THE MAKING OF THE SOVIET SYSTEM: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia by Moshe Lewin

THE MAKING OF THE SOVIET SYSTEM: Essays in the Social History of Interwar Russia

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Lewin, an expert's expert (now at the U. of Pennsylvania), is best known for Lenin's Last Struggle, about the fading leader's efforts to forestall Stalin's rise in the party bureaucracy; but his major work is Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, on the collectivization of Russian agriculture. Stalinism and the peasants are the two main subjects of these essays--which, while mostly in a scholarly mode, are full of Lewin's customary insight. He bases his analysis of rural issues on the argument that the turmoil of 1917-1921, and the ""agrarian revolution"" of that period, pushed the peasants into archaic patterns of rural life unseen for 50 years. Tsarist reforms had encouraged commercial agriculture in parts of the empire, and had taken aim on the integrated peasant villages, trying to separate-out some homesteads to encourage individual initiative and innovation. With the Russian Revolution the integrated villages were reinforced and all traces of market-oriented production were wiped out (or nearly so). As a result, the old pattern of production for immediate family consumption was reinstated stronger than ever, and it was this step toward traditional forms that set the stage for the upheaval of Stalinist collectivization. That cataclysm was precipitated by a crisis in state grain acquisitions: to cover the social disruption it caused, Stalin found a scapegoat--the famous kulaks, a category which Lewin shows to have been meaningless in class terms, the kulaks being indistinguishable from slightly better-off peasants. Lewin's main argument, running through the twelve essays, is that the Bolsheviks took over a country which in short order became in many ways more backward than the Russia of the tsars. Leninist ideology did not fit these circumstances, and the ideological drift that resulted in Stalinism was largely the result of ad hoc measures to deal with a half-understood reality. (Lewin is thus among those who see a discontinuity between pre-1917 Leninism and Stalinism.) By the period of collectivization, the real struggle, according to Lewin, was between a personalized, autocratic ruling style and a more bureaucratic system. This explains Stalin's repeated purges of the bureaucracy--though the bureaucratic mode won out in the end under Khruschchev. Lewin covers topics as seemingly diverse as magic in rural communities and labor relations under the Five Year Plan, but it all takes shape under the weight of history and tradition. Anyone with a general awareness of Soviet history and a desire to go further will find these essays accessible and well worth a look.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1985
Publisher: Pantheon