Rethinking the Soviet Experience
Politics and History since 1917

Author: Stephen F. Cohen

Oxford University Press, 1985

Inadequate historical analysis, writes Cohen in the early 1980s (when the Soviet Union still exists) has led to inadequate political analysis. In his book, Cohen writes that many entered Soviet studies primarily interested in national security problems rather than an intellectual passion for Russian-Soviet civilization. There is nothing wrong, he writes, with being concerned about challenges that the Soviet Union presents to the United States, and there is "no case for moral objection" to the passion of some former Communists and refugees from Communism. What concerns Cohen is the quality historical analysis. Political zeal, he complains "often exceeded self-proclaimed expertise." Academic life has room for various kinds of scholars an scholarship, he writes., "But," he adds, "the politicization of an academic field does have serious intellectual consequences." In expressing this discomfort, Cohen mentions Hannah Arendt, who labeled some work in history as "more on the order of 'axiomatic value-judgment,' rather than authentic historical analysis.

Cohen complains that the majority of sovietologists believe as does Adam Ulam, who wrote in his book Stalin that 'Stalin epitomized the Communist mind,' that his acts were 'pure, unadulterated Leninism'. And Cohen, quoting again, mentions the claim that 'Lenin was the mentor and Stalin the pupil who carries his master's legacy to its logical conclusion.'

Cohen questions the historical analysis that describes Stalin's collectivization campaign of 1929-33 as an inevitable consequence of the triumph of the Bolsheviks acquiring power on November 7, 1917. Cohen describes it as "rigid determinism." He writes that the nature of Bolshevik ideology was "less cohesive and fixed" than the standard Cold War interpretation allowed. He writes that Bolshevik ideology influenced events in Russia, but that the Bolshevik outlook was shaped also to some degree by events after the Bolsheviks took power in November 7, 1917. As "an early instance" of this, the Russian civil war (1918-23), writes Cohen, "had a major impact on Bolshevik outlook, reviving the self-conscious theory of an embattled vanguard developed by Lenin in 1902, which had been inactive or inconsequential for at least a decade."


It is important, first of all, to shed the ahistorical habit of thinking of the Stalinist system as an unchanging phenomenon. The historical development of Stalinism must be traced and analyzed through several stages, from the truly revolutionary events of the early 1930s to the rigidly conservative sociopolitical order of 1946-53.

Lenin became disabled in 1922 and died in 1924. Cohen writes that there was no Stalinism before 1925, that before 1925 Stalin was following the positions of others. Cohen writes that "...above all, official ideology changed radically under Stalin." This includes "the revival of nationalism, statism, anti-Semitism, and conservative or reactionary, cultural and behavioral norms..."

Cohen writes of the dissident Russian historian Roy Medvedev in his book Let History Judge, having pointed out that if Stalinism was predetermined by Bolshevism, if there were no alternatives after 1917, then 1917 and Bolshevism must have been predetermined by previous Russian history, which could take Stalinism back to the time of rule by the Tatars, which would be a justification of Stalinism, not a condemnation. (Let History Judge, p. 359)

Cohen suggests that a more realistic appraisal of developments in the Soviet Union, as opposed to one that emphasized pre-determined developments, would be less rigid. Cohen writes of the Cold Warrior scholar-analysts insisting – before Michael Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union – that Detent had to wait for reform of the Soviet system.

Gorbachev became leader in 1985 – the same year Cohen's book was published. Were Gorbachev's doings predetermined by Lenin and Stalin? President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986, and Reagan worked outside the thinking of his State Department Cold War theorists.