Robert Service's excellent survey of Russia over the past century demonstrates clearly the failure of what he describes as the Soviet compound of politics, society, economics and culture. This was characterised by a one-party dictatorship which enforced a single official ideology, severely restricted national, religious and cultural self-expression within a state-owned economy. This compound served as the model for communist states created elsewhere, removing the oppression of the populace by one ruling class and replacing it with another. The latter imposed themselves on Soviet society, temporizing to maintain power and ruthlessly destroying those who did not share their beliefs or policies culminating in the Great Terror of the late 1930s. Djilas correctly divined 'that a new class had come into existence with its own interests and authority'. Only after Stalin's death did the Communist rulers address the widespread corruption that existed in the Soviet bureaucracy (such corruption was an essential part of Stalinism). Khrushchev's rule produced a destabilising effect partly caused by his personality and it was his successor who tried to stabilise the compound. Khrushchev's real achievement was in the fact that he did remove his challengers by execution (Beria excepted), nor did the question of his removal result in a death sentence. Gorbachev and Yeltsin pursued reforms which the Soviet military and hardliners tried to stop but, after seven miserable decades of failures, the Soviet Union and its acolytes fell to be replaced by a variety of states, several of which still carry vestiges of the old ideology, including rule by fear practiced by Putin. North Korea, notwithstanding, Bolshevik style Communism has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Aspects of Russian history have been the subject of fierce debate since the decline of Marxism as a meaningful social analysis which created a conflict between traditionalist Marxists and revisionists such as Bernstein and Juares who argued that socialism could be achieved by peaceful rather than violent means. In typical Marxist fashion it became a term of abuse leveled at those who refused to follow the party line. The official Soviet line was that there was nothing wrong with the socialist nature of the Soviet Union, a line repeated by fellow traveling dupes such as D N Pritt and the Webbs and continued in the academic world until the realities of Khrushchev's speech laying bear Stalin's crimes and the invasion of Hungary penetrated their dulled intelligence.Not all socialists agreed, Bauer, Kautsey, Russell and Dan all regarded Leninism based on dictatorship and bureaucracy as a fundamental distortion of socialism. By the end of the 1920's Trotsky had reached the same conclusion but by then it was too late to stop the excesses of Stalinism. Berdyaev argued that Lenin and Stalin had simply re-established the tradition of political repression, ideological intolerance and passive, sullen and resentful society. Tsarism, for all its outward religiosity presided over a godless intellectual elite for whom power was the real purpose of existence. Lenin did not hate religion, he hated God. Stalin was a virulent anti-Semite. Trotsky, a non-religious Jew, was too naive to recognise Stalin's viciousness.
Service points out there were debates within the Soviet leadership and resistance to official policy in whole sectors of society and the economy. 'Clientist politics and fraudulent economic management were ubiquitous and local agendas were pursued to the detriment of Kremlin policies. Officials in each institution systematically supplied misinformation to superior levels of authority'. This was a continuation of what had occurred in Imperial Russia for centuries and was never eradicated by the Soviet regime. Bolshevism remained an alien force in Russian society. The argument that Stalin was a continuation of Tsarism fails because Tsarism had a degree of legitimacy whereas the Bolsheviks had none. Service argues tht 'the official, unplanned and illicit features of existence in the Soviet Union were not 'lapses' or 'aberrations' from the essence of totalitarianist state and society; they were integral elements of totalitarianism'. It was the fundamental reason why the Soviet Union collapsed. 'Political dictatorship, administrative centralism, judicial arbitrariness, cramped national and religious self-expression, ideological uniformity and massive state intervention' were integral to the Soviet but ironically it carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction'
The role of each of the Soviet Union's leaders had a marked effect on its policies. Lenin was pathologically intolerant, Stalin had a 'grotesque enthusiasm' for terror, Khrushchev provided the means by which the paucity of Communism itself was revealed. Stalin failed to understand the mindset of Hitler when he signed the Nazi-Soviet, nor did he foresee the savagery and barbarity on the Eastern front. Lenin, Stalin and the early Bolshevik rulers lived comfortably off the backs of the people giving rise to the cynicism of the saying that 'Capitalism is the exploitation of man by his fellow man, Communism is the reverse.' The change from a country of peasants to one of industrial urbanisation increased the cynicism with which politicians were regarded. The behaviour of Lenin and his successors aggravated rather than resolved social and seconomic problems. The Bolsheviks never resolved the conflict between the desire for social control and that of promoting Russia as a world power. Service concentrates on the complex inter-action between rulers and ruled. Yet the essence of that inter-action never changed. The rulers acted as parasites until even they acknowledged the illegitimacy of their regime.
Service has provided the greatest of services to knowledge of Russia, although there is still some way to go until all the Soviet Union's files are opened to public inspection, a secrecy that applies to the files in the British and other countries' files of which this nation should be ashamed. To have included so much information in such a brief volume is a massive achievement. This volume will become the starting point for all students of Russian politics and deserved five stars largely because there is no facility to award it the ten it is worth. Well worth purchasing.