Russia’s Soviet Legacy and Future Hope

In his fascinating new book, Russia Under Western Eyes, Professor Martin Malia traces how Western opinion has viewed Russia at various stages in its development from the time of Peter the Great to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The basic thesis of his study is that Russia has at different times over the last three hundred years been either demonized or divinized by opinion in Europe and the United States, less because of her real role in Europe than because of fears and frustrations, or hopes and aspirations, generated by the West’s own domestic problems.

By weaving together a carefully nuanced study of three centuries of European intellectual and diplomatic history, Malia builds the argument that “Russia, since the time of Peter the Great, has generally moved toward convergence, however halting, with the West.” From his perspective, “it is Marxist-Leninist, Soviet Russia that represents both maximal divergence from European norms and the great aberration in Russia’s own development. Seen in this perspective, therefore, Russia threatened the West most when she was least distinctively Russian – under Communism” (p. 12).

While this major study will not attract the general reader, it offers significant insights into Russia’s development and soundly dismisses the argument that there is an essential difference in character between Russia and Europe. Malia is convinced that Russia has had a place within Europe for hundreds of years and is clearly “at home” on the European continent.

Communism’s Economic Failure

While Malia’s discussion of 18th and 19th century Russian history is of interest, I was particularly drawn to his analysis of Soviet Russia in the last section of the book. He describes how Stalin often fondly drew comparisons between himself and Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible, previous Russian rulers who used autocratic methods of “revolution from above” to close the gap with the West. However, Malia notes that Stalin’s vicious modernization campaign was “on a scale previously unknown in Russian history,” and “was carried out with an ideological purpose unique in all history and quite peculiar to the Communist Party-state” (p. 303).

Between 1936 and 1939, Stalin consolidated the new Soviet society with a wave of purges designed to quell all doubts about the virtues of the Communist system and the wisdom of its architect. This Great Terror is best understood, Malia argues, as the logic of a militant utopia confronted in practice with its own moral failure. Full nationalization and collectivization were now in place, but the benefits of these radical changes were nowhere to be found. The bottom line of Stalinist rule was a sophisticated form of servitude coupled with chronic scarcity. The human costs of the Stalinist revolution is commonly argued to be twenty million – “an atrocity on a scale requiring seven zeroes to express” (p. 307).

Some apologists of the Soviet regime argue that Communism, for all its faults, was at least successful in modernizing a backward country. Yet Malia points out that by 1991 it became apparent that Marxism was not even all that good at “crash modernization.” “The Soviet Union at the end of its career turned out to be an industrial museum-piece unable to compete in the international market and thus was forced to earn the Yankee dollar like some Third World country by exporting raw materials.”

In his judgment, the winning formula for crash modernization in the 20th century was market dictatorship, not Marxism. This is the case because Marxism dogmatically precludes the market and private property, making its dictatorship total and such total power ultimately stifles economic innovation. “Thus,” Malia concludes, “both economically and politically Communism has been the great blind alley of our century, a hiatus in Russian and world history. And this is why, once the Soviet regime collapsed, it left no heritage to prosperity . . . . The Russian Revolution, . . . when at last it gave up the ghost in 1991, left behind nothing but rubble, wormwood and squalor” (pp. 425-6).

What Lies Ahead for Russia?

Malia ends his analysis of present day Russia by noting that this great country is now back to “geopolitical square one” – she is a poor power trying to modernize in the real world, after a failed experiment with surreal Soviet socialism. In today’s world, where international power rests on the level of a nation’s economic and technological development, not the size of territory it controls, Russia must first become rich if she wishes to become powerful again. And getting rich, with the handicap of the Soviet legacy, will “take no small length of time,” in his judgment.

Yet Malia holds out hope for Russia, since wealth, rather than power, is a serious alternative for this country. With the aid of modern science and technology, Malia believes that Russia has the capacity to turn the wealth of Siberia into a major source of national development. If Russia pursues this path, she will become a more self-confident and relaxed member of the international concert of nations.

While Malia’s analysis is provocative and insightful, I find the basis for his hope in Russia’s re-emergence as a “normal member” of the European family to be tenuous at best. In order to “become rich,” Russia will need to rebuild its economic, political and social institutions and reconstruction on this scale requires a new, solid foundation grounded in moral and religious values. “Becoming rich” in order to “become powerful again” is hardly a formula which brings me any hope about Russia’s future development. “Becoming good” is a much better path to follow.