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. …