Lewin asks a metahistorical question: What was the Soviet Union all about? The answer, he says, is in the essence of the system. With the benefit of hindsight and new archival sources, he strips the Stalin and subsequent Khrushchev-Brezhnev eras down to their defining nature. Our original lens, fashioned from anticommunism and the misleading frame of totalitarianism, failed us by blurring the fundamental difference between the original Bolshevik order and the "agrarian despotism" of Stalinism, and by distorting the dramatic change underway from below. In stressing (quite rightly) the capricious, paranoid, unconstrained tyranny of Stalin the man, that view underestimated both the system's accomplishments and the paradoxes that transformed it into a debauched "bureaucratic absolutism," existing only for its own sake. The Soviet Union ended as its Russian predecessor did, and for much the same reason. Because Lewin's description of the Russian and Soviet deformation parallels what Putin's Russian critics say is happening again today (albeit in milder form), history, if they are right, may be more "present" than even Lewin imagines. And if they are wrong, his account is still much more than just an acute, resonant echo of the past.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.
More Reviews on Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Republics From This Issue