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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.2 (2001) 111-113

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Book Review

A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End

Peter Kenez, A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 266 pp. $17.95.

Peter Kenez's brief survey of Soviet history has a number of important strengths that make it valuable for students and scholars alike. It cogently describes the func-tions and failures of Soviet central planning, introduces some of the major historiographical debates among Western scholars and even discusses the views of official Soviet historians and their influence on what Soviet students were taught in schools. Kenez's treatment of literature and cinema is especially interesting and greatly enhances the book.

Kenez makes his arguments well, but in certain instances he offers explanations that are not entirely persuasive. Although his discussion of the various factors that helped the Bolsheviks win the revolution and the civil war is sound, he is less convincing when he tries to analyze why Josif Stalin refused to mobilize troops at the German-Soviet border in 1941 even after numerous intelligence reports had warned of an impending German attack. Kenez states that "one must look for a psychological explanation" (p. 138) of Stalin's failure to act and his lack of confidence in the Red Army's ability to stop the Germans. Kenez does not stress Stalin's faith in the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact, his distrust of Western intelligence, or his fear that mobilization might be read as a provocation. In attempting to explain how Stalin was able to defeat the so-called "Left" and "Right" oppositionists, Kenez argues that "Stalin won because he ultimately succeeded in persuading the communist activists, who at this point were decisively important within the political system, that his policies were realistic as well as within the Leninist tradition" (p. 81). It seems unlikely that persuasion and realism were actually of much significance in this case.

Kenez aptly highlights the role of officers and soldiers in the February (March) 1917 Revolution and asserts that "once the chain of command and the bonds of authority were broken, the imperial order collapsed with amazing speed" (p. 16). But he does not take account of the important divisions within the military and the role of insubordinate officers in the failed 1991 August coup. Indeed, the book generally is rather weak in its treatment of military affairs. Kenez describes Stalin's military purges in only two short sentences, and he does not mention Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky or discuss the scope and depth of the purges. Kenez merely notes that "the Stalinists eliminated the high command of the armed forces" (p. 106), but he needs to elaborate on this point if he wants to demonstrate that the purges affected military readiness on the eve of the war. Another important omission is the impact of the U.S. Lend-Lease Act on the Soviet war effort, since Marshal Georgii Zhukov himself admitted that American aid was significant. Moreover, Kenez makes the questionable assertion that [End Page 111] after the battle of Moscow, Hitler's defeat "was only a question of time" (p. 141). Who really believed this in December 1941? The claim that in the Brezhnev era "the Soviet Union achieved its greatest international success; it became a world power, second to none" (p. 218) is also overstated.

Kenez analyzes the important role of ideology in the behavior of Soviet leaders and deftly balances his interpretation with the caveat that the Bolsheviks "were pragmatists, able to concede where necessary" and sometimes "showed considerable flexibility" (p. 55, 58). At times, however, the balance tips too strongly in favor of an ideological explanation. Although Kenez rightly notes the difficulty that historians encounter when trying to determine people's "real" beliefs, he often makes claims about this matter without qualification. For example, he asserts that there was a "loss of idealism" (p. 218) after Khrushchev: "Nikita Khrushchev was the last Soviet leader with a firm belief in...