Much to Laqueur's credit, this book is about large questions: What is the essence and meaning of the Bolshevik Revolution? Why did the Soviet Union collapse when it did? And why did all the expertise in the world not prepare us for the event? After all, if we cannot answer questions like these, what questions of any weight can we answer?
Rather than address these questions, however, the author wields them as a knout, flogging members of what he calls the revisionist school of Western Sovietology -- revisionist because they rejected the earlier dominant concept of totalitarianism and substituted an interest in the social sources of support for the regime, the limits to the regime's power, and the discontinuities between the Stalin era and its sequel. But a knout is only an argument of sorts, and not convincing in the pages of a book. For all the clarity and punch of Laqueur's writing, the case itself is obscure. One cannot tell whether his scorn for the revisionists is really because they assumed the regime was more durable than it turned out to be -- a transgression of which they alone were hardly guilty -- or because their writing did not, as Laqueur reads them, show moral repugnance of the Soviet system. Nor can one tell whether he means to attack only those who clearly fall within this school of thought or virtually everyone studying the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, except those on the right. "Sovietology: An Epitaph," the title of two chapters, suggests the latter, but he takes so little notice of whole bodies of work done during this period and returns so often to the writings of a half dozen people that one has trouble deciding.
In a final, dual irony, the author notes that after all these years, the collapse of the Roman Empire has not been explained. The many books and theories only account for the weaknesses of Rome, he says. He then proceeds to explain the weaknesses of the Soviet Union, without being able to do more. Moreover, in assessing these weaknesses, he ends up discounting most of them, until he himself has made clear why assuming the stability of the Soviet system was not so unreasonable.