Bukharin, and books and articles on the Revolution by Ronald Suny and Alexander Rabinowitch helped to create a vivid and sometimes fierce debate with the older generation over the open questions of Soviet history.8
Unlike their totalitarian school “elders,” the revisionists rarely questioned the legitimacy of the regime. In fact, they insisted that words like “regime” were part of the problem, seeing them as vestiges of cold war scholarship that identified the Soviet Union as ideology in power, not as a government or as a society. But this new tact, as Malia points out, tended to strip the Soviet experience of “the institutionalized phantasmagoria of ‘developed socialism”‘ and provided for it a patina of normalcy—as if the Soviet Union were just another country in the modern world. Many of the new scholars, it seemed, ignored the fact that the literary works of Zamyatin, Bulgakov, Platonov, Zoshchenko, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Ginzburg, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, and many others were achievements not only of imagination but of precise observation and experience. These authors presented versions of the unthinkable, the unprecedented. In fact, they were the most vivid and reliable Sovietologists of all.
Although most of the revisionists acknowledged the tremendous carnage under the Soviets, they often accepted the Khrushchevian view, ascribing nearly all blame to Stalin, little if any to Lenin. The “discontinuity” theory of the Lenin-Stalin transition tended to de-emphasize and even ignore Lenin’s own contribution to the history of terror, his early battles against the peasantry, his persecution of religion and the liberal intelligentsia, his construction of the first concentration camps in Europe. They were, in other words, possessed of inadequate imaginations of the real.
Malia argues fiercely against what he sees as the revisionists’ overemphasis on Stalin as the source of all Soviet evil and error, their often romanticized view of the revolution, and, above all, their dismissal of ideology. “It is around these theological issues,” Malia writes,
that revisionist scholarship largely turned during the two and one-half decades before the collapse. In the introduction to each new monograph, the totalitarian model was ritually excoriated, and the “T-word” was banished from polite academic discourse, its use viewed as virtual incitement to Cold War hostility towards the “Evil Empire.” By the onset of perestroika in 1985, a pall of political correctness had settled over the field. And so revisionism wound up presenting us with a twentieth-century Russia virtually without Communism, a Soviet Hamlet without the prince—and also without the tragedy.
Although Malia is sometimes too quick to throw all revisionist scholarship onto the same scrap heap, he is quite right that the totalitarian nature of the regime never disappeared completely until the regime itself went into its final collapse. In this he has the assurances of the last general secretary. Long after the term totalitarianism had gone out of fashion in the Western academy, even Gorbachev himself, while still pledging allegiance to the “socialist choice” called the system he inherited totalitarian. Odd that a general secretary of the Party would find less to object to in the term than so many Western scholars. Interesting, too, that one of the most popular books among Russian scholars during the Gorbachev era was The Origins of Totalitarianism.
The Soviet Tragedy is an extended explanation for two phenomena that dominated the century: first, the rise and fall of Soviet communism, and, second, as a counterpoint, our dramatic difficulties in trying to understand the Soviet system and deal with it politically and intellectually. To Malia, Soviet socialism, unlike Italian or German fascism, was the more “cunning” totalitarian system because it pretended inclusion, appealing in its propaganda to all nations and men, to universal brotherhood, to the longing for equality. Fascist ideologies were, by their nature, limited to national borders.
When it comes to the way a longing for socialist rhetoric and sentiment clouded the mind of the Western left, the pattern of delusion did not stop with the Webbs, George Bernard Shaw, or Lincoln Steffens. Long after, Western intellectuals had more baffling things to say about the Soviet Union than, it seemed, any other subject. To the very end, Western visitors to Moscow could be heard admiring the great triumphs of Sovietism: lethal free medical care, twisted universal education, equality in poverty. As recently as 1984, one year before the rise of Gorbachev to power and at a time of economic crisis in the Soviet Union, a sensible man like John Kenneth Galbraith would venture that “the Soviet system has made great economic progress in recent years…. One can see it in the appearance of solid well-being of the people in the streets.”
Malia is convinced that the reason for all this befuddlement had to do with what he would call the deception of socialist ideology, the wolf of totalitarian reality inside the lamb’s clothing of theoretical economic justice. “The aim of this book…” he writes, “is to set the inverted Soviet world right-side up by treating it as a structure that was by nature upside down. For in the world created by October we were never dealing in the first instance with a society; rather, we were always dealing with an ideocratic regime.”
The seductiveness of socialism was mightily powerful, but to blame ideology’s attractions alone as the reason for confusion and error about the Soviet Union seems to me too single-minded. The reasons for blindness were more complicated and various than Malia suggests. There was, for example, a distrust of émigrés who spoke forcefully against the regime. Emigré critics and scholars were often deemed “unrepresentative” somehow, or guilty of “typical émigré thinking.” American liberals who could not tolerate émigré criticism of the anti-Vietnam War movement took to discounting émigré opinion generally, even on matters Soviet. The level of condescension was astonishing. I remember going to a speech one evening in Washington some years ago and hearing the audible groans when, during the question period, the émigré economist Igor Birman insisted that Western governments were vastly overestimating Soviet economic strength. Birman, it seems, had overstepped some boundary of etiquette. But he was right.
There were many other reasons as well. The cold war and the political biases it produced on all sides were no aid to scholarship or prediction of the Soviet future. Two of the founders of the Russian Institute at Columbia University, John Hazard and Ernest Simmons, were branded “members of the Communist conspiracy” by McCarthy. At the same time, the left’s justified disgust with the leading personalities and tactics of the anti-Communist movement—Senator Bilbo in the Forties and McCarthy in the Fifties, to name just two—led to a smugness that was too often the intellectual style of anti-anti-communism.
Scholars and analysts also faced enormous practical barriers to clear-sightedness. For many years, too few scholars were able to go to the Soviet Union, and, if they did, they faced a regime that was ready to seduce, bully, or blur the vision of the visitor. Professors were given, at best, limited access to archives and library shelves; they were placed under careful watch and their travel was extremely limited. A regime that could deal with the bravest of dissidents surely knew how to limit the explorations of American graduate students.
Sovietology was just not an easy profession. Malia, for his part, left the field entirely for nearly two decades. He made two long research visits in 1955 and 1962-1963 to Russia where he was able to meet with intellectuals as formidable as Anna Akhmatova, Lydia Chukovskaya, and Iulian Oksman, an editor of Pushkin who spent ten years in the Kolyma labor camps. The year after Malia left Moscow the second time, Oksman’s apartment was searched and the KGB found letters that Malia had brought to him from émigrés. Malia was denounced in Pravda as an agent of the CIA.
“After I left Moscow in 1963, just as the Khrushchev thaw was being suppressed, I gave up on the Soviet Union,” Malia wrote to me recently. “This was in part because the system seemed hopeless and yet there was no foreseeable possibility of its collapsing; and it was in part because I could not go there with any prospect of seeing my friends, or perhaps not go there at all. So I did not pay much attention to the dreary social history increasingly being churned out by American Sovietology. Instead I turned my interests to European intellectual history and the comparative history of European revolution. At the same time, however, I could not help but notice that in the wake of the radical 1960s something resembling the ideological intoxication I had known in late 1940s Paris was appearing in American academia, and in particular in Soviet studies.”
With the rise of Solidarity, Malia became interested once more in Eastern Europe and met with some of the movement’s intellectual leaders, including Adam Michnik. Michnik asked Malia if he could recommend some works of American Sovietology that he might be able to use in translation for the semi-underground publishing enterprise Nowa. Malia says that when he began going through the literature in 1982 he was appalled; and with the rise of Gorbachev and the attendant “Gorbymania,” his anger increased to such a point that he felt he had returned to the deluded Paris of his youth. The American ideology and metaphysics were, of course, more “watered-down”; but even though “Gorby was not Stalin,” Malia wrote me,
nonetheless, the structure of the debate was set by the covert ideologues, and so centered around the false questions of “what went wrong” with the Revolution and how some eventual “Bukharin of today” might set it right—all of which presupposes that there is something called “socialism” at the end of history. And such an ideological perspective need not be overtly Marxist; it could be, and in fact was, sustained through the 1980s by an eclectic mix of Frankfurt school “critical theory,” Foucault, structuralism, post-structuralism and other ideologies of “empowerment” and “human emancipation.”
Insofar as The Soviet Tragedy returns the power of ideology to its central place in Soviet history, Malia has made an enormous contribution. He has written the history of a utopian illusion and the tragic consequences it had for the people of the Soviet Union and the world.
The power of ideology was greater than we sometimes imagined, and its loss more devastating than the reformers inside the Communist Party could have predicted. One of the more fascinating aspects of living in Moscow in the last years of the regime was to watch Gorbachev’s ideological striptease. With every passing month he seemed to discard yet another tenet of Bolshevism: the absolute control of history and intellectual life, suppression of dissent, the one-party state. Finally, Gorbachev saw that he could go no further without abandoning the Communist Party entirely. Knowing well that he needed elements of capitalism for the country to survive, he began talking about “the socialist market.” He simply could not bear, politically or personally, to endorse publicly the restoration of private property—the central tenet, after all, of “real” or “integral” socialism as Malia defines it. There were things he just could not say. But by the time it reached the point where such issues were matters for ordinary debate and political struggle, ideology and its power had all but fallen away. The regime had been demystified, weakened to the point of no return. In his articles for this journal, Daedalus, and others, Malia was among the first to identify that process in motion; in The Soviet Tragedy he gives it a rich and lasting description.
What seems lacking in the book, at times, is a sense of balance and a concession to the advantages of hindsight. As Malia’s teacher Mikhail Karpovich wrote in 1930, “The books produced outside of Russia are too often written in an atmosphere of intense hatred of the present Russian regime.” I can only share Professor Malia’s hatred of the regime; it grew even more hateful in the years after Karpovich’s plea. And yet there are too few shadings to the ferocity of The Soviet Tragedy. It is surprising, for example, that Malia does not spend more energy in the book separating out the obvious disaster of Sovietism from less lethal forms of socialist thought and practice. Even Leszek Kolakowski, a thinker Malia greatly admires, asks, in The Socialist Idea, whether we are all fools
to keep thinking in socialist terms. I do not think so. Whatever has been done in Western Europe to bring about more justice, more security, more educational opportunities, more welfare…could never have been achieved without the pressures of socialist ideologies and movements, for all their naivetes and illusions.
Socialists and socialist ideas have made their mark in the United States, as well. No modern politician with a mind to re-election would admit it, but few of the social welfare programs would likely exist without socialism as as an undercurrent in the history of American political debate.
Malia is also, I think, lacking in balance on the question of Gorbachev’s role. In his letter to me, he was only a bit more cross with the Western supporters of Stalin than he is with the phenomenon of Gorbymania and in The Soviet Tragedy he credits Gorbachev with little more than an “ad hoc” approach toward successive crises. There are many reasons to criticize Gorbachev. He turned out to be too vain, too blinkered to go beyond the successes of 1988 and 1989; he suffered not only from the delusion of socialist nostalgia, but also from pushing away all those who did not share it; his ignorance of basic economic realities, his ability to surround himself with the worst while rejecting the best proved unerring and fatal. But to think of Gorbachev merely as a useful idiot contradicts the testimony even of his greatest and most bitter political rival—Boris Yeltsin. As Yeltsin himself wrote of Gorbachev in the first of his autobiographies, Against the Grain:
What he has achieved will, of course, go down in the history of mankind. I do not like high-sounding phrases, yet everything that Gorbachev initiated deserves high praise. He could have gone on just as Brezhnev and Chernenko did before him. I estimate that the country’s natural resources and the people’s patience would have outlasted his lifetime, long enough for him to have lived the well-fed and happy life of the leader of a totalitarian state. He could have draped himself with orders and medals; the people would have hymned him in verse and song, which is always enjoyable. Yet Gorbachev chose to go another way. He started by climbing a mountain whose summit is not even visible.
Malia argues that Gorbachev was trying only to improve a bankrupt system and restore a bankrupt ideology. It was Yeltsin who carried the twin banners of democracy and a market economy. That is, in the main, correct; and yet it is too clean, too schematic; it fails to take into account the grittier realities of the personalities and politics on the ground. The truth is, the two men, as much as they came to despise each other, acted as a kind of historical continuum, as if they were one figure, constantly evolving. There would have been no Yeltsin without Gorbachev; Yeltsin never had the skills of compromise and manipulation necessary to reach the top position in the Party. Despite the Zhirinovskys and Rutskois still threatening the process, the sum of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, their misjudgements and vanities as well as their acts of polit-ical imagination, created the uncanny sequence of explosions to do what no Sovietologist ever thought possible. Together, impossibly, these two flawed men helped to destroy an empire before scholars or journalists had the time, or the tools, to predict it.
September 22, 1994
Hélène Carrère D’Encausse, Confiscated Power (Harper and Row, 1982). ↩
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. ↩
Robert Conquest, “Academe and the Soviet Myth.” ↩
Robert Conquest, “Academe and the Soviet Myth.” ↩
William Odom, “The Pluralist Mirage,” The National Interest, Spring 1993, pp. 99-108. Odom, however, cites Besancon in conversation. ↩
Malia has written extensively on Sovietology in the journals, especially, “From Under the Rubble, What?” Problems of Communism, January-April 1992, pp. 89-106. ↩
Malia, “From Under the Rubble, What?” Problems of Communism, January-April 1992, pp. 99-100. ↩
Among the strong arguments for a revisionist position in Sovietology is Stephen F. Cohen’s “Sovietology as a Vocation,” in Rethinking the Soviet Experience (Oxford University Press, 1985). ↩