Excerpt: 'Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives' by Stephen Cohen


Tom Coates: Gorbachev, 2019 (CC)

History is not determined by fate. There is always an alternative.
—Mikhail Gorbachev

Most of our history is the lessons of missed opportunities.
— Yegor Yakovlev, Gorbachev-era reformer

Many writers, perhaps historians and novelists more than others, find themselves returning again and again to some big theme that captivated them early in life. For me, it has been political alternatives in history, roads taken and not taken, in Russia in particular. Though the chapters of this book treat diverse subjects and were researched and written over many years, several appearing in full or in part in other places, they do not stray far from that theme.

In the beginning, it had nothing to do with Russia. Growing up in a segregated small town in Kentucky, in the 1940s and 1950s, I accepted the world around me, as children do, as perfectly normal. But at the age of fifteen or sixteen, events in my life caused me, as Corinthians instructs, to put away childish things. I began to understand segregation was a terrible injustice and to wonder if there had been an alternative—though I did not yet use the word—in Kentucky’s history. After all, I knew my state had produced the Civil War presidents both of the Union and the Confederacy, Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

A few years later, when I began studying Soviet Russia as an undergraduate at Indiana University, Robert C. Tucker, the professor who became my mentor—and eventually my friend and colleague at Princeton—pressed me to settle on a more specific interest in the country. When I could not, he asked if I had any special historical or political interests apart from Russia. Still not far removed from home, I replied, “Whether or not there had been an alternative to segregation in Kentucky’s history.” Tucker then sent me on my intellectual way: “Good. The question of alternatives is a very big and understudied issue in Soviet history.” So it became, and has remained, for me.

I began with the faction in the Soviet leadership, headed by Nikolai Bukharin, who opposed Stalin and the emergence of Stalinism at the nation’s fateful turning point in 1928 and 1929. This led to my biography of Bukharin and, many years later, to the first chapter of this book. Having entered the field during the high point of Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist reforms, I was then drawn to the alternative for the Soviet future his policies had represented in the 1960s. That interest eventually led me to the subject of my second chapter, the return of Stalin’s surviving victims after his death.

Khrushchev’s overthrow, in 1964, reaffirmed the belief of many of my colleagues that fundamental reforms in the rigidly authoritarian Soviet system were impossible, partly because they saw no alternative historical experiences or traditions to inspire or sustain them. Seeing a viable anti-Stalinist tradition connecting Bukharin’s opposition in the 1920s and Khrushchev’s political revivalism thirty years later, I disagreed. During the next two decades, my main project was identifying proreform forces and their ideas inside the murky bureaucratic realm of the ruling Communist Party.

As a result, I was not surprised by the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet leader in 1985. Historical and political alternatives were at the center of his increasingly radical reforms, from retrieving what he and his supporters believed were lost ideas from the Soviet 1920s to the first multicandidate elections in 1989. (Gorbachev was, as I will explain later on, a kind of heretic, and heretics by nature believe above all in alternatives.) Those historic developments are the focus and context of chapters 3 through 6, especially the two that argue the Soviet Union was reformable and that there had been an alternative to its breakup in 1991.

Even the concluding chapter on contemporary issues derives from “alternativism” and personal experience. Studying the Soviet Union during much of the long Cold War, and living there for prolonged periods, I came to hope, and to think possible, that my country and the other one so large in my life would eventually cease to be adversaries. By 1989, first and foremost because of Gorbachev, though not him alone, that alternative seemed to have been realized. Why it turned out to be another missed opportunity is the subject of chapter 7.

Here I should explain briefly what I mean by historical alternatives. These are not the imaginary or hypothetical constructs of what-if, counterfactual history, though that is a legitimate intellectual exercise, or what some writers dismiss as a “non-existent subjunctive in history.” I am interested in alternative possibilities that actually existed at turning points in Soviet and post-Soviet history, ones grounded in realities of the time, represented by leaders, and with enough political support to have had a chance of being realized. We may disagree as to their chances but not that real people fought—and often died—for them.

No what-ifs or other fictions are needed to understand, for example, that the Bukharinist opposition to Stalin’s political and economic policies represented a different Soviet road forward, one with widespread support in the Communist Party and in society. Khrushchev’s reforms, which were embraced by young people, members of the intelligentsia, and even significant numbers of Party and state officials, had the potential for more far-reaching change in the Soviet system twenty years before it was actually initiated, when some observers thought it was too late. Gorbachev’s call for a full-scale Soviet reformation had broad elite and popular support, and although his personal popularity collapsed under the weight of the alternative he pursued, Boris Yeltsin initially claimed to represent the same cause.

One reason this book may not be well received by many of my colleagues is that they never believed there were any real alternatives in the seventy-four-year Soviet experience. During the forty-year Cold War, when the academic field was formed, they saw a “straight-line” history predetermined by one or more ineluctable factors—the ruling Party’s organization, its ideology, or Russia’s bleak traditions. But history written without defeated alternatives is neither a full account of the past nor a real explanation of what happened. It is only the story of the winners made to seem inevitable. Nonetheless, that view was so orthodox that the few American scholars who challenged it—we were known as “revisionists”—were sometimes accused of having dubious political motives.

Not so coincidentally, something similar, though far worse, befell Soviet historians. For decades, those who wanted to write about historical alternatives to Stalinism, and implicitly to the latter-day system, were prevented from doing so by harsh censorship and even repression. Soviet authorities and unorthodox historians understood the importance of this “deviationism,”  as such heresy was officially branded. Thus one of the prominent scholars persecuted for believing Bukharin had been right was banished as the “alternativist [Victor] Danilov,” as that historian of collectivization defiantly also characterized himself.

Gorbachev’s historic reforms and the end of the Soviet Union brought “alternativism” (alternativnost), for reasons examined in chapter 6, to the forefront of Russian historical and political thinking. Since 1991, scholars and other intellectuals have been debating whether there were “unrealized alternatives” to the 1917 Revolution, Stalinism, the termination of Khrushchev’s initiatives, Gorbachev’s approach to reform, and the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Many of them are still searching for “a road that leads to the Temple.”

In the United States, however, the “school of inevitability” has regained its dominant position. For reasons also examined in chapter 6, most American scholars, other intellectuals, and media commentators once again treat nearly seventy-five years of Soviet history as having been “closed to real alternatives.” As a result, interest in its “losers”—Bukharin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev, among others—has fallen.

Those names are associated with a related theme of this book—fate, as it is understood in Russia. The words “fate” and “destiny” exist in most languages, but a nation’s experiences may instill in them different meaning. For Russians, who believe their history, during which “dozens of generations lived on the edge between life and death,” has been especially “accursed,” “fate” is not usually the triumphant “destiny,” as Americans often say, of a champion athlete. It is an ominous development, “some sinister Beethovean knock . . . at the door,” a tragic outcome.

On a personal level, Russians may ask, for instance, about the “fate” of a new friend’s parents or grandparents during Stalin’s terror, which victimized millions of people, or in World War II, when 27 million Soviet citizens perished. Generations also think and are thought of in terms of their collective “fate.” In modern times, they include the military officers of the 1930s made “comrades of a tragic fate” by Stalin’s blood purge; the schoolboys who went to the front in 1941, only three of every hundred of whom ever returned; and the generation of the 1960s, known as “the children of Khrushchev,” who believed in the late 1980s “history is giving us another chance” to reform the Soviet system.

Above all, Russians associate the “fate” of leaders with alternatives they represented at ramifying junctures in the nation’s history. The association sometimes suggests the fatalistic Russian proverb “You can’t escape fate,” but most often it refers to “fateful choices” of the kind historians have emphasized in historic events elsewhere. And because the roads chosen and not chosen by Russia’s leaders have so often been unhappy ones for the nation,12 they are connected thereafter with the “tragic fate” of those figures—foremost among them in Soviet history, Bukharin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, and even Lenin. In the pages that follow, the fates of alternatives and leaders therefore remain joined.

In that connection, I should disclose my personal relationships with several people who appear in this book. I was born the year of Bukharin’s execution, but decades later developed a friendship with his widow, who figures prominently in the first chapter, and with other Gulag survivors who do so in the second chapter. I have had friendly relations with Gorbachev for more than twenty years; there is even an opinion (though not mine) that my biography of Bukharin once influenced him in a significant way. But still exploring alternatives, I also got to know Gorbachev’s main rival in the last Soviet leadership, Yegor Ligachev, the subject of the third chapter. And during the events covered in chapters 6 and 7, I was part of a small group that discussed them with the first President George Bush.

Critics may think these relationships have affected my objectivity. I prefer to think that I gained important insights from them while maintaining my scholarly distance. It is for readers to decide.

From Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War by Stephen Cohen. Copyright © 2011 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. The hardcover edition (2009) is also available from Columbia University Press.

About the Author

Stephen Cohen is Professor of Russian History at New York University.


Amended in August, 2022.

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