Review- Lewin, “The Soviet Century”

Moshe Lewin, “The Soviet Century” (2005) – Lewin uses then-newly open Soviet archives as material for a sketch of the years between Stalin’s rule over the country and the end of the Andropov period. He makes a variety of interesting arguments that my lacking knowledge of Russian history leaves me unqualified to really judge. One was that Stalin effectively ended the Bolshevik party- an arresting claim, but with a seed of sense in that Stalin did, in fact, eliminate the leadership of the Bolsheviks who preceded him (and many more besides). Whether this makes for the definitive split between Lenin, who Lewin clearly admires, and Stalin, who he despises, is another question.

It seems to go against his larger point- that it was conditions of war, and more than anything else rapid industrialization and urbanization, that made for Stalinism to be what it was. I think this basic argument is sound enough- material conditions have to actualize whatever evil designs lay in the mind of a Stalin, a Hitler, or for that matter an Andrew Jackson. The Holocaust took the shape it did because the Nazis found themselves in charge of a vast swath of Eastern Europe during a war. The great terror and the Ukrainian famine similarly came out of the problems of a ruthless bureaucratic elite attempting to implement a huge vision under harsh conditions. Industrialization was a rough, violent process in Britain, too, and they had over a century to do it, not jamming it into a decade. The rise of the state bureaucracy — Lewin sees the state administration as dominating the party, not the other way around — was a major consequence of this effort to manage a massive continent-wide socioeconomic transition, which created a class invested in preventing reform, even when suggested by some of their own like Khrushchev.

I think Lewin places too many chips on the idea that Russia was “pre-modern” and continued that way- I tend to think they constructed their own modernity out of the materials at hand. Either way, an interesting book that helps fill in some gaps, but also seems targeted towards those with more skin in the Russian history game than I currently have. ****

Review- Lewin, “The Soviet Century”

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