From Socialist Voice, August 2005


An honest look at Soviet history

Seán Edwards

Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (London: Verso, 2005; ISBN 1-84467-016-3; £25).

This book is very welcome. The author, utilising the now available files from the Soviet state, sets out to give an objective appraisal of aspects of its history.
    First he sets out to examine Stalin in his historical context. He aims to counter the received view in the West, which demonises Stalin and projects “Stalinism” backward and forward in time. For example, the number of political executions, at 800,000, is horrendous enough but a long way from the multi-million estimates. The whole system of repression was much less bad than the accepted image, even though the description in the book is awful enough. He is also unsparing in his assessment of Stalin’s character: his deviousness, ruthlessness, and paranoia—so much so that you might wonder how the successes of his time were possible, the basis of industrialisation and the defeat of Nazism. Perhaps also he attaches too much importance to the personality of Stalin, the sin he himself condemns.
    The Soviet state after Stalin endeavoured to deal with its difficult inheritance in many ways, discussed in this book. However, as the author remarks, the bureaucracy was liberated most of all and managed to multiply its much-resented privileges. Bureaucratic inefficiencies enabled a semi-legal “shadow economy” to develop and within that a class of people who sought ways to enrich themselves.
    Furthermore, policy-making remained very much concentrated on the individual leader, so Khruschev’s impetuousness, and Brezhnev’s later inactivity, caused more damage, which a genuine collective leadership might have corrected. As Lewin sees it, the Communist Party did not function as a party, and the administration actually held more power. To quote the book, “Reviving the party’s internal political life . . . was the programme formulated by Andropov, one year before he succumbed to illness.” This part of Andropov’s policies was not followed by Gorbachov.
    This book is about the problems and weaknesses of the Soviet Union, rather than its achievements, which the author acknowledges. It does not claim to be a comprehensive history but succeeds in using the newly available sources to add to our understanding. His own opinions, when he expresses them, are interesting and enlightening. A very honest book.

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