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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.2 (2002) 303-319

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Obituary or Autopsy? Historians Look at
Russia/USSR in the Short 20th Century*

Ronald Grigor Suny

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. 627 pp. ISBN 0679730052. $16.00.
Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 450 pp. ISBN 0679438092. $30.00.
Dan Diner, Das Jahrhundert verstehen: Eine Universalhistorische Deutung. Munich: Luchterhand, 1999. 383 pp. ISBN 3630879969. _25.50.
François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Trans. Deborah Furet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 596 pp. ISBN 0226273407. $35.00.
Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Ed. Mark Kramer, trans. Jonathan Murphy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 253 pp. ISBN 0674076087. $39.50.

In this last volume of his megahistory of the world since 1789, Eric Hobsbawm poses a fundamental question: how are we to make sense of the "short 20th century," surely the most destructive period in human history. Hobsbawm proposes that World War I marked the breakdown of 19th-century Western civilization - capitalist, liberal, bourgeois, convinced of its own moral and material progress, with Europe at its center extending its imperial grasp over much of the globe. As "the lights [went] out all over Europe," the ambitious rulers of the Great Powers embarked on an all-or-nothing struggle that produced defeat even in victory. Europe forever lost its political hegemony on the globe. That collapse was followed [End Page 303] 303by an Age of Catastrophe, which included the interwar period and World War II; it featured the global crisis of capitalism, the rise of liberalism's two major rivals - fascism and communism - the triumph of the nation-state form, and the beginning of the end of empire. The great irony of that age is that the heirs of the October Revolution saved the capitalist West, both in the war against Hitler and by providing it with an incentive to reform itself. This led to the Golden Age of 1947-73, in which human beings in their majority for the first time no longer lived on the land, growing their own food and herding animals. A period of unprecedented material improvement, the Cold War years witnessed the disappearance of much of the world's peasantry as well as the severe contraction of the traditional industrial working class; the rise of multinational global corporations as well as the welfare state; the rise and fall of American hegemony; the emergence of women into the workplace and public sphere; the multiplication of new nations from old empires; and the steady falling behind of the "socialist" economies. Finally, Hobsbawm views the last quarter century since 1973 as "the crisis decades" or "the landslide," a time of social instability; the triumph of Thatcherite-Reaganite economics with its assault on labor; the rapid decline and final collapse of state-planned socialism; and the progressive weakening of the nation-state.

For all its centrality in Hobsbawm's reading of the 20th century, the Soviet Union appears as a separate sub-universe within global history. Isolated and backward, cut off by blockade or hostility from the developed world, the preferred path for the early Soviet leaders - international revolution, aid from the Western proletariat, the end of borders and nationalism - was never a real possibility. Instead, a regime developed out of war and civil war, hunger and brute force, to carry out the task that had befallen the bourgeoisie in the 19th century, namely to turn agrarian economies into industrial, urban societies. This is what communist governments sought to do (and usually accomplished) wherever they came to power (with the exception of Cambodia). People were uprooted, moved, learned to read, to use soap and go to the doctor (when one was available), and to understand that life and lives...


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