Martin Malia’s THE SOVIET TRAGEDY is an intensely ambitious work of scholarship. Malia challenges the generations of sovietology which saw the Communist regime in Russia as a necessary response to Russia’s traditional backwardness, and as a force promoting modernization. He asks rhetorically how so many scholars and commentators could have been so wrong for so very long. Formerly a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, Malia created a sensation in 1990, when he published an essay entitled “To the Stalin Mausoleum,” which accurately predicted the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies and the collapse of the Communist system. THE SOVIET TRAGEDY is an outgrowth of that essay.
Malia argues that ideology doomed the Soviet Union. He notes that socialism as an ideal in western thought never reflected practical experience. Until 1917, it remained a utopian faith. Only the collapse of Russian civil institutions as a result of World War I made it possible for V. I. Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts to seize control of the state. Malia observes that Soviet totalitarianism was the product of an inexorable historical logic. To maintain their hold on power and to further their ideological ambitions, the Communists quickly resorted to force and terror. Ironically, socialism found its fulfillment in the tyranny of Joseph Stalin. A fundamental dilemma—that socialism could only be imposed on people at gunpoint, and that the Communists could rule only through banning any alternatives—haunted the Soviet Union throughout its history. Attempts to reform the Soviet system always foundered on the fact that true reform would lead to the system’s overthrow. Mikhail Gorbachev’s desperate attempts to revive the sclerotic Soviet regime in the 1980’s merely hastened the end of a misbegotten experiment. Graced by lucid argumentation and energized by a spirit of moral indignation, THE SOVIET TRAGEDY is a powerful and important book.