Saturday, April 17, 2021

Review of "Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics & History Since 1917," by Stephen F. Cohen

 Review of

Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics & History Since 1917, by Stephen F. Cohen ISBN 0195040163

Five out of five stars

Makes you rethink the Stalin effect

 It is nearly an article of fact in the Western countries that Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin was a monster. His policies led to the transformation of Soviet society from essentially an agrarian one into an industrial power. That transformation took place in only a few years. In the early 1920’s, the Soviet Union was an incredibly weak country, struggling to stay together after having several countries spin off at the end of the First World War. The Russian Civil War did not end until 1922-23.

 Yet, less than 20 years later, the Soviet Red Army was engaged in a battle to the death with the forces of Germany. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that it was the Soviet Union that defeated Germany and the collection of Axis powers. When you compare the casualty levels of all the Allied nations, the number in the Soviet Union dwarfs all other belligerents in the European theater.

 While there were many allies of Stalin, there is no question that he was the driving force of the transformation of the Soviet Union into a superpower. It is realistic to say that the postwar Soviet Union was the last true empire on Earth. Through its’ ideology exported on the backs of the Red Army, it retook control of the Baltic States and Ukraine as well as the countries of Eastern Europe, including approximately half of Germany.

 Therefore, in the Soviet Union, he is widely thought of as a person that saved the country from ruin, despite having made some major mistakes, rather than as a murderous monster. Those two competing threads of thought are the main topics of this book and it was refreshing to read of the position inside the Soviet Union that Stalin was a success in the Machiavellian sense.

 It was also informative to read that the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev was a reaction to his pace of reformation and criticism of Stalin. There was a strong conservative backlash to this, the consequence was the elevation of Leonid Brezhnev to power. Something similar happened again after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was a strong movement of glasnost or openness. One major theme of this was to open archives and air out what happened during the years when Stalin had absolute power. Once again, there was a conservative backlash, leading to the rise of Vladimir Putin, who is now the de facto President for Life.

 One cannot understand history in general and that of Russia in particular, without looking at leaders in their totality. If Western leaders do not accept that the Russian people do that, then it will be difficult for the United States to make inroads in their dealings with the current Tsar-equivalent now occupying the Kremlin. This book is a good place to begin that process.

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