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This review is from: Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A Pelican Introduction (Paperback)
The first thing you might ask, looking at the title, is why does a history of the Russian revolution start in 1891 and end in 1991? Eighteen ninety-one saw a major famine - and the failure of the Tsarist autocracy to tackle it meant precipitated a crisis of authority from which it never recovered. Eighteen ninety-one was the first nail in the coffin of autocracy; but 1991 was the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet revolutionary experiment. Hence the span of a 100 years. The revolution did not begin and end in 1917. It had antecedents before that year, and consequences well beyond it, consequences that we still live with today.
The demise of the autocracy was all but guaranteed after 1891, though the triumph of the Bolsheviks in 1917 was not. The Bolshevik seizure of power was a coup against the background of a genuine social revolution (the Soviets were local workers' councils and not the Bolsheviks' invention). There is an interesting discussion on the continuities (and departures from) the first phase of the Bolshevik experiment in the 1920s and Stalin's `great break' of the 1930s. Was Stalin necessary? According to the author, he was not. The New Economic Policy might well have succeeded, and modernised Russia at far less human cost then Stalin's breakneck industrialisation.
Was Stalin an inevitable consequence of the system Lenin founded? Here is the answer seems to be a qualified `no.' There were marked discontinuities between the 1920s and 1930s (with the latter period socially far more conservative than the former) and the personalities of the two men were different. Lenin could be brutal but observed limits. Murdering fellow Bolsheviks for thinking differently was out of the question - Stalin decimated the old Bolsheviks. The NKVD in the 1930s was the hammer of the old revolutionary movement. But Stalin certainly felt he was upholding Leninist principles of political action - the ideological continuities between the two men cannot be overlooked. Having said that, it is hard to envisage Lenin orchestrating the sorts of grotesque spectacles Stalin and his henchmen did during the years of the Great Terror in 1937-8. The question will be perennially debated, as long as historians carry on writing about the Russian revolution.
In later years, the revolutionary fervour of the first two decades dimmed. Soviet leaders concentrated less on grandiose transformations of human nature and break-neck modernisation and more on raising living standards and other bread and butter issues (although these utopian pretensions were never entirely shed). The system ossified as the years ground on and the country fell further and further behind its advanced capitalist competitors. The Soviet Union's revolutionary passion was all spent in the 1980s - its population cynical, disaffected and many of them drinking themselves to death. But there was little overt opposition. Most at least had the basics in life guaranteed and did not want to see the system collapse. The long years of stagnation in the 1970s and early 1980s did not mean that the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 was foreordained - it was Gorbachev's (who, like Stalin, considered himself to be fulfilling Lenin's vision) failure to control the reform process that did for the Soviet Union, in the last analysis.
Overall, this book is one historian's frequently opinionated summary of Russian/Soviet history from 1891. It is well written and entertaining enough. But if you want an introduction to the subject, it should be complemented by other surveys of the subject; for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick's `The Russian Revolution'. But it is a decent effort. Four stars.