The Shortest History of the Soviet Union
By Sheila Fitzpatrick
Columbia University Press, 2022, 256 pp.
Fitzpatrick, a doyenne of Soviet historians, offers the lay reader a concise, chronological account of the Soviet Union premised on the notion that accidents, rather than inevitabilities, drive human history. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin’s takeover of the Russian Empire came as a surprise even to the Bolsheviks. Just as unexpected was the Soviet Union’s end, a dissolution that embarrassed the Sovietologists who failed to predict it. Following Marxist precepts, the Bolsheviks declared they were building a dictatorship of the proletariat, but their state quickly evolved into the dictatorship of the Communist Party. This arrangement remained unchanged until the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to relax the party’s grip on society promptly destroyed the state itself. Stalin’s nearly 30-year rule, in the first half of the twentieth century, was built on mass violence, but as soon as the bloody dictator died, his henchmen stepped forward with an immediate program of radical reform—a development often recalled today by optimistic observers who seek a post-Putin Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a cause for rejoicing in the West, in Eastern Europe, and in some of the Soviet republics, but not in Russia. The Soviet Union’s disappearance, Fitzpatrick writes, “inflicted a trauma on the Russians that has few equals, even in the trauma-filled twentieth century.”