Book: Tsar to commissar

A History of Twentieth-Century Russia by Robert Service Allen Lane, pounds 25; The terror may have vanished into history, but Communism still has a grip on Russian life
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Eighty years after the Bolsheviks assumed power in 1917, when the authoritarian state that the October Revolution precipitated is being dismantled, the imperative to reflect on the legacy of those 10 days that shook the world has never been more urgent. The USSR passed into history at midnight on 31 December 1991; but while communism as a creed may deservedly have lost its tenability, the temptation to view the events of 1989 and 1991 as the inevitable annulment of October 1917 needs to be resisted.

In the late 1990s, as Russians attempt to build a civic culture in far from congenial conditions, communism's hold has not been eradicated. Far from it. Even Mikhail Gorbachev was not the free-market liberal portrayed in western media, but a protege of Yuri Andropov who fervently believed that reform was the only way of salvaging Lenin's inheritance. In the 1996 presidential elections, Gennadi Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, may have won only 41 per cent of the vote, but his defeat by Boris Yeltsin was not a foregone conclusion. And, like their boss, many of Yeltsin's associates held posts in the Soviet nomenklatura. As the abortive coup of August 1991 and "October Events" of 1993 underline, violence remains a feature of political life in Russia.

But what made the "Soviet compound", as Robert Service calls it in his new history, so durable? Why did the system that came to excise the rottenness of Tsarism end up festering in its turn? Corruption passed into the surgeon's hand. As Eduard Shevardnadze observed to Gorbachev in 1984,"Everything's rotten".

Service charts a stormy history of dictatorship, civil war, breakneck industrialisation, intrigue, world war, and international rivalry. The book follows the events of the Bolshevik revolution and Lenin's New Economic Policy in the 1920s, through the bleak years of Stalin's "bacchanalia of repression", Krushchev's "de-Stalinization", to the reforms of the 1980s and Yeltsin's re-election in 1996.

This is a complex history narrated with flair, even though the conclusions that Service reaches are hardly remarkable. The Soviet compound's longevity, he reflects, was based on the deployment of force, on a network of clientelism inherited from the Tsars, as well as on Soviet communism's success in working "with the grain of many popular traditions".

Finally, the system's consolidation was effected by military victory and coercion, as well as tangible achievements in education and welfare - although Service hastens to add that "the cost of Soviet rule greatly outweighed the advantages".

Occasionally (and understandably), he manifests an impatience with his subjects. Gorbachev should have foreseen the consequences of his reforms; the Bolsheviks "had a nerve in being so condescending"; and "they should have and could have known better". By and large, however, he avoids promoting a view of the regime's demise as an inevitability, and resists the temptation to indulge in counter-factual speculations.

As Service remarks, "`Russia' has not stopped changing all this century". Yet a major theme of this history is continuity: between Tsarism and the project to construct communism, between the new elite and the "former people" (as influential figures before the October Revolution were known), between the ambiguous position of Russia in the supranational Tsarist empire and as a republic within the USSR, whose borders were roughly co- extensive with those of the empire it replaced.

And last, but not least, are the terrifying successions of terror. The first and last chapters are entitled "And Russia?" intimating - but not forcing - parallels between the questions faced by Russians at the beginning of the century and at the present moment of ideological chaos.

Service draws upon copious archival and secondary material, some of which has only recently become available. Because of the broad scope of the book, little space is devoted to discussing social and cultural developments in any depth. This is not a study that evokes the texture of everyday life in the Soviet Union, or sheds light on individual dramas that might detract from a comprehensive analysis of the turbulent political stage.

Contexts are concisely sketched but the focus remains almost exclusively on the murderous manoeuvrings that characterised Soviet political life. No more could, in all fairness, be expected from such a discursive history.

A presiding theme, stressed by the use of "Russia" in the title, is Russia's ambiguous and shifting position within the Soviet edifice. The dissolution of the USSR, together with the war in Chechnya and the reassertion of militant nationalisms, have brought an added urgency to the "national question". While Yeltsin has sought to portray himself as Russia's protector, politicians such as Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovski of the Liberal-Democratic Party have singularly failed to mobilise Russians behind nationalistic slogans. In accounting for this, Service demonstrates how the discourse of cultural distinctiveness has simultaneously been exploited and condemned throughout the 20th century.

Although Lenin had established a People's Commissariat for Nationalities and pressed for cultural autonomy and national self-determination, Stalin endeavoured to fuse Russian and Soviet identities.

After the war, however, Stalin played down his Georgian roots, declaring of the Russian nation that "among all peoples of our country it is the leading people" and ransacking history for his purpose. Russian national identity under the Soviet regime, as under the Tsars, was overlaid by an imperial identity. "Internationalism and Russian semi-nationalism," Service remarks, "were engaged in uneasy cohabitation."

Russia remains in an unstable state as it experiences economic uncertainty and social disintegration. Yet as the troika of Russian history races on furiously into the next century, Service wisely refrains from any prophetic intonations. The game of future predictions is, after all, much harder to play than wishful evocation of alternative pasts.