London, Routledge, 1999, ISBN: 415122899X
University of Sunderland
Date accessed: 10 December, 2023
This is a wide-ranging collection of sources that aims to cover the whole sweep of Soviet history: Richard Sakwa's work on the politics of the Soviet Union makes him well placed to produce such a volume. Sources in History, the series in which the book appears, sets as one of its aims to merge source material and commentary into a single integrated narrative. This book admirably fulfils this objective and hence the author's introductions to each document - alongside the selection of sources themselves - give a coherent view of Soviet history. The material is arranged chronologically, using conventional periodisation, dividing the history of the Soviet state into ten separate topics from the rise of Bolshevism to the fall of the Soviet Union. The emphasis of the chapters focuses on domestic affairs, apart from the sections dealing with the period between 1939 and 1953 which concentrate on the war and its aftermath.
The material that Sakwa has selected presents a well-knit view of the Soviet Union. This book is clearly orientated towards giving an account of Soviet history that recognises political developments as lying at the heart of the experience of the state and its people. There is an unusual emphasis on Soviet political ideas, allowing readers to gain some insight not just into the well-trodden paths of Lenin's thought, but also into later ideological developments. The debates in the 1920s over the course that the Soviet state should take are reflected at length with interesting extracts from key figures in the leadership, as well as its critics - such as Lukacs (pp. 135-7) and Nadezhda Mandelstam (pp. 173-5). Stalin's ideas are well represented, both in the crucial period of the 1920s and early 1930s, and also in the last years of his life. Extracts from later figures in the Soviet leadership also help to illuminate the course of the state's development. Khrushchev's and Brezhnev's very different styles and ideas are given full exposure, and the dead hand that characterised the later rulers of the USSR is made very evident. At the same time, the trends of opposition to the state's leadership are also given full exposure. Trotsky's 1936 writings on The Revolution Betrayed provide a starting point to consider the nature of Stalin's regime, and there are also extracts from foreign observers of the Soviet Union, such as Richard Crossman. The dissident movement reached its fullest extent during the last decades of the Soviet Union's existence as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Medvedev, Amalrik and others each launched attacks upon the USSR. Their opinions are given full and clear expression in this volume. This approach has important benefits. The Soviet Union saw itself as a state that was based explicitly upon ideology, and political theory played a much more significant part in the life of the state - and of Soviet society - than in the West. At a time when political ideology has been largely discredited in the West as a means of discourse, it is very helpful to be reminded of the ways in which theoretical approaches shaped the history of the twentieth century.
The Soviet Union attempted to give the impression that it was a monolithic structure in which political differences had disappeared, and that a state and society had been created which were entirely cohesive. But, internal debate continued to flourish. Discussion within the leadership was as fierce as inside any governing elite, tempered only perhaps by fear during the 1930s. While some of these discussions were carried on behind closed doors, wider Soviet society had to be kept in tune with the thinking of its leaders if social cohesion was to be maintained and there was to be appropriate adherence to the state's objectives. Political debate could not, therefore, be contained to the elites but they did seek to minimise its transparency by utilising language and terminology that was often opaque. Much official writing on Soviet politics is difficult to comprehend and, as a result, much of the work of the opposition is equally awkward. The utilisation of so much formal political writing in this volume gives an insight into the nature of Soviet politics, but it is not always easy for the untutored reader to gain a full understanding of the issues that are being debated. Sakwa's introductions to the extracts are helpful in providing a context for the issues that they discuss, but there are times when the complexity of the issues and the awkwardness of Soviet political language mean that a fuller commentary could have made the subject matter more accessible.
The volume's concentration on politics, while producing a coherent view of the history of the USSR, means that it falls short of - what is perhaps the impossible task - of giving a comprehensive picture of the Soviet Union. The approach that Sakwa has taken is one that suggests that political elites occupy the commanding heights of both state and society and that their activities and utterances do actually determine the course of history. The material dealing with the crucial processes of industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture at the beginning of the 1930s focuses overwhelmingly on the official interpretation of events. Stalin's speech on 'liquidating the kulaks as a class' (pp. 179-80) is followed by observations from Kravchenko on his own experience in the countryside (pp. 180-3), but this is the only element of 'popular' reaction to the events that were tearing rural society apart as collectivisation was implemented. A similar pattern is followed in the presentation of industrialisation. While Sakwa sees cultural transformation as being 'an essential part of [this] revolution from above', he adopts an approach that concentrates on changes to the intellectual atmosphere in the Soviet Union - literature and history in particular - rather than focussing on the impact that Stalin intended his revolution to have on the attitudes and behaviour of the population as a whole. The experience of terror in the 1930s is also portrayed in a way that gives limited evidence of the impact of these tumultuous events on the population of the Soviet state. It is not altogether easy to divine the experience of 'everyday Stalinism', to use Sheila Fitzpatrick's phrase, from the extracts in this volume. Sakwa's approach deliberately eschews this way of looking at Soviet history: he states in the introduction to the volume that he selected material 'through which a theoretical appraisal of its [the Soviet Union's] rise and fall can be made' (p. xx). This is an entirely defensible way of approaching the topic, and has much merit since it suggests that the USSR was a state that is open to normal methods of political analysis, rather than laying stress on the supposed uniqueness of the Soviet state.
The Soviet experience from 1917 until the eventual collapse of the state in 1991 was, however, one that encompassed many moments of high drama, of great excitement as well as demonstrations of both popular enthusiasm and of iron will by Soviet rulers. The selection of material in this volume gives only brief direct glimpses of the earth-shattering course of Soviet history. There are occasional pieces of material that grip the reader, and illuminate an issue by conveying a sense of the excitement that should pepper the study of Soviet history. Akhmatova's Requiem suggests something of the awful nature of the 1930s and there are significant sections of the material dealing with the 1941-45 war that send a chill down the spine. Beria's secret memorandum of 1940 to Stalin describing the 25,000 Polish officers captured after the Soviet occupation as 'inveterate, incorrigible enemies of Soviet power' and recommending that they all be shot gives a clear view of the simple brutality of Stalin's regime (pp. 249-50). But it would be useful to be able to read descriptions of the tumult of 1917 and its aftermath and of the growing chaos that gripped the Soviet Union in its final years to appreciate the dramatic circumstances in which the regime both came into existence and then perished.
Sakwa's approach does allow us to grasp an essential feature of the Soviet Union - and one that is often misunderstood by students. The level of central direction in the Soviet state gave it an exceptional quality and this collection of documents is very good at exemplifying this feature of Soviet existence. The section of the book that deals with Khrushchev and the problems of reform in the post-Stalin environment demonstrate very clearly how the centralised nature of both state and society had created problems that were to prove intractable. Agriculture was the focus of Khrushchev's attempts to bring about change. Stalin's policy of collectivisation had clearly failed to enable Soviet farming to prosper. Sakwa includes an extract from an appeal to Khrushchev that condemns Soviet agricultural policy for resulting in 'only crab meat and green peas' being on sale in many regions (p. 314). Collectivisation represented the epitome of central control, giving farmers little latitude in what and how they could cultivate. But Khrushchev's solutions had to operate through the same prism of centralisation. Soviet rulers recognised very clearly that their political power depended upon strong central control of the economy. In political terms, Khrushchev could not go too far in denouncing the appalling excesses of Stalinism; his speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 (pp. 316-22) was made in secret and had to tread the difficult line of condemning the 'cult of personality' that Stalin had constructed, while insisting that the essential structures of state and society that had developed during his nearly 30 years in power were truly Soviet and must be maintained. This was the position taken by Soviet rulers for another 30 years, until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and began to comprehend that the ossified nature of the Soviet state was dragging its economy into the dust.
Even though Sakwa's main focus is on domestic matters, this selection of documents is also good at illuminating the development of Soviet foreign policy. The Soviet state had come into existence in 1917 determined to promote its model of revolution abroad. The impact of this position both on the USSR itself, and on foreign states, was immense and long lasting. This selection of documents allows the reader to trace this development from the early days of the Comintern (pp. 105-7) through the isolationism of the early 1930s to Soviet fighting in the Second World War. A particular strength of Sakwa's approach is the way in which he integrates the discussion of foreign policy into the domestic context of Soviet history. The extracts relating to the 'Cold Peace' between 1945 and 1953 combine analysis of the Soviet Union's international position with Stalin's attempts to re-impose orthodoxy at home by imposing greater control over nationalities, science and art. The treatment of the last years of the Soviet Union gives equal insight into the interaction of domestic and foreign policy. Gorbachev's 1988 speech to the United Nations (pp. 461-4) ranged widely across issues that were relevant to both the Soviet Union's place in the world and to the internal politics of both his own state and the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe.
This collection will prove useful to students taking courses on the history and politics of the Soviet Union. It will certainly help them to understand the nature and significance of a once-mighty state that disappeared from the map almost overnight. The ease with which the Soviet Union was dismantled has, perhaps, led to the development of a view among students today that the USSR was a weak and feeble entity, destined for oblivion from its inception. Sakwa's selection of sources, together with his illuminating commentaries, should help to dispel that view and to allow readers to gain insight into the reasons why the Soviet state attracted both admiration and opprobrium in almost equal measure over three quarters of the twentieth century.
Dr Waldron has written one of his typically acute and supportive reviews. There is little in the review that I would wish to dispute. Rather, I would like to take this opportunity to comment on some of the issues that Dr Waldron raises in his discussion of the book.
First, the question of periodisation. He is right to note that 'The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union' uses conventional periodisation I am well aware that the choice of periods is itself indicative of the deeper structure of a historical process, and that a failure to problematise the issue can obscure profound methodological questions. In tackling this book I had initially thought about employing a thematic approach, discussing issues such as political development, ideological evolution, economic transformation and foreign policy in chapters of their own. This immediately raised the problem of how to connect one strand with all the others in any given period. On reflection, it seemed to me that what was gained in longitudinal coherence was lost in horizontal depth. There then arose the question of what periodisation to employ. The history of the Soviet Union is full of paradoxes, and one of these is that the radical republicanism of the communist system should have replicated so intensely the monarchical features of the social order that they had so violently overthrown. Ultimately, there appeared to be no coherent rationale to abandon the dates associated with the various leaders of the USSR. The quasi-monarchical features of Soviet rule reflected in conventional periodisation itself tells us a lot about the system.
Second, the emphasis on domestic politics again caused me no small concern. In books such as this the problem of length is always a pressing one, and the series editor (Professor David Welch) and the editors at Routledge showed considerable understanding (and indeed indulgence) in allowing rather narrow word limits to be exceeded to allow full scope for the subject matter to develop. We indeed toyed with the idea of a two-volume work, with one on domestic and one on international affairs, but we felt that this would undermine the coherence of the whole. We did try to squeeze in as much as possible of the international context, and as Dr Waldron notes, for the wartime years there is considerably more than elsewhere. I may say on a personal note that as I worked on the texts I became ever more fascinated by the period 1939-41, above all from the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact to the German invasion in June 1941. The recent work by Gabriel Gorodetsky throws considerable light on the period, yet there are all sorts of threads that could have been pursued, and each one could have ended up as a book in its own right. For example, the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939 and its aftermath, above all its effect on the evolution of Soviet policy would be a fascinating topic, encompassing the decision to liquidate the Polish reserve officers at Katyn and elsewhere.
Third, the emphasis on politics and the rather limited reflection of these policies on society. To this I can only plead guilty. One of the most enjoyable aspects of preparing a book of sources like this is the ability to forge out of mostly known materials a new synthesis that itself creates an original picture. The dialectic between power ('vlast') and society is one that could, and probably should, have been pursued more systematically. This would not necessarily have meant adopting the positions of the 'revisionist' social historians of the Soviet experience; but it would have meant seeking out more memoirs and reminiscences showing the impact of high politics on people and, now that the archives are mostly open, the effect of popular moods on the leadership. The aim, if I ever had to do such a book again, would be to achieve the effect of a symphony orchestra, with all sorts of instruments each contributing to the overall composition.
Fourth, and this is a point suggested by Dr Waldron at several points and one that follows from the point above, is the question of 'experience'. This could well have been a theoretical hook on which far more weight could have been hung. The connection of lived experience at a time of the great 'experiment' in social and political planning could have provided a unifying theme for the whole work. One of my great regrets in doing the book is that I was never able to find the original of a comment attributed to Dr Pavlov (he of dog fame) in 1919, commenting on the Bolshevik attempt to turn the world upside down: 'At least in psychology we first experiment on animals'. The Bolshevik experience was one of humanity's greatest social experiments; and it was also one of humanity's greatest failures (whatever positive may be said about Soviet rule): the system ultimately proved unsustainable and irreproducible. The roots of this failure could have been traced throughout its history and prehistory. To an extent I did try to do this in focusing on political ideas, beginning with Marx, but the elements that later led to failure could have been identified more explicitly.
There are plenty of other issues that could be commented on, but I will restrict myself to these. I am grateful to Dr Waldron for his perceptive review, and above all to have had the opportunity to think aloud about some of the problems and issues raised in preparing the book on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.