One hunded years after the Bolshevik revolt, books by Masha Gessen, Serhii Plokhy, Yuri Slezkine and Stephen Kotkin shed light on Soviet socialism’s birth and death
There was a time, not long after the cold war ended, when it looked as though the vast investments the west had made in Kremlinology were about to be liquidated. Having failed to foresee communism’s collapse, the west’s Soviet experts faced grim prospects in a world that had apparently left them behind. How fast things change: today, Russia is back in the news, reprising for the internet era its familiar role as antihero to the freedom-loving west. Putin’s muscle-flexing has produced an old-fashioned territorial struggle in Ukraine and Crimea; the Kremlin’s newfangled cyberwar has generated a firestorm in the US and the results of the 2016 presidential election, far from calming relations between the two old superpowers, have made them tenser than they have been for years.
Yet amid this drama, the response to the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution has been curiously muted and not only in Russia itself. Fifty years ago, there was an outpouring of high-calibre work that testified to the west’s desire to understand its adversary. This year, there has been relatively little. One reason for this is obvious. Communism itself, as a system of thought counterposed to capitalism and private property, is more or less dead in Russia and moribund outside. And with communism gone, anti-communism has become meaningless. But not only communism. Socialism more broadly suffered a heavy blow after 1989. Most leftist parties tacked sharply to the centre, drawn by the dream of a new third way and only austerity economics has done anything to staunch the trend.