The history of the Soviet Union has often been interpreted as a great tragedy, a cruel deviation of a country from the general trajectory of human history. In the first decade after the collapse of the USSR, a popular consensus developed that nothing less than history itself had decisively proven the Soviet experience a dismal failure, if not an unmitigated disaster, and it was only a matter of time before the regimes that still ruled over more than a billion people in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba would come to realize that the future is knocking on a different door. For many Western analysts, the Soviet experience has demonstrated that radical social transformations proposed by intellectuals and well-meaning political reformers are doomed to failure, though not before enormous costs and burdens are suffered by ordinary people. Even more triumphantly, some have proclaimed that alternatives to capitalism have been relegated to the “trash heap of history” and that human nature and the natural world both require a social order based on markets, private property, and liberal democracy. Soviet history has been used to show that excessive state power leads to new forms of slavery, that the Left is a mirror image of the Right, and that modernity itself has within it a deep perversion. Borrowing from post-modernism, some historians have linked the Soviet program of social transformation to the Enlightenment's attempt to create a modern world through scientific study of society, careful enumeration and categorization of the population, and the application of planning and administration. In their view, these have been misguided efforts that have led to the unprecedented violence and state-initiated bloodshed that has marked the twentieth century.
Not surprisingly, then, as the funeral corteges of expired states pass by, lit up by fires of ethnic warfare, historians of Communist ancien regimes have turned to summing up the history of the recent past. The post-mortems have ranged from inspired polemics of grand theorizing, like Martin Malia's The Soviet Tragedy, Zbigniew Brzezinski's The Grand Failure, or François Furet's Death of an Illusion to more conventional synthetic narratives, like the many textbooks that have appeared recently.1 The history of the Soviet Union irresistibly tugs at historians and political scientists, urging them to make some overall judgments, not merely to explain but to condemn, and it is only with great difficulty that the usual distance and detachment of scholarly analysis may be maintained. Complexity is lost as scholars join journalists to explain failure as if it were built into the story at every point. But the great puzzle remains:
1. Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy:A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991 (New York:The Free Press,
1994); Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Failure:The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century (New
York: Scribner, 1989); François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion:The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).