Lenin's Tomb, by David Remnick
The collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire will occupy historians and political theorists for years to come. The very suddenness and the nonviolent course of an event desired by many but foreseen by none are bound to raise questions about the standards used by academics to estimate the viability of states. For it was virtually axiomatic among so-called Sovietologists that the Communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were stable and had the capacity, by a combination of repression and concessions, to repel any internal challenges. Proceeding from this premise, many Sovietologists urged a policy of accommodation with the Communist bloc on the grounds that, whereas confrontation was futile, an enhanced sense of security would induce Communist authorities to relax their grip and eventually to shift toward democracy.
To anyone acquainted with Russian history, this line of reasoning had a familiar ring. It restated, in contemporary academic jargon, the old argument of the Mensheviks, or moderate social democrats, after the Bolshevik seizure of power. Much as they criticized the Communists, the Mensheviks were against countering Bolshevik force with force. They opposed the anti-Bolshevik White movement and sided with the Reds in the Civil War; they similarly rejected any foreign intervention in Russian affairs. From October 1917 onward, they placed their faith in the gradual evolution of the Soviet system, in their eyes a corrupt version of a progressive socialist movement which, if left alone, was bound, sooner or later, to “evolve” in the right direction. Confrontation, on the other hand, would frighten the Communists and compel them to perpetuate their coercive methods.
About the Author
Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).