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Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present, by Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr M. Nekrich

From Lenin to Gorbachev

Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present.
by Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr M. Nekrich.
Translated by Phyllis B. Carlow. Summit. 880 pp. $24.95.

This magisterial volume, a collaborative effort by two émigré Soviet scholars now residing in Western Europe, may well become, as its subtitle inadvertently claims, the history of the USSR for many years to come. Only one of its authors, Aleksandr M. Nekrich, was an internationally-known historian while still in the USSR. His June 22, 1941, published in 1965, provoked a storm of controversy because of its candid thesis that the initial Soviet defeats in the war were largely the result of Stalin’s criminal negligence. Mikhail Heller, though also trained as a historian, is best known for a number of literary studies published since his arrival in Paris in 1969. Heller’s and Nekrich’s interests complement each other, and the resulting study, which draws on a vast variety of Soviet, Western, dissident, and émigré sources, is further enriched by an imaginative use of literary materials which impart much color and immediacy to the dry bones of archival and documentary data.

Nekrich and Heller deal at length with just about every major issue in the history of Russia in the 20th century, and on those issues which are still controversial among historians they take refreshingly forthright stands. One such issue has to do with the ideological kinship of Communism and Nazism, as well as the infamous history of their collaboration. About this the two authors write:

A good pupil of Lenin and Stalin, Hitler pointed out that the bourgeoisie’s weakness in relation to revolutionary Marxism stemmed primarily from a separation between spirit and force, between ideology and terror. In Marxism, said the Führer, “spirit and brute force are harmoniously blended.” He added, “National Socialism is what Marxism could have become, if it had broken its absurd ties with the democratic order.” Lenin was the first to discover the secret of blending “spirit and brute force,” the practical use of force to carry out a utopian program, and the use of a utopian program as a camouflage for brute force.

In order to accomplish this, Nekrich and Heller continue, “the first thing [Lenin] did was to strip words of their meaning.” Following, as it were, the dictum in Alice in Wonderland, and long before George Orwell’s Newspeak, “He would give them meanings depending on the need of the moment and modify them depending on the audience.” Presumably, such differentiation extended also to Lenin’s addresses to the country’s starving population and his words to the arch-capitalist Herbert Hoover, whose American Relief Administration fed in 1922 no fewer than seven million Soviet citizens, the first—though by no means the last—instance of the West’s bailing out the USSR from possible collapse.

More importantly, this differentiation was scrupulously observed—as it still is, to this day—in what the authors call the bi-level character of Soviet foreign policy. Conventional diplomacy is pursued by the Soviet Union on a government-to-government level. Simultaneously, campaigns of subversion and “wars of liberation” are waged by Communist parties and their subsidiaries to advance a revolutionary cause that is quite openly identified with the Soviet state. Foreign diplomats attend formal receptions of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while representatives of terrorist activity who are engaged in wars aimed at overthrowing the diplomats’ governments attend congresses of the Soviet Communist party as “fraternal delegates” and honored guests.

On another controversial question, Heller and Nekrich are categorical in their insistence that, Trotsky and other dissident leftists notwithstanding, Stalin is to be regarded as Lenin’s true and rightful heir:

Stalin did not make himself general secretary. Lenin did. Lenin had been his mentor, protector, and constant model. . . . The question whether Lenin was the legitimate or illegitimate son of Plekhanov and Marx continues to stir debate among philosophers, historians, and specialists in family law, but the question of whether Stalin was Lenin’s son is disputed less and less. Stalin was not only his legitimate heir but his only one.

As for Trotsky, the two Russian émigré scholars reject the idealization of him that has been for some decades fashionable in certain leftist circles of Western Europe, discerning little difference between him and his victorious rival.

In their discussion of the roots of World War II, Heller and Nekrich not only emphasize Nazi-Communist affinities but also advance the intriguing hypothesis that Stalin had actually feared a Communist victory in Germany, which would have transformed Russia (in Zinoviev’s quotation from Lenin) into a “backward Soviet country among developed Soviet countries.” That never came to pass. Indeed, Russia narrowly escaped becoming one of Europe’s more backward Nazi colonies, although one feature of Nazi ideology, its state-sponsored anti-Semitism, continues to flourish in a modified shape on Soviet soil nearly half a century after Nazism’s collapse.

The one Soviet leader whom Nekrich and Heller view on the whole positively is Nikita Khrushchev:

Whatever the reason, it fell to Khrushchev’s lot to carry out the truly great mission (it is no exaggeration to call it that) of exposing the crimes of the Stalin regime, that is, of the Soviet system, freeing millions of prisoners from the camps, and posthumously rehabilitating millions of others. The return of non-Russian populations of the Northern Caucasus who had been exiled to Siberia and Central Asia during the war is also to Khrushchev’s credit. Under Khrushchev, anti-labor legislation was abolished (although not entirely, since the work books were maintained), the tax burden was lightened, the social-security system was improved, the construction of housing was expanded, and obligatory loans to the state were dropped.

Now, after the moderately repressive two decades of Brezhnev’s rule, and the brief interregnums of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, a young and activist Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to come to grips with a multitude of economic and social problems, ranging from economic stagnation to alcoholism. Some of these may be the result of ineptness and neglect and may well prove at least partly amenable to reform. Others, however, are clearly systemic in nature and are rooted in cardinal principles of the Communist creed that are unlikely to be revised.

In sum, the balance sheet of Soviet history, as Heller and Nekrich see it, is—major successes in foreign policy aside—quite discouraging:

The second greatest industrial power in the world, as it is often called, is unable to feed its population or maintain a system of foreign trade comparable to that of prerevolutionary Russia: it exports mainly raw materials and imports industrial equipment. Instead of moving toward the proclaimed goal of constructing a classless society, the Soviet state has given birth to an extremely hierarchical caste system. This multinational empire, ruled from Moscow, has not resolved any of the nationality problems in the USSR itself or in the “fraternal” countries. The changing demographic balance could only complicate and aggravate national conflicts.

The prognosis for international peace is equally dim:

The Soviet leaders are congenitally hostile to the West and reject its right to exist in its present form. They need the West as an object of hatred, however, as potential prey, and, at the same time, as the only source of aid in overcoming chronic “temporary” difficulties. Marx’s concept of the interdependence between the base and the super-structure has found strange application in the socialist utopia, which builds its superstructure partly on a base outside of itself, in the West.

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This brings us to the underlying historical thesis of Utopia in Power. Throughout their analysis, Nekrich and Heller unabashedly defend the proposition that the USSR and its institutions, far from being extensions of those of imperial Russia, represent a radical break with the Russian past. At the very start they write: “On the date of October 25, 1917, under the old Russian calendar (November 7 by the Western calendar), a new era began. The history of Russia ended on that day. It was replaced by the history of the Soviet Union.” Indeed, Nekrich and Heller have nothing but scorn for Western historians intent on “demonstrating that from the time of the Scythians Russia was inexorably heading toward the October revolution and Soviet power. It was inherent in the national character of the Russian people. Nowhere else, these scholars think, would such a thing be possible.”

Some seven hundred pages later the reasons for the two authors’ insistence on the radical discontinuity between Russian and Soviet history becomes more understandable. To them, what happened to Russia could happen anywhere—anywhere, that is, a totalitarian revolution occurs or is imposed from without. What is more, it has happened elsewhere:

Regardless of historical traditions, geography, or national character, each country where a Soviet-style socialist system was installed produced identical results. . . . All the socialist countries resemble one another in having only one political party, which runs everything and is responsible to no one, a police network that penetrates every fiber of the social fabric, and a low standard of living. The Soviet Union, the heart of the socialist system, is also its model. The countries which join or are embraced by the Soviet bloc imitate the Soviet model perfectly, just as every human fetus in the mother’s womb repeats the biological evolution of the human race.

To Nekrich and Heller, then, if the Soviet Union is a radically different organism from imperial Russia, its history is nevertheless paradigmatic, a terrible model for would-be enslavers and a terrible object lesson for any who would avoid enslavement.

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There have been only two or three important full-length histories of the Soviet Union published in our time (the number of histories of Russia that extend through the Soviet regime is of course considerably greater). Whatever objections or qualifications may be raised to this one, it is a work with which all future historians will have to contend, and against which they will inevitably be measured.

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