did it all go wrong? It's the question which comes to every
old Marxist, whether or not he or she were part of the world
communist movement in the 20th century: what was the virus
which eventually deformed the Bolshevik revolution and the
Soviet Union and all the communist parties, ruling or not,
which followed the Soviet model?
Marx, concluding that all would have been well if Lenin had
not been so selective about the great man's message. Many
others conclude that the attempt to build Marxist socialism
in Europe's least industrialised society was doomed from the
start. A few think that Lenin was to blame for what he did
to the Bolshevik party before the revolution: forging it into
a conspiracy whose natural style of government could only
the most popular answer has always been a name rather than
an analysis. Stalin is what went wrong. If only Lenin had
not died in 1924, he would have steered the Soviet Union towards
something like a socialist democracy - a one-party state,
certainly, but one where free opinions competed and only a
handful of genuine counter-revolutionary terrorists would
have to be put behind barbed wire.
Lewin draws on several of these explanations. He considers
that the basic weakness of the Tsarist system repeated itself.
'Old Russia, where the development of the state and its power
always preceded social advance, had ended up stumbling: the
political system became blocked, impeding any economic and
social progress. And here [in the USSR after 1960] was the
same scenario repeating itself - and in the course of the
same century.' Lewin retains faith in the correctness of Lenin's
vision, especially at the end of his life.
Century is not exactly a narrative but a selection of themes
in Soviet history that can now be re-interpreted in the light
of the new archive material. Lewin is scornful of Western
interpretations and equally scathing about Russian post-Soviet
attitudes. 'Not content with looting and squandering the nation's
wealth, the "reformers" mounted a frontal assault
on the past, directed at its culture, identity and vitality.
This was no critical approach to the past; it was sheer ignorance.'
is anything but an apologist for the old system. Certainly,
he blasts Cold War writers for exaggerating the scale of Stalin's
repression and he dislikes Alexander Solzhenitsyn ('politically
inept'). And yet his carefully documented chapters on the
purges and the Gulag are particularly horrifying because of
their precision. Here, for example, fresh from the secret
files, is NKVD order 00447 from July 1937, setting 'a norm'
of 75,000 people to be shot and 225,000 to be sent to the
camps. This target, we learn, was agreed long before the victims
were selected and it was fulfilled at least twice over. Between
1930 and 1953, according to Lewin's research, some 3.8 million
people were sentenced for 'counter-revolutionary crimes',
of whom more than 700,000 were shot.
that 'Where did it go wrong?' question were put to Lewin,
I think he would answer: 'Not everything did!' Most of this
book, which is crammed with detailed research and not always
easy reading, is concerned with the decades after Stalin.
'The sound and fury over dissidence ... should not be allowed
to obscure the systemic trends that were at work in the Soviet
Union.' Arbitrary terror was replaced by repression, which
was at least applied through a legal framework; the Soviet
Union became for a while a 'great power' economically and
politically, as well as in armed strength; health and living
conditions improved steeply.
was inner political failure. A crude description of the Soviet
system, offered by some British historians, is that the party
was everywhere and omnicompetent, the source of all decisions
at all levels. Lewin absolutely disagrees. By the Thirties,
he suggests, the party had lost its political charge and was
little more than an administrative network. In the years of
Stalinist terror, 'state organs' held power and the party
became a mindless clapping machine without influence. In a
third phase, Stalin's death emancipated the state bureaucracy
which, in turn, suffocated any possibility that the party
could revive and exercise real leadership. A one-party system?
Mockingly, Lewin calls it a 'no-party system'.
him to another question, among the grandest 'ifs' in contemporary
history. Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, succeeded the brain-dead
Brezhnev as general-secretary of the party in 1983, but fell
mortally ill and died the following year. Suppose he had lived!
was well aware of the weaknesses corroding the Soviet Union
from within; he hatched ambitious reform plans, including
real elections to party posts. Lewin excitedly claims that
this implied replacing the existing party with a new one which,
'still in power but planning reforms, could have served to
steer the country during the difficult transition to a new
words, Andropov would have forged exactly the weapon for transforming
Soviet society that Gorbachev lacked when he launched perestroika
a few years later. And maybe, just maybe, the Soviet Union
could have avoided collapse? Lewin is persuasive. But - on
his own evidence of systemic decay - I just can't believe
review was first published in the Guardian
(R) thedailystar.net 2005