In This Review
The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991

The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991

By Martin Malia

The Free Press, 1994, 556 pp.

In the inevitable war over who was right and who was wrong about the Soviet Union, Malia fires not the sniper's first shot but a fusillade rivaling World War II posters of a darkness made brilliant by great batteries of Katusha rockets. Alas, there are some of us who think both (or all) sides were wrong enough to leave precious little ammunition for the war. Some of us would prefer less hubris and more willingness to confront afresh basic issues, leaving the straw men out of it, while straining to make the most of the insights that were neither sides monopoly. But since the war seems inescapable one can only hope the other side will uphold its end with the same searing elegance as he does his.

The answering volley will have to be good, because this is in many ways a brilliant book, powerfully argued and erudite. Malia does not settle for a narrow, say, economic compass by which to judge the systems weakness. He probes to the very roots of its original vision and then beyond, back through the complex lineage of ideas to the Enlightenment itself. Its brilliance, however, is also the source of its deficiency: his boisterous, unyielding defense of the totalitarian concept and his slashing attack on not only the social scientists who found complexity in the Soviet experience but on much of modern social science as such cannot be sustained. And which to the author's credit, he does not sustain. Much of the book, when he gets to the events themselves, introduces a subtlety of analysis and even a good many judgments with which those he assails could easily live.