Why Soviet history is back in vogue

The US is devoting 2003 to the frustrating task of identifying and hunting down its new enemies. But it is also, as it happens, busy pursuing an old enemy. Or, rather, the ghost of an old enemy: the Soviet Union. A full decade after the cold war's end, Americans are taking another look at Soviet communism. They are trying to determine how so many of America's most influential public figures, from the 1920s onwards, failed to appreciate the threat that the Soviet regime represented both to outsiders and to its own citizens.

The newsiest aspect of the story has been Columbia University's decision to consider revoking the Pulitzer Prize it granted three-quarters of a century ago to Walter Duranty of The New York Times. Mr Duranty, a Harrow-educated Englishman, won the prize for 1932 articles that argued Stalin was "doing the best for the Soviet masses". The same articles neglected both the facts of the deportation of hundreds of thousands and the beginnings of the Ukrainian famine, in which millions perished. The Great Depression was on and many New York Times editors saw the Soviet Union as an intriguing economic model. The Pulitzer committee duly canonised Duranty, concluding his work was "marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality"*. Their award was a gift to Duranty - but an even greater one to Stalin.

Scholars have long remarked on the folly of the Duranty award - indeed, this is the second time a Pulitzer committee has revisited the matter. This year's review probably has something to do with another timely revision: that of the view that The New York Times is unassailable. Walter Duranty, after all, was an early version of Jayson Blair, the Times's 2003 plagiarist; where Mr Blair is farce, Duranty was tragedy. Still, the Pulitzer review also reflects a conviction that misconceived myths about the Soviet Union must be toppled like old communist statues.

A crucial part of this re-evaluation is a general look at Soviet abuses. Perhaps the most important work is the exhaustive Gulag by Anne Applebaum, the US journalist.** Ms Applebaum argues that the camp, the Soviet institution of terror, was in its way as bad as anything perpetrated by the Nazis. "In Auschwitz you could die in a gas chamber, at Kolyma you could freeze to death in the snow," she writes.

Less scholarly, but just as important, is a bestseller by Mona Charen.*** Ms Charen, a columnist, reviews the ranks of left-leaners who, over eight decades, whitewashed communist misdeeds. Her list starts with George Bernard Shaw, who praised the Soviet Union as a place that made "the world safe for honest men", and goes all the way to TV interviewer Barbara Walters, who in the 1990s decried the chaos following communism's break-up and reminisced: "In the old Soviet Union, you never saw faces like this - the poor, the homeless . . . is this what democracy does?"

There are a number of reasons for the new interest in the old Soviet Union. The first is the availability of information. Robert Conquest, pre-eminent cold war scholar of Stalin's abuses, had to back up data with surmise. Ms Applebaum and other post-Soviet scholars have the luxury of extensive fieldwork.

A second reason is the disturbing absence of Russian scholarship. President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB operative in East Germany, has insisted that it is better to ignore history, calling it a "mistake to get bogged down in old problems from the past". Since Russians are not doing the work, westerners are doing it for them.

But the most important factor is a growing realisation that the US and Britain made errors about the Soviet Union, or its satellites and friends, because they thought about the cold war in terms of themselves and their government, rather than recognising the Kremlin as what Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, identified early on as an "objective enemy". Rather than take Stalin for what he was, US citizens in the 1930s tended to view his collectivisation as a conceivable alternative to bread lines at home. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, such self-referential thinking emerged again. Susan Sontag, the intellectual, saw Vietnam not as a cold war conflict but as the "key to a systematic criticism of America".

Today Americans fear that such superficially plausible yet flawed reasoning may again lead to foreign policy misjudgments of comparable magnitude. A year ago, it was possible to argue that Afghanistan and perhaps the mooted campaign against Iraq were finite "little wars".

Now people are wondering whether Afghanistan was merely the first skirmish in a protracted conflict, as the Berlin division was in the cold war. Americans are wondering whether the west is facing a conflict with radical Islam and certain Middle Eastern regimes that is every bit as defined and profound as the struggle with the Soviet Union was in its day. They wonder, too, which side of such a conflict Europe might be on. They know they have to think seriously about friends and enemies.

Retrospective Sovietology may seem an odd way to think about al-Qaeda. But it represents an honest acknowledgment of how hard it is to get things right.

* S.J. Taylor, Stalin's Apologist, Oxford, 1990

** Gulag: A History, Doubleday, 2003

*** Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got it Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First, Regnery, 2003

© Copyright 2003 Financial Times

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