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Book Review: A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to its Legacy

It is hard to find good histories of Russia. It may be relatively hard to find good history books in general. I’m open-minded about what kind of approach I’m looking for in a history; I’ve read good history which is simply based on a pragmatic analysis of events, good history which takes a sociological approach, good history which gives a considerable weight to economic factors; good history which takes the view that individuals and ‘chance’ play a significant role in shaping history. All I ask is it goes beyond a simple chronological narrative and undertakes some serious analysis. (It goes without saying that explicitly bourgeois histories which go on about Kings and Queens to produce a fake ‘national history’ as an excuse to justify the current position of the bourgeoise don’t count). On Russia it is doubly hard to find good history. There are any number of “history” books on Russia which spew vitriol and anti-Russia hate from every page. You can tell these books as soon as you pick them up; for example if the preface is a vulgar pastiche of stereotypes about the KGB and anti-Soviet jokes then you know it is worth putting down. Even if Russia is an irredeemably terrible place you are still unlikely to understand anything about the country from someone who hates it. Hate, in general, does not help us see clearly.

Peter Kenez is a Hungarian who currently teachers at Santa Cruz University in the US. He is Jewish and survived the Holocaust. He writes about Russia from the point of view at least of someone who lived on the same continent. The book is well-written and balanced. It is (to date) the best history I have read on Russia. Thoughtful, detailed, sympathetic but clear-sighted and objective. Kenez doesn’t shy away from the painful details (for example Stalin’s purges) but the book is sympathetic to many Russian leaders. For example he notes that Gorbachev “almost always made the correct moral choice” – while presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Union. (He didn’t start shooting at people when other Soviet leaders might have done just that). The process of agricultural collectivisation is well-described. The famine that followed – and which is attributed by some critics of the USSR to a deliberate genocide against Ukraine -is more objectively analysed. Kenez also describes in some detail the evolving relationship between art and literature and the state after the revolution.

The final chapters of the book discuss the situation following 1991. Putin’s rise to power is discussed. The book ends just after the Maidan coup in 2014. There is a very welcome and objective account of the events in Ukraine which (a rarity) fully acknowledges that Ukraine is a divided country and that both sides have a valid point of view. There is an acknowledgement that sanctions against Russia probably don’t achieve anything. Putin’s system is analysed as autocratic; the evidence for this can’t really be disputed: a centralisation of power in Moscow and away from the regions, the chasing away of media oligarchs with an independent view, no attempt to free the judiciary from state influence, a continuation of a centralised economic policy; the creation of a political climate which favours the main party – United Russia – which is embedded in state institutions. Mostly the analysis is fair and balanced. There are a few odd slips for example where a statement is simply made about the “regime” killing opponents – “now and again find it necessary to jail and at times kill an opponent.” – without any context or examples cited. – Elsewhere Kenez engages in a more balanced discussion about this aspect of Putin’s regime (the allegations that it engages in murder of opponents) limited by evidence, for example, discussing the murder of liberal politician Nemtsov he restricts himself to blaming Putin for allowing a political climate in which such killings can take place. He avoids repeating the rather unpleasant and evidence-weak allegations that Putin was responsible for the 1999 apartment bombings because he needed to provide an excuse to restart the Chechen war. Kenez does not make this allegation and indeed it is clear from his history of the Chechen war that militants in that region had their own political reasons to stir up a wider war with Russia. The book is worth reading in fact just for its quick summary of Russian political history since 1991 alone.

Economically and politically one gets the sense that Kenez is a liberal free-marketeer. He seems to believe in the dream of a liberal democracy governed by the principles of the European Enlightenment – and neoliberal economic policies, in particular favouring private rather than state economic activity. His own views are not consciously introduced into the book but in his treatment of the post Soviet economic and political history of Russia one can infer this bias. This doesn’t really matter and he is a good enough historian to write history and not (as no doubt many Soviet historians did) write ideology masquerading as history. He acknowledges that contemporary Russia has seen some economic success while at the same time he characterises its polity as autocratic; a combination which he admits he finds unexpected. Kenez does seem to subscribe to the view of history that individuals matter and he allows himself to wonder what would have happened if the more Western-leaning Medvedev had continued as President after 2012. At the same time Kenez suggests that the reasons for Russia’s current problems – a less than ‘free’ political climate, and ongoing issues with economic modernisation are probably deeper than just “Putin”.

Kenez tends to focus on political rather than economic history. He describes the breakup of the USSR chiefly in terms of political developments though he does not give primary place to national independence movements. Rather; he seems to locate the ultimate source in the inability of the planned economy to continue to develop once it had reached a certain level of complexity. Gorbachev attempted to address this problem but his reforms were a muddle. That is while apparently giving priority to an economic explanation in his narrative Kenez focusses on how the collapse unfolded politically.

In terms of his characterisation of modern Russia I wonder if Kenez has first-hand and up to date experience? For example he complains that corruption is a daily fact of life in Russia. In fact the picture appears to be more mixed. I have been told, for example, that it can be hard to start a business in one city (in central Russia) unless you have connections to the people in the local administration. These people run things in their own interests. This concurs with Kenez’s comments about corruption being a fact facing business. On the other hand I have a contact in the Far East who complains that under Putin corruption at a regional and local level has been stamped out. Previously if he needed to get something done he could just pay a bribe and it was easy. Now everyone in the local bureaucracy is frightened to move in case they are accused of corruption, and he can’t get anything done. That corruption is being tackled at least to some extent is also confirmed by the OECD 2013 report. [1] The picture as it relates to corruption may be more mixed than Kenez is aware of.

All things considered this is a really excellent book. Well-written, objective and clear-sighted, and empathetic to its subject matter. The only book I have read on Russian history (I always read in English) which actually sounds like the author understands Russians as fellow-travellers on a human journey. I can’t recommend it enough.

Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to its Legacy Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.