It is worth recalling that, for some five decades after the Bolshevik Revolution, modern Russia became virtual terra incognita for professional Western historians. In the United States in particular the field was left to political scientists, the so-called Sovietologists or Kremlinologists, while university history departments contented themselves with studies of pre-Petrine or imperial Russia. Memorable contributions to our understanding of the post-revolutionary period came instead from such exceptional figures as the prolific former diplomat, Edward Hallett Carr, or the dissident socialist, Isaac Deutscher.
Interestingly enough, the first two major scholars to break through the barrier of 1917 and pioneer the historical study of Soviet socialism were neither American nor British, but a refugee from Poland and the ussr, Moshe Lewin, and an Australian from a prominent leftist family, Sheila Fitzpatrick. Each in his or her own way, and largely separately from the other, shaped the burgeoning generation of social historians of the Soviet Union who have populated the profession in the last thirty years. Both were critics of the dominant Cold War models, most notably totalitarianism, that oriented researchers toward the political heights of the Soviet state and away from the experience of ordinary and even well-placed social actors. While producing her own empirically grounded studies of administration, culture and the everyday, Fitzpatrick trained a cohort of students who delved into the Soviet archives as they became available. Lewin’s legacy was established in a series of original works from which flowed bold conceptual formulations of the great processes and patterns of Soviet social transformation. To borrow the Tolstoyan metaphor, later appropriated by Berlin, he was the hedgehog, she the fox.
Lewin was born in 1921 in Vilnius, then newly incorporated into Pilsudski’s Poland, and grew up as a young socialist Zionist within the Jewish community there, one of the most intellectually dynamic in Europe. In 1941 he was saved from the Nazi forces advancing on the city by peasant Red Army soldiers who, disobeying their superiors, pulled him aboard their truck as they retreated east. Lewin spent the war in the Soviet Union, working on a collective farm, in a mine and a factory, before entering the military academy in Kiev whence he graduated as a Red Army officer. Thus equipped with a set of experiences that would be unique for a future Western historian of the ussr, Lewin returned to Poland and then, in 1951, emigrated to Israel, where he worked on a kibbutz and studied at Tel Aviv University.
Unhappy with the direction of the Israeli state, he left for the Sorbonne in 1961. In Paris he was deeply influenced by the social-historical Annales school and by his friend, the sociologist Basile Kerblay. Lewin always considered himself a ‘historian of society’, rather than simply of a regime. ‘It is not a state that has a society but a society that has a state’, as he put it. His Russian Peasants and Soviet Power, published in French in 1966 and in English two years later, was the first empirical study of collectivization to appear in the West. In 1967, his Lenin’s Last Struggle presented a groundbreaking account of the Bolshevik leader, in stark contrast both to the Cold War caricature of a power-hungry despot and to Communist orthodoxy. Drawing on material newly published under Khrushchev—above all the day-book of Lenin’s secretaries for the winter of 1922–23, when he lay semi-paralysed by strokes in a small room of his Kremlin apartment—Lewin provides a detailed picture of Lenin’s anxieties about the direction in which the experimental regime was moving, above all with regard to Stalin’s proposals on nationality policy in the infant Soviet Union, and of his desperate final battle to get these reversed. Rather than a deterministic line drawn from Leninism—or indeed, from Marxism—to Stalinism, Lewin saw contingencies and choices, as well as deep social structures, driving what the Soviet Union became. He challenged the monophonic view of Bolshevism as a single homogeneous ideology, from which the regime could unfalteringly derive its future formulae. Lenin’s testament demonstrated that there were alternatives to Stalinism within Bolshevism itself.
In addition, Lewin’s work combined the sweep of social history and a close reading of sources with attention to actual politics, even character studies—‘leadership personalities are a good indicator of the system’s health’, as he remarks here—allowing no element to stand on its own. His 1974 Political Currents in Soviet Economic Debates again confounded the stereotypes of both sides in the Cold War through a detailed account of the struggles over Kosygin’s reforms. In 1978 Lewin moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he and his colleague Alfred Rieber organized a series of seminars that drew a generation of younger historians into the post-1917 period. The seminal essays of his 1985 master work, The Making of the Soviet System, succeeded once more in capturing great social processes in succinct and pungent phrases: ‘quicksand society’; ‘the contamination effect’ on the state; superstructure rushing ahead of the social base; the Stalinist bureaucracy as a ‘ruling class without tenure’.