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From the Russian Past to the Soviet Present
What links the Soviet present with the Russian past? In one form or another this question is frequently put to historians—by their students in class, by colleagues and friends, by representatives of the media, and even by government officials.
One can point, in reply, to obvious linguistic and closely related cultural continuities: the Russian language, its roots reaching deep into the Middle Ages, is overwhelmingly the language of the Soviet Union, just as it was of the empire that preceded it; and language is never—cannot be—entirely value free.
There are fundamental geopolitical constants as well: the Russian state has been the largest territorial entity in the world since the seventeenth century, its borders have been the longest and most difficult to defend, and its principal neighbors—China and Europe—have been generally hostile to its pretensions, if not to its very existence. Plainly, these factors have always influenced the policies of Russia's rulers; and with the arrival of such powerful rivals as Japan and the United States, they will continue to do so indefinitely.
The natural environment in which the history of the Russian people has unfolded since the beginning of the present millennium—its northerly location and frequently poor soils, its erratic rainfall and extreme continental climate, its short growing season—has of course also helped to determine the course of that history. It will continue to do so, we can be sure, technological advances notwithstanding.
Moreover, these and other environmental, geopolitical, and cultural factors continuously at work in Russian historical development have helped to produce a tradition of centralized, authoritarian government supported by extensive armed forces. It is a tradition that is rooted in history—as was discovered by the revolutionary elite in Russia after 1917.
Or one could point to a persistent element of Russian national chauvinism—obviously pre-Soviet in origin (Lenin vigorously condemned it)—in Soviet domestic and foreign policies.
But the apprehensive and often strongly negative views of the Soviet Union generally held in the West ensure that the basic question before us readily assumes an urgent political and even moral aspect, an aspect that these professionally chaste replies fail to address. So historians are asked, in addition, to explain and even to judge contemporary Soviet political behavior in light of the Russian past, to predict its future course, to recommend—or justify—policy. It is a trap into which many of us, amateur and professional alike, have fallen.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for one, insists that "there is no continuity in the transition from pre-revolutionary Russia to the USSR. There is instead a fatal fracture of the spine [italics his], a break which nearly ended in complete national destruction." He could not be more emphatic: "Soviet development is not an extension of Russia's but rather its diversion in a completely new and unnatural direction." The terms "Russian and "Soviet," "Russia" and "USSR," not only are "not interchangeable, not equivalent, and not unilinear—they are irreconcilable polar opposites and completely exclude each other."
Solzhenitsyn's motive here is to explode the "distorted and biased picture of several centuries of Russian history" that he finds to be prevalent in the West and to be manifest, for example, in that "persistent and tendentious generalization about the 'perennial Russian slave mentality,' seen almost as a inherited characteristic, and about the 'Asiatic tradition.'" For Solzhenitsyn, understandably, national honor as well as the cause of historical truth is at stake. But for our purposes now, it is worthwhile to emphasize his more general point—namely, that the evil, Marxist-inspired Soviet system is an utterly alien imposition on a far older and different Russia, a Russia that still yearns to reassert itself.
Solzhenitsyn's pronouncements, with their sweeping denunciations of Western scholarship on Russia and the Soviet Union, naturally have provoked rebuttal. Specialists have condemned various factual errors, methodological shortcomings, and his alleged biases. Contrary to his assertions, many profound and often determinative continuities have been discovered, or rediscovered, by historians. Indeed, an aggressive, hard-line historiography, one seeking to explain the allegedly ugly Soviet present by reference to a more or less distant Russian past, has reemerged—part of the more general "neoconservative" revival in the United States that was abetted by the sharp downward turn in U.S.-Soviet relations that began in the late 1970s.
Reflections of this largely deterministic and negative view of Russian and Soviet history are to be found everywhere—and sometimes take an extravagant turn.
Edward L, Rowny, for instance, has declared that his experience of negotiating arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union "convinced me that the Soviets have not changed their inherited traits—they are still Russians." What are these "inherited traits"? An obsession with "seemingly picayune details" and with "their security," an "extreme penchant for secrecy" and an unwillingness to compromise, both a "serious inferiority complex" and a habit of bullying, duplicitous behavior in the ruthless pursuit of objectives laid down by their Kremlin masters. And General Rowny's authority for describing such traits as "inherited"? An old textbook on Russian history is mentioned, as are two similarly outdated as well as highly idiosyncratic treatises on Russian culture and the dubious memoirs of a French aristocratic visitor to the Russia of about 150 years ago. Rowny refers here to his experience of the uncertain Soviet diplomacy of the later 1970s; presumably, in any future account of his continuing work in this field, he will have to find other sources of other "inherited traits" to explain the much more sophisticated Soviet diplomacy of the later 1980s.
A popular biography of Peter the Great, the famous "tsar-reformer" of eighteenth-century Russia, offers another fine example of what is at issue. "In The Gulag Archipelago," its author states, "Solzhenitsyn is bewildered by the 'rabbits,' the millions who submitted to Stalin's terror and went to the camps quietly. Blind submission to arbitrary authority is part of the Russian tradition—there were rabbits enough in Peter's time, too." These lines could only have been written in willful disregard of the widespread and violent opposition in Russia to Peter's program of forced Westernization—and only after a careless reading of The Gulag Archipelago itself, whose "rabbits" have much in common with the million-fold victims of the Nazi camps. Yet in the United States this book was selected for sale to its members by the editors of the History Book Club, guaranteeing it additional thousands of readers.
The foremost exponent of the hard-line historiography is Professor Richard Pipes of Harvard University. Owing to his prominence as a contributor to journals of opinion and as an advisor to statesmen, it is perhaps not generally appreciated that Pipes is also one of our leading historians of Russia and the Soviet Union. Nor is it generally known that his Russia under the Old Regime offers one of the most original (and best-written) interpretations of virtually the whole of Russian history currently available in English.
Pipe's grand theme is the rise in the later Middle Ages of a "patrimonial state" in Russia, its "partial dismantling," under Western influence, from the time of Peter the Great, and its sudden transformation, during 1878–81, into the first modern "police state." His narrative largely ends in the 1880s because by then, he avers, the old regime in Russia had yielded to a "bureaucratic-police regime which in effect has been in power there ever since." It was there, and then, that the "germs of twentieth-century totalitarianism" were sown.
A "patrimonial state" is one in which "political authority is conceived and exercised as an extension of the rights of ownership, the ruler (or rulers) being both sovereigns of the realm and its proprietors." It is an ancient type of government—and one alien to the West, where authority over people and objects has come to be split into authority exercised as sovereignty and authority exercised as ownership. "One may say that the existence of private property as a realm over which public authority normally exercises no jurisdiction is the thing which distinguishes Western political experience from all the rest." Everywhere else, "the lines separating ownership from sovereignty either do not exist, or are so vague as to be meaningless."
This is one cardinal point of Pipes's interpretation: in Russia the separation referred to occurred "very late and very imperfectly" (by comparison with Western states); thus the "essential quality of Russian politics derives from the identification of sovereignty and ownership, that is, from a 'proprietary' way of looking at political authority on the part of those who happen to be in power."
Pipes's second cardinal point is that in the later nineteenth century, owing to the survival of the "patrimonial principle" in public life, the corresponding "impotence or apathy" of the social classes with respect to state authority, and the "notorious underdevelopment in Russia of legality and personal freedom," the government was able to impose, in the midst of an apparent crisis, a quick succession of emergency measures that completed the subjection of society to the arbitrary power of the bureaucracy and police. After 1881, in Russia "the 'state' meant the tsar and his officialdom; internal politics meant protecting both from the encroachments of society." Alexander III's decree of August 14, 1881, codifying and systematizing the repressive legislation dating back at least to 1845, "has been the real constitution under which—brief interludes apart—Russia has been ruled ever since."
Even more, if "all the elements of the police state" were thus present in the Russian Empire of the early 1880s, certain measures carried out experimentally by the Imperial government in the first years of the twentieth century "moved into the even more sinister realm of totalitarianism."
So the emergence of the Soviet state forms only a brief epilogue—less than two pages of a total of more than 300—to Russia under the Old Regime. Here it is "not in the least surprising that almost the instant they took power, the Bolsheviks began to put together the pieces of the Imperial proto-police apparatus." Again the similarity of provisions against anti-state crimes in Soviet and Imperial legal codes is remarked on. "Then, with each passing year, the mechanism of repression was perfected until under Stalin's dictatorship it attained a level of wanton destructiveness never before experienced in human history."
And not just Stalinism: "This type of legislation, and the public institutions created to enforce it, spread after the revolution of 1917 by way of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to other authoritarian states in Europe and overseas. One is justified in saying, therefore, that Chapters Three and Four of the Russian Criminal code of 1845 are to totalitarianism what the Magna Carta is to liberty."
Russia under the Old Regime is not in the ordinary sense a textbook. It is not, more plainly still, a narrative history of the sort beloved by book clubs and the popular press, one calculated to leave the reader aglow from an access of wonder, pity, terror, and nostalgia. Equally, although it sometimes quotes from documents and frequently cites its secondary sources, the book is not a work of scientific or academic history. It does not proceed—nor does it pretend to proceed—from an exhaustive accumulation of primary data via rigorous inference to hypothesis and tentative conclusion. It rests both on a body of accepted historical facts and on a corpus of values. It is a work of synthesis rather than analysis; its style is more rhetorical than logical. And it proposes, in sum, a theory of history of enormous explanatory potential. No one who reads the book, expert or layman, can fail to be challenged by it.
Challenged—but perhaps not wholly persuaded. The values on which Russia under the Old Regime rests plainly are those once called liberal, laissez-faire, or individualist but now "conservative" or "neoconservative." Central to the book's argument (see, especially, chapter 8) is the myth of the "Western middle class" as the historical bearer and protector of liberty, the rule of law, personal rights, and "liberal ideas"; much of its remaining force derives from Pipes's broad and highly questionable use of the term "totalitarianism." At the same time, the attitude regarding nearly everything Russian is pitiless, hostile, even xenophobic. In short, the degree to which the reader is convinced by this brilliant book hinges on the degree to which he shares its author's own outlook and values. And the same may be said about the hard-line historiography generally—about any history written in the venerable rhetorical tradition and committed to purposes, usually unstated, beyond itself.
Where does that leave us? Solzhenitsyn's negative response to our basic question is scarcely plausible. The proposition that there are no important links between the Russia that was and the Soviet Union that is, owing to the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath, does not persuade. The debate is not over whether there are such links, but over their nature and extent.
Moreover, since much of the material needed by historians remains under Soviet lock and key, leaving much of the Soviet and, to some extent, earlier Russian past in need of clarification, any very emphatic or precise generalizations emanating from this field must be viewed with appropriate skepticism. This is to stress the difficulties—technical, logistical, but especially political—to be encountered in pursuing Russian history by comparison with American or British or, say, Indian history.
If anything, we in the West suffer from a surfeit of history, from a swelling babble of competing and even mutually exclusive claims to historical truth that are based on ever more esoteric sets of data. But in the Soviet Union, as in Soviet Eastern Europe, history has been suppressed. History in the sense of free, disinterested inquiry into the records of the past, and the associated right of open publication, do not exist in the Soviet Union (an important discontinuity between it and the late Empire). The resulting amnesia, duplicity, and manipulation of the past for immediate political ends, and the painful doubts and confusion that this in turn brings, have been noted by Western observers—just as a restoration of their history has been one of the principal demands of Eastern dissidents and reformers. Yet we in the West, awash in history, cannot seem to grasp their sense of loss.
In 1986 the Polish philosopher-historian Leszek Kolakowski remarked, in his Jefferson Lecture in Washington, D.C., that "we learn history not to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are." Kolakowski had been forced to leave his homeland for publicly criticizing the communist regime, and his remark prompted a leading British authority on Poland to observe that "this viewpoint lies close to the heart of the present generation of intellectuals in Poland, where national self-discovery was one of the foremost goals of the Solidarity movement [of 1980–81], and uncensored history one of its great passions." The same general point was made in Moscow, also in 1986, by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, speaking to a congress of Russian writers. There he declared that when reading the great pre-Revolutionary Russian historians,
you see Russia's real history, complete and unconcealed. But when you read the periodically retouched pages of our modern history, you see with bitterness that the pages are interspersed with white spots of silence and concealment, darkspots of obsequious truth-stretching, and smudges of distortion.
The fear of a creative analysis of our Revolution has led to the flagrant, unacceptable fact that in the [popular biographical] series "Lives of Famous People" we still have no book on Lenin. In many textbooks, important names and events are arbitrarily excluded. They not only fail to list the reasons for the disappearance of leading people in the Party, but sometimes even the date of their death, as if they were peacefully living on pension.
A nation that allows itself to analyze its own mistakes and tragedies bravely knocks the ideological weapon out of its enemies' hands, for it is then spiritually invincible. Only fearlessness in the face of the past can help to produce a fearless solution to the problems of the present.
Excerpted from The Soviet Union Today by James Cracraft. Copyright © 1988 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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