Better to bend the stick too far

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • A History of 20th-Century Russia by Robert Service
    Allen Lane, 654 pp, £25.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 7139 9148 8

Has 20th-century Russia a history? The problem is that Russia – or, to be precise, the Russian Federation – became a nation state, or something approximating to it, only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For nearly seventy years (1923-1991), it was part of the Soviet Union; for the first 17 years of the century, it was part of the multinational empire ruled by the Romanovs. ‘What was Russia? And what was Russia’s part in the Soviet Union?’ Robert Service asks in his introduction. But there are no answers to these questions, only – as is frequently the case in this rich but sometimes inconclusive work – a series of options. ‘For some witnesses the Soviet era was an assault on everything fundamentally Russian. For others, Russia under Stalin and Brezhnev attained her destiny as the dominant republic within a USSR. For yet others neither tsarism nor Communism embodied the positive quintessence of Russianness.’ Russia in the 20th century, Service tells us, was an entity with changing borders and a population only weakly and intermittently interested in being ‘Russian’, incorporated within multinational states whose leaders’ attitudes to Russianness changed over time. Strictly speaking, it was not even ‘Russia’ that was incorporated, but a multinational ‘Russian Socialist Federated Republic’. In a more literal sense than Churchill intended, Russia was ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’.

It is not the riddle of Russia that interests Service. It is the riddle of the Soviet Union and what came after it. For most of its length this book, despite its title, is really a history of the Soviet Union built on the classic model, privileging the Russian or Slavic part of the Union but not neglecting the rest, and focusing mainly on politics. The great strengths of Geoffrey Hosking’s The First Socialist Society are cultural history and a feel for the texture of life; Ronald Grigor Suny’s The Soviet Experiment, which also came out last year, is best at social history, the nationalities and historiographical perspective. Service’s forte is political history in the tradition established by E.H. Carr in his multi-volume History of Soviet Russia, where politics means process rather than ideology, served up with generous portions of economic and international context and some garnishes of society and culture.

Service has, of course, made use of the opening of Russian archives. Over the past decade, secrets have been uncovered,‘white spots’ in the history filled in and new data on a multitude of topics have emerged. The provinces, long invisible, have come back into view. Political actors, past and present, have started to acquire personality and private lives, and ordinary people have acquired voices through the publication of diaries and oral histories. This makes it a difficult time to write such a history. It is still too early to assimilate the flood of information that continues to pour out in dissertations, monographs and scholarly articles, as well as in the Russian press. Old interpretations have been called into question but the shape of new interpretations has yet to crystallise. What happened to the Soviet Union in 1991 may be characterised as a revolution – not in the sense of a spontaneous popular movement overturning the old regime (which it certainly wasn’t), but in the sense of an abrupt political, economic and ideological transformation as sweeping in its impact and implications as the Revolution of 1917 – and when a revolution occurs, national histories have to be rewritten. ‘The history of the fatherland’ is no longer feasible because the fatherland has ceased to exist. But it is not only Russians, Uzbeks, Georgians and Armenians who have to rethink their history in the light of 1991. All serious scholars of the former Soviet Union are undergoing a process of conceptual readjustment, just as physicists and biologists would be when confronted by a sudden influx of new experimental data, not to mention a new regime of experimentation.

There have been many different ways of understanding the longue durée of modern Russian/Soviet history. One view, popular among first-wave émigrés and now back in favour in post-Soviet Russia, was that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 cut off promising trends of modernisation, Westernisation and democratisation, and plunged Russia into barbarism. In its crudest version (popular with Russian journalists in the early Nineties) Russian history from 1917 to 1991 was simply a black hole, an awful nothingness, an absence of history. Another familiar approach has been to see Soviet history as a passage into and out of Stalinism (otherwise known as totalitarianism). The classic questions of Sovietology in the Cold War era were how Stalinism came about, and how (or whether) the system would de-Stalinise. Historians, though generally allergic to the totalitarian model, were fascinated by Stalinism and tended to give it pride of place in their histories of the Soviet era. Some saw it as the real outcome of the Revolution; others, following Trotsky, as a ‘betrayal’. Yet others saw it as the product of a ‘wrong turn’ taken after Lenin’s death and/or the defeat of Bukharin and the Right. Our Whiggish instincts now send us sniffing in other directions.

In the Eighties, it seemed that a partially-deconstructed Stalinism – the ‘Brezhnev system’ – was going to be around for a long time. That made scholars interested in stability (which some called ‘ossification’) and look in history for its sources. Now, in the light of 1991, history is being scanned for the fault lines presaging sudden collapse. Since the non-Russian republics detached themselves so smoothly and spectacularly from Russia in 1991, a favourite searching ground is nationalities. ‘Civil society’ is another: it must have been emerging (we assume) in the Brezhnev period, and if it was, perhaps that was what quietly undermined the foundations and ultimately caused the house to topple.

The Cold War meant that Soviet history became a highly contentious field in the West. The usual way to understand the Sovietological conflicts of the late Seventies is in terms of politics and ideology, with totalitarianism as the touchstone. ‘Whitewashers’ and scholars ‘soft on Communism’ (in the terminology of their opponents) contested the totalitarian model; ‘Cold Warriors’ espoused it. The old conflicts still reverberate in the literary reviews, though they are long gone from the scholarly journals (see, for example, Timothy Garton Ash’s revival of the ‘Cold Warriors’ argument in his review of Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, 1789-1989, edited by me and Robert Gellately, LRB, 19 March 1998). These conflicts, however, were also generational, with a younger generation criticising the totalitarian model and an established older generation defending it. There were equally salient disciplinary issues. Social historians, just coming into their own in the field of Russian history twenty or so years ago, were almost invariably critical of the model for its implicit endorsement of the primacy of politics. Political scientists, whose discipline dominated the field in the Sixties and Seventies, tended to like the model for the same reason.

It has been said that scientific arguments are never won, it’s just that old scientists die. In other words, in intellectual arguments between younger and older generations, the younger generation has a natural tendency to win. That process was certainly very noticeable in Sovietology: if you were a revisionist in the US debates of the Seventies, as I was, you had the gratifying experience sometime in the Eighties of noticing that the halls were suddenly filled with young social historians who seemed to have been born revisionist. For those on the other side of the debate, of course, this outcome was less gratifying. It infuriated anti-revisionist stalwarts like Martin Malia and Richard Pipes, who consider that in 1991 their side won the Sovietological argument along with the Cold War, and that this victory should be duly acknowledged.

Malia’s complaint that he has been marginalised in an academic field whose members refuse to address the ‘big questions’ is not entirely without foundation. The now middle-aged revisionists, busy working in the newly-opened archives, are not listening and probably don’t intend to. Those who came of age during perestroika or the post-Soviet era and regard archives and fieldwork opportunities as a birthright are not listening either. They believe the old totalitarian v. revisionist battles belong in the history books, and that what matters is the new archive-based history that is now being written.

The revisionist historians were mainly foxes, in Isaiah Berlin’s division between the fox who knows many things and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. But hedgehogs were quite the wrong animal to choose to exemplify the ‘one big truth’ squad. It may be that the brain of the hedgehog works in the unitary manner Berlin suggests, but temperamentally the image is inappropriate. Hedgehogs are small, shy, prickly, apple-eating animals, uninterested in forcing others to agree with the one big thing they know. In the annals of human thought, however, not least its Sovietological branch, those who hold to one big truth are quite unlike the mild hedgehog: they tend to be absolutists for their truth, crusaders and polemicists, before whose passionate denunciations of error empirical foxes quail and relativists retreat.

Robert Service is a fox: not a revisionist (though he may once have thought of himself in those terms) but an empiricist, and as little of a Whig as can reasonably be expected of a historian. His method is to divide the historical period into segments that have some internal coherence and show the processes at work within them. Not surprisingly, this makes for a history that is like a string of different beads. Transitions are sometimes awkward: ‘The times were a-changing,’ we read at the end of Chapter Two, on the fall of the Romanovs, ‘and hopes and fears changed with them.’ But the periodisation is generally successful, avoiding the pitfalls of a ‘sequence of reigns’ approach (Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and so on). The five parts of Service’s book cover the late Imperial period (1900-1917), the early Soviet period (1917-1928), high Stalinism (1928-45), late Stalinism and post-Stalinism (1945-70), and the late Soviet period (1970-91). The most interesting choices here are the breaks at 1945 rather than 1953 (Stalin’s death), and at 1970 rather than 1964 (Khrushchev’s fall) or 1982 (Brezhnev’s death). The first is an excellent decision, since World War Two is undoubtedly the great watershed in Soviet history: the war and Soviet victory provided a new foundation myth that in the last forty years of the Soviet era largely overshadowed the earlier myth of the Revolution, and Second World War veterans moved into a position of dominance in the Party and its leadership that they retained, remarkably, almost to the end. The second allows Service to run his postwar story (Part Four) through the perils of partial de-Stalinisation and their resolution, leaving a story for Part Five that runs from the stability/stagnation of Brezhnev’s ‘developed socialism’ to the collapse of 1991 and its immediate aftermath.

The Civil War and NEP chapters are excellent, as one would expect from someone who has written a three-volume biography of Lenin and a monograph on party organisation during the Civil War. Using new data on the secret Tenth Party Conference, Service shows that there was deep opposition to the NEP within the Party and a degree of determination and political ingenuity on Lenin’s part only suspected until now. And it is a relief to have the overworked trade-union controversy of 1920-21 put in its place as a red herring. His sketch of Lenin – ‘cleverer than all of them, including even Trotsky’ but ‘the hard Old Man of Bolshevism on political questions’ – is particularly vivid.

The three big turning points in Service’s story are 1917, 1928 and 1985-91. The first is handled somewhat perfunctorily, though Service avoids the crushing sense of inevitability that often attends accounts of the Revolution. As for the third, he stresses the irony that Gorbachev, ‘in trying to prevent the descent of the system into general crisis, proved instrumental in bringing forward that crisis and destroying the USSR’. He strikes a slightly jarring note, however, with the speculation that, without Gorbachev, ‘almost certainly the eventual collapse of the order would have been much bloodier than it was to be in 1991’. (How on earth can we know?)

On the introduction of full government planning and the first Five Year Plan in 1928, Service’s account is less satisfactory: it is unclear why Stalin decided to launch a new upheaval, or even if that is the right question. Service gives a list of causes and enabling circumstances, ranging from the 1927 grain procurement crisis to ‘administrative malaise’, ‘poverty, ill-health and illiteracy’ and ‘military insecurity’. But why launch a new revolution at this point, having barely survived the first one? Why complicate the industrialisation drive by throwing in collectivisation, which was bound (in the eye of any rational outsider) to alienate the peasantry? Why make collectivisation more difficult by accompanying it with an onslaught on village priests and churches? Why target engineers for harassment and intimidation in the Cultural Revolution of the late Twenties just when their services were needed most?

Alec Nove wrote, apropos the Bolsheviks’ decision to collectivise, that while a rabbi might have the choice between a cheese sandwich and a ham sandwich, this would not be a real choice for him. In other words, ideology counts – in this case, a genuinely revolutionary ideology and the militant, optimistic, ruthless spirit to put it into practice. The ideology and militancy were the Party’s, not specifically Stalin’s; leaders who counselled moderation ended up on the losing side, as Bukharin and his allies found out. In a popular phrase of the time, it was better to bend the stick too far than not to bend it far enough. Service treats the key decisions of the late Twenties as Stalin’s decisions, which is too simple, and explains Stalin’s actions largely in terms of political manoeuvre and circumstance (‘There was an internal logic to the step-by-step choices that he made’). This neglects the blatant illogic of policy-making at this period, the lack of (and even contempt for) realistic planning, the ideological fervour that made Communists desecrate graveyards and blow up churches.

It is both Service’s strength and his weakness that he shies away from models, theories and over-arching schemes. He is eclectic in his approach to the ‘classic’ interpretations of Soviet history. The Mensheviks were right in claiming that ‘Lenin distorted socialist ideas.’ ‘Berdyaev for his part was right to argue that the USSR reproduced pre-Revolutionary ideological and social traditions.’ But as E.H. Carr and Barrington Moore insisted, the Soviet leaders ‘were also authoritarian modernisers’, and Leonard Schapiro and Merle Fainsod were ‘overwhelmingly right to underline the unprecedented oppressiveness of the Soviet order in its struggle for complete control of state and society’.

Some of these insights are closer to Service’s heart than others – Berdyaev and Barrington Moore were ‘right’ but Schapiro and Fainsod were ‘overwhelmingly right’. It comes as no surprise to find that the totalitarian model, though failing ‘to encapsulate the contradictions’ of Soviet reality, is better than any of the alternatives. Service’s main reservation is that Soviet reality was ‘extremely chaotic’, defeating the state’s efforts at totalitarian control. ‘Administrative informality and disarray – and even gross disorder – as well as hyper-orderliness were basic features of life in the USSR throughout its existence ... The various impediments to total political control were not so much inhibitors of the system’s existence as part and parcel of the means by which the system managed to sustain itself.’

Service’s conclusions are suggestive. ‘The Bolsheviks,’ he writes, ‘aspired to economic competitiveness, political integration, inter-ethnic co-operation, social tranquillity, administrative efficiency, cultural dynamism and universal education. But the means they employed inevitably vitiated their declared ends.’ There were advantages (or, as the Soviets themselves used to put it, ‘achievements’) to Soviet Communism, among them the fostering of education, respect for high culture, and support for science and sport. Service acknowledges a Soviet civilising mission, and even sees it as partly accomplished – especially, he notes in an odd aside, in the modernisation of the ‘obscurantist life of the Russian countryside’ (shades of Marx’s ‘idiocy of rural life’). Winning the war against Germany was a major achievement, and in the postwar period Soviet rule came to mean a basic welfare state safety net which ‘offered a peaceful, predictable framework for people to live their lives’. But politics was brutalised under Lenin and Stalin, internal enmities and alienation fostered among the population. The Soviet population became ‘a mass of intimidated citizens who took little interest in their neighbours’ welfare’, with selfishness ‘more endemic even than under capitalism’. In the summation of one of the last volumes of his history, Carr wrote: ‘Seldom, perhaps, in history has so monstrous a price been paid for so monumental an achievement.’ For Service – as for most historians of the post-1991 era – the price remains monstrous, but the achievement has lost its monumentality.