On 24 February Russia invaded Ukraine. On 1 March, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s small volume ‘The Shortest History of the Soviet Union’ was released. Although I’m sure that she takes no pleasure at all in this turn of events (indeed, you can read Fitzpatrick’s response here) – could there possibly be a better time to launch such a book? After all, we had all seen Vladimir Putin’s version of history during his speech given two days before the launch of the “special military action” where he declared Ukraine “an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space”. He blamed Lenin for the creation of modern Ukraine, with further gifts of territory by Stalin and Kruschev. Was any of this true? For those of us with sketchy knowledge of Russian and Soviet history, a small book on the Soviet Union is just what we need- and here it is.
Although the book spans the years 1922 to 1991, Fitzpatrick starts her book in 1980 in Brezhnev’s Russia, when a Conference of American Sovietologists confidently proclaimed that the Soviet Union would not become a political democracy, nor would it collapse, in the forseeable future. They were wrong. Within ten years it was gone. The abruptness of this development reflects Fitzpatrick’s stance that in history (certainly in the Soviet Union, and perhaps generally) there are few inevitabilities.
Historians’ narratives tend, by their nature, to make events seem inevitable….But this is not my intention with this Shortest History. My view is that there are as few inevitabilities in human history as there are in the individual lives that compose it. Things could always have turned out differently but for accidental encounters and global cataclysms, deaths, divorces and pandemicsp.11
Even though the Russian Revolutionaries thought that they had history taped, with everything under control and a firm view of what to expect:
The many ‘accidental’ changes of course and ‘spontaneous’ diversions along the way were simply irrelevant to this grand scheme, although they will play a large part in my Shortest History. They were not irrelevant to the life of people living in the Soviet Union, of course, and the gap between official rhetoric and lived experience was the stuff of the distinctively Soviet genre of political jokes (anekdoty) that bubbled under the surface as a constant, irreverent commentary. The contrast between ‘in principle’ (a stock Soviet phrase provoking immediate distrust, like ‘frankly’ in the West) and ‘in practice’ was one of the staples of the Soviet anekdot.p.13
In her book, Fitzgerald illustrates this contrast between ‘in principle’ and ‘in practice’ and the place of happenstance and unexpected events throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Indeed it’s there right from the opening line of the first chapter:
The Russian Revolution was meant to spark off revolution throughout Europe. But that plan didn’t work, and what was left was a revolutionary state in Russia- the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) with Moscow as its capitalp.15
In principle, the Mensheviks should have taken control of the revolution: in practice the Bolsheviks did. In principle, workers of the world should have united behind the revolution: in practice, they kept fighting WWI. In principle, the proletariat should have led the uprising: in practice, the party had to do it for them. In principle, the peasants should have gladly handed over their land for collective farming: in practice, the state had to embark on dekulakization. In principle, glasnost and perestroika should have renewed and strengthened communism: in practice it shook it to the core. In principle, capitalism should have failed: in practice, it was USSR that failed.
There are seven chapters in the book, and a final conclusion. True to the name, the book deals with the Soviet Union, not Tsarist Russia which preceded it and it goes up to the fall of the Soviet Union. The conclusion deals with post-USSR events and the string of acronyms for the shifting constellation of allegiances afterwards.
- Making the Union
- The Lenin Years and the Succession Struggle
- War and Its Aftermath
- From ‘Collective Leadership’ to Khrushchev
- The Brezhnev Period
- The Fall
One of the things that this book reinforced for me is that ‘Russia’ is not the same as ‘Soviet Union’, even though I have tended to use the two terms interchangeably. Putin’s claim that Ukraine was invented by Lenin is based on the fact that, yes, the Bolsheviks did encourage nationalism in Ukraine and the other regions because they realized that it was impossible to eradicate it (hence acknowledging a pre-existing Ukrainian identity) and because the Russian core of the government did not want to be seen as, or act, as another version of the Tsarist Russian empire. Despite this, the other soviet states often complained of Russian chauvinism. The ‘Russia’ we see today really is Russia, with the old imperial two-headed eagle reinstated as a state symbol, and the restoration of the Orthodox church. Related to this is Putin’s admiration for Stalin as a nation builder and the hero of WWII. I hadn’t realized how much WWII has been engraved into the present-day Russian psyche.
Because so much of this story is party-political, it tends to be a rather top-down history with an emphasis on powerful men jostling for more power. The book broadens its emphasis from the Brezhnev era on, presumably because this is within living memory and as a researcher Sheila Fitzpatrick herself had more access to social history and personal observation (see my review of her memoir A Spy in the Archives). Here we see more women, and more everyday life.
I couldn’t help but read this book with an eye on Ukraine. Some of Russia’s recent actions make more sense to me now, even though I continue to condemn them. I hadn’t realized that Crimea was such a recent addition to Ukraine, having been handed over in 1954 by Khrushchev, who was born near the present Ukraine/Russian border and had been head of the Communist Party of Ukraine. I hadn’t realized that Ukraine, Belarus and Russia formed the core of Commonwealth of Independent States after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 – no wonder Ukraine is a hot-button country as far as Russia is concerned. Not excusable, but perhaps understandable.
Which is why, when we are increasingly sceptical of what we see and hear, a book like The Shortest History of the Soviet Union is so valuable. It is very readable, and it breathes life and colour into the greyness of the Soviet Union as it has been depicted to us. Fitzpatrick’s own sense of humour in distinguishing ‘in principle’ from ‘in practice’ is a light touch, and there is no false modesty in hiding her own contribution to Soviet history in the bibliography. And if ever there was a time to read this book, it is right now.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: review copy from Black Inc.