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By Robert Service

Pub Date: March 20th, 1998
ISBN: 0-674-40347-9
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

A balanced and thoughtful, if seldom particularly innovative, history of Russia in this century, concentrating on the Soviet era. Service (Russian History and Politics/Univ. of London) has had access to some of the state and special archives in Moscow, although not as extensive an access as Dmitri Volkogonov (Autopsy for an Empire, p. 186). In consequence, his assessment of certain events—for example, whether Stalin was prostrated by the German invasion—does not incorporate the newest evidence that he was. But he makes a useful contribution in discussing the origins of the Stalinist terror. He notes that many of the elements of Soviet dictatorship had their roots in Lenin’s time: a belief in the one-party state, in arbitrary rule, in extreme centralism, and in terror as an acceptable method of governance. Such was the concentration of power that the Politburo routinely discussed whether writers should be given exit visas or special medical facilities—it was, he notes, as if the postwar British Cabinet had debated “whether George Orwell could visit France or Evelyn Waugh have a gall-bladder operation.” He is also salutary in emphasizing the limitations of centralization in a country as disorganized as Russia and the growing ineffectiveness of terror in dealing with an increasingly complex society. The last 50 pages are devoted to developments since the implosion of the Soviet Union. Service’s forecast is “not entirely” pessimistic. The achievements of the 1990s have been substantial in terms of elections, a free-market economy, press freedom, and economic recovery. But Yeltsin has “reintroduced violence as a method of political struggle” in his attack on the Duma and in Chechnya, and democratic and legal procedures “have been treated with contempt.” Russia needs a period of quiet, but it would be idle to assume, he concludes, that its capacity to astound the world has been exhausted. A straightforward and able analysis, in a text agreeably free of academic jargon.