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Rise and Fall

RUSSIA: A History.\o7 Edited by Gregory Freeze (Oxford University Press: 496 pp., $45)\f7 ; A HISTORY OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY RUSSIA.\o7 By Robert Service (Harvard University Press: 654 pp., $29.95)\f7

June 28, 1998|RONALD GRIGOR SUNY | Ronald Grigor Suny is the author of "The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Successor States" (Oxford, 1998). He is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago

There were no official celebrations last year in Moscow on Nov. 7, 80 years after the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power in Petrograd in 1917. The overwhelming sense among people in power in Russia today is that the revolution which established the Soviet republic was a conspiratorial coup d'etat that shunted the country off the track of democracy, prosperity and modern civilization and onto a tragic trajectory which took 74 years to reverse.

Indeed, the words that Russia's leaders use more frequently to describe the years of Soviet power include "tragedy," "utopia" and, with the sense of something that went drastically wrong, "experiment." For many in the West as well, the Soviet experience has come to mean that alternatives to capitalism have been disposed on the "trash heap of history." Politically conservative critics affirm that radical social transformations proposed by intellectuals and well-meaning political reformers are doomed to failure, although not before enormous costs and burdens are suffered by ordinary people. Borrowing from postmodernism, some historians have linked the Soviet program of social transformation with the great move dating from the Enlightenment that attempted to create a modern world from a scientific study of society, careful enumeration and categorization of the population and the application of planning and administration. In their view, these misguided efforts have led to the unprecedented violence and state-initiated bloodshed that have marked the 20th century.

Since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, a popular consensus has already developed that nothing less than history itself has decisively proven the Soviet experience a dismal failure, if not an unmitigated disaster, and that it is only a matter of time before the regimes which still rule over more than 1 billion people in China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba come to realize the future is knocking on a different door. Not surprisingly, then, as the funeral corteges of expired states pass by, lighted up by fires of ethnic warfare, historians of communist ancien regimes have turned to summing up the history of the recent past. The post-mortems have ranged from inspired polemics of grand theorizing, like Martin Malia's "The Soviet Tragedy" or Zbigniew Brzezinski's "The Grand Failure," to more conventional narratives like the books under review here, "A History of Twentieth-Century Russia" by Robert Service and Gregory Freeze's "Russia: A History."

The history of the Soviet Union irresistibly tugs at historians and political scientists to make some overall judgments, not merely to explain but to condemn, and it is only with great difficulty that the usual distance and detachment of scholarly analysis may be maintained. Complexity is lost as scholars join journalists to explain failure as if it were built into the story at every point. Service and Freeze tell a fairly straightforward tale of good intentions gone wrong and admirably keep their prose cool and reserved while at the same time free of apologetics.

The collective history assembled by Gregory Freeze, professor of Russian history at Brandeis University, gives a brisk, exciting tour of Russia's long journey from its Kievan origins to the early Yeltsin years. With stunningly beautiful illustrations and transparent prose, the authors of the various chapters guide the reader through Russia's social and political evolution, at once both distinct from that of the rest of Europe and painfully linked to a fatal competition with the more developed Western world. Among the authors are leading specialists such as Nancy Kollman on medieval Russia, David L. Ransel on Catherinian Russia, Reginald Zelnik on Russian labor and Lewis H. Siegelbaum on Stalinism. Half of the book is devoted to the 20th century alone, and while there will be few surprises for Russian historians, there is much to reward the general reader or interested student, such as the remarkable illustrations that make this learned volume almost a coffee-table book.

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