Let us at the outset dispose of one of the major criticisms of Sovietology and Sovietologists: their failure to predict the end of Soviet communism and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. It is one of the strange curiosities of Soviet history that the communist leaders could not predict events in their own backyard, either. Marxism-Leninism so blinded these virtuosi of revolution and masters of the “laws” of history to the reality around them that they did nothing to protect themselves or even, in the end, to conserve the Leninist system. Despite a network of informers and a cowed population, despite a powerful secret police possessing the most advanced surveillance technology, and despite the absence of the rule of law, neither Lenin nor Trotsky predicted the rise of Stalin to supreme power. Stalin, who wanted Malenkov as his successor, was unable to foresee the rise of Khrushchev; Lavrenti Beria, the head of the secret police, never expected his execution in 1953 at the hands of his fellow Politburocrats; Khrushchev, in turn, did not foretell his own dethronement in 1964 and the rise of Brezhnev; Brezhnev and his Politburocrats were astonished by the outcome of their war against Afghanistan; the Soviet Politburo failed to grasp the consequences for communist rule if Gorbachev were elected to the top position; the unsuccessful putschists who tried to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991 did not expect to fail; and, finally, Gorbachev himself had no inkling that, five years after assuming office, he would be presiding over the liquidation of the Soviet Empire, and that he would also be out of a job. If these leaders, the original Soviet experts with their own interests at stake, proved such bad prophets, why then blame a bunch of academics, armed with nothing more dangerous than their software, for their failure to predict the overnight collapse of the Soviet Union?
The real issue, of course, is not the failure of these scholars to predict the course of Soviet history. It is rather, says Walter Laqueur, that they—mainstream Sovietologists, like Beatrice and Sidney Webb in England and Jerry Hough, Arch Getty, Seweryn Bialer, and many others in the United States—bent historical truth, ignored the meaning of Stalinism, and idealized a monstrous, inhuman despotism. For them, willing participants of “groupthink,” collectivization was a success, the Great Terror justifiable and, therefore, a minor blip on the road to paradise. A critical attitude toward Stalinism and its concentration camp universe was regarded as Cold War propaganda that need not be refuted. These Sovietologists echoed Molotov, who said in his memoirs, “Our mistakes, including the crude mistakes, were justified.” These academics structured what Robert Conquest has called “a professional investment in fallacy” as part of the “Stalinophile tradition.”
Truly, it was the era of furor Sovieticus when highly placed academics told fictions which, as instant experts, they sold on television and op-ed pages; e.g., the Soviet Union had become a pluralist society, a democracy of a different type, with a crude but sturdy parliamentary system. Those scholars who disagreed with such outrageous “scholarship” did not, with a few exceptions, last long in academia; they were rarely hired, and even more rarely were they granted tenure. When Sovietologists uttered their soothing assurances that the Soviet Union was nothing to worry about, that the Cold War, instigated by President Truman, was an immoral McCarthyite exploitation of democratic opinion by the American military-industrial complex, they helped strengthen a dictatorship as foul as Hitler’s.
Take Professor Hough, an ornament of the Brookings Institution. In the late 70’s, he was asked by Harvard’s Russian center to update the famed and widely used textbook written by the late Professor Merle Fainsod, How Russia is Ruled. When the revision appeared in 1979, the title had become How the Soviet Union is Governed, a nuanced shift of emphasis. In the index of the original book, Professor Fainsod had included some 60 citations relating to forced labor camps; in Hough’s “revised” version, there were none. And there were worse changes. Had such an act of intellectual corruption been committed by someone on the right, the academy would have anathematized its perpetrator. But Hough leads a charmed life.
Laqueur describes an appearance by Hough before a congressional committee, during which Hough told the committee members that the Soviet Union was solving its political problems— which had anyway been grossly exaggerated—with amazing speed, and that modern countries did not break up. Gorbachev, he said, was secure. A few weeks later there was no Soviet Union, and Gorbachev was gone. (Columbia’s Professor Bialer predicted in 1983 that “the Soviet Union may face a leadership crisis and an economic crisis, but it does not now and in all probability will not in the next decade face a systemic crisis that endangers its existence.”) More outrageous still was the downplaying by Hough, Getty, and other mainstream Sovietologists of the extent of the purges and mass killings under Stalin. (Had any professor at any university dared to minimize the Holocaust or apartheid in South Africa before Mandela’s presidency, or to offer kind words for Generalissimo Franco, how long would he have lasted at his job?) Whitewashing the Great Terror was no ordinary academic achievement. Professors like Getty and Hough ignored the evidence and documentation of Solzhenitsyn, Mandelstam. Babel, Tsvetayeva, Orlov, Krivitsky—the list is endless—and thus ended up as apologists for the Soviet regime. Yet, in 1987, Nikolai Shemelev, a member of the Soviet parliament and a senior staff member of the prestigious Institute of USA and Canada, reported that at least 17 million Soviet citizens had been sent to labor camps as political prisoners between 1937 and Stalin’s death in 1953. And another five million peasants during the late 1920’s and early 30’s were deported thousands of miles from their homes to wastelands during the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture.
Laqueur has done a magnificent job in documenting a scandal in the American social sciences, and in analyzing the reasons for that scandal. But the Houghs and Gettys are impenitent. They will not utter even a word of apology to that small handful of Sovietologists who were right; Laqueur, Conquest, Brzezinski, Malia. But Hough, Getty, and company cannot wipe away what they said: they cannot rewrite their past as scholars. The collapse of communist theory and power, a cataclysmic event which contradicted virtually everything they had published, has been insufficient to impel them “to express regret for their failure to speak up for truth in the past,” to quote Wilcomb E. Washburn, an investigator into the intellectual derelictions of highly regarded historians.
Why should one care about the dishonesty of quasi-scholars? Because, as Lionel Trilling has written, “This is the great vice of academicism, that it is concerned with ideas rather than with thinking and nowadays the errors of academicism do not stay in the academy; they make their way into the world and what begins as a failure of perception among intellectual specialists finds its fulfillment in policy and action.”
[The Dream That Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union, by Walter Laqueur (New York: Oxford University Press) 231 pp., $25.00]