History » Modern History

The best books on Totalitarian Russia

recommended by Robert Service

Robert Service, Professor of Russian Studies at Oxford, when forced to choose between Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, says Stalin was definitely the worst of the lot. He takes a look at the dynamics of totalitarian Russia, gleaning insights from Thucydides to Orwell.

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Robert Service

Robert Service is Professor of Russian Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. His research interests cover Russian history from the late 19th century to the present day and he has written numerous books on the subject. Nowadays he is focusing on Russia in its international framework. He is currently working on the geopolitics of the Russian Revolution as well as a study of the end of the Cold War.

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Your first choice is George Orwell’s 1984.

I read this, like most people do, when I was in my mid-teens. At that stage I was a classicist and I had no thought of doing anything about Russian history. I think, looking back, this was the book which influenced me more than any other when I came to take up historical study, because of its astonishing insight into totalitarian regimes.

“I think Orwell, without ever having gone to the USSR, really did understand it from the outside brilliantly.”

And I think that one of the great things about Orwell’s account of totalitarianism is not just the tremendous power that 20th-century dictatorships have exercised, but also how sordid and squalid the living conditions are for many of the people there. And I’m impressed by how individuals, with any independence of mind, still managed to survive those conditions. In other words, the book looks at how order and disorder co-habit. And I think Orwell, without ever having gone to the USSR, really did understand it from the outside brilliantly.

How do you think he managed that?

I think he did that probably from a lot of his personal experiences, particularly in Spain where he saw how the Spanish Communist Party acted on the orders of the International Communist Party. At the time they were going about exterminating their Communist and Socialist enemies. And he applied this knowledge to what he understood about Soviet foreign, and indeed internal, policy.

And have you seen any examples of what he wrote about in your own research?

When I read depictions of what a perfect Communist order would look like, written by Communists, all of the nasty underbelly of Communism is kept back. But, over the 1960s and 1970s, more and more accounts came out of the USSR concerning this picture that Orwell drew. People lived cheek by jowl with each other, and there was this extraordinary central power along with sordid demoralising social conditions. Most notably, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago went in the same direction. This almost became the main theme of Soviet literature.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is a nod to the classicist in you.

Thucydides wrote the classic account of the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BC. It was a war that took place over many years and it brought Athens to its knees.  It was the trauma of Thucydides’ lifetime and in the book he sought to explain why the war had gone on so long and why Athens lost it.

Reading Thucydides was just a magical experience because of the way he attends to causation. I love the attention he gives to supplying the reader with all manner of possible explanations before going for the one that he prefers. He has an almost surgical precision in the way he weighs up one factor against another. He is one of the most original historians.

So do you enjoy the way he is almost showing the reader how he is working through the different theories before going for one in particular?

That is what really attracts me. I think that if a historian produces an account, but locks the reader into only one way of looking at something, he’s giving the reader short measure and he is condescending to the reader. Thucydides never does this. He always gives his reader enough opportunity to form a different judgment from the one that he would like to insist upon himself. It is that sort of openness to discussion and debate that I found very attractive and influential. That stayed with me, when I moved from doing the Greek classics, to doing Russian literature, and then eventually to doing Soviet politics and ultimately history.

So that’s something you have tried to emulate in your work?

I think that while I have a very strong set of guidelines for understanding the 20th-century Communist experience I hope that I don’t canalise everything into a single exclusive explanation.

You’ve gone for another classic for your third choice, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Oh, this is the antidote to ways of looking at history that insist only on external and objective workings of political and economic and social circumstances.

“I think Dostoevsky understood psychological and social contradictions in life to a peak of intensity later writers have seldom been able to match.”

A long time before Freud, Dostoevsky was at work explaining the contradictory, clashing tendencies of the human spirit through his anti-hero, the murderer Raskolnikov. I read this in my second year at college when I was still doing Russian literature and my very enlightened tutor said that I could just stop doing the rest of the 19th-century curriculum and concentrate on Dostoevsky for a year. I have never regretted it. I think Dostoevsky understood psychological and social contradictions in life to a peak of intensity later writers have seldom been able to match.

Tell me about your next author, Alexander Blok, and his poem The Twelve.

Alexander Blok was a poet living in the early 20th-century, a symbolist poet who wrote the most opaque verses imaginable about the music of the times. It was all deeply uncongenial to me. But, when the 1917 Revolution happened, he managed to attune himself to the chaos and the disorder. He wrote about the achievements and disasters of revolutionary Russia. He centred on a rabble that was roaming through the streets of Petrograd at the end of 1917. And he used this very refined language that he had developed many years earlier and he combined that with snatches of folksong and street jargon that make for one of the really great pieces of Russian poetry – and also world poetry – in the first half of the 20th century. I remember that when I read this as a student of Russian literature it went really deep. When I later came to study the revolution itself, the politics and the economics and the sociology of the revolution – time and again I could hear in my mental ear the rhythms of this poem. It’s one of the great literary achievements

So why was he spurned by his colleagues?

He was spurned by the people he belonged to politically because half of him sided with the Russian Revolution which in their view destroyed the values of the Old Russian intelligentsia. On the one hand he was spurned by the Bolsheviks themselves who recognised that he was still an old-style intellectual and they placed limits on his ability to travel abroad. But, because he fell between stools, he could see both sides of practically every situation.

Your final book is Leon Trotsky’s My Life. Trotsky is someone you have written a lot about. What is it about him for you?

This is one of the books I read when I was starting to move into historical study. It’s a wonderful memoir of a childhood and young adulthood. Trotsky is a wonderful writer. I think he is one of the two great political writers of the 20th century, the other being Winston Churchill. But, as you move through the book, you get a very strong sense of a man who is justifying his own politics and his own career choices. He gets less and less attractive and less and less plausible as the first half of the book gives way to the second half. In that sense it was a very influential work for me because I started thinking that he was a very attractive man and I ended up thinking that he was a very unattractive politician whose self-justification for the terror and the dictatorship and the ultra centralist discipline that he imposed didn’t have much merit.

As a biographer, how useful do you find it using autobiographies like Trotsky’s as a source?

Autobiographies are always attempts at self-justification and they always involve evasion and selectivity and sometimes outright falsification. I was really lucky when I researched Trotsky for my biography, to get the original manuscripts for Trotsky’s My Life. And it was really impressive to go through the manuscript and see what bits he altered before they appeared in the final edition.

Is there a specific one that stands out?

Well, he cuts down on the references to his disputes with Lenin and he cuts down on references to the Jewish background of several of his early acquaintances. He cuts down on examples of his own behaviour where he showed vacillation or feeble-mindedness. His published work is a much leaner and much more effective attempt at self-justification than the original draft.

Out of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin who do you find most interesting?

Oh, I find them all fascinating. I have had a really fortunate life to be able to look at the prism of the Russian Revolution through the lives of these three extraordinary men. They were all very talented, dynamic and, in many ways, very disagreeable in personalities. By taking their individual lives you can look at political structures, social behaviour and you can look at the cultural environment.

“I think Trotsky is one of the two great political writers of the 20th century, the other being Winston Churchill.”

I think for me Trotsky was the most culturally sophisticated of the three, Lenin was the most politically astute and Stalin was the most enigmatically, compulsively dangerous. They were all in favour of terror, dictatorship and the one-party state. There is not much doubt that, bad as two of them were, the third – Stalin – was the worst of the lot.

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Robert Service

Robert Service is Professor of Russian Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. His research interests cover Russian history from the late 19th century to the present day and he has written numerous books on the subject. Nowadays he is focusing on Russia in its international framework. He is currently working on the geopolitics of the Russian Revolution as well as a study of the end of the Cold War.