Often described as the twentieth century's great experiment, the Soviet Union was a self-professed vanguard state with transient organizations, shifting acronyms—Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, KGB, SovNarKom, NarKomPros, GULag—and a remarkable cast of sui generis characters to match (leather-jacketed commissars, showy NEPmen, dispossessed "kulaks," vaunted Stakhanovites). Understandably, historians have long drawn attention to factors that set its experience apart; frequently cited are the legacy of tsarist autocracy, Russian "backwardness," Marxist-Leninist ideology, the leadership Lenin and Stalin, and the vastness of Eurasian space and the diversity of its peoples.
But however distinctive it was, the Soviet Union was not a world unto itself, and David Hoffmann places its formative decades squarely within the broader history of modern states in this excellent book. His five chapters treat, respectively, Soviet approaches to social welfare, to public health, to reproduction, to surveillance and propaganda, and to state violence. While acknowledging that distinctive factors were indeed consequential, Hoffmann shows how Soviet social policies were "one particular constellation of modern state practices that arose in conjunction with ambitions to refashion society and mobilize populations for industrial labor and mass warfare"; like policies of other modern states, these policies "reflected a new ethos by which state officials and nongovernment professionals sought to reshape their societies in accordance with scientific and aesthetic norms" (2). Hoffmann takes particular issue with accounts that place primary emphasis on the role of socialist ideology in shaping the Soviet system. Marxism-Leninism, he writes, "established a historical timeline along which humanity was to travel, but it did not dictate a precise roadmap or timetable" (307). Stalinism, in other words, was not socialist ideology put into practice; it was one version—if a particularly violent version—of the more general habit of modern states to refashion their populations through interventionist social policies. [End Page 409]
Hoffmann situates the Soviet Union firmly within the broader intellectual and political history of Europe, and he draws attention to foundations of Soviet state interventionism that were neither Marxist nor Russian in origin. He notes the importance of early-modern cameralist thought for its emphasis on the connection between the military power of a state and the productive capacity of its population, and he points out that enlightenment thinkers challenged belief in an interventionist God and thus made conceivable the notion of a radically restructured society. The "social world," Hoffmann writes, "came to be seen as of humankind's own making rather than as something preordained or fixed, and social sciences offered a means to refurbish it" (5). As industrialization and urbanization undermined the supposed "organic" unity of European societies, nineteenth-century reformers sought to restructure society by utilizing new social science disciplines and technologies like censuses and housing inspections. But whereas European thinkers increasingly described social malaise as the result of biological or "racial" factors, pre-revolutionary Russian specialists—who, as Hoffmann emphasizes, would make important contributions to Soviet policy—tended to blame the lowly condition of the Russian population on social and political conditions rather than on biological inferiority.
Hoffmann also emphasizes how, like the ideas behind them, key interventionist practices of the Soviet state originated prior to 1917 and outside of Russia. Mass politics and mass warfare brought about increasing reliance on state interventionism; the former required that political leaders meet the needs of their people while the latter underscored the importance of labor and military capacity to state power and security. As Hoffmann shows, the First World War was a critical watershed: states increasingly intervened in peoples' lives through public health programs, surveillance, perlustration of letters, propaganda campaigns, concentration camps, and other means. But whereas liberal democratic countries limited these policies after the war, the Soviet state came into being during this international moment of interventionist acceleration and institutionalized those interventionist policies during the civil war that followed.
The book's first three chapters examine Soviet social welfare, public health, and reproductive policies. Hoffmann shows how, partly as a result of the rise of epidemiology, public health came to be seen...