WITH THE death of Alec Nove the study of the former Soviet Union has lost one of its most eminent practitioners.
Born in 1915 in what was then and is once again St Petersburg, Nove's life spanned the development, the distortion and the final collapse of what might have been a lasting achievement but which, despite periods of greatness in the Second World War and the exploration of outer space, became a testimony to selfish ambitions and misdirected efforts. In starting to write about the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, Nove had the advantage of fluency in the Russian of his family and the English of his education, a thorough grounding in economics at the London School of Economics, first-hand knowledge of life in the raw from service in the army during the Second World War, and an intimate understanding of bureaucracy from employment at the Board of Trade from 1947 to 1958. After five years as a Reader at LSE he was elevated in 1963 to a Chair of Economics at Glasgow University, where he also became Director of the newly formed Institute of Soviet and East European Studies.
With its Adam Smith tradition of political economy and a clutch of outstanding professors, and with its extensive Soviet library and its internationally renowned journal Soviet Studies, Glasgow was exactly the right place for Nove to apply his talents. For over a decade, when Britain and much of the Western world had at last begun to take seriously the study of the Soviet Union, the institute turned out many of the scholars who now hold prestigious chairs as far afield as North America and Australasia. In the same period Nove began to produce serious, yet popular monographs at an impressive rate, thus reaching a wider audience in government and among the public. His Economic History of the USSR (1969) was among the best of these and went into its third edition as recently as last year. Everyone has favourites. But from about a dozen volumes two others stand out: Stalinism and After (1976), and The Economies of Feasible Socialism (1983).
Nove not only had enormous, almost boyish enthusiasm for his subject and vast energy in pursuing it; he also had a ceaselessly enquiring mind that would not let him rest content with dogma, academic or political, Soviet or Western. He thoroughly enjoyed controversy and could be quite mischievous, even irresponsible at times, in stirring it up. But his concern remained with getting at the truth and with demolishing ideological or sanctimonious claptrap. In this way he did not approach the Soviet Union, still less the Soviet people with hostility. But he ferreted out much of the disinformation that had hidden Stalin's crimes without denigrating his incidental achievements. He also exposed to ridicule the centrally controlled economy of a later age that mistook quantity for quality and planning for achievement. When Mikhail Gorbachev raised the cry of perestroika, he seemed almost to be quoting a Glasgow professor.
And in fact Nove had by then established an enviable reputation within the Soviet Union itself despite his having been for a few years accidentally and unfairly declared persona non grata. Initially he welcomed the changes that began to sweep across the Soviet Union after 1985, fearing only that they would go neither fast nor far enough. But he seemed gradually to regret the unbridled rush to a chaotic semi-market that would enrich some, but impoverish others, and that might simply switch one set of errors for another.
But his words of wisdom remain in print. He will be missed in many countries where he was welcomed as a lecturer; but he will still be read and heeded.
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