When my time is up, will anybody be interested in what I did as an academic studying Russia? Off the bat, it doesn’t seem like a gripping subject for a memoir – ‘And then I wrote this article, and then I wrote that one.’ One can’t imagine it being a great page turner. But it might be useful nonetheless, at least if other examples are anything to go by. Two recent memoirs by Anglo-American scholars provide an interesting comparison of how Cold War era Western academics sought to make sense of the Soviet Union, as well as the manner in which Soviet studies were never purely an academic phenomenon but always inherently political.
The authors could not be more dissimilar. Peter Reddaway, author of The Dissidents: A Memoir of Working with the Resistance in Russia, 1960-1990, is something of a Cold Warrior. By contrast, Lewis Siegelbaum, author of Stuck on Communism: Memoir of a Russian Historian is red through and through, while sensibly avoiding being a Soviet apologist. Reddaway’s view of the Soviet system is top-down, sharing the views of his supervisor at LSE, Leonid Schapiro, whose book on the Russian revolution, according to Reddaway, described it as the work of a small group of people who ‘enjoyed but little popular support’ but ‘seized power for themselves … and kept others from sharing it.’ Siegelbaum, on the other hand, views the Soviet Union from the bottom up, concentrating on labour and cultural history, trying to work out, among other things, what made Soviet workers tick. The two scholars’ attitude to the firmly anti-Soviet (and some would say, Russophobic) historian Richard Pipes strikingly illustrates their varying views of Russia. Seigelbaum notes that Pipes’ ‘representations of the patrimonial/totalitarian/garrison state remain a distorting lens through which to view Russia’s history, [and] crowded out social forces among other things.’ Reddaway’s take is very different. ‘Over time,’ he says, ‘I moved toward the camp of the [Patricia] Blakes and the [Richard] Pipeses in my view that all things Soviet were fair game for analysts in the West’.
Both Reddaway and Siegelbaum benefitted from the opening up of the Soviet Union in the Khrushchev era to make trips there. Reddaway remarks of his first visit that, ‘I embarked on the trip as someone with a critical view of Soviet Communism’. Nothing he saw in Russia ever changed his mind. Instead, it reinforced it, and for a while he assisted the Russian émigré organization NTS by editing its magazine. The NTS was founded in the 1920s by young officers of the anti-Bolshevik White armies, and in the Second World War was associated with the collaborationist Vlasov movement, so you get a sense of the circles in which the young Reddaway moved. Later, as a student at Moscow State University (MGU) his only contact with ‘ordinary’ Russians seems to have been conversations with taxi drivers. Otherwise, he spent all his time in the company of what he calls ‘liberal’ intellectuals. His ability to mix and mingle in Moscow literary circles appears to have been quite remarkable, soon acquiring a large circle of friends among disaffected elements of the Soviet intelligentsia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this eventually resulted in him being expelled from the country.
Back in the United Kingdom, Reddaway in due course became a conduit through which dissident samizdat material was smuggled from the Soviet Union and translated and published in the West, most notably the ‘Chronicle of Current Events’, which detailed Soviet political repression. Much of The Dissidents consists of descriptions of this repression, especially the Soviet practice of deeming dissidents to be mad and locking them up in psychiatric institutions. Reddaway links an upsurge in psychiatric abuse to a failure of the World Psychiatric Association to condemn it and expel the Soviets. Weakness by the West, he suggests, encouraged human rights abuses. The only correct policy is a hard line.
There can be little doubt that in translating and publishing the ‘Chronicle of Current Events’ and in highlighting the struggles of the dissidents, Reddaway played a valuable service. His descriptions of Soviet repression, particularly psychiatric abuse, are a welcome reminder of the negative side of Soviet life, and something we should all bear in mind if ever we start feeling a little bit of nostalgia for times gone by. That said, there was something about The Dissidents which bothered me a little bit. One gets the sense of somebody who began with a negative view of the Soviet Union and then never sought to question it. Having gone to Russia, it’s like Reddaway sought out the type of people who would reinforce his existing position. His Soviet literati friends come across as doing relatively well out of the system but at the same time despising it (comparison with contemporary Kreakly come to mind). But as Reddaway himself notes, these people ‘lived in the cocoons of their comfortable homes, segregated from the people and enjoying a multitude of privileges.’ Was this really the best source of information about Soviet life? I can see the younger me in Reddaway. I used to be like that. But I’ve changed a bit. Reddaway, it would seem, never budged an inch along the way.
Siegelbaum similarly never budged. But unlike Reddaway, he both began and ended on the left. His father was a member of the Communist Party of the USA, and he came of age in the late 1960s when, as he says, ‘We filled courses on revolutions, peasant societies, and guerrilla movements. We read Frantz Fanon, Regis Debray, and Mao Zedong, [and] debated the finer points of revolutionary strategy.’ I have to say that this sort of thing has always baffled me. How did anybody ever imagine that Chairman Mao was the answer to America’s problems? But they were different times, I suppose.
As an undergraduate, Siegelbaum got his knowledge of the Soviet Union from the likes of Stephen Cohen, providing him with perhaps a rather more nuanced perspective than that of Reddaway. Like the latter, Siegelbaum then spent time at MGU, but his experience was dissimilar. As he puts it, ‘My Russian friends … neither revolved in high places nor associated with liberals or dissidents’. Still his experience in Soviet Russia created ‘considerable disillusionment’ in him: communism, it turned out, wasn’t quite what he’d hoped.
This did not, however, put Siegelbaum off, and from then on he devoted himself to a study of Soviet social history. As he writes, ‘I put workers and shop floor politics at center stage in the drama of Stalin’s industrial revolution’. ‘I was driven’, he says, by ‘my yearning to tell a different kind of story about the Soviet Union’s formative decades, one in which working people occupied the center of the drama.’ The result was a very different version of Soviet history, which brought some much needed sophistication to what was previously a rather lop-sided Cold War perspective.
Has this made any difference to how the general public views the Soviet past? Siegelbaum isn’t too optimistic. He concludes: ‘Despite all our efforts to introduce other themes and demonstrate their salience, what the public best knows about Soviet history is still the Gulag, Stalin’s brutality, the absence of freedom within the country, and variations on the Soviet Union as a totalitarian empire’. In short, the Reddaway view still dominates over the Siegelbaum one.
And so it will ever be, I suspect. To be blunt, the Gulag sells better than stories of factory workers. Reddaway’s reminder of Soviet repression fits the zeitgeist (evil Russians!!) more than the tales of a historian who finishes his memoirs with a statement that, despite it all, he still sees communism ‘as the only real alternative to the barbarism of capitalism’. The struggle for the soul of Soviet history will continue, but outside the halls of academia, I suspect that the battle was won long ago.