A Bird's Eye View of Soviet and World Communism

By Beyrau, Dietrich | Kritika, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

A Bird's Eye View of Soviet and World Communism


Beyrau, Dietrich, Kritika


A. B. Bezborodov and N. V. Eliseeva, eds., Istoriia Kommunisticheskoi Partii Sovetskogo Soiuza (History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). 671 pp. Moscow: Rosspen, 2013. ISBN-13 978-5824318241.

Stephen A. Smith, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism. xiii + 658 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. ISBN-13 978-0199602056. 95.00 [pounds sterling].

These two volumes both attempt to take stock of the state of the historical field with respect to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) as well as of international communism. Though a host of monographs has been dedicated to the history of various aspects of the Communist Party, a synthetic survey has not been written since the 1960s. (1) The situation is different when it comes to surveys of the history of the Soviet Union, and the number of German-language works is especially large. (2) Histories of international communism have become a cottage industry in Oxford, which recently produced three monographs within a short space of time. (3) The currently available Handbook, edited by Stephen A. Smith, a senior research fellow at Oxford, is comparable only to Stephane Courtois's Dictionnairedu communisme. (4) That author is admittedly something of a bete noir to the editors of both volumes on account of the Black Book of Communism. (5) The authors of the History of the CPSU (Istoriia Kommunisticheskoi partii Sovetskogo soiuza) view the latter work as the apogee of anticommunism (26, 74-75); the editor of the Handbook of the History of Communism is similarly displeased with its fixation on communism's crimes (4).

Some historical representations of international communism, such as those put forward by Jeremy Brown and Robert Service, are not devoid of a sense of reckoning. By contrast, several contributors to the Handbook might safely be assigned to the end of a spectrum that was once called "leftist." For the Russian authors of the History of the CPSU, it is their own, still moving and emotional history that matters, even if each historian obviously takes a different perspective. The two volumes have rather little in common.

In my opinion, the task of synthetic overviews is, above all, to convey the fundamental facts, dates, and their interpretations. At their best, they open new perspectives on old problems and critically illuminate both old and new scholarly debates. In the conclusion, I offer a fuller account of these desiderata--ones I wish would be met in all collective volumes of this type. I begin, however, by presenting the most important assertions and historical claims advanced in each book.

The History of the CPSU

Istoriia KPSS was assembled under the guidance of Aleksandr B. Bezborodov and Natal'ia V. Eliseeva. Tike all the volume's contributors, they work at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU) and have a distinguished publication record.

The introduction to the History of the CPSU makes a number of assertions as to the Party's core characteristics, though they are only partly reflected in the structure of the volume. They characterize the Party as a mass organization; as an "apparatus"; and as a minimally transparent ruling class making high demands on its members and ruthlessly combating dissenters and enemies, at the very least until 1953. For the period after 1964, the volume highlights the aging of the leading cadres--along with their limited inclinations and abilities toward reform. Chapters 2-6 are structured chronologically. Chapter 7, by A. V. Shubin and F. G. Taratorkin, deals with the CPSU in its international relations and chapter 8, by N. A. Borisov and S. P. Dontsev, is dedicated to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation from 1992 onward.

Chapter 1, by Bezborodov and L. A. Molchanov, delivers an in-depth survey of the Party's self-presentation, its archival records and published documents. The historiography of the last decade is presented in a sparsely annotated bibliography, mainly of empirical-positivisitic reworkings of the history of the Communist Party in Russia (62-73). …

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