<i> Ronald Grigor Suny is the author of "The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Successor States" (Oxford, 1998). He is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago</i>

There were no official celebrations last year in Moscow on Nov. 7, 80 years after the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power in Petrograd in 1917. The overwhelming sense among people in power in Russia today is that the revolution which established the Soviet republic was a conspiratorial coup d’etat that shunted the country off the track of democracy, prosperity and modern civilization and onto a tragic trajectory which took 74 years to reverse.

Indeed, the words that Russia’s leaders use more frequently to describe the years of Soviet power include “tragedy,” “utopia” and, with the sense of something that went drastically wrong, “experiment.” For many in the West as well, the Soviet experience has come to mean that alternatives to capitalism have been disposed on the “trash heap of history.” Politically conservative critics affirm that radical social transformations proposed by intellectuals and well-meaning political reformers are doomed to failure, although not before enormous costs and burdens are suffered by ordinary people. Borrowing from postmodernism, some historians have linked the Soviet program of social transformation with the great move dating from the Enlightenment that attempted to create a modern world from a scientific study of society, careful enumeration and categorization of the population and the application of planning and administration. In their view, these misguided efforts have led to the unprecedented violence and state-initiated bloodshed that have marked the 20th century.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a popular consensus has already developed that nothing less than history itself has decisively proven the Soviet experience a dismal failure, if not an unmitigated disaster, and that it is only a matter of time before the regimes which still rule over more than 1 billion people in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba come to realize the future is knocking on a different door. Not surprisingly, then, as the funeral corteges of expired states pass by, lighted up by fires of ethnic warfare, historians of communist ancien regimes have turned to summing up the history of the recent past. The post-mortems have ranged from inspired polemics of grand theorizing, like Martin Malia’s “The Soviet Tragedy” or Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “The Grand Failure,” to more conventional narratives like the books under review here, “A History of Twentieth-Century Russia” by Robert Service and Gregory Freeze’s “Russia: A History.”

The history of the Soviet Union irresistibly tugs at historians and political scientists to make some overall judgments, not merely to explain but to condemn, and it is only with great difficulty that the usual distance and detachment of scholarly analysis may be maintained. Complexity is lost as scholars join journalists to explain failure as if it were built into the story at every point. Service and Freeze tell a fairly straightforward tale of good intentions gone wrong and admirably keep their prose cool and reserved while at the same time free of apologetics.


The collective history assembled by Gregory Freeze, professor of Russian history at Brandeis University, gives a brisk, exciting tour of Russia’s long journey from its Kievan origins to the early Yeltsin years. With stunningly beautiful illustrations and transparent prose, the authors of the various chapters guide the reader through Russia’s social and political evolution, at once both distinct from that of the rest of Europe and painfully linked to a fatal competition with the more developed Western world. Among the authors are leading specialists such as Nancy Kollman on medieval Russia, David L. Ransel on Catherinian Russia, Reginald Zelnik on Russian labor and Lewis H. Siegelbaum on Stalinism. Half of the book is devoted to the 20th century alone, and while there will be few surprises for Russian historians, there is much to reward the general reader or interested student, such as the remarkable illustrations that make this learned volume almost a coffee-table book.

The volume by Robert Service, professor of Russian history and politics at the University of London, is an uncomplicated narrative of the rise and fall of the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party and what he refers to as “the basic compound of the Soviet order.” Invented by Lenin, this compound involved a centralized, one-ideology dictatorship of a single party that allowed no challenge to its monopoly of power. Service tells the dismal tale of how the early commitment of Bolshevik leaders to stand the bourgeois world on its head quickly produced a system that replicated much of what it abolished. Brutal pragmatism mixed with utopian imagination and, though the Bolsheviks had no blueprint for the future, in Service’s reading, they “were united by their wish for power and for socialism.” Socialists believed that it was possible through human action to end inherited social hierarchies with their unearned privileges and build a society of greater equality, justice and popular political participation. But in order to move from present conditions to the ideal, Lenin “advocated dictatorship, class-based discrimination and ideological imposition.”

Both books relate how the new Soviet state fought for more than three years to win a civil war against monarchist generals, increasingly conservative liberal politicians, peasant armies, foreign interventionists, nationalists and more moderate socialist parties. By the end of the war, the new state had acquired the habits and practices of authoritarian rule. The revolutionary utopia of emancipation, equality and popular power quickly gave way to a counter-utopia of efficiency, production and social control. The Soviets eliminated rival political parties, clamped down on factions within their own party and pretentiously identified their dictatorship as a new form of democracy, superior to the Western variety. The Communists progressively narrowed the scope of those who could participate in real politics until there was only one faction in the party making decisions and soon there was only one man, Joseph Stalin.

Once Stalin achieved preeminence by the end of the 1920s, he further “crudified” the Soviet compound that merged the party with the state, “hyper-centralized” the ruling apparatus, nationalized what was left of the autonomous economy and expanded police terror to unprecedented dimensions. The new Stalinist system that metastasized out of Leninism resurrected the leather-jacket Bolshevism of the civil war and violently imposed collectivized agriculture on the peasant majority, pell-mell industrialization on workers and a cultural straitjacket on the intelligentsia. Far more repressive than Lenin had been, Stalin dominated every aspect of social life and transformed Soviet Russia from a backward peasant country into a poorly industrialized and urban one while terrorizing its people, even turning a massive police machine against the ruling circles of party officials.


Each book engages some of the great historiographical debates that divide historians of Russia. There are those who believe that Stalin was the logical successor to Lenin because he built the kind of noncapitalist economy that Marxists seemed to favor. But there are many who share Leon Trotsky’s view that a bloody chasm separated the two. Service notes both the elements of continuity and the sharp reversals of earlier policies that Stalin introduced. He sides with those historians who hold that Stalinism was not a necessary and inevitable answer to the problems of Soviet industrial and agricultural development and argues that if Stalin’s onetime ally and later rival Nikolai Bukharin had managed to carry out his more moderate policies, he “would have ruled a less traumatized society, and been more able to count on popular goodwill.” But Bukharin, like all Stalin rivals, was dispatched with a prison sentence and eventual execution. In a compelling chapter on the Great Terror of the late 1930s, Service writes, “No candidate for the Lenin succession in the mid-1920s would have done what Stalin did with his victory a decade later in the Great Terror. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, quipped that if he had not died in 1924, he would be serving time in one of Stalin’s prisons.”

Service’s story is largely about men who craved power and ruthlessly worked to secure and keep it. There is little idealism or revolutionary romance, only the determination to stay in power with little durable support. The lack of a popular base compelled the communists to employ terror, “but the means they employed inevitably vitiated their declared ends.” Service’s strength is in the compilation of information, somewhat loosely integrated, that he has achieved.

Yet he does not provide a compelling analysis or interpretation of Soviet history. The whats are plentiful, the whys fewer, and a reader is left with larger questions unanswered. His treatment of the Soviet effort in World War II is superficial, and Service’s conclusion that the Soviet victory was largely due to the “genocidal intent of Nazism [that] impelled both Russians and [other peoples] to put up the sternest defence” is inadequate. The more analytical account in the Freeze volume by William C. Fuller Jr., who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College and is the author of two books on the czarist military, shows how the Germans undermined their own war effort and how the Soviets managed to mobilize their centralized economy, inspire patriotism in a dispirited population and employ Stalin as “a symbol of national unity, an embodiment of the spirit of resistance.” Though the Freeze collection makes an obligatory nod toward the non-Russians of the czarist and Soviet empires, Service writes more effectively about the people, who suffered from repression of national political aspirations and benefited from official sponsorship of cultural and educational institutions in their native languages.

The high drama of Stalinism, with all its tragic excesses, its indiscriminate and pervasive terror and its near-total isolation from the rest of the world, is what most people in the West associate with the Soviet system, as if there had not been a Leninist prelude or a long denouement. But the age of wanton terror ended with the death of Stalin in 1953. Although there were prisons and labor camps, the massive arrests and executions of innocent people were over. Much of the last four decades of Soviet rule was marked by fitful attempts by Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the system and recover, at least in part, some aspects of the original socialist inspiration. Each of these bold reformers had his own vision of what Leninism ought to be, but by the 17-year reign of Leonid Brezhnev in the 1960s and ‘70s, the positive ideals of original Bolshevism had long faded for most of the party’s leadership.


The name of the game for many communists, as Gorbachev would discover to his dismay, was power and privilege, not democracy for working people or even increasing the efficiency of the planned economy. Gorbachev managed to end the monopoly of power of the Communist Party by 1990, that is, before his beloved union itself collapsed. But as he cautiously democratized the system, weakening the party and central state apparatus, he unleashed rival political and nationalist forces that abandoned the socialist project altogether. Gorbachev ended up the last lonely Bolshevik on a sinking ship as former comrades, like Boris Yeltsin, and other leaders of the various Soviet republics rowed away to independence and an alternative vision of democracy and the free market.

While more conservative scholars contend that the breakup of the USSR was inevitable, written into the genetic code of the revolution, others to their left argue that the Soviet collapse was highly contingent on the political and economic choices made by successive leaders--and on decisions not taken or fatefully delayed. A turning point was 1968, for example, when the USSR didn’t attempt socialist reform, like Czechoslovakia, but turned back to stagnant old ways of doing business. Russia was the most inhospitable place in the world to try to build socialism; indeed, it seems it may be the most inhospitable place to build capitalism as well. Nostalgia for the old order, however, remains strong in Russia: A mere 11% now approve of the breakup of the USSR. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko has sung farewell to “our red flag / you were to us brother and enemy,” but he misses the country he has lost and wistfully sighs, “I stroke the flag, and I cry.”

The Soviet Union was more than just another state in the minds of its supporters; it was a dream. Even when the dream descended into a nightmare, the expectation remained that prosperity or reform would fulfill the aspirations of the founders. In the end, prosperity proved to be elusive and reform led to revolution. The casualty was socialism, which, like liberalism, was always making more promises than it could keep.