Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge is a unique document, providing a moving account of events in the ussr during the Stalin era by someone who, even if he did not experience everything he recounts directly, nevertheless lived through it all.footnote1 Thus, the most immediately striking feature of the book is that it is not written by an ‘outsider’ whose only knowledge of the period comes from written sources. Perhaps it can be said that Medvedev does not reveal much that is new to us, either about Stalin’s real role in the initial stages of the October Revolution and in its theoretical and practical preparation (on which Deutscher or Trotsky provide us with fuller information), or about the massive terror utilized by Stalin during the period of his rule (exhaustively described and documented in Conquest’s The Great Terrorfootnote2). But Medvedev presents all this in a livelier and more personal way, speaking of concrete people who are his countrymen, colleagues, acquaintances, collaborators—people who like him have been disappointed in their hopes concerning the human quality of the socialism they have built, but who nevertheless have not altogether gone astray and become disillusioned with socialism itself as a possible stage of human development.

In order to construct this account, Medvedev employs methods which are not so usual in historiography. He makes use of information gleaned from discussion with those who took part in the events in question, letters and unpublished manuscripts from the victims, as well as archival and other documents. But precisely because Medvedev is a part of the epoch about which he is speaking, one gets the impression that it is presented in a new light; that its full tragedy is rung out more loudly, with alarm bells which warn that the danger is not yet fully past, but threatens socialism with fatal results so long as its root causes have not been overcome. This remains true even though Medvedev does not succeed in distancing himself sufficiently from the historical events in question; even though, as part of the system about which he is writing, he does not succeed in providing a full critical analysis of it, but makes compromises with the official verdict on Stalinism given at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. At all events, notwithstanding the critical comments which will be made below, it must not be forgotten that this is the first attempt at a serious and courageous analysis of the epoch of Stalinism on the part of a Soviet scholar; and that its strength and verisimilitude make it in many respects equal in quality to the best-known critical works of literature from the Soviet Union. Medvedev is one of the first Soviet writers to proclaim himself a partisan of ‘socialism with a human face’. Believing that such a socialism is possible, he does not seek a surrogate for it, but strives to illuminate critically all the obstacles and limitations of the existing order in order to discover a way out—a path to what he considers to be the essence of socialism, ‘the freedom of each individual as a condition of freedom for all’.

Thus Medvedev does not offer us simply a catalogue of facts about Stalin’s abuse of power and the number of victims of his terror. He records every possible instance and form of suppression of basic human rights, affecting both individuals and whole sections of the population, ranging from the ban on movement outside the kolkhoz, and denial of free choice of domicile, to the illegality which threatened not just elementary political freedoms, but the very physical existence of millions of people. Medvedev stresses on every page that the principal characteristic of the Soviet citizen during the Stalin period was his total lack of rights: the individual was placed in so subordinate a position that he became both physically and psychologically dependent on an absolute authority. Medvedev shows how the person caught in a trap with no escape became not merely a victim but also an accomplice of the crime; yet he shows understanding for those many unwilling accomplices. He makes a clear distinction between, on the one hand, the innumerable guiltless Communists sentenced and liquidated in the mass purges and show trials, or the ethnic groups and other sections of the population who suffered unprecedented repression under Stalin’s terror, and, on the other, those who fell as victims only after having themselves stained their hands with the blood of innocent victims. Medvedev sees that both contributed in their way to the maintenance of Stalin’s absolute domination for almost three decades. But he is full of sympathy for the former, who only participated unwillingly, with ‘confessions’ extracted by means of atrocious tortures; while for the latter he has only words of condemnation, since they were precisely the instruments of terror without which Stalinism would not have been possible.

One thing which strikes a novel note in Soviet scholarly literature is Medvedev’s view that Stalinism was not inevitable in the historical development of the ussr. To maintain that there are different historical possibilities, and that the combination of given historical circumstances determines which tendency will prevail in a specific situation, is certainly much closer to a genuinely Marxist understanding of history than the more generally accepted view among Soviet scholars that everything which happened necessarily had to happen. Medvedev is right when he states that one cannot justify three decades of terror and autocracy simply by objective conditions (the backwardness of Soviet society after the October Revolution and the effects of foreign intervention). But he still accords too much importance to Stalin’s personality—even though, conscious himself of this, from time to time he does warn that the subjective factors which produced Stalinism also included both the role of other individuals, and psychological elements dertermined by an established climate conducive to a cult of personality, to voluntarism and to the rule of illegality.

But this wavering between the broader historical circumstances which led to the creation of a specific social system, and personal factors primarily rooted in Stalin’s character, represents the principal limitation of Medvedev’s approach to historical analysis. The consequence is that this author, who strives to be so open and critical, in his concluding reflections falls back on the position adopted at the Twentieth Congress of the cpsu—even though his book as a whole demonstrates the limits of any such conclusions. Thus Medvedev repeatedly states that the Party, despite everything, remained pure and revolutionary; that the revolutionary and progressive current succeeded in finding a way forward, and even had an influence on Stalin (who often had to restrain himself); that the dictatorship of the proletariat was stronger than the personal dictatorship, and so on. All this sounds naive in the light of the convincing evidence which Medvedev himself furnishes to the effect that the revolutionary party which made the October Revolution was virtually annihilated during Stalin’s purges; that Stalin’s dictatorship denied even to his closest collaborators (not to speak of the mass of workers) any possibility of sharing in his power; and that Soviet society moved backwards relative to the first years after the Revolution.

Thus Medvedev is not able to draw all the consequences from his own analysis, which is much more far-reaching and convincing than his conclusions. He is incapable, as a specialist, of freeing himself from certain characteristic traits of the Soviet society which produced him—a society which for most of its history has been moulded in the spirit of Stalinism. Two of these features are particularly significant: the first is the presence in Medvedev’s work of elements of a dogmatic approach; the second is represented by the traces of an ideological (party) stance towards certain phenomena from the period he is describing. The former manifests itself in a totally uncritical attitude towards Lenin’s policies, which are Medvedev’s exclusive criterion for judging the positions and political actions of other leaders, both during the October Revolution and in the post-revolutionary period. For Medvedev, Lenin’s positions are an absolute yardstick for measuring the correctness or deviancy of everyone else’s positions. Thus his basic stance is dogmatic: in place of one absolute arbiter whom he has dethroned (Stalin), he instals another, equally sacrosanct authority (Lenin) who can never be questioned. Hence Medvedev cannot adopt a radically new position with respect to ‘opposition’ of any kind. Although he does remove layers of mystification concerning Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and unambiguously denies that they were traitors or spies, they nevertheless remain for him an opposition whose target he never clearly defines. In other words, he does not clearly state whether they were against socialism or Stalinism. He characterizes Stalin’s policies as pseudo-socialism, but does not say whether opposition to Stalin meant to be on the side of socialism, or was simply another variety of pseudo-socialism. At all events, Medvedev implicitly treats the various opponents of Stalin as revisionists, or even as people with dubious motives and problematic characters, who in a certain way may even have deserved the fate they suffered.

Although he stresses that Lenin had a more benevolent attitude towards ‘opposition’, Medvedev nevertheless does not omit to point out also that Lenin was already critical of their ‘deviations’ (but gave them opportunities to ‘correct’ these); the only proof he adduces that they went astray is that they thought differently from Lenin. Thus he does not attempt to assess their positions in such disputes with Lenin, in order to show who was right on the basis of arguments; for him, it could a priori only be Lenin. This is the case even when the latter himself changed his views radically—something which Medvedev is always ready to view with the utmost sympathy when it is a question of Lenin.