The Soviet Century

Moshe Lewin (1921-2010) was a scholar of Russian and Soviet history. Of Jewish stock, he was born in what is now modern Lithuania. In his youth he worked on a collectivized farm and in a metallurgy factory in the Soviet state, before enlisting in the Red Army during the Second World War.

Afterwards, Lewin spent much of his academic life in Paris where he had received his PhD from the Sorbonne. The work here under review, The Soviet Century, was his last book, the first edition of which was published in 2005, but which has since been reprinted in 2016 by Verso Books; a publisher known for its left-wing and radical outputs.

As the great English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm tells us “probably no other Western historian of the USSR combines Moshe Lewin’s personal experience of living with Russians from Stalin’s day – as a young wartime soldier – to the post-communist era, with so profound a familiarity with the archives and the literature of the Soviet era”.

The emergence of Stalinism

According to Lewin, two divergent strands existed within Bolshevism in the wake of the Civil War of 1918-21. “One concentrated on equipping Russia with a state that defended the interests of the majority of the population; the other focused its strategy on the state itself”. This second strand was embodied in the figure of Josef Stalin.

By 1921, Stalin and Vladimir Lenin were bitter rivals and not long before the latter’s death they clashed, especially on the issue of the “nationalities”. Lewin argues that Stalin, influenced by his experience as Commissar for Nationalities after 1917, sought to fashion a situation whereby the nations would become nothing more than “administrative units subordinate to Russia”. Lenin advocated a more equitable federalist model, while Stalin’s centralized model was “manifestly the direct heir of the Tsarist federation”.

Leon Trotsky opposed this “ultra-statist” tendency. Writing a memorandum for the Politburo in 1923 he noted that many in the central Soviet bureaucracy viewed the creation of the USSR as a means of eliminating all autonomous political entities.

Lewin takes Stalin to task further claiming that his conception of the Soviet state involved placing himself in a position of “unaccountable personal power”. The logic of this power was to foist the blame for failures that occurred upon those at the lowest levels of the hierarchy, for if they were not burdened with blame then it “might be attributed to those at the top”.

At the apex of this system, Stalin vied for control with Trotsky, whom he loathed. Eventually, Trotsky met his demise at the hands of an assassin in 1940 on the orders of Stalin. Yet, years prior to that, Stalin had begun to censure Trotsky and erase his memory – going as far as to practice the ultimate act of historical revisionism in claiming Trotsky’s exploits, such as the defense of Petrograd in 1919, as his own.

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin deployed an “oath to Lenin”, which Lewin calls a “long incantation”, essentially designed to launch a personality cult around the aspiring leader. Lewin compares Stalinism to a medieval religious fundamentalism and contends that its version of “socialism in one country” stemmed from a “great power chauvinism”.

As the 1920s progressed the apparat, or apparatus of the Bolshevik party, grew increasingly detached from the bureaucracy of the state. Meanwhile, those at the summit of the apparat, the verki, grew detached from those at the lower rungs, the nizy. This occurred within the context of a broader battle within the Soviet state between the forces of bureaucratization/centralization on the one hand, and those of democratization on the other.

The soviets, which had been a feature for several decades, remained confined to “accomplishing local administrative tasks”. Party apparatchiks became bored, the five-year plans completely separated the bureaucracy from the working class, and a mass departure from the party followed.

The five-year plans

From the 1930s onward, the rapidity of social flux due to urbanization meant that many millions became town dwellers but were slow to leave behind their rural mentalité. Likewise, millions became employed in manufacture and other skilled jobs but, paradoxically, remained uneducated.

Lewin is heavily critical of the agricultural collectivization of the 1930s which, he says, did not consider the peasantry, instead deeming them a “detail”. This transformation of the countryside, in tandem with urbanization and industrialization, saw the doubling of the urban population between 1927 and 1939. The Soviet state bore witness to mass internal migration as a consequence of these tectonic shifts. Housing remained poor and birth rates declined during the 1930s due to overcrowding.

Lewin’s portrait of Stalin during the 1930s and 40s is no more flattering than that of the 1920s. He alleges that Stalin, devoid of any real personal life, decided to “privatize institutional power”. He wielded the Politburo and the NKVD to this end and engaged in mass purges from 1936-38. The state was micromanaged through the issuing of ultimata. Worst of all, perhaps, Stalin dominated talents in the arts and sciences and twisted them to his own ends.

Most Soviet citizens were unaware of this Machiavellian behavior, as they were of the purges. In cases where the political class knew of atrocities, they were overlooked due to an overriding desire to catch up with the West, both industrially and militarily.

The Gulag system is covered here too, with Lewin making sure the reader is aware that it was not a monolith but instead constantly evolving. It was “a state within a state … with its complicated economic interests, its secret police, its intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, its educational and cultural activities”.

The post-Stalin era

Lewin points to a “thaw” following Stalin’s death in 1953 and the emergence of Nikita Khrushchev. What he terms the “de-Stalinization of labour” occurred during this period, which witnessed a restoration of democracy in the workplace in the shape of collective bargaining. But the ghosts of Stalin still haunted the USSR and this progress was not linear – what Lewin terms “conservative reflexes” re-emerged in the form of the KGB.

During the 1950s and 60s some progress was made in addressing the issues surrounding the bloated bureaucracy which had developed under Stalin. However, Lewin argues that deep structural forces – the backwardness of Russia, its imperial past, and the external existential threat from the West – militated against any moves away from the “strong state”.

Having spent much of the book castigating Stalin and his “agrarian despotism”, in the final chapters Lewin reflects on some of the positive inroads made by the Soviet state into modernizing society and the economy. By the 1980s, “in broad terms, the distance between Russia and the West had thus been reduced, and the country was no longer part of the developing world”.

He notes some of the beneficial features such as “personal physical security, libraries, a broad reading public, interest in the arts in general and poetry in particular, the importance of science”. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 presided over by Boris Yeltsin, in which vast swathes of the public sector was acquisitioned by oligarchs, “all these developmental indicators have regressed appreciably”.

Other advances included those made by women. By 1970, women were “broadly well educated, were well represented in the technical professions, and had a strong presence in scientific research”. But Lewin is quick to point out the shortcomings such as the “purely symbolic presence [of females] in the power structure and a tenacious patriarchal system, including in urban families”.

Final assessment

Lewin elsewhere admits that “the state worked hard to reduce material inequalities and it unquestionably succeeded”. He cites the work of sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya, who pointed to the biological improvement of Soviet citizens over the course of several decades:

“Even if the system offered its citizens a much lower standard of living that that of Western countries, it remains the case that the height of men went on increasing in Russia, until the 1980s at least, at about the same tempo as in developed countries”.

However, even here Lewin calls these improved living standards “a mirage, like cheeks that glow after they have been pinched”. The Soviet state was in terminal decline due to a massive section of the population being employed unproductively as administrators, a chronic shortage in labor supply and low labor productivity, among other problems.

Lewin points to the vastness of the USSR as an impediment to the possibility that the state might endure – it was “unwieldy” to govern. Russia’s quantitative imperial expansion eventually undermined it. Sporadic forces beyond the control of the state such as internal migratory fluxes and consequent population imbalances greatly added to this problem. It was thus difficult to “alter its historical course”. Yet:

“Paradoxically, such extensive, quantity-oriented development was also embodied in the vigorous Stalinist mobilization that made victory possible in 1945, saving Russia and Europe with it. In other words, the traditional impetus from above – from the state – could accomplish many things. But such prowess had its limits and was only fully effective in the transition from a profoundly rural civilization to an increasingly urban one”.

However, even after Stalin’s death Lewin remarks that a “bureaucratic absolutism” filled the vacuum in spite of attempts at top-down reform by Khrushchev and, later, Mikhail Gorbachev. The post-Stalin Soviet state was not socialist then? “Definitely not. Socialism involves ownership of the means of production by society, not by a bureaucracy”.

Ultimately, Lewin probably reserves his harshest criticism for revisionist historians of the anti-communist variety who attempt to “Stalinize” the entirety of the Soviet era; when, in fact, there were qualitative differences in various periods. As he forcefully exclaims, “anti-communism (and its offshoots) is not historical scholarship: it is an ideology masquerading as such. Not only did it not correspond to the realities of the political ‘animal’ in question, but waving the flag of democracy, it paradoxically exploited the USSR’s authoritarian (dictatorial) regime in the service of conservative causes or worse”.


Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.