The Paths Not Taken

Ronald Grigor Suny, Red Flag Wounded: Stalinism and the Fate of the Soviet Experiment

Verso, 272pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781788730747

reviewed by Samuel Gregory

In his 2006 television essay on the Soviet dictator, Jonathan Meades takes a shot at those, Russian or otherwise, who express ‘a sly admiration for Uncle Joe.’ Like Hitlerians, he asserts, they’re beyond the pale. But despite a body count broadly within the same ballpark, Stalin’s legacy has taken a different course to Hitler’s: his Georgian birthplace is open to the public as a celebratory house museum, and the state he ruled over with divine authority for a quarter of a century continued to exist nearly forty years after his death in 1953.

Ronald Grigor Suny’s Red Flag Wounded, a sequel to his 2017 account of the Russian revolution, Red Flag Unfurled, doesn’t examine Stalin himself so much as the way the image of the man was created, destroyed and then partially resuscitated, and the effect this had on the remaining lifespan of the Soviet Union. The book revolves around a central question: could the revolution of 1917 have turned out differently, or was its descent into tyranny and eventual failure in the early nineties hardwired into its DNA, as conservative academics have argued?

The book also examines the various ways Stalin has been profiled and his actions explained before, during and after his reign by academics, journalists and biographers. These include such early useful idiots as Walter Duranty of the New York Times, who in the 1930s used the phrase, ‘you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs’ to justify the almost unfathomable violence of Stalin’s purges and the forced collectivisation of agriculture.

Rather than following new information — the state archives didn’t open to researchers until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — these changing depictions owe more to trends and fads in the field of history. Suny is critical of early attempts to explain Stalin’s psychopathic premiership through modish lines of historical enquiry such as psychoanalysis — as in a biography of the late 1940s by New York psychiatrist Gustav Bychowski, who argued that Stalin’s thirst for power was a manifestation of ‘the struggle of the son against the father.’

Attempts by Bychowski and others to unearth the roots of evil in Stalin’s nondescript, pastoral Georgian childhood prove fruitless, in part because of the absence of information about his life before joining the Bolsheviks. These Freudian readings revolve almost entirely around the reminisces of a childhood friend, Ioseb Iremashvili, who recalls a young Stalin being beaten by his father. For the psychohistorians, this is the primary evidence that explains why he went on to butcher 20 million people. Another academic fault line examined by Suny divides historians who see Stalin as the principal agent of the Great Terror — an inverse form of ‘great man’ theory — and those who see the causes as being structural and Stalin as a mere manifestation of much deeper forces.

Were these fatal design flaws already present in 1917, like the latent defects in Reactor 4 which hastened the demise of the bloc 70 years later? Suny is sympathetic to the theory advanced by Trotsky that a failure to pursue the radical forms of democracy promised by the revolution laid the groundwork for Stalinism. As the nascent workers councils — the soviets themselves — and the pluralism within the revolutionary vanguard mutated into absolute Bolshevik control, any checks and balances that might have prevented Stalin’s ascendancy quickly withered away. The result is seemingly a contradiction-in-terms: the catastrophic ‘revolution from above’ of the 1930s.

Whether a continuation of the new forms of collectivism and democracy promised by the soviet councils would have led to a different outcome is a point that has been debated by both Soviet and western historians since Stalin’s purge of any potential rivals in the 1930s. One person who believed it would have done was Mikhail Gorbachev, an ardent believer in the ideals of 1917 who thought he could save the revolution by re-injecting it with democracy. Indeed, Gorbachev was convinced that there was no real socialism without democracy; and no real democracy without socialism.

Suny quotes from William Taubman’s study of Gorbachev, in which he is ‘a true believer – not in the Soviet system as it functioned (or didn’t) in 1985 but in its potential to live up to what he deemed its original ideals.’ Gorbachev's refusal to use violence to suppress separatist movements echoed Lenin’s belief in self-determination — even secession — for the states that formed the USSR. In this way, right at the end of its run, the last leader of the Soviet Union reconnected the country with the first principles of Lenin and the revolution.

In the last chapter analysing the collapse of the country, Suny makes a convincing case that Gorbachev was a true believer in communism who was overtaken by events. The pervasive theory in conservative circles that he was some sort of sleeper agent intent on bringing down the system that sent his grandfather to the gulag is found to be baseless. Suny’s Gorbachev is both a successful revolutionary — in that his ambitious programmes of Perestroika and Glasnost were largely fulfilled — and a tragic figure, whose flawed reforms brought down the country he loved and paved the way for Russia’s current era of gangster neoliberalism.

Throughout this volume on ‘the ogre in the Kremlin’, Suny nevertheless maintains a utopian belief in socialism, and his writing is shot through with regret for the paths not taken after the revolution. He describes socialism after the collapse of most actually existing socialist regimes as ‘regaining its utopian side.’ For Suny, post-1991 socialism is ‘both an alternative modernity and a utopia . . . a direction toward which to orient one’s politics.’
Samuel Gregory is a freelance writer and occasional contributor to The Quietus. He is also music editor of Sheffield's Now Then magazine.