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  • In Defense of Timasheff’s Great Retreat
  • Matthew E. Lenoe (bio)

In the preceding commentaries, Nicholas Timasheff has been raked over the coals. Hoffmann criticizes him for failure to grasp just how serious Stalin et al. were about building "socialism." Dobrenko does not deign to address Timasheff's arguments at all, beyond critiquing both him and Hoffmann for failing to understand that discourse and ideology are "reality." Brooks indicts Timasheff as an apologist for Stalin.

It is an easy game to take apart a work that was written 60 years ago without access to archives or even much firsthand reporting from inside the USSR other than the Soviet press itself. I myself have frequently enjoyed such sport. I think, however, that Timasheff deserves better.

The Great Retreat was one of the first books to identify and link a number of real and important policy changes in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s. These included the revival of Russian patriotic /nationalist rhetoric, the criminalization of abortion and the restriction of divorce, the abandonment of pedagogical experiments in favor of pre revolutionary methods in education, the relaxation of anti-religious campaigns (a temporary relaxation, as it turned out), the disbanding of the Comintern, the granting of small "private" plots to collective farmers, the introduction of the "one-man management" policy in industry, and more. Timasheff dubs these policy turns taken together "the Great Retreat." He explains the "Retreat" as the result of the failure of the Bolshevik "blueprint" for a communist utopia and regime leaders' drive to stabilize Soviet society and increase their mass support in preparation for war.

Hoffmann oversimplifies Timasheff's work when he attributes to the latter the view that the Retreat amounted to "a conscious abandonment of socialism" (652). Timasheff does not make this claim. Rather, he argues that "utopian revolutionaries who take power ultimately must modify their utopian policies that they may preserve power and even the opportunity to cultivate some part of their utopian garden" (italics added).1 Here, Timasheff is [End Page 721] talking about the realities of holding onto political power. Even utopians who seek total power to mold reality meet resistance and obstacles. They must compromise their original policies, whether or not they consciously abandon the utopian project (socialism) in toto.

On a related issue, Dobrenko and Hoffmann both question the view (which they attribute to Timasheff) that the policy shifts of the 1930s and the 1940s amounted to a return to traditional cultural norms of prerevolutionary Russia. This is part of their schematization of Timasheff's argument: utopian socialists retreat to traditional Russian cultural and social practices and assumptions. This schema seems to make sense based on Timasheff's use of the term "retreat," but again, it is an oversimplification. Timasheff emphasizes that the policy changes he describes are part of a synthesis of the Bolshevik project with prerevolutionary culture in a new Soviet culture, not a simple return to the prerevolutionary status quo.2

Timasheff pinpoints 1934 as marking the beginning of the general "retreat" in culture, society, and economics; and he offers two proximate motivations for it. One was the internal disruption (including mass starvation) created by collectivization and the implementation of the First Five-Year Plan in industry. The second was the development of an outside coalition (Hitler's Germany and imperial Japan) threatening the USSR. Under these circumstances Stalin and his lieutenants had to accommodate the population in some ways and mobilize their subjects for war—thus the Great Retreat. Timasheff's explanations are functional and instrumental, and they do not refer to changes in the leaders' personal ideology.

A page-by-page reading of The Great Retreat shows that while Timasheff considers 1934 a turning point, he sees the dynamic of utopia confronting reality at work from war communism straight through 1945. Dobrenko (690-91) intimates that Timasheff ignores the New Economic Policy (NEP) retreat, when in fact the latter devotes an entire section of chapter 6 to precisely this topic.3 "Lenin ordered a retreat which lasted eight years and is known as the New Economic Policy," Timasheff writes. "Retreat is not always a symptom of final defeat; it...


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