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Utopia in Power: THE HISTORY OF THE SOVIET UNION FROM 1917 TO THE PRESENT by Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich; translated by Phyllis B. Carlos (Summit: $24.95; 877 pp.)

November 23, 1986|Nathaniel Davis | Davis served as Soviet desk officer at the State Department, and as senior adviser on the U.S.S.R. in Lyndon Johnson's White House. and

There is no anti-communist like an ex-communist; there is no anti-Soviet like a defector. The authors of this hefty 800-page study of Soviet history, Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich, left the Soviet Union and came to the West in 1969 and 1976 respectively, and they clearly detest the regime and system they left, which they characterize in their title as "Utopia in Power." They have written less a history than a polemic, in some respects an anti-history designed to correct the woolly-headed ideas of Western liberals and of naive and uncomprehending "Sovietologists" and "experts."

This does not mean that the book is without value. Particularly with respect to those Soviet internal developments that truly interest them, the authors bring forth an inexhaustible cascade of facts and insights. Heller and Nekrich have done much painstaking research and have produced a richly illuminated account of the Russian experience in modern times.

The authors' description of dissident activities in Moscow is penetrating. They present excellent accounts of the Novocherkassk riot of 1962, the post-World War II separatist movement in the Western Ukraine, the forced repatriations between 1945 and 1947, and the shameful story of British and American collaboration in sending Russians back to imprisonment and death at that time.

What seems to be lacking is balance. Lenin emerges as ruthless, brutal and self-serving, both for himself and his cause. The authors are right; he was all of those things on occasion. But he was also a towering intellect, a man of decisive action, and surely one of the greatest men of our century.

The authors assert that Stalinism was not the corruption of Leninism; it was the fulfillment of it. They deny that Stalin became paranoid in the 1930s, almost as if they were denying Stalin the defense of insanity, which would have reduced the bestiality of his crimes. Their treatment of Nikita Khrushchev is more comprehending, and the chapter on Khrushchev ends with an eloquent, poignant and fair-minded summation of that leader's weaknesses, strengths.

The authors concede no virtues and no domestic accomplishments to Leonid Brezhnev. Similarly, "Andropov did not carry out a single reform." The brief incumbency of Chernenko is virtually untreated, and the volume closes--understandably--without devoting substantive attention to Mikhail Gorbachev's time in power.

The book's coverage of Soviet foreign policy since 1917 is less careful and more cursory than its examination of internal events. The authors' convictions are deeply held, and they include the belief that U.S. policy has been naive, that Western European policies have been weak, and that a Sino-Soviet rapprochement is "not to be excluded." Actions like the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and of Afghanistan in 1979 "always required the consent of the West. The green light for Soviet action had been given by the West in 1956 and again in 1968." Elsewhere, the authors say that the Hungarian revolution "was crushed by the treads of Soviet tanks and the indifference of the Western nations." Even Ronald Reagan's policies come under this cloud, mainly because of the lifting of the anti-Soviet grain embargo in 1981.

In chilling detail, Heller and Nekrich describe Stalin's double-dealing with respect to Hitler and the Western powers in 1939. They also paint a vivid picture of Stalin's perverse disbelief of the warnings given him in 1941 that Hitler would attack. In the period leading up to the Munich crisis of 1938, however, Soviet policy was more admirable. The authors pass over Munich in two short sentences, noting only that the Western powers were aiming the agreement at both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. One gets an impression that international political events which fail to reveal Soviet perfidy are of modest interest. A bare-bones chronicle disposes of many of them.

So far as Sino-Soviet relations are concerned, the authors describe them as blossoming, becoming "especially close during the Korean war." This is probably not true, because--in particular--the Soviets insisted on selling arms to the Chinese while they were giving them to the North Koreans. The tensions of the mid-1950s are largely passed over, and one almost gets the impression that relations took their sharp down-turn only in the 1960s. The authors then conclude that "the Chinese government gradually abandoned its openly anti-Soviet tone" after Mao's death in 1976.

In the discussion of Soviet foreign affairs, minor factual errors become more frequent. For example, the SALT I agreement is identified as having been concluded in 1973 rather than in 1972. The authors also get the locale and context of Khrushchev's "We will bury you" remark wrong. I know; I was present in 1959 when he said it.

This review should not end on a negative note. While bias prevents the book from serving well as a text on Soviet history, it is a treasure-house of interesting and useful material for an already-knowledgeable student of the internal history of the Soviet Union. It merits careful and interested reading.

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