(Re)writing Russian History
Sokolsky, Mark, International Journal
The Soviet Colossus in retrospect
December 2 on marked the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The "evil empire" and the Cold War disappeared, not with civil strife or the long-feared global conflagration, but suddenly and almost bloodlessly. As the nemesis and mirror of the west, the USSR had acted as a polestar for everything from foreign policy to weapons systems to popular culture, one that could divide as much as it united. Soviet history itself was contested ground, as it could be made to speak to everything from the general validity of socialism (and therefore capitalism) or to the nature of Russia (and therefore, the "west"). Twenty years on, this political valence has ebbed but has not disappeared entirely.
Michael Kort's The Soviet Colossus, a classic survey of modern Russian history, is emblematic of the debates surrounding the Soviet past and how perspectives have changed - or, in some cases, stayed the same - as we move away from the Cold War/ Colossus remains among the most widely used texts on the USSR, and for good reason; it is accessible, well written, and covers a great range of material in a fairly short space. First published in 1985, Kort's work offered a general history of the USSR together with a concise account of pre-revolutionary Russia. Kort examined Russian political development from ancient Rus' through to the end of the old regime, highlighting the origins of the Russian autocracy, the intelligentsia, and the various strains of the late imperial period before moving on to Soviet history proper. The first edition of Colossus carried through to the "gerontocracy" of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chemenko, and though the author was aware of the internal strains within Soviet society - and presciently drew attention, for instance, to the challenge of resurgent nationalism - he, like most contemporary observers, did not believe that such problems had "become a challenge to the system itself (293). Kort amended successive editions to reflect new developments (the book now extends to the Putin era), though his treatment of earlier periods is largely unchanged.
Colossus' narrative traced broad lines of continuity between pre- and postrevolutionary Russia, evoking throughout a highly bifurcated view of the world - east versus west. In part, this perspective grew out of the reality of the divergence between Russia and Europe, and in part reflected a rhetorical and heuristic tradition that has a long pedigree in both western and Russian historical scholarship. Consistent with this view, Colossus stressed the statist, bureaucratic, and authoritarian nature of Russian and Soviet societies, tracing historical continuity across the revolutionary divide. Yet in seeking continuity, Kort projected his conception of the USSR - totalitarian and antiwestern - deep into the Russian past.
Kort's work fell firmly within the totalitarian school of Soviet history, a model that has been challenged over the years but remains popular. Broadly speaking, this approach conceives of the Soviet Union as a dictatorial police state in which a single ruler (Stalin) or the Communist party elite controlled an atomized, brutalized, and apathetic population through terror, surveillance, economic planning, and propaganda. This interpretive framework owed much to the pioneering theory of Hannah Arendt, as well as to the accounts of Russian emigres fleeing to the west. Foundational works by Robert Conquest, Merle Fainsod, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and others focused on the centrality of Communist ideology, along with the creation and function of the Soviet party-state, at the time still shrouded in much uncertainty.2 Such works provided invaluable accounts of the inner function of the Kremlin - the view from within the "black box" - along with the horrors of the Gulag, the purges, and collectivization. The totalitarian approach also stressed similarities between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, a view that had policy implications for governments facing the postwar emergence of a Soviet superpower.
Beginning in the 1970s, however, the totalitarian school faced criticism on several fronts. The idea of a Communist monolith, with a repressive party- state ruling over a terrorized population, became harder to maintain in light of new research. The aftermath of de-Stalinization, when unrest in the Soviet Union proper failed to materialize, also suggested the need for a better understanding of Soviet society. Revisionist scholars charged that the Soviet regime simply could not rule via force and propaganda alone; there were, instead, broad sections of the population that supported the state - even under Stalin - most notably the newly educated, upwardly mobile Soviet middle class that had a vested interest in the system. Others pointed to the limits on state power in such a vast and underdeveloped country. While it is not difficult to show that the Soviets lacked total control, this line of scholarship has revealed a great deal about the actual function - or, more commonly, dysfunction - of the government apparatus, provided important points of distinction with Nazism, and suggested that state weakness may have been a key source of Utopian thinking, rather than an impediment to it.3
Such perspectives were not major features of Kort's work. As a scholar of the Cold War and late Soviet leadership, Kort was well aware of the relative moderation that had followed Stalin's demise. Reformers like Khrushchev needed "methods other than terror," he wrote, to placate the "abused and oppressed masses" (236-38). But Stalin's Russia was undoubtedly one of the primary exemplars of totalitarianism, Kort stressed, a system which, as he defined it,
uses modern technology to control not only the armed forces and all operational weaponry, but all means of communication and every institution of a society's economic, intellectual, cultural, and political life. All human activity and every citizen is considered to be at the service of the state (220).
In light of this definition, the author observed that the USSR was not a "perfect totalitarian society," but maintained that "it came closer to that ideal than any other contemporary competitor (e.g., Nazi Germany or fascist Italy) and was more perfectly totalitarian than it was anything else (e.g. socialist or Communist).. ..There simply was no way for the average citizen to oppose or avoid the multiple levels of control the state possessed" (200). The idea of the overweening power of the state was central to Kort's conceptualization of Soviet history, and one that he also extended backward to the tsarist era.
In the later editions of Colossus, Kort modified his definition, acknowledging the criticisms of the totalitarian model. But he insists on the "fundamental reality of the party-state's domination of society," a point that does need to be made, lest we forget this central component of Soviet reality.4 Indeed, the opening of the Soviet archives has not entirely settled the debate. A great deal of research on Soviet society has shown the many limitations on state power and revealed a social reality that does always not conform well to the original totalitarian ideal. Soviet scholars have also demonstrated broad similarities in Soviet, European, and American governance, in both policy and practice, in areas ranging from natural resource development to nationalities policy.5 Others, however, also drawing on archival research, have given new life to the idea of totalitarianism, albeit in modified form. Recent works on Stalinist repression, for instance, emphasize that the goals of the Soviet security organs were very much totalitarian. They explicitly sought to use regimentation and terror to subdue and redirect a population dislocated by years of upheaval. Rather than Orwellian thought-police hunting down dissidents, the reality of the Soviet security services was usually more mundane (and somehow even more depressing). Most often targeted were those on the margins of society - petty criminals, transient workers, displaced peasants, and other vulnerable citizens. Nevertheless, as one recent scholar has noted, though the security organs did not have the means to control the vast Soviet population, the goals of the police were "both totalitarian and inherently modern."6
Taken to extremes, however, as Kort's book sometimes views it, the totalitarian approach can be misleading. As Stephen Kotkin has pointed out, the idea of an overwhelming, total state dominating society effectively mimics the regime's own propaganda but with the values reversed, yielding different judgments but the same information.7 Thus, during his discussion of collectivization, Kort wrote that kulaks (wealthy peasants) constituted five percent of the population and were its most productive farmers (175-76). This is precisely how the regime conceived of the countryside, but where the Soviets denigrated the kulaks as exploiters, Kort celebrated their business acumen and efficiency. Yet this skirted the fact that the very existence of a peasant class was questionable to begin with. Peasant families went through cycles of wealth and dearth that had more to do with family size and other factors than innovation or accumulation. That class warfare came to a countryside not divided along class lines was one of the many tragedies of collectivization, and one Kort neglects. The difficulty of applying socialist or capitalist appellations to complex historical situations has become increasingly apparent over the last 20 years.
Kort's approach to the Second World War took a similar tack, stressing Soviet missteps and atrocities where the Soviets themselves trumpeted their victory over fascism. Kort gave particular attention to Stalin's "secret war," the massive wartime counterintelligence operation that netted thousands of innocent Soviet soldiers and civilians and that involved the costly, brutal relocation of suspect nationalities.8 Where a Stalinist would portray this as revolutionary vigilance, a necessity in a war of survival, Kort casts the secret war as a simple product of Stalin's paranoia and a disaster on par with the Holocaust - "different in intent, [but] no less bloody" (211). Again, the reality is more complicated, as has become clear since Colossus was first published. The secret war was indeed a terrible instance of Stalinist repression, but it also neutralized perhaps 35,000 Nazi agents - a 90 percent failure rate for the Abwehr - and severely weakened German military intelligence on the eastern front.9 Also, one aspect of the secret war, the mass deportation of certain nationalities, was not unknown among the other Allied powers, though Soviet "relocations" were by far more extensive and less humane, to put it mildly. The secret war provided further evidence of Stalin's willingness to accept millions of innocent casualties to achieve perceived security objectives. But by describing wartime repression simply as a result of the dictator's paranoia, Kort only addressed part of the tragedy, and did not confront the general dilemma of total war in the age of nationalism.
Kort's treatment of the pre-Lenin era was, and remains, considerably more balanced. Indeed, there few texts that provide clearer, more concise accounts of early Soviet history and the intraparty struggles of the 1920s. Kort did not directly connect socialism in general to the horrors of Soviet history, as some historians have done.10 To be sure, Lenin was not free from censure. While some - from Leon Trotsky to Mikhail Gorbachev - have sought to separate Lenin from Stalin, Kort emphasized that Lenin provided the institutional groundwork that made Stalinism possible. When combined with an uprooted, brutalized population and Stalin's pathological mind, Lenin's state was for "made to order" for "such a horrible historical accident to occur" (149). Kort's discussion of Lenin is actually quite sympathetic, but he sees in Lenin's Bolsheviks the key break from socialism's (European) democratic traditions. It was the elitist, Russian revolutionary tradition, he wrote, cut off from both people and the cut and thrust of actual governance, that gave communism its despotic qualities (34).
The point is an important one, and the debate about whether the Soviet Union was more Russian than socialist continues to this day. During the last decade, the spectre of a new dictatorship - that of Vladimir Putin - has reared its ugly head, prompting much speculation about Russia's inability to shake its authoritarian past. Kort drew particular attention to this tendency, and to Russia's long line of "revolutions from above," the crash modernizations stretching from Gorbachev back through Stalin, Lenin, and Peter the Great to Ivan the Terrible. Autocracy, poverty, and vulnerable frontiers, Kort wrote, left only in the state in the position to transform the country in the face of external threats (48, 170). Russia's "reforming tradition" is a well-established concept in the historical literature and Kort was right to invoke it in his discussion of Soviet history. But in tracing such patterns, Kort occasionally fell into the trap of teleology, searching for the roots of the Soviet present in the Russian past. The search for continuity led to a somewhat distorted picture of the tsarist era and boded Ul for future change, perhaps one reason why Kort saw stability in Soviet society on the eve of Gorbachev's tenure.
In Kort's rendering, tsarist Russia emerged as an embryonic Soviet Union, ruled by an autocrat and populated by "slaves of the sovereign," from nobles to serfs. This stood in stark contrast to the west (a geographic entity that Kort never clearly delineated), where the nobility, and then the middle classes, acted as checks upon monarchical power. Kort wrote that the Russian nobility, "distinguished by its ability to abuse others even as the state abused it, headed the pathetic parade" of social classes subordinated to the tsar (14). Peter the Great "debased" them, the people rejected them, and they proved incapable of protecting their rights (29). Institutionally speaking, Kort was right, but as much scholarship has shown, written laws seldom did justice to Russian political realities. It was the "slavish" Russian nobility, after all, that reinstalled Ivan the Terrible when he abandoned the Muscovite throne, that imposed and then opted against a plan for a limited monarchy in 1730,11 and that dethroned two tsars (Peter III and Paul I) in the space of 50 years. Even the archetypal absolute sovereign, Peter the Great, quickly learned he could not govern without with his nobles.12 To be sure, the nobility's failure to press for parliamentary rule in the 19th century is significant, but to conclude that nobles were simply slaves of the tsar cannot adequately explain the regime's power and stability.
On a more general note, Kort here and throughout his book accepted western development as normative (an idea, incidentally, to which Soviet Marxist historians also adhered). Why was the nobility so weak and the monarch so strong? Why, Kort wrote, "unlike in the West, was there no powerful counterweight in the middle to the combatants at the extremes?" (25). Itis not unreasonable to ask why Russian social and political development proceeded as it did, but to ask it in this way can lead to a false opposition between east and west, and between the Leviathan state and a benighted, passive people. Thus, Kort concluded that both the nobility and middle class failed to achieve power in Russia because an overwhelmingly powerful state distorted the economy and squelched attempts at political participation. Similarly, Kort wrote that peasants foolishly refused to change the inefficient system of land tenure that kept them locked in poverty (28). During the years preceding the First World War, some peasants did consolidate their holdings and move toward market-oriented agriculture, but after 1917 most returned (or were forced back into) to their communes. Kort wrote that it was the "Revolution" that "had expropriated the large estates and even some of the largest peasant holdings," rather than the peasants themselves (164). When the actions of Russian subjects - nobles, peasants, merchants, and others - did not conform to the western norm, Kort suggested the cause was some state-induced distortion or historical accident, rather than any real decision-making on their part. This, in turn, led to strange conclusions, like "steeped in its own traditions, Russia had no desire to change" (16).
But what was at the root of this disfigurement, Russia's turn from the west? As with many before him, Kort traced the Russian fall from grace to the Mongol conquest. Kievan society, he wrote, with its strong nobility and commercial wealth, was destroyed and replaced by a "grotesque form of equality," created through "denial of freedom to all.... The state did not serve society: the state controlled it." Battered by the traumatic invasion and "bled by generations of subsequent exploitation, the Russian economy fell behind the economies of the West." While westerners enjoyed humanism and the renaissance, he wrote, Russians suffered amidst "poverty, oppression, and isolation" (10). Kort's language could have easily described the Soviet Union as he searched the Russian past for the seeds of totalitarianism. With such a starting point, Colossus had a story arc stretching from the 13th century through to the present, with the implication of a final denouement between east and west. Yet the confrontation did not come. The search for the roots of Stalin can lead us to examples of despotism in Russian history, but it also acts as a set of blinkers, blinding us to other, equally important developments.
Since the publication of Kort's book, scholars have revealed a more comprehensive picture of pre-revolutionary Russian society. Communal peasant life, though inefficient, was in many respects a rational response to the uncertainties of Russian agriculture. As such, peasants had many reasons to return to their old system of land tenure during the upheaval of 19 17-2 2. '3 The debate over Russia's "missing bourgeoisie" has long been a heated one. We can say, however, that the middle classes, which faced many obstacles from officialdom, were also divided along national, religious, regional, and legal (estate) lines, powerful in their own right but seldom willing to join forces.14 Indeed, merchants often looked to the state for both business and arbitration in an unpredictable economic atmosphere. Moreover, as recent scholarship has shown, professional groups generally sought to work with the state to achieve social change, rather than in opposition to it, as westernoriented ideas of the public sphere would have it/5 The tsarist government did suppress many manifestations of civil society, but the state cannot bear complete responsibility for Russia's lack of western-style democratic political institutions; the empire's various subjects also played a role.
The passivity of the "long-suffering" Russian people was also a major feature of Kort's Soviet history. Thus, while he rightly pointed out that the Second World War strengthened the Stalinist system, he concluded that this was largely because of internal wartime repression, rather than the fact that victory seemed to vindicate the Soviet leadership (209). In accounting for the failure of postwar Soviet dissident movements to attract widespread support, Kort cited a combination of repression, dissident elitism, and "traditional Russian apathy in the face of authority" (270). Only in a later edition of Colossus did Ko rt concede that by the era of "late socialism," millions had a stake in the doomed system.'6 There is undoubtedly truth to Kort's perspective: power in the USSR was concentrated in very few hands. But the line between rulers and the people, even in the Soviet context, was never so sharp. Social support for such an inhumane regime is a troubling reality, but one that should be closely examined rather than passed over.
The past two decades have left historians of Russia and the Soviet Union with at least as many questions as answers. Perhaps even more important than newly available sources have been the novel perspectives emerging from the absence of a bipolar world. In many ways, The Soviet Colossus reflected the divisions - both scholarly and geopolitical - of its time and place, yielding a valuable if somewhat problematic narrative of the Russian past. It remains, however, highly instructive, telling us much about both Soviet history itself and the ways in which it is written.
1 Michael Kort, The Soviet Colossus: A History ofthe USSR (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985).
2 Notable works include Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951); Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Permanent Purge: Politics in Soviet Totalitarianism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956); Robert Conquest, The Great Terror. Stalin's Purge of the Thirties (New York: Macmillan, 1968); and Merle Fainsod, Smolensk Under Soviet Rule (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958).
3 Foundational works of revisionist Soviet history include Sheila Fitzpatrick, Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921-1934 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Sheila Fitzpatrick, ed., Cultural Revolution in Russia, 1928-1931 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978); Vera S. Dunham, In Stalin's Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976); J. Arch Getty, The Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
4 Michael Kort, The Soviet Colossus: History and Aßermath (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 201 ?) , 241 .
5 Some of the many works in this vein include Kate Brown, "Cridded lives: Why Kazakhstan and Montana are nearly the same place," American Historical Review 106 no. ? (February 2001): 17-48; Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005); Paul R. Josephson, Industrialized Nature: Brute Force Technology and the Transformation of the Natural World (Washington, DC: Island Press-Shearwater Books, 2002); and David L Hoffmann, Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 20?).
6 Paul Hagenloh, Stalin's Police: Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 19261941 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press & Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 333.
7 Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 4.
8 The term comes from Nikolai Tolstoy, Stalin's Secret War (London: Pan Publishing, 1981).
9 Robert W. Stephan, Stalin's Secret War: Soviet Counterintelligence Against the Nazis, 1941-1945 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2004).
10 Most cogently, Martin Malia in his Soviet Tragedy. A History of Socialism In Russia (New York: Free Press, 1994).
11 Members of the supreme privy council, a senior consultative body comprised of high nobles, initially imposed "conditions" of rule on Empress Anna (r. 1730-40), limiting her ability to make war, raise taxes, and conduct other vital functions without their consent. Anna successfully rallied the support of the lesser nobility and guards officers, however, who feared the power of Russia's elite families, preferring an absolute ruler to oligarchic power, and tore up the "conditions."
12 On this question, see Paul Bushkovitch, Peter the Great: the Straggle for Power, 16711725 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
13 See especially Judith Pallot, Land Reform in Russia, 1906-1917: Peasant Responses to Stolypin's Project of Rural Transformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press & New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); David Moon, The Russian Peasantry, 1600-1930: the World the Peasants Made (London: Longman, 1999); Christine Worobec, Peasant Russia: Family and Community in the Post-Emancipation Period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
14 Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, Social Identity in Imperial Russia (Dekalb, II: Northern Illinois Press, 1997), 62-99; Alfred Rieber ""The sedimentary society," in Edith W. Clowes, Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West, eds., Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Alfred Rieber, Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
15 Joseph Bradley. "Subjects into citizens: Societies, civil society, and autocracy in tsarist Russia," American Historical Review 107, no. 4 (October 2002).
16 Michael Kort, The Soviet Colossus: A History of the USSR, second edition (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 281.
Mark Sokolsky is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Ohio State University.…
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Publication information: Article title: (Re)writing Russian History. Contributors: Sokolsky, Mark - Author. Journal title: International Journal. Volume: 67. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2012. Page number: 497+. © Canadian Institute of International Affairs Fall 1997. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.