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  • Tyranny and Myth
  • Vladimir Tismaneanu (bio)
The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991. By Martin Malia. The Free Press, 1994. 575 pp.
Modern Tyrants: The Power and Prevalence of Evil in Our Age. By Daniel Chirot. The Free Press, 1994. 496 pp.

What sense can be made of our century’s horrific experiments in tyranny? Why did totalitarian experiments meet with relative success in certain countries but failure in others? Is there a clear connection between certain ideological projects and the attempt to shape the human condition in spite of the wishes and desires of individuals? These are the disturbing questions to which these two important and intellectually courageous books offer stimulating, often provocative, answers.

Martin Malia is a former professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of a splendid book on Alexander Herzen. In the Winter 1990 issue of Daedalus, a U.S. scholarly quarterly, he published a widely discussed article (signed only with the initial “Z”) challenging the “main line” in Western Sovietology. Malia was among the very few who maintained that Gorbachev’s reforms were doomed to failure, that the USSR was finished, and that betting on it to regenerate its foundations was simply stupid. Malia based this prediction on his realization that the Soviet system was based on myth—was, in fact, an example of what I have elsewhere called “mythocracy.” Using concepts proposed by Abdurrakhman Avtorkhanov, Alain Besançon, Carl Linden, and Leszek Kolakowski, Malia sees Sovietism as an “ideocratic partocracy.” In such a system, ideology is key: once the ruling team implicitly questioned (by trying to reform) the [End Page 169] mythological foundations of the system, the whole edifice—created by Lenin, consolidated under Stalin, and inherited by Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and their successors—was bound to collapse.

Unlike Soviet-studies “revisionists” who up until the very last minute posited the inherent reformability and resiliency of the existing order, Malia long embraced the much more pessimistic (and, as it turned out, prescient) view shared by Soviet dissidents such as Andrei Amalrik, author of the 1969 samizdat work Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?

Malia is, of course, right in emphasizing the role of the Bolshevik belief system in the making of Sovietism: as we now know from archival sources disclosed in Dmitri Volkogonov’s Lenin: A New Biography (1994), the regime’s founding father was just as cruel, fanatical, and power-obsessed as Stalin. Lenin differed only in being free of Stalin’s all-consuming inferiority complex and ferocious hatred for any hint of disagreement within his entourage. In reality, as both Malia and Daniel Chirot argue, the foundations of Bolshevik tyranny were fully laid by the time of Lenin’s death in 1924.

Malia’s main goal in writing his polemic is to demonstrate the predominant role that ideological blueprints played throughout the evolution, stagnation, and decline of the Soviet system. As he puts it, the idea is to

reassert the primacy of ideology and politics over social and economic forces in understanding the Soviet phenomenon. It is to rehabilitate history “from above” at the expense of history “from below” as the motive force of Soviet development. Finally, it is to resurrect the totalitarian perspective, but in a historical and dynamic, not static, mode; for it was the all-encompassing pretensions of the Soviet utopia that furnished what can only be called the “genetic code” of the tragedy.

(p. 16)

From Malia’s perspective, what is at stake is the very concept of socialism, and he goes out of his way to link the socialist creed as it was initially formulated in the West, then Russified by generations of left-wing radicals from Tkachev to Lenin, to Sovietism’s abysmal attack on the very idea of human freedom.

Like Malia, Chirot sees ideological zeal as the hallmark of the totalitarian enterprise. A tepid, soft-hearted Bolshevik is an oxymoron. Just as the Nazi ideological state was inconceivable outside Hitler’s racial revolution, neither can Bolshevism be seen as somehow hiding within itself the possibility of “socialism with a human face.” In Chirot’s words:

No doubt Stalin would have laughed to see Gorbachev trying...

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pp. 169-173
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