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BOOK REVIEW / HISTORY : Examining a Thin Slice of Russia's Bolshevik Red Period : RUSSIA UNDER THE BOLSHEVIK REGIME by Richard Pipes ; Knopf, $35, 608 pages

March 16, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite our brief but bright hopes, history did not end with the fall of the Soviet bloc, as we are sharply reminded by Harvard historian Richard Pipes in "Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime."

Indeed, Pipes shows us that history has reasserted itself with a vengeance. The bloodthirsty nationalism and raw ethnic violence now ravaging Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were only concealed behind the vast Potemkin Village of the Bolshevik regime and the Soviet empire that it created.

The Bolsheviks, like the czar before them, ruled over a "prison house of nations" whose inmates spoke 85 languages and dialects. Under the guise of a Marxist revolution, Pipes explains, the Bolsheviks managed only to suppress--but not eradicate--the religious, ethnic and national identities of various subject peoples, including Poles and Germans, Ukrainians and Georgians, Turkestanis and Kazakhistanis.

"Lenin, who had no difficulty in changing tactics when necessary, decided now to abandon . . . the principle of national self-determination in favor of federalism," Pipes writes.

"In reality, the Soviets were only a facade to conceal the true sovereign, the Communist Party. The result would be formal federalism, with all the trimmings of statehood, presumably able to satisfy the aspirations of the non-Russian peoples, concealing a rigidly centralized dictatorship centered in Moscow."

"Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime," the third in a series of related books by Pipes, is a disciplined work of scholarship that focuses on a rather narrow slice of Russian history, starting with the consolidation of power after the 1917 revolution and ending with the death of Lenin in 1924.

Pipes describes in detail the campaigns of the civil war, the holy war against religious and intellectual freedom, the cynical experiments in a free market under the so-called New Economic Policy, and the furious efforts at inventing the first totalitarian regime of the 20th Century--an invention, Pipes argues, that served as a model for Mussolini, Hitler and the enduring remnants of fascism.

"The effect of the Communists' activities at home and abroad was not to unleash a global revolution, but, paradoxically, to give rise to movements that assimilated their spirit and copied their methods," Pipes writes. "No prominent Europeans socialist before World War I resembled Lenin more closely than Benito Mussolini."

Pipes refuses to paint Lenin and Trotsky in warmer tones than Stalin. Indeed, he credits the Old Bolsheviks with creating the apparatus of terror that Stalin used with such devastating effect in the '30s and '40s--and he points out that Soviet flirtation with the German military machine in the '20s allowed the future leaders of the Wehrmacht to perfect their weapons and tactics.

"The tactics which formed the basis of Hitler's Blitzkrieg," he writes, "were first tested on Soviet soil."

The work is enriched in intriguing ways by the author's access to the once-secret archives of the Soviet Union. We learn that Lenin used to prescribe drugs for himself from the Kremlin pharmacy, and Pipes shows us that Stalin managed to consolidate his growing power even during Lenin's lifetime precisely because the ailing dictator was entrusted to Stalin's cynical care.

Still, Pipes downplays the importance of the newly opened archives in the study of contemporary Russian history, and he insists that "in not a single instance did it compel me to revise views, which I had formed on the basis of printed sources and archives located in the West." And he is not shy about pronouncing judgment on the vast enterprise of the Bolsheviks.

"Judged in terms of its own aspirations, the Communist regime was a monumental failure: It succeeded in one thing only--staying in power," Pipes concludes. "At every stage of its history, the Communist regime in Russia did whatever it had to do to beat off challengers, without regard to Marxist doctrine even as it cloaked its actions with Marxist slogans. Lenin succeeded precisely because he was free of . . . Marxist scruples."

The judgment of history, of course, is that the Bolsheviks failed even at staying in power. We are shown that Russia and the other subject peoples of the former Soviet Union paid a terrible price for the temporary success of the Bolsheviks, and a still more terrible price for their failures. That is the real subtext--and the timely message--of "Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime."

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