Commentary Magazine

Let History Judge, by Roy A. Medvedev

Ideology and Truth

Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.
by Roy A. Medvedev.
Translated by Colleen Taylor. Edited by David Joravsky and Georges Haupt. Knopf. 566 pp. $12.50.

The publication of Roy A. Medvedev’s Let History Judge is an event of real importance. This is the first time a Soviet writer has tackled the whole question of Stalinism, attempting to analyze the entire dreadful phenomenon and place it historically. Whatever weaknesses we may note in the book, we must still feel it is a splendid effort. That Medvedev, brought up in the strictest party orthodoxy, and still by no means wholly free of that heritage, can yet rise to the level of a huge critical effort, is a matter for unstinted praise—far more, in this sense, than should be given to a scholar writing in full liberty in the West—whatever the blemishes to be found in the actual text. On the other hand, it would be insultingly patronizing to pass over such blemishes uncritically, simply out of respect for the moral and other exertion put into the writing. Medvedev’s book deserves the compliment of being discussed seriously.

As in so many recent cases the mere fact of the book’s reaching us provokes queries, but it should be said at once that the authenticity of Let History Judge is not in doubt. Generally speaking, the best way we have of deciding on the authenticity of samizdat (self-published) documents appearing in the West is that if they are genuine the author does not repudiate them—or else, as was the case with a poem of Alexander Tvardovsky’s, he repudiates them in a derisory fashion by condemning them on trivial grounds (such as that the title has been altered).

Naturally, on this basis, there can be no guarantee of authenticity before publication in the West. Of various pieces attributed to Roy Medvedev which have appeared here, there was one which he repudiated. It appeared, as a high proportion of these manuscripts do, in the émigré magazine Possev. When Medvedev repudiated it the editors of Possev quite reasonably explained that though they do their best to check on such material (and their record has been excellent), they could not refer in each case to the author, as positive authentication would naturally put him into an awkward position vis-à-vis the KGB. Now, Possev is the organ of the strongly anti-Communist NTS. We might agree almost as little with its particular views as with those of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (or of Medvedev himself). But in obtaining and publishing samizdat material it has continually performed a service of the utmost use both to us in the West and to Russian samizdat writers themselves.

In his introduction to Let History Judge, David Joravsky deals with this question, but in an absurd and sectarian fashion. He hurls totally unwarranted abuse at Possev. (He even speaks of “fabrication,” but there is no real reason to believe that the document falsely attributed to Medvedev was in any case fabricated—certainly not by Possev, which could have no conceivable interest in doing so. On the face of it, it is genuine samizdat, but with a mistaken or false attribution—unless, indeed, it was placed with some intention of discrediting samizdat altogether.) Roy Medvedev himself is much opposed to the anti-Communist émigré organizations (although it is conventional in Soviet circumstances even for people who need not feel strongly about the matter to denounce the émigré press), but in Let History Judge he is far from reproaching a well-known Soviet defector, F. Raskolnikov, for having his own attack on Stalin printed in a reactionary émigré journal. In any case, it is not for a Western editor to become so violently partisan and misleading on the issue.



The existence of Roy Medvedev’s manuscript (which was finished in its present form in 1968) has been known for some years; it was referred to for instance by Andrei Sakharov in his Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom. Sakharov noted that Medvedev would regard him as deplorably unorthodox from a Marxist point of view. Even Zhores Medvedev has gone out of his way to point out that he does not share his brother Roy’s attitude. And in fact a major point to be made about Medvedev’s Leninist position is that it is by no means typical of the Soviet liberal intelligentsia. These intellectuals are mainly, like Sakharov himself, in some sense socialist, opposed in the abstract to the system they believe to exist in the West, with its totally unrestrained exploitation, absence of free education, of social services, and so on. But there are people who are better informed: the celebrated Program of the Democratic Opposition specifically condemns attacks on “capitalism.” Even Sakharov is clear that revolution (even without bloodshed or eventual Stalinism) would not be economically beneficial to the American working class. Once it is realized that “capitalism” is in one usage a Soviet code-word for any non-Communist system—or even on occasion for an aberrant Communist system such as that of Yugoslavia—some of the confusion abates.

In any case, intellectual opposition in the USSR is not essentially concerned with Lenin and Leninism. What it looks for is the establishment of a legal and civic order, of intellectual and political freedom, in the Soviet Union. Some of those who seek this may really believe that a return to Lenin would produce it; others at least find that to claim Lenin to be on their side is a useful pragmatic defense against a hostile party. In fact, when it is said that disaffected Russian writers are “really” devoted to “Communism,” though wishing for a slightly different form of it than the one presently available, this is in almost every case merely a verbal matter: a preempting of the word Communism to mean almost exactly the opposite of what it has meant in Russia over the past half century.

Roy Medvedev is in this sense an exception, one of the few who remain unequivocally devoted to Lenin and to what he regards as Leninist principles and the Leninist style of Communism. Medvedev even hoped originally to get his book published legally in the USSR. By 1968 this was wishful thinking, but if Khrushchev had survived and evolved just a little further it is not inconceivable that the book might have appeared: it is almost within the range of party feeling, or what used to be party feeling. Even so, of course, some excisions might have been demanded—in particular Medvedev’s hostile references to some of the Stalinists shot during the purges and since rehabilitated.

For, on Medvedev’s showing, practically all Lenin’s comrades and successors come out badly: Stalin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, even Kirov. Both the oppositionists shot in the purges, and the “moderate” Stalinists who followed them to the execution cellars are heavily criticized. Although their fates are recognized as the products of a cruel and baseless frame-up, Medvedev has the courage to point out that men like Postyshev and Krylenko, now rehabilitated and held up by the “anti-Stalinist” wing of the party as true Leninists, were in fact among the most odious accomplices of Stalin during earlier phases of the terror.

But (this is of course not a new point) if Lenin was the only good and sound Bolshevik, how could he have entrusted the state to a cadre of leaders whose actions were almost invariably either mistaken or criminal? Medvedev in effect argues that Lenin was always right, while the system he created invariably produced wrong. However highly one might regard Lenin, this surely must be accounted a major, incapacitating defect in the claim that he was a faultless political leader. Either the Stalin regime, and the present situation in Russia, are the legitimate consequences of Lenin’s actions—in which case he should be judged accordingly; or they are illegitimate, unforeseen—in which case Lenin must still be considered to have submitted the country to the sufferings of terror, famine, and civil war in the name of a theory which proved catastrophically defective in mastering and predicting the course of events.



Two rather contradictory strands run through Medvedev’s particular presentation of Lenin. First, he holds him up as a supporter of freedom of the press—on the strength of a few promises made shortly after the seizure of power to the effect that press censorship would be a temporary measure for a few crucial weeks. Of course, Lenin broke all these promises at once, and there is no reason to believe he ever intended to keep them: after all, he simultaneously promised to honor the decisions of the Constituent Assembly, then about to be elected, even if the vote should go against the Bolsheviks; but he did not.

Secondly, Medvedev believes at the same time that Lenin was justified in his use of terror, practicing “necessary” cruelty only, as with the execution of the Imperial family. Even apart from the fact that a Czarist restoration (especially of Nicholas or his son) was already a dead issue in the Civil War, the young Grand Duchesses had in any case no claim to the succession, or to its transmission: nor did the doctor, the nurse, or the dog. Lenin in fact habitually urged terror on his sometimes reluctant subordinates; and far from being “necessary,” it “made . . . victory in the Civil War more difficult,” as Adam B. Ulam has observed.

On the whole Lenin period there is little here of the fairmindedness which in the main marks the author’s treatment of later Soviet times. In the Civil War, for instance, all non-Communists are called “White Guards”; the peasants who oppose grain requisitioning in 1918 are all “kulaks.” The Kronstadt rebellion is “counterrevolutionary.” While he sees that the great public trial of Social Revolutionaries in 1922 was “not irreproachable,” Medvedev exculpates Lenin and blames it on Stalin. In fact, Stalin had practically nothing to do with the trial—Lenin was very much the moving spirit—and when the Bolshevik negotiators promised the Second International that there would be no executions Lenin was furious.

Medvedev’s account of the earlier years of the Bolshevik party and of the Soviet regime contains some interesting and hitherto unknown material (for example, on the quarrels in the Bolshevik Committee in Petrograd in 1917), but in general it is an exercise largely concerned to show the continual errors of Stalin. Even Stalin’s failure in the post-revolutionary period to get involved in open opposition to Lenin is held against him as a mark of insincerity!

It would be unfair to call this a mirror image of similar exposures in Stalin’s time of the party records of Trotsky and Zinoviev. For Medvedev does not stoop to positive fabrication. But all the same there is a disquieting resemblance, an uncomfortable reminder of the narrow and sectarian habits of the party mind even at its best. This holds true even in the section on the Stalin and the post-Stalin periods, when Medvedev does not suppress the actual facts but where his party-mindedness sometimes leads him into contradiction.

Thus, while criticizing Stalin’s leadership of the collectivization of agriculture in the 1930′s (and showing his usual post-Lenin frankness on the horrors of the 1933 famine), Medvedev yet describes it as “the major revolution, the great economic and political crisis that determined the victory of socialism.” It is interesting to contrast this with Andrei Sakharov’s view of collectivization as having caused “a profound and hard-to-correct destruction of the economy and way of life in the countryside” and the “almost serf-like enslavement of the peasantry.” Medvedev also follows the orthodox Soviet line on the Nazi-Soviet pact, though he does condemn the way in which Russian propaganda, and Communists outside Russia, overtly took the German side. He is full of praise for Brecht, on the strength of a poem which he wrote (but did not publish) when his friend Tetryakov was shot. But Brecht fully supported Stalinism in every other way and even in this poem proposed a ratio false to fact and insulting to the majority of victims: “Among fifty who are condemned one can be innocent.” More revealingly still, Medvedev is led into condemning Stalin for having introduced a foul and horrible system of rule in the Soviet Union while at the same time hailing the extension of Stalinism to Eastern Europe as “a great victory of the world socialist revolution,” and bemoaning Stalin’s failure to assure similar victories in France and Italy.

There is a certain tendency among Western observers to applaud Medvedev’s views above those of other Soviet liberals, just because they are “Leninist.” Why? He should be praised, rather, for having liberated part of his mind from dogma, not for having failed to liberate the other part. The editors of Let History Judge rightly remark that “The level of analysis [and of honesty, one might add] in Medvedev’s book is especially remarkable when one considers the background from which it emerges: the official school of thought on Soviet history.” Just the same, there are other Soviet liberals—the majority of them in fact—who have freed themselves much more decisively from this background.



Yet Medvedev’s major virtue—of seeing that in the long run a party or an opinion cannot be defended on the basis of total falsehood—shines through the errors and distortions, as do the thought and labor he has put into illustrating his central point. He rightly argues that no regime with the remotest claim to intellectual legitimacy can go on treating the Stalinist experience as negligible, or nonexistent. Even in Khrushchev’s time nothing like a full revelation, or repudiation, of the past was made. We are now in the absurd position of possessing no official story, true or false, of some of the major events of the 30′s. This Medvedev has sought to correct.

Unfortunately he is (as he himself concedes) no historian. Useful though much of his new material is, it is cited mainly in episodic form as illustration of various general points. His account of the background and conduct of the great trials in Moscow is short and undetailed to the point of skimpiness. His narrative of the key February-March plenum of 1937 contains several pieces of interesting new information, but he evidently has had access to still more and has failed to record it. (All this contrasts greatly with his brother’s The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko which is clear, well-written, and uncluttered by ideological bombast, and makes out of a complex story a telling narrative which speaks for itself.)

To the student, the most useful parts of the book are the accounts of particular incidents during various stages of the terror. Medvedev adds to our knowledge of the atrocious tortures practiced and gives a number of fresh instances of the lunacy of some of the accusations. And, with many important figures, he provides information as to their fate which had hitherto not emerged from the literature of that frightful period. His sources are, first of all, various books published and speeches made in Russia which had mostly been available anyway in the West, so that much of the most striking material is not in fact new to us; secondly, various manuscripts or oral information given him by members of the families of victims of the great purge—some of these of the utmost interest and importance (though a disadvantage of the episodic approach is that there is less possibility of using these admittedly rather indirect sources to reinforce or refute one another); and thirdly, a certain amount of Western literature which has rather haphazardly penetrated Soviet circles: he cites, for example, Victor Alexandrov’s L’Affaire Toukhachevski, which is mere invention.



Among the most interesting parts of the book is the section where Medvedev has assembled, from public but not widely known Soviet economic sources of fairly recent date, the (presumably) real figures on the fulfillment of the various five-year plans. (Much of this, indeed, has already been published in the West—e.g., by Professor Tibor Szamuely—though not widely remarked.) When one remembers that the terrific, but falsified, alleged successes of the Soviet economic system were one of the major propaganda themes in the West, one hopes that many readers and students will carefully study these figures.

Finally, while he sometimes appears to treat Stalin and Stalinism as a frantic aberration, Medvedev yet perceives that “although his rise to power was not inevitable, it did reflect certain tendencies that existed in our country and our party before the period of terror and then flourished because of Stalin.” More generally, he gives a broad and vivid picture of Stalin as something between a Caligulan villain and a locus of disastrous imponderables. (He has no use for the rather more ambiguous attitudes of Isaac Deutscher, whom the editor feels obliged to defend against him.) Still, it is difficult to accept, for instance, his contention that Stalin’s “primary motive” was revenge, since he often treated his most servile followers just as badly as those who had opposed or offended him, and the bulk of those who perished were known to him barely if at all. (A more balanced sketch, though unfortunately marred by reliance for interesting detail on doubtful or even notoriously false sources, is H. Montgomery Hyde’s Stalin: The History of a Dictator.1) And when Medvedev tells us, as a major point, that in many matters, “Stalin talked one way and behaved another,” one can only comment, “So did Lenin.”

I have not conveyed the richness of this book’s detail which, whatever its defects of organization and of argument, renders it a major contribution. The peculiarity of Medvedev’s opinions, the tension between his honesty and his Leninism, should not lead us to dismiss the usefulness of much of his factual material, nor should it diminish our respect for his efforts and his sincerity. Medvedev’s achievement is in fact remarkable; all the repressive mechanisms of the ideology implanted in his mind have not been enough to overcome a deeper drive for the truth.




1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 679 pp., $12.95.

About the Author

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.