- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003


By Robert Service

Harvard University Press, $29.95, 406 pages, illus.


Through war, man-made famine, forced urbanization, the Great Terror, and a sustained assault on traditional social and moral-spiritual values, the Communists came very close to destroying Russian culture. The non-Russians V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, however, could not get around to everything, so Nikita Khrushchev tried to complete their work by tearing down most remaining churches and monasteries and consolidating the villages, last outposts of the old culture, into “agro-towns.”

And as if that were not enough, toward the end of the Communist era the Brezhnev syndicate financed a gargantuan military establishment, and its own high living, with revenues from the state alcohol monopoly. The resulting national stupor helped saddle the U.S.S.R. with the highest mortality rate of any industrialized society.

Urging the public to substitute milk for vodka, Mikhail Gorbachev raised the price of the latter three-fold and quickly found himself ridiculed, not to say despised. (The French Premier Pierre Mendes-France, another temperance advocate, suffered the same fate in 1955.) That experiment helped doom perestroika, the program which, historian Robert Service argues, defines its creator’s “historic greatness.”

Apologizing for some — by no means all — of his predecessors’ sins, Mr. Gorbachev remained a Communist to the day they locked him out of the Kremlin and even beyond. Dominant in the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, the Russians paid a much higher relative as well as absolute price for the crimes of the tyrants whom they passively tolerated for so long. Mr. Service calls attention to the degradation, noting that Mr. Gorbachev too “presided” over it.

In two early chapters of “Russia: Experiment With a People,” Mr. Service tries to answer the questions, “What is Russia?” and “Who Are the Russians?” Identifying someone as a Russian, the author points out, can mean merely that he or she resides in a certain territory, the boundaries of which can and do shift. In the Soviet period, the lines “changed without reference to the opinions of the inhabitants. The Politburo decided; the press reported; the inhabitants noted.”

The tsars absorbed Siberia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic littoral, the Ukraine, and half of Poland, thereby bringing a hundred or so distinct ethnic groups into the empire. Some new subjects, especially the Turkic peoples, became Russified and went so far as to change their names: Rahman became Rachmaninoff, Bulgak was transformed into Bulgakov, Akhmat turned into Akhmatov, and so on. Rounding out the Ellis Island syndrome, Russian served as the official language of the state administration, commerce, and education. After a generation or two, who could say who was Russian and who was not?

Mr. Service writes that the Romanovs tried to “inculcate a sense of patriotic pride among their subjects,” meaning by that not nationalism — especially not the Russian variety — but rather “loyalty to the dynasty.” That generated a “tension between imperial and national concerns” that “lasted through to the end of tsarism.”

The Communists branded nationalism anathema, but when Stalin ordered his “engineers of the human soul,” as he called Soviet writers, to help build the new society, he did not have in mind the “internationalist” utopia of Lenin’s imagination. He wanted instead to create a new Russia in which a dragooned population would slavishly obey his commands, shouting hosannas to him for granting it permission to live in communal warrens, read only the most insipid literature and enjoy only the kitschiest art and music, and deny God. The ex-seminary student, whose mother insisted he study for the priesthood, particularly liked that last part.

The Lenin-Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev-Gorbachev experiments left Russia nearly defenseless when the historical pendulum began its inevitable retreat from the collectivist nightmare. Boris Yeltsin briefly rallied the nation to fight off the “restorationists” led by a former KGB chief, only to sink back into the comfortable swamp of cronyism and corruption.

Surrounded by utterly amoral young “reformers” skilled in hoodwinking the U. S. State Department and some Harvard professors, Mr. Yeltsin did not lift a finger to halt history’s most colossal heist. All Russia was up for grabs, and the “new Russians” — the slickest and most ruthless of the old Communist nomenklatura — grabbed it. “What is especially galling,” Mr. Service writes, ” is the fact that few ‘new Russians’ have risen from the depths of society. Most … come from fairly comfortable Soviet backgrounds.”

It can surprise no one — except maybe some bureaucrats and professors — that the “new rich in Russia do not have a record of moral uprightness. They have no conscience about the plight of the poor; and although they talk patriotically, they treat Russia like a colony to be exploited.” For the moment, which is likely to last a long time, “robber capitalism rules.”

As the secret police had made Brezhnev a kind of Russian El Cid, propped up and trotted out for public display on occasions when his absence would have caused unnecessary comment, so it now took control of Mr. Yeltsin, scripting his every move and undoing the positive features of his first years in power. Deeply flawed though it was, the 1993 Constitution did constitute the legal basis of a democratic political system. When ex-KGB Major Vladimir Putin took over the reins of power, he moved swiftly to undermine it, and render it meaningless.

Mr. Yeltsin reluctantly withdrew from Chechnya, the name of which, Mr. Service charges, “stands as Russia’s shame and reform’s disaster.” Mr. Putin, confident that the rest of the world would not notice, or as in the case of the Rwanda genocide would notice and ignore, resumed what Andre Glucksmann recently called the “dirtiest war of the dawn of the 21st century.” Mr. Putin can achieve a victory of sorts only by slaughtering every last Chechen, of whom there are about a million.

Though he has few illusions about the present regime, Mr. Service clings to a certain optimism. He thinks Russia will somehow endure as it always has, and that Mr. Putin will pursue a cautious foreign policy if only to avoid jeopardizing International Monetary Fund assistance. Mr. Putin’s warning that Russia will abandon nuclear disarmament if the United States proceeds with its anti-missile program is, in Mr. Service’s view, an empty threat. Perhaps. But the mute testimony of the thousands of dead in Chechnya, the silenced — one way or another — opposition politicians and courageous journalists, all that indicates that Russia’s protracted Time of Troubles is far from over.

Woodford McClellan, emeritus professor at the University of Virginia, is working on a book about the Communist International (Comintern) 1919-1943.

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