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  • Declassifying a "Classic"
  • Jeffrey Brooks (bio)

Nicholas S. Timasheff was an émigré jurist who became a sociologist and wrote about crime and law, as well as about Russia. The Great Retreat appeared in 1946 and was reprinted without changes in 1948 and 1972.1 Is it a classic, whose author's achievement in discovering a sea change in Soviet policy and culture we should acknowledge, as David L. Hoffmann (652) recommends? Or is it useless ideological ballast of the Cold War that we should discard, as Evgeny Dobrenko (708) argues in his reply? Hoffmann seeks to show the lasting merits of Timasheff's work, as well as its deficiencies as seen almost 60 years later. Dobrenko is candid in his confession that he has little regard for, and actually little interest in, the text. He argues that the most successful product of the Soviet Union was the construction of the idea of itself as a socialist state (690). In this light, Timasheff's work is interesting solely as evidence of the Soviet achievement in marketing the product; that is, Dobrenko sees Timasheff more as a guileless consumer of imagery than as a productive and contributing historian. In arguing that much of the substance of Timasheff's work was merely the smoke and mirrors of Soviet imagery, Dobrenko distances himself from the political and ideological debates of the Cold War. The issue here is not primarily the politics or ideology of a bygone era, and Dobrenko rightly says we should no longer think chiefly in these terms (676). What is called for is a sober understanding of Russia's Soviet heritage both as image and as substance, without confusing the two.

In the remarks that follow I try to treat The Great Retreat in its entirety, regarding both its content and its antecedents. I summarize Timasheff's argument, since Hoffmann ignores much of the book and addresses only four sub-themes of only four chapters (out of 13). Dobrenko accepts Hoffmann's synopsis, happy to have been freed from the need to repeat what he finds untenable and wrongheaded. [End Page 709]

Timasheff writes of a shift in social and cultural policy during the mid-1930s from communism back to traditional Russian values, and of a new Russia resulting from the shift. In his preface, dated 1945, which appears in all editions, he describes the book's twin purposes as "to show the Communist Revolution in Russia and its aftermath in its correct historical perspective" and to build a "foundation for the discussion of Russo-American relations."2 He begins with the assertion that the Bolsheviks interrupted a process of rapid economic and social development.3 As he states it, "Pre-Revolutionary Russia needed a few decades more of peace to be transformed into a society no longer conspicuously backward as compared with the West, and no longer endowed with dangerous tensions."4 He then provides an overview of Soviet history, according to which the Stalinist leadership rejected the "Communist blueprint" or "Doctrine" in 1934 in favor of a return to true Russian values, thus winning the loyalty of the people, gaining victory in war, and recovering the dynamism of imperial Russia.5 He writes: "In many respects the aims of the Church were the same as the modified aims of the rulers. Now, the Communist rulers want discipline, a stable family, and the restriction of sex."6 And he is effusive in his gratitude for the result of such changes: victory.

The Great Retreat saved both Russia's independence and the rule of those who were in power. That was the natural reward for an ability to see things as they really were, and not as they should be according to one Doctrine or another. But it was an almost miraculous performance on the part of rulers who had been obstinate doctrinaires for many years.7

Hoffmann and Dobrenko ignore Timasheff's argument about the war and his predictions about the further abandonment of the doctrine, the growth [End Page 710] of democracy, and his embrace of the "National Tradition."8 Yet the book is a product of its time, and these arguments were very much on the minds of...


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