The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union

The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union

The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union

The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union

Synopsis

Walter Laqueur as been hailed as "one of our most distinguished scholars of modern European history" in the New York Times Book Review. Robert Byrnes, writing in the Journal of Modern History, called him "one of the most remarkable men in the Western world working in the field." Over a span of three decades, in books ranging from Russia and Germany to the recent Black Hundred, he has won a reputation as a major writer and a provocative thinker. Now he turns his attention to the greatest enigma of our time: the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. In Why the Soviet Union Failed, Laqueur offers an authoritative assessment of the Soviet era--from the triumph of Lenin to the fall of Gorbachev. In the last three years, decades of conventional wisdom about the U.S.S.R. have been swept away, while a flood of evidence from Russian archives demands new thinking about old assumptions. Laqueur rises to the challenge with a critical inquiry conducted on a grand scale. He shows why the Bolsheviks won the struggle for power in 1917; how they captured the commitment of a young generation of Russians; why the idealism faded as Soviet power grew; how the system ultimately collapsed; and why Western experts have been so wrong about the Communist state. Always thoughtful and incisive, Laqueur reflects on the early enthusiasm of foreign observers and Bolshevik revolutionaries--then takes a piercing look at the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union. We see how Communist society stagnated during the 1960s and '70s, as the economy wobbled to the brink; we also see how Western observers, from academic experts to CIA analysts, made wildly optimistic estimates of Moscow's economic and political strength. Just weeks before the U.S.S.R. disappeared from the earth, scholars were confidently predicting the survival of the Soviet Union. But in underscoring the rot and repression, he also notes that the Communist state did not necessarily have to fall when it did, and he examines the many factors behind the collapse (the pressure from Reagan's Star Wars arms program, for instance, and ethnic nationalism). Some of these same problems, he finds, continue to shape the future of Russia and the other successor states. Only now, in the rubble of this lost empire, are we coming to grips with just how wrong our assumptions about the U.S.S.R. had been. In The Dream That Failed, an internationally renowned historian provides a new understanding of the Soviet experience, from the rise of Communism to its sudden fall. The result of years of research and reflection, it sheds fresh light on a central episode in our turbulent century.

Excerpt

Leopold von Ranke, the great German historian, once asked whether anyone would bother to study history but for the dramatic impact of current events; the number of students would certainly be small. But for the breakup of the Soviet Union, there would be no rethinking now of the Soviet experience and of Communism. The year 1991 saw the end of a whole historical epoch and the beginning of another, the contours of which are as yet only dimly discernible. Not only the heritage of Marx and Lenin, but the wider issues of socialism and nationalism in the modern world have to be reconsidered. Why did the Soviet system collapse, and why were the signs ignored?

Where should the rethinking start? A reasonable case can be made in favor of encompassing in a postmortem most of Russian history, for that history has been in many ways sui generis, different from that of other European nations. If the question of a Sonderweg, a particular "way" of development, has preoccupied students of Germany for some considerable time, this applies even more strongly to Russia. History, as frequently observed, is a seamless web: Gorbachev and Yeltsin cannot be understood without the preceding "period of stagnation," which in turn can be explained only with reference to the era of Stalinism. If one wishes to discuss the revolution of 1917, it can be done, needless to say, only in conjunction with the state of affairs in Russia under Nikolai II.

I do not take the arrival of the Vikings in Russia in the ninth century as a starting point, but some comments on Russia on the eve of the revolution are called for. The circumstances of the downfall of the Soviet empire are well remembered. The early, "heroic" period of Soviet Communism, though, is now all but forgotten; yet it is essential to recall that there was a time when enthusiastic belief in and mass support for the system existed. A small group of professional revolutionaries seized power in a giant country, but it is unlikely that but for wider support Communism would have prevailed in the civil war of 1918 to 1921. The question why the Soviet system stayed in power for some considerable time is as pertinent as the questions concerning its decline and fall.

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