Rethinking the Soviet Experience : Politics and History since 1917- Book Review

The book was written in 1984 and is a collection of essays on Soviet politics and Sovietology, from the time of the Russian Revolution till then. Stephen Cohen, at the outset  diagnoses the problem ailing the mainstream western branch of academia researching about the Soviet Union- a common bias of ideas tilted towards the United States of America, due to the various systematic temptations offered by them, through the founding of different think tanks and foundations which support scholarly work. There was a constant assumption of a totalitarian and evil USSR while working on the politics of the federation during the Cold War era, specially amongst the western scholars. While Cohen did acknowledge that most work done on the USSR as an international entity, has been done by the United States of America, he argued that the study of Sovietology had been undertaken, the scope had been very limited, thus this stream of study needed adequate revisionism. In the 1950’s, fresh out of the Second World War, the field of Sovietology was new and encouraged new ways of thinking. Once the 1960’s came around, the field now with a number of students employed in it, started getting set in rigid biases.

His revisionism argues for thinking beyond what has now been conventionally acknowledged and thus, distorted by the Western approach to Sovietology. He emphasized on the idea of historical review for better understanding of contemporary political happenings. He substantiates this argument by stating the parallelism between the conflict within the ranks of the soviet- the tussle between the conservatives and the reformists at the time he was writing the book (1980s) and the struggles within Russian politics which led to the downfall of the Tsar in 1918. All dissidence leads to a better, more efficient system of politics and governance, in what appears to be typical Marxist fashion but it is possible that at the time of publication was considered path-breaking.

The second chapter of his book, discusses the viability of the ways of Nikolai Bukharin, considers him as a fully indoctrinated Bolshevik. He discusses his doctrine and dismisses the view that Stalinism was an inevitable consequence of the Bolshevik path undertaken, unlike what most Marxist-Leninist supporters state. This is the complete opposite of E.H Carr’s opinion who was quick to dismiss the impact of Bukharin on Soviet politics and the room for future progress under him.

In the later part of the book, the author somewhat blends Brezhnev’s era with  Nikita Khruschev’s  and attempts to highlight the continuities in Soviet conservatist sentiments so deeply entrenched in Russian society, flowing directly into and influencing each other. While conservative views were always the dominant influence on the trajectory that the USSR would follow, the fact that there was significant progress in matters relating to welfare, rural organisation and consumerism, Cohen argued, was still positive progress towards reform. In this way, while many scholars support the perception that the Brezhnev administration was conservative as it did not disrupt status quo, Cohen while arguing in favour of conservatist sentiments existing, highlighted certain reformist tendencies, which signaled the advent of the era of economic stagnation.

He attempted to justify Stalin’s iron handed measures of strict control and repression, by highlighting the impact of the Truman doctrine and the repercussions of the advent of the Cold War. The favour towards Khrushchev, as opined by Cohen, only manifested due to strong anti-Stalinist sentiments, as Stalin’s harsh measures had helped deplane plenty of ‘modernising achievements’ in the soviet economy. While calls for conservatism always remained an active branch of politics, Cohen aimed at giving gradual reformist politics its due.

These are some of the main arguments reflected in Stephen Cohen’s five chapter long book. It does not focus on any new research in the field, but rather on historiography and political relations. What was most helpful to me while reading the book was that there were plenty of footnotes which made the process of understanding the details much easier, especially considering how a major chunk of the book addresses problems within Soviet scholasticism. In no means is this work perfect, as Cohen tends to push the same ideas over and over again, within the chapters (the core arguments are mentioned above). In proposing Bukharinism as a viable alternative to Stalinism, and as a possible natural successor of Bolshevism, he puts forth a very unique idea. This is in no way a textbook on Soviet history, but it does provide insights and interesting opinions about Sovietology as a discipline, as it pushes for a new revisionist approach to examine the Soviet past, in order to understand the present and future of the USSR. Although much time has passed since  Rethinking the Soviet Experience was first published it remains seminal in the discourse regarding the history and politics of the USSR.

Vanya Pinto
Vanya Pinto
Vanya is an alumnus of St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Diplomacy, Law and Business from O.P Jindal Global University, Sonipat.