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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Conservative View of Communism's Fall : A CONCISE HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION By Richard Pipes ; Alfred A. Knopf $30, 410 pages

October 10, 1995|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In coming years we can expect to see scores of books on the rise and fall of communism. Deservedly so: Although this century's world wars were caused mainly by grasping, fanatic nationalism, future historians will see the past hundred years as defined above all by the ideological combat between capitalism and communism.

And because history is written by the victors, we can likewise expect to see myriad studies of communism that show it to be doomed from the beginning, a fatally flawed system that simply took a long time to die.

Is that the truth? Quite possibly, but we'll never know, because it's impossible to foresee a politically neutral history of communism. Harvard history professor and noted sovietologist Richard Pipes may aspire to objectivity in "A Concise History of the Russian Revolution," but his reading of Russia between 1900 and 1924 is decidedly conservative, an undisguised attempt to counter and correct the interpretations of left-leaning academics.

Despite his frequently combative prose, though, and the fact that he sees communism's excesses as intrinsic to its ideology, Pipes' account of the Russian Revolution is compelling and credible. And amusing, very occasionally, at the same time: How could V.I. Lenin expect a global uprising to occur, let alone a moneyless economy, if he felt the need to fine his lieutenants for arriving late at meetings (five rubles for half an hour or less, 10 if more)?

Lenin is, of course, the central figure in this volume, which condenses and updates the author's "The Russian Revolution" (1990) and "Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime" (1994). Pipes' Lenin is not the charismatic, possibly overzealous visionary to be found in more sympathetic histories: He is, rather, a cynical, imperious, predatory theoretician intent on forcing the world to lie on his Procrustean bed.

Lenin's great innovation, Pipes writes, was "militarizing politics. He was the first head of state to treat politics, domestic as well as foreign, as warfare in the literal sense of the word, the objective of which was not to compel the enemy to submit but to annihilate him."

Pipes' analysis is unforgiving, but the evidence supporting it, in historical detail and in common sense, is persuasive. Pipes characterizes Lenin as deceitful, manipulative, opportunistic. And he probably was, for it's difficult to see how his global dreams could have been achieved other than through the exploitation of countrymen and friendly foreigners, most of whom would have settled for much less than a fully communist world.

If Leon Trotsky was right in claiming that the revolution of October, 1917, in Petrograd was effected by no more than 30,000 people--this in a city of 400,000 workers, with a garrison of 200,000 soldiers--then Pipes may likewise be right to say that Petrograd's "masses" "neither needed nor desired a revolution," believing that there must be a better alternative to czarism than Bolshevism.

Pipes is less convincing when he attempts to show that Stalin's savagery, rather than being a perversion of communist methods, was prefigured in Lenin. Stalin liquidated opponents and bystanders as a matter of course: Lenin did so much less frequently and usually in the heat of battle.

For all that, though, Lenin has much to answer for: He ordered the execution of ex-czar Nicholas (according to Trotsky) and favored "the most cruel revolutionary terror" to prevent counterrevolution. A Russian politician recalled that when he criticized a 1917 decree allowing summary executions for various undefined crimes as turning the Soviet justice system into a Commissariat for Social Extermination, "Lenin's face suddenly brightened and he replied, 'Well put. . . . that's exactly what it should be.' "

We'll never know whether that exchange actually took place or to what extent Lenin was misguided rather than evil, blinkered and inflexible rather than megalomaniacal.

Pipes isn't afraid to state his beliefs, though. It was not "oppression" or "misery" that brought down the Romanovs, he writes, but "the activities of a radical intelligentsia bent on toppling the government and using Russia as a springboard for world revolution."

Pipes is certain, further, that communism wasn't thwarted in its infancy by capitalistic opposition but by its leaders' ignorance of economics and disdain for the very people they claimed to be helping.

Many people won't agree with Pipes' conclusion that the history of the Russian Revolution was "tragic and sordid," but it's hard to argue, in the light of the last 80 years, with his broader judgment that governments should not "try to remake human beings and refashion society without their mandate and even against their will."

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