Commentary Magazine


Russia and Reform

To the Editor:

As a chronicler of the tragic fate of Russian liberalism and a resident of the Middle East, I cannot but applaud Adam B. Ulam’s bold call to the democratic West to recoup its strength and cohesion in order to persuade the Soviet rulers “to liberalize their own society and to abandon their expansionist and destabilizing policies abroad” [“How to Restrain the Soviets,” December 1980]. It is a pity, therefore, that Mr. Ulam weakens his case by linking the two aims, and by basing his prescription for achieving the former on a curious reading of Russian history.

It may be very comforting to believe, as Mr. Ulam would like us to, that “the main impetus for the liberalization of the Russian political and social system in the 19th century and after 1905 came as a consequence not of internal pressure, but because of the worldwide attractiveness and power of liberal ideas.” But a close examination of the facts reveals that this development had as much if not more to do with military defeats and the strain induced by unsuccessful wars than with the influence of liberal ideas and internal pressures. Thus, the abolition of serfdom, the partial emancipation of higher education from government interference, the introduction of elected local self-government, and the creation of a modern legal system in the early 1860’s (‘the era of the Great Reforms) followed close on the heels of Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. Similarly, the transformation of autocracy into a “demi-semi constitutional regime” after 1905 (to borrow a phrase from Richard Charques) was forced on the reluctant Czar by the revolutionary events of 1905. These, in turn, were unleashed by Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. Finally, the collapse of czarism in February 1917 was, to a large extent, the result of the tensions engendered by Russia’s participation in World War I and the defeats its army suffered at the hands of the Germans.

One can only hazard a guess at the reasons which led Mr. Ulam, whose knowledge of Russian history is second to none, to gloss over these facts. Was he afraid to provide ammunition for warmongers on the one hand and appeasers on the other? Whatever the reason, one cannot provide a firm basis for a much-needed Western strategy for dealing with the Soviets by telling only part of the story.

Shmuel Galai
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beersheva, Israel

_____________

 

Adam B. Ulam writes:

I don’t think there is really a basic disagreement between Shmuel Galai and myself. Yes, the revolutionary and reform stirrings tended to come or became intensified in the wake of unsuccessful wars (or, for that matter, even following victorious ones, as in the case of the Decembrists, or after 1878). But Mr. Galai’s own The Liberation Movement in Russia, 1900-1905 shows very perceptively how the political ferment which led to the 1905 revolution was well on its way prior to the Japanese war. My main rejoinder, however, would be that the defeats were productive of political change precisely because the powers which inflicted them on Russia could boast of free institutions, certainly freer than those of the empire. Most notably, it was Great Britain, the object of emulation and/or envy for Russians of all political persuasions throughout the 19th century, which stood as a vivid example that freedom and national power went hand in hand. How different the lesson of the post-World War II period, and especially of the last fifteen years, when for all its anachronistic ideology, political repression, and faltering economy, the Soviet Union has been able to inflict or to contribute to political defeats suffered by the free world.

My point then was and is that it is only by recovering the momentum toward effective unity and a sense of mission that the great democracies can arrest both Soviet expansion and the general drift toward anarchy in international affairs. It is only such unity and determination on the part of the West that can make peace more secure and constrain the Kremlin to turn its main efforts from making trouble for others to tending its own garden.

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