Rethinking the Soviet Experience

Menashe, Louis

The mandarins of Moscow RETHINKING THE SOVIET EXPERIENCE POLITICS AND HISTORY SINCE 1947 Stephen F. Cohen Oxford, $17.95, 222 pp. Louis Menashe THIS valuable volume brings together four of...

...they are not the open-minded, historically informed, and nuanced inquiries Cohen is after...
...One hopes there is a connection, and there is considerable evidence that in many osmotic ways the two are mutually reinforcing...
...But it is a fact that the Brezhnev leadership that stood for detente also throttled dissidence and invaded Czechoslovakia...
...The USSR was an Orwellian structure where an elite hungry for internal and external power was in place over the will (or lack of it) of a huge population...
...Cohen has also added a fine critical introduction to his own trade, a survey of the work produced by the many toilers in Soviet fields, beginning with the expansion of academic Sovietology in the classical epoch of the Cold War down to its comeback in recent years...
...The Bolshevik Revolution was not a machination of a nasty elite, but a consequence of a mass movement...
...In the simpler times of the Cold War, when Western scholarship on the USSR was convinced of the essential malevolence of its subject, there was little room for am17 May 1985: 315 biguity...
...If the new social historians tell us that Stalinism, past and present, rules not simply by force but by a sort of populist or nativist consensus as well, it may chip at the totalitarian model, but it is not a very comforting truth about Soviet society...
...What explains this...
...Such formulations would constitute a variety of Soviet apologetics...
...If so, then the study of the USSR is, like all history, a study of contexts, an examination of unique configurations...
...Stalin thought of himself as a good Leninist, and many, alas, agreed...
...they went on to describe "the new face of Soviet totalitarianism,'' to cite the title of one mainstream study...
...The revisionist historians of the Cold War attempted to shift the sources of truculence from Moscow to Washington...
...More: analysis of the USSR becomes a moral judgment...
...Painful ambiguities and a straining for points plague the arguments, as some sections of Cohen's essays reveal...
...We like Russians...
...his answers are not blithely offered and his generalizations are usually tagged with cautionary notes...
...Often we have to fall back not on some novel revisionist idea, but, as Cohen does, on an old argument the endurance of the "Russian tradition," from Tsars to Soviets...
...The new work adds up to a revisionist view of the Soviet experience and Cohen describes his book, somewhat grandiosely, as "the most general effort to date in the revisionist cause...
...Among other things, Cohen demonstrates the connection between the Commonweal: 314 rhythms of scholarly Sovietology and wider currents in the U.S...
...Soviet leaders come and go, the younger, more vigorous ones, and the older immobile types (Brezhnev was both), and still fundamental sameness outweighs fundamental change, despite the numerous reforms that take place in all corners of Soviet life...
...The topics range from Stalinism (a major preoccupation, for good reason) to the tug of war between reformers and conservatives that shapes so much of contemporary Soviet life...
...Stalinism was not an inevitable denouement of Leninism, but its monstrous aberrant (something the poor Trotskyists had argued all along...
...Soviet authorities have barred Cohen from visiting the USSR since 1982...
...Did you know, for example, that from the 1950s to 1977 "all contributors to the government journal Problems of Communism, which regularly featured most of the prominent Sovietologists of the period" required secret security clearance before their work could be published...
...We understand that the ' 'focus of evil" in the modern world is not the USSR...
...Perhaps any student of Soviet history must...
...Louis Menashe THIS valuable volume brings together four of Stephen Cohen's stimulating, often sparkling essays on aspects of Soviet history and politics...
...We need more of this kind of work in the ongoing effort to think and rethink the Soviet experience...
...Sometimes Moscow has a hard time distinguishing friends from enemies...
...Several letter-writers to The Nation, where Cohen contributes a monthly column, concur with Moscow on the latter interpretation...
...The atmosphere of de'tente, the credibility crises (Vietnam, Watergate), the rise of a New Left, new trends in general scholarship (social history, behaviorist political science) all helped to generate new ways of looking at the USSR...
...Clearly, there was more than Stalinist legerdemain linking the two...
...Those with an animus against the USSR did not stop worrying, did not learn to love it...
...One type, the kind we usually have in mind when the term is used, attempts to displace an earlier consensus in toto...
...Commonweal: 316...
...It is also a bit disingenuous to stress the discontinuity between Lenin and Stalin...
...Cohen describes a transition from a smug conformity, anti-Soviet in impulse, at the early end, to the break-up of orthodoxy, a softening of anti-Soviet attitudes, and a greater analytical complexity at the other end...
...Who knows...
...change was palpable...
...Perhaps it is because of his contacts with some dissidents, or because he has championed the cause of the condemned Bukharin, a victim of Stalin the Soviets stubbornly refuse to rehabilitate...
...Here I'm afraid I subscribe to a "big battalions" view of history...
...For the layman, this essay is doubtless the most accessible and the most informative...
...Bukharin, about whom Cohen published a landmark political biography, may have stood for a programmatic alternative to Stalinism, but the striking thing is Stalin's victory, not Bukharin's alternative...
...It does not strive to prove that the Soviet bear is really a pussycat, that Stalinism was just another form of modernization, or that the present-day USSR is really a pluralist society...
...This hope was projected back onto the past...
...Others, like Cohen I place myself in the camp that shares his sensibility take de-Stalinization as a sign of hope about the Soviet present and future...
...The totalitarian model was knocked into a cocked hat by the Khrushchev de-Stalinization program...
...Is it, to use the simplified categories we can't escape, pro- or anti-Soviet...
...It is difficult, because of the prevailing political passions of our time, to treat the Soviet Union in a scholarly way without advertising overtly or between the lines one's own attitudes and preferences...
...The unified, monochromatic theory of totalitarianism possessed an economy and logic that was impressive...
...Rarely does Cohen present a problem without a feel for its complexity...
...Stereotypes began to topple...
...Lately, the term has been applied to those who deny the Holocaust ever took place...
...But it must be admitted that this kind of revisionism puts one between the brick walls of the Kremlin and a very hard place...
...There are revisionisms and revisionisms...
...a dynamic, or as Cohen writes, "fractious" political life pulsed behind the ostensibly smooth totalitarian facade, and so on...
...Cohen approaches matters this way, but occasionally in his eagerness to humanize or universalize the enigmatic Russians, he slips into facile analogies or metaphors Soviet conservatives become U.S...
...The revisionist historians of the Great War sought to reverse the accepted view of German guilt by distributing the blame elsewhere...
...I mention Cohen's problems with the commissariat of Soviet visas to point up another feature of his revisionism: it is hard to place, politically...
...And what about Soviet external behavior, a subject Cohen does not address in this volume, except to plead for detente on the grounds that it encourages liberalization of Soviet society...
...Change had been banished from the steppes in the totalitarian interpretation permanent purge, permanent terror, permanent one-man tyranny...
...If the Sovietological profession failed to understand the present, perhaps there was much overlooked in the past...
...Enter revisionism...
...Cohen's brand of revisionism is not absolutist...
...Now, clearly, renovations in Soviet society and politics seriously modified the coarser characteristics of Stalinism...
...Republicans or British Tories...
...What is it about us...
...Those of us who hope for the best grow impatient...
...His book is alive with analytical tensions, with arguments from many diverse sources arrayed against one another...
...Instead, they adjusted their own theory in order to retain their animadversion...
...Sometimes the line between explaining and explaining away becomes very thin...
...Stalin: "How many divisions does the pope have...
...We weep over the traumas of Russian history...
...The late economic historian, Alexander Ehrlich, once observed wryly that Stalinism didn't spring from Buddhism...

Vol. 112 • May 1985 • No. 10


 
Developed by
Kanda Sofware
  Kanda Software, Inc.