Robert Service is one of the foremost historians of Russia of his generation. In the first part of an interview with Vostok Cable, he talks to Josh Black and Giovanni Cadioli about his career and perceptions of Soviet history.
What first got you interested in Soviet history?
I was interested in European history. After doing Classics at school, I read George Orwell and eventually got on to Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin. I then started Russian language and literature at Cambridge and found not all of the answers to the questions I was interested in were answered by literature, so I took a Masters in politics at Essex. At the time, there were a lot of quantitative methods being used and I became increasingly frustrated at how few questions could be answered this way, leading me almost by accident to look at the origins of the Soviet order.
You’ve written three biographies of leading figures in the history of the USSR (Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky). Do individuals matter more in Soviet history in particular?
I started out with the definite feeling that history had been written too much around the impact of individuals. My doctorate was originally about local party committees and was an effort to move away from individuals. At the end of that research, I recognised that no one would read it, so I decided to reproduce the same research through the prism of Lenin. The more I got into the biography, the more naïve the idea of reducing the individual’s role came to seem, and the more ideology seemed to play an important role.
Do you think the gap between the revisionist and totalitarian approaches to Soviet history is unbridgeable?
I think there can be a blend, and I’ve tried to create one between the insights of the totalitarianists and what I regard as the healthy elements among the revisionists. I was a so-called revisionist myself. Unlike most of my generation, I don’t have any inhibitions about using the word totalitarian.
As soon as you say that totalitarianism as a model doesn’t have to imply perfection and that all of the totalitarian systems we have known incorporate elements of chaos – often more than liberal democratic systems – you are getting away from the 1940s understanding towards something more useful.
When you were writing, there were still a few Trotskyists around. I’ve heard there was even a picket of the college?
Yes, there was. The Socialist Equality Party issued a public challenge while I was away on sabbatical. I used to debate with Trotskyists in the 1980s and my experience was that you were always set up. You got ten minutes and the Trotskyist speaker more, with the audience primed to question you with the terms of the debate turned artificially against you.
Having activists in Germany trying to prevent my book from being published is a badge of honour. The primary argument of the book was the overlap between Trotskyism and Stalinism, something no Trotskyist can accept, so I’m not surprised that they were really annoyed. In fact, I’m quite glad that they were.
A lot of my generation were Trotskyists but they knew little about Soviet history and worse, they weren’t really curious about it. They had the advantage of ignorance. Friends of mine came back from France as students calling themselves Trotskyist Anarchists. I would say that they were pre-political – it was gobbledygook political theory.
There are fewer and fewer Trotskyists around now, and that’s a good thing, because it was a romantic, self-delusive attitude.
Do you take the view that there were greater continuities than discontinuities in the Soviet period?
Yes, I do. One of the ways in which the revisionists sometimes went wrong is in assuming that there was a ‘good’ Lenin and a ‘bad’ Stalin. Anyone who looks at the Soviet Union can see that it was a One-Party State and that many of the obnoxious elements of Stalinism had their origins in the late Civil War period.
Just because Khrushchev stopped calling the USSR a dictatorship, it doesn’t mean that it ceased to be one. Obviously, there are differences between periods – greater numbers suffered under Stalin, for instance – but it was still the same order and there needs to be less sloppy romanticism.
A couple of questions about leaders now – obviously a cause for romanticism in some aspects. Are we right in the West to admire Gorbachev?
Yes, he was a great figure. We are tempted to overstate his greatness, while the Russians often understate his greatness. He made huge mistakes as a result of overconfidence – not understanding the architecture of the Soviet order, he was reckless in the way he started to reform it, but thank God he did.
Yet he probably wouldn’t have got so far if he hadn’t have been a believer himself – it was how he got others to go along with him. I’ve called Gorbachev a holy fool, not to deprecate him, but because he didn’t really know what he was doing.
Gorbachev’s most enthusiastic supporters underestimate the extent of the crisis that had built up in 1985 and I think that explains why he was allowed to go so far: the Politburo had long understood that problems in the USSR were of a severe nature. He wouldn’t have been allowed to do what he did ten years before, and this brings me back to an understanding that is broader than the impact of the individual but includes the decision-making process and the conditions in which decisions are taken. I’m currently working on a book about the end of the Cold War that places the politics of the period in context.
How important was the international context to the end of the Cold War?
It was very important. The long-term effect of the technological blockade was a really important factor because before the Second World War, the USSR relied on Germany and then the United States for technology imports.
After the War, anything that had potential military uses was banned – and that was almost everything. So they had to thieve it, which they did very successfully, but not successfully enough.
The second instalment of this two-part interview will be published later this week.