Saturday, January 2, 2010


Dimitri Volkogonov deserves a special place in heaven. Although he was a very senior communist military leader for many decades and even produced a series of sterile treatises in support of Soviet military and ideological objectives, he developed a conscience and eventually wrote a series of brilliantly critical histories of modern Russian statemen. Two years ago, I read his biography of Stalin. Although one Stalin biography tends to blend in with the next, Volkogonov’s Stalin was bold, intelligent, original, and meticulously researched.

Western historians tend to be condescending about historians in other countries. With respect to historians who were forced to participate in Marxist-Leninist historiography, this condescension seems relatively well founded. However, Volkogonov’s scholarship is liberal, sophisticated, and grounded in the newly uncovered archives of the Soviet state, some of which have become inaccessible with the rise of Putin and his successor. If anything, Volkogov surpasses his Western peers by melding Western historical technique with a greater respect for special Russian sensitivities and particularities.

Volkogov’s books are predicated on exhaustive research and impeccable logic, but their power stems from his newly found antipathy to Bolshevism. As the Volkogonov’s longtime editor and translator, Harold Shukman, argues in the preface to Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime, reminds us, Volgognov’s family suffered a common fate in the 1930’s. His father, a communal farm manager, was shot, his wife exiled, et cetera and so on. In a sense, Volkogonov approaches history in a very traditional, top-down, way. His books do not deal directly with what Sheila Fitzpatrick would call “everyday Stalinism.” Even so, Volkogonov seems to understand that there is an important link between these leaders and the sad fate of ordinary Russians who lived in the last century, and this one.

I hope to post several times on Autopsy of an Empire since I haven’t discussed many of the Soviet leaders, aside from Lenin, Stalin, and to a lesser extent Khrushchev and Gorbachev. I do in fact accept the central premise of Volkogonov’s Autopsy of an Empire, and that is that the reign of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko (or at least their rise to power), says a great deal about what the revolutionary experiment really became and really meant.

The other interesting thing about Volkogonov’s Autopsy of an Empire is that it is written from the point of view of a patriot. This historian is angry. Like other Western historians, he regrets the tragedy and death that accompanied the decisions of men like Lenin and Stalin. But Volkogonov is also angry about the Bolsheviks did to Mother Russia. As an active member of Yeltin’s government, and someone who interacted with many of the leaders he discusses in this book, Volkogonov is no passive adherent of Western emulation. He wants a strong, prosperous, independent Russia, capable of discovering its own truths whenever possible. Yet his patriotism makes him even more contemptuous of the Soviet leaders, Lenin included, than Western historians are likely to be. In Volkogonov’s overstated view, the Soviet experiment hurt only the Soviet people, and indeed helped the world by warning it what not to do.

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