Saturday, January 31, 2004

Reflecting on his experience as a British diplomat in Berlin, in January 1930 Harold Nicolson confided to his diary, “I was able to perfect my knowledge of the German character: in other words … I did not understand them in the least.”

Though it may have had its own private doubts, the first generation of American specialists on Russia displayed only the greatest confidence in public. Finding little to admire in the Russians, the Americans agreed with Peter the Great — as their successors were to agree with V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin — that the brutish masses had to be forcibly dragged into the modern age. If a few million here or there had to die in the process, well, as the Russian proverb has it, when you cut down the forest, chips will fly.

Three forces, David C. Engerman says in his excellent new book “Modernization from the Other Shore,” shaped American journalistic, diplomatic, and academic reporting on Russia and the Soviet Union: the belief that “every nation has its own unique character”; an expanding “enthusiasm for modernization”; and professionalization of the reporting itself.

The Americans learned from the Marquis de Custine, Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu, and other European observers that certain characteristics “limited the Russians’ ability to function in a modern world.” The long winters made them lethargic, the boundless steppe fostered the sadness and introspection manifested in their folk songs. (A century later, many Russians would profess nostalgia for the predictable security of the Brezhnev era.) Articulating them more elegantly, Archibald Cary Coolidge of Harvard, the University of Chicago’s Samuel Northrop Harper, and others perpetuated the “national-character stereotypes” popularized by early Russia-watchers.

Sent by Woodrow Wilson to assess Russia’s need for aid, in June 1917 Elihu Root informed Secretary of State Robert Lansing that “we have found here an infant class in the art of being free containing 170 million people; they are sincere, kindly, good people, but dazed and confused.” Blaming the confusion on the institution of autocracy, the elder George Kennan (1845-1924) believed the Russians, once truly free, would catch up with the more advanced nations.

The catching up, Mr. Engerman notes, involved the “overcoming — or overthrowing — of national characteristics as a prerequisite to becoming modern.” After World War I, “particularist arguments about national character faced growing challenges … from claims of universalism, which understood all nations and peoples as basically similar.”

American intellectuals “across the political spectrum” advocated “radical forms of social change everywhere except in the United States.” Yankee messianism made them long for a world in which all societies would be “much like they imagined their own to be: industrial, urban, cosmopolitan, rational, and democratic.” Many succumbed to the “romance of [Russian-Soviet] economic development.”

The most notorious romancer and “Russia is Asiatic” explainer, the New York Times’ Walter Duranty, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. At the height of the man-made famine that took perhaps 10 million lives, the Liverpool-born correspondent sang hosannas to a five-year plan financed by exporting grain. Denying the existence of food shortages, Duranty insisted that “What is wrong with Russian agriculture is chiefly Russians.”

Their bellies full of bread made from imported Soviet wheat, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells also dismissed rumors of starvation in Ukraine and the Volga Valley as anti-Soviet propaganda. Malcolm Muggeridge, who went to the affected areas and reported the truth in the Manchester Guardian, struck back at Stalin’s “imbecilic foreign admirers.”

Stung by another embarrassing journalistic scandal, albeit one of far lesser magnitude, in November 2003 the New York Times concluded that it was simply not feasible to seek revocation of the 1932 Pulitzer. (No one has yet claimed that Duranty was on the Kremlin payroll, but the Russian archives indicate a certain freelance American reporter did receive a “subsidy.”)

By no means a famine-denier, the diplomat George Frost Kennan (born 1904) admired the sacrifices of those who were building the new Russia and was the first to speak of the “romance of economic development.” In his famous 1947 “Mr. X” article in Foreign Affairs, which he claimed he wrote “privately … for [Defense Secretary] James Forrestal,” Mr. Kennan argued that it was communism the West needed to contain, not Russia. He never ceased to regard the Soviet Union as “inescapably Russian.” Most State Department experts agreed.

The first step of the “universalist” approach involved “abandon[ing] history in favor of ideology.” That explains the popularity of the “Mr. X” article, in which Kennan went counter to his particularist beliefs. Influenced by sociology, the universalists later jettisoned ideology in favor of social structure and produced a deeply flawed “Kremlinology” that, in the end, fell on its own brittle sword.

Mr. Engerman pays tribute to the enduring contributions of — among others — G.T. Robinson of Columbia and R.J. Kerner of the University of California at Berkeley, dissects the views of John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen on the Soviet system, reviews the professionalization of the State Department’s Russia Desk — and has little to say about the persistent American contempt for the Russian religious tradition.

Siding with the Moscow intellectuals and by default with the Bolsheviks, most American specialists have dismissed Russian Christianity as a quaint relic of paganism, an impediment to modernization. Quick to pronounce learned judgment on “character,” they scoffed at the very notion of the soul. Whatever its presumably scientific merits, that position has skewed our understanding of Russia.

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

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