Commentary Magazine

How the Soviet Union Is Governed, by Jerry F. Hough and Merle Fainsod

Revisionist Revision

How the Soviet Union is Governed.
by Jerry F. Hough and Merle Fainsod.
Harvard University Press. 679 pp. $17.50.

When Ibsen brought out A Doll’s Home a hundred years ago, its denouement proved too strong for conventional tastes, and so a number of theaters in Europe and the United States began to stage the play with a “happy ending.” In one of these versions, called Breaking a Butterfly and subtitled “Founded on Ibsen’s Norah” the heroine declared herself in the final scene a “poor weak foolish girl” undeserving of her husband and stayed home, presumably to improve herself.

There is something of the same quality about Jerry F. Hough’s book, which may be said to be “founded” on the late Merle Fain-sod’s How Russia Is Ruled, of which it is billed as a second revised edition, in the sense that it has roughly the same plot and cast of characters but in all essential respects departs from its prototype. Where the reader of Fainsod’s work emerged with a sense of tragedy, the reader of Hough’s “revision” is left with a feeling of soothing optimism and general well-being.

Merle Fainsod began his academic career at Harvard in the 1930′s as a specialist on international socialism. During a year which he spent in the Soviet Union as an exchange scholar he acquired a reading knowledge of Russian. To judge by an article he wrote for the Encyclopedia of the Social Studies (under the entry “Soviet”), he then took a rather benign view of the Soviet system, believing it to be evolving toward a synthesis of freedom and planning which some day would result in the realization of the social and political ideals of Communism (“the withering away of the state”).

After the war, Fainsod became Harvard’s leading expert on Soviet affairs. He taught a popular course on Soviet government, noted for its polished lectures, and guided numerous graduate students, some of whom today hold influential posts at universities and in government. Not the least of his contributions to Soviet studies in this country was to have helped found and direct the Russian Research Center at Harvard.

In 1953, Fainsod published in the Russian Research Center series a book destined to become his chef d’oeuvre, How Russia Is Ruled. The range of research, the clarity of exposition, and the judicious quality of the conclusions at once established this volume as the standard work in its field. In 1964, Fainsod brought out a revised edition which incorporated material that had come to light in the decade following Stalin’s death, and altered the analysis wherever it was necessary to allow for the changes that had occurred since the 20th Party Congress.

In both instances, the timing of publication turned out to have been unlucky: the first edition appeared months after Stalin’s death, just as the Stalinist system, to which it was principally devoted, was about to undergo major reforms; the appearance of the revised edition coincided with Khrushchev’s ouster. Fainsod joked resignedly that the appearance of the second revision on which he was at work would surely spell the demise of Brezhnev’s rule. Alas, he was not destined to test that prognosis because he died suddenly in 1973, before he had time to complete the new edition. The standing of How Russia Is Ruled, however, remained so high, and it continued to be used so widely in college courses, that Harvard University Press decided to proceed with a second revision anyway. The task was entrusted to one of Fainsod’s students, Jerry F. Hough, a professor of Soviet politics at Duke.

To the scholar, the verb “to revise” denotes certain fairly well-defined procedures, most of them connected with updating. Revising a scholarly work means, first and foremost, supplementing the evidence on which it rests with information that has emerged since previous publication, and, where this becomes necessary, adjusting the conclusions. In the case of a work concerned with current events, it also means bringing the narrative forward, to the present. A scholar who revises his own publication enjoys, of course, full freedom to alter his approach, methodology, and conclusions. If, however, he is revising someone else’s work, he will be careful, first, clearly to set off his own contributions from those of the original author, and, second, not to tamper with the author’s methodology or principal findings. If he should decide that he cannot, in good conscience, go along either with the methodology or with the principal findings of the work he has been asked to revise, he will resign the assignment and, if so moved, write his own book instead.

How the Soviet Union Is Governed, unfortunately, meets none of these criteria. Hough has not produced “an extensively revised and enlarged edition” of Fainsod’s How Russia Is Ruled, as the title page proclaims; his is, for all practical purposes, a new book which incorporates large chunks of Fainsod (often suitably “cleansed”) but which in all essential respects departs from him, and, indeed, takes a diametrically opposed view of the subject. I have no doubt that Harvard University Press had the legal right to bring out How Russia Is Ruled with a happy ending: a clause in its standard contract authorizes the Press to carry out revisions of books on its list with someone else’s assistance if the author is unwilling or unable to do so. Whether it had the moral right to butcher the original in this manner is another question. The fact that the volume no longer carries the imprint of the Russian Research Center indicates what the book’s original sponsor thought of the matter.



Fainsod, who quickly rid himself of his early optimism about the evolution of the Soviet system, joined after the war that school of political scientists who operated with the concept of “totalitarianism.” He worked on the premise that the elite ruling (rather than “governing”) the Soviet Union had as its principal objective full control over every facet of organized life, and that in the pursuit of this objective it had to rely heavily on the political police with its mass terror. “Ultimately,” he wrote, “the totalitarian dictatorship must depend on terror to safeguard its monopoly of power.” The heart of How Russia Is Ruled was a detailed analysis of the development and structure of the apparatus of control employed by the Soviet Communist party, with heavy stress on the political police.

Now it so happens that Hough does not find the “totalitarian” model useful: he regards it as self-contradictory, oversimplified, and suffering from a variety of other shortcomings. He prefers to view the Soviet political system as a synthesis of authoritarian impulses on the one hand, and “interest articulation” combined with “input of demands” on the other. Or, to say it in different words, as a system which comes nowhere close to attaining its totalitarian objective and whose leaders, like it or not, must allow a considerable measure of popular participation in the political process.

It must be conceded that Fainsod and other proponents of the “totalitarian” approach tended to see the system too much in terms of what it professed to be rather than in terms of what it actually was: this was the legacy of a time when the Soviet Union had to be studied almost exclusively from printed Soviet sources. In this respect, it is of some merit to correct the older view with information that has come to light recently on the more complex nature of Communist decision-making. But Hough carries the corrections much too far, being bent on demonstrating that the Soviet system is not qualitatively but only quantitatively different from our own. Soviet shortcomings, he tells us, are not much worse than those evident in Western political institutions, and a great deal of Soviet politics is simply misconstrued: thus, for example, Soviet law really functions as law should, and the KGB not only represses, it also educates the citizenry.

Hough has not only subverted Fainsod’s fundamental theses, he has also felt free to purge those parts of the original which he chose to incorporate of such information as does not fit his own conception of the Soviet Union. For example, Fainsod quoted figures that showed what an appalling toll Stalin’s Terror had taken of Communist officials. Hough omits them (even though they come from official Soviet sources) and provides instead an innocuous but also meaningless statistic on the general decline of party membership in that era. Fainsod provided a lengthy historical account of forced-labor camps under Lenin; Hough (writing, incidentally, after the appearance of The Gulag Archipelago, to which he manages to avoid any reference) ignores the subject. Fainsod had 65 separate page references in his index to Soviet forced-labor camps; in Hough’s index this entry does not even appear. Nor is there in Hough’s volume any mention of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin’s Himmler, who figures repeatedly in Fainsod’s narrative.



Nobody quarrels with Hough’s right to hold eccentric views, even if they clash with what virtually all Russian dissenters, in and out of the USSR, tell us about the Soviet system. The question is whether a scholar holding them ought to have undertaken to tamper with a well-established manual which rests on diametrically different propositions, and mislead the reader that he is merely “revising,” i.e., presumably updating, it. One of the consequences of this whole procedure is that Fainsod, the author, becomes, as it were, a third party to his own book—a scholar with whom Hough debates and whom he even lists in the index as a person with his own, independent opinions. Thus: “Fainsod, Merle: on Stalin’s consolidation of power . . . on Khrushchev . . . on postwar period.” All that is lacking is an index entry for “Fainsod, Merle: on Hough, Jerry, F.,” for it would have highlighted the surrealism of the entire undertaking.

Since it has been my experience that writers of critical reviews are suspected by some readers of acting out of personal motives, let me hasten to add that Hough treats my own work very generously and incorporates some of my findings into the historical section of his book. For this I am, of course, grateful. If, nevertheless, I find myself most unhappy about his product it is first because he has given us a very unrealistic, sugar-coated view of the Soviet Union, and secondly because he has chosen to do so by abusing his position as editor of an established scholarly work to advance his own, very different theories. At least Ibsen could protest travesties of his plays: in this case, the author is no longer alive to voice his dismay.

About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.