I recently finished reading the third book of Richard Pipes’ trilogy on Russia. So now I’m done with the full set: Russia Under the Old Regime, The Russian Revolution, and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. A few general thoughts occur to me that I thought worth sharing here.
First, I was surprised by the utter backwardness and primitivism of the Russian peasantry. Anarchists at heart, peasants were eager to loot their neighbor if given the opportunity. They refrained from doing so only so long as they were suppressed by a fearsome and powerful ruler. Isolated from the rest of their country, they cared for nothing beyond their immediate future, private family, and local commune. Even the peasants that moved to the cities to work in industry never progressed beyond such primitivism.
Given that, it’s no wonder that Ayn Rand radically changed her view of “the common man” upon coming to America. The American common man is a radically different kind of animal from the Russian common man.
Second, Pipes is particularly adept at showing in detail the myriad ways in which Lenin paved way for Stalin. Perhaps most notably, Lenin established all the legal institutions and precedents necessary for Stalin’s later mass slaughter. He heartily approved of mass terror as a means of controlling the populaion. His Red Terror of the 1920s differed only in scale from Stalin’s terror of the 1940s. As Stalin later would, Lenin conducted show-trials to eliminate political opposition. Lenin oversaw mass starvation: His disastrous economic policies created it, then he refused to alleviate it, and then he exploited it for political gain. He ruled over the party as a single man, bending it to his will with threats and more. Toward the end of his life, he outlawed dissent in the party by outlawing “factionalism.” He was fully committed to the same ideals and principles which justified all of Stalin’s evils. Ultimately, the difference between Lenin and Stalin was merely a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.
So I now see Harry Binswanger’s point (from his Logical Thinking course) that “Stalinism” is an anti-concept. The term seeks to draw some grand distinction between communist Russia under Stalin and communist Russia under his predecessors and successors. But such a distinction is entirely spurious.
Third, it was particularly clear from Russia Under the Old Regime that communist rule was not an aberration in Russia, but rather merely a new form of autocracy — albeit one far more bloody and repressive than even the worst of the tsars.
Fourth, Pipes has some nice examples of the early Bolshevik government undermining freedom of the speech and of religion by the abrogation of property rights. After the state nationalized all church property, it leased it back to them at their discretion. Of course, that situation didn’t last long, as the state soon decided that it had better uses for the property. Similarly, it’s hard to print a newspaper critical of the government if the government owns all the printing presses, even if no law expressly forbids such.
Fifth, Pipes has a nice, albeit fairly short discussion of the assistance rendered to Bolsheviks in the early, precarious years of their rule by leftists and fellow travelers. Such people offered his regime sweeping praise, coupled only with a few small rebukes on minor issues. The government knew that such people could be easily manipulated — whether by monetary gifts, feigned importance, or ideological blinders — and did so with ease.
Sixth, Pipes has a nice discussion of the great similarities and few differences — both in substance and structure — between Lenin’s Communist Russia, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and Hitler’s National Socialist Germany. (That’s in Chapter 5 of Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime.) I highly recommend it as a detailed antidote to the absurd view that communism and fascism are opposites, as is all-too-commonly claimed.
Of course, the books contain much, much more of value and interest. So those are just a few tidbits.