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The First Socialist Society : A History of the Soviet Union From Within by Geoffrey Hosking (Harvard University: $29.50; 488 pp., illustrated)

January 12, 1986|W. Bruce Lincoln | Lincoln lived for three years in the Soviet Union and is the author of seven books about Russia. His forthcoming "Passage Through Armageddon: Russia in the Great War" will be published in the fall, 1986, by Simon & Schuster

Clearly the Soviet Union now is a superpower. Observing its development, trying to measure its strengths and weaknesses, and, perhaps most of all, trying to understand the whys and hows of the Soviet "system" has been a serious concern in the West ever since the Soviet Union emerged as the United States' chief rival in international affairs after the defeat of Nazi Germany.

During the early days of the Cold War, such efforts to take the measure of the closed society that stood to the East of the Iron Curtain gave birth to the highly imprecise Western science known as Kremlinology. At its most unsophisticated level, this involved legions of commentators arguing about what conclusions should be drawn from crude observations about who was standing next to whom atop the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square during any given anniversary celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution, and who might rise and who might fall as a result.

Such early concentration upon the Soviet Union's ruling elite set the focus for Kremlinological studies for several decades. Although these efforts have told us a great deal about how the Soviet Union is ruled, by whom, and with what result in the international arena, they have left us much too ignorant about the answers to such vital ques tions as what prevents improvements and reforms from taking place in the Soviet Union even when the men in the Kremlin are ready to support them.

Traditional Kremlinological studies thus have not been able to tell us, for example, why--in a society where the government claims to wield absolute authority--leaders who command such a brutally efficient coercive instrument as the KGB is reputed to be cannot curb corruption or make workers more productive. Nor have they explained why the vast majority of Soviet citizens continue to support a government whose policies have produced the lowest standard of living enjoyed by any industrialized nation.

To answer such questions, we need to know much more about what the Soviet Union is really like. That can only happen if those who write about Soviet affairs get outside the Kremlin and into the collective farms, factories, and town governmets that lie far beyond Moscow.

During the last few years, a younger generation of Western scholars has started to probe more deeply into the nature of Soviet life and politics beyond the Kremlin's walls. Geoffrey Hosking, professor of Russian history at the University of London's School of Slavonic Studies, is among this group. The author of books about Russia's efforts at constitutional government on the eve of the First World War and about Soviet fiction in the post-Khrushchev era, he now has undertaken the formidable task of setting the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of life in the present-day Soviet Union into their proper historical perspective.

"The First Socialist Society" therefore is not a book about the Soviet Union in world affairs. Nor is it a study of Kremlin politics and the inner workings of the Party. Rather, it examines the impact of the Soviet system upon the lives of the men and women who have lived under its control since 1917 and chronicles their reactions to it.

Hosking first explores how Lenin combined Marxism's "ultimately incongruous mixture of science and prophecy" with the Bolshevik Party "as a hierarchical and disciplined organization capable of creating and sustaining a 'proletarian' ideology which the actual proletariat itself was incapable of generating," how he used that revolutionary instrument to seize power in October, 1917, and how he built a new political system that led the Bolsheviks to victory in the civil war that followed.

Despite the Bolsheviks' triumph, Lenin's first efforts to govern the tsars' fallen empire suffered serious flaws, not the least of which was that neither he nor any of his comrades had devoted much thought beforehand to what kinds of institutions the world's first socialist state would require, how they ought to be organized, and what they needed to accomplish. As Hosking points out, this failing did not prevent the Bolsheviks from winning the civil war, but it made them "very inept at coping with the kind of society that followed it."

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