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  • Reworking Russia’s History: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
  • Heather Hogan (bio)
A History of Twentieth-Century Russia. By Robert Service (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1998) 654 pp. $29.95
A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924. By Orlando Figes (New York, Penguin Books, 1998; orig. pub. 1996) 923 pp. $19.95

With the collapse of the bipolar world and the rigidities that it spawned, many historians have sought to reassess Russia’s twentieth-century experience, some in light of the availability of new materials and others through engagement with new methodologies generated under the increasingly elastic category of postmodernism. Promising a “panoramic viewpoint” with which to “unravel” the mysteries of twentieth-century Russia and focusing the bulk of his large volume on the 1917 to 1991 period, Service purports to integrate “newer items of information” into the established description and analysis of the Soviet experience. Figes seeks to provide the field with its first “comprehensive history of the entire revolutionary period,” which he identifies as the years between 1891 and 1924.

Service reflects an older historiographical tradition that focused on high politics and ideology. Figes, however, moves through the next historiographical generation and beyond, offering a sophisticated reading of the now-enormous literature about social history, while keeping a steady eye on politics, the decisive interventions of leaders, and their sometimes distorted, ideological constructs of the world. We can push the discussion still farther, away from state-society oppositions and typologies built around worker, peasant, intelligentsia, and the fragile middle, onto territory [End Page 273] that is less categorical, more interdisciplinary, and mindful of gender issues.

Service’s volume sketches a traditional sort of political history that concentrates on the men in the Kremlin, innocent of any trendy analysis of culture or discourse. Although he asserts in the introduction that the interactions of rulers and ruled are important to his analysis and that economics, sociology, and culture are well represented in his thinking, “the people” are generally given brief walk-on roles and rarely assume real agency. Service’s analysis of the Soviet experience relies on the metaphor of a chemical compound created by Vladimir Lenin, installed within a few years following October and remixed, but not fundamentally altered, by subsequent leaders. The key ingredients of the system were political centralism, dictatorship, lawlessness, ideological monopoly, national manipulation, and state ownership (xxv). Even though the “idiosyncratic ideas of leaders” or the unanticipated reactions of individuals colored the compound at various points and added a certain dynamic of instability, nonetheless, Soviet communism remained “remarkably constant” from start to finish (xxvii, xxv). The state swelled up large and intrusive, even if it often behaved in a chaotic and disordered manner; the society remained weak, even if sometimes recalcitrant and stubbornly resistant to the blandishments of the behemoth. Old categories of analysis seem firmly embedded in this telling of the tale.

Beginning his volume with two chapters on imperial Russia and the fall of the Romanovs (1900–1917), Service’s discussion of the late imperial period is brief at best. Such minimal treatment of this complex history allows him to avoid difficult questions of historical causality and continuity. Serious exploration of problems shaped by geography, established cultural practices, and social behaviors, or by political forms and relations of authority, would undoubtedly have disrupted his notion of “the Soviet compound” as a largely Leninist invention. But his treatment does not simply downplay the importance of social or cultural history; his narrow definition of “the political” precludes nuanced discussion of how authority has been constituted and exercised over the long haul of Russian history.

Although Service has little sympathy for Nicholas or the viability of his regime, his narrative identifies the war and Lenin’s drive for power as the fundamental determinants of the revolutionary [End Page 274] year. Service argues that the real socioeconomic problems besetting the country during 1917, and the legitimate concerns of lower-class Russians, might have been reasonably addressed if not for the continuation of war, the insistence of Pavel Miliukov (minister of foreign affairs) on pursuing expansionist aims, and the inability of the Allies to relieve German pressure on the Russian front. Equally significant was...

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pp. 273-281
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