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.

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