David Engerman's compact but thorough study offers an uncommon perspective on central themes in the history of modern Russia through the eyes of contemporary American observers. By telling us what was lost and found in translation of Russian experience from the late nineteenth century to 1940, and especially in the interwar decades, Engerman helps us understand the genesis of decision-making patterns and rhetoric that prevailed in the subsequent decades of the Cold War. The book, despite its coverage of Russia, is mainly about Americans: "The way Americans understood the process of social change shaped the way they envisioned their own nation" (p. 3). The book's broader significance transcends its temporal and geographic boundaries. Soviet Russia was the first example of rapid modernization enforced by a dictatorial government. Attitudes and judgments that emerged in the West about pre–World War II Russian and Soviet economic development were and are reproduced to a certain extent with respect to other developing countries. Therefore this book provides important insight into the history of ideas underlying recent and current development policies and international relations. How much political freedom can be exchanged for economic welfare? What is the acceptable cost of modernization? These and similar questions were first raised by the American intellectuals featured in Modernization from the Other Shore.
Engerman treats in parallel two subjects: (1) the evolution of American interpretations of Russia, notably the gradual replacement of particularist, national-character views by a universalist modernization discourse; and (2) the development of an institutional framework for this interpretation, including academic centers of expertise on Russia and the Soviet Union. Parts I and II of the book cover five decades, from the 1870s to the early 1920s, the period when European-born stereotypes of a unique Russian national character were adapted for the American public. Part III—more than half of the book's total length—is devoted to a much shorter period, from the mid-1920s to 1940. This imbalance is justified both by the scale of economic change in the Soviet Union—the "communist experiment"—and the importance of the period in shaping views of economic development issues that came to prominence after World War II: the role of government in economic development, the "right" pace of economic change, and the costs of modernization.
Part III progresses chronologically, with the focus shifting over time from social scientists (chs. 7 and 8) to journalists (ch. 9, discussing the U.S. media's coverage of the 1932–1933 famine in the Soviet Union) to diplomats (ch. 10, focusing on the period after the U.S. government's official recognition of the USSR in 1933). The succession of main characters reflects the order of the intellectual relay: Social scientists developed ideas and concepts in their study rooms and in the field; journalists processed [End Page 160] and transmitted news from the USSR through filters shaped by the academics' theories; and government officials, taught by the social scientists and influenced by journalists, formulated policies.
The title of Chapter 8 is a variation on the title of the book: "The Romance of Economic Development." This pivotal chapter focuses on assessments at the time of the apparent Soviet economic success story, which looked impressive against the backdrop of the Great Depression in the United States. The variety of opinion discussed in this chapter, represented by such famous names as the philosopher John Dewey and the economist cum politician Paul Douglas, is substantial. Yet, astoundingly, we find that intellectuals of different (and sometimes diametrically opposed) political views were largely in agreement about the supposed merits of Soviet policies during the First Five-Year plan. They believed that the USSR was on the right track in pursuing forced industrialization at a fast rate, despite the significant human cost. The common expectation was that the Soviet Union, through these policies, would rapidly ascend to the position of a world power. Observers on the left end of the political spectrum welcomed this development, whereas conservatives feared that a rapidly growing Soviet Union would pose...