What went wrong with Russian Communism?
April 9, 2012 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Book recommendation to answer the question: Why did Communism fail in Russia?

I'm looking for a non-fiction book that details exactly what went wrong with Russian Communism in the most apolitical way possible. I'm sorta envisioning a book with the benefit of historical perspective and that ideally links different stages of the collapse to social, demographic, economic, etc. trends at the time.

It seems like it's so easy for people to write off Communism by saying "Well, you know... RUSSIA" and I suspect it might not be getting a fair shake. I want as factual an account as possible, treating every ideological system in the least pejorative way possible. There's a lot of books out there and I'm just not sure where to start. Thanks!
posted by jay.eye.elle.elle. to Law & Government (20 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Richard Pipes' A Concise History of the Russian Revolution outlines the revolutionary origins of the Soviet Union and goes a long way to explain why the experiment was doomed from the beginning.
posted by downing street memo at 7:36 AM on April 9, 2012


I'm not sure if nasreddin (who is a Russian history scholar, albeit of a different century) is around here much anymore, but a while ago he vouched for Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000.
posted by griphus at 7:37 AM on April 9, 2012

There's two ways to interpret "why did communism fail?". One is "why did the Soviet Union collapse?", and the other is "Why did the Soviet Union immediately turn into a one-party dictatorship, antithetical to the precepts of actual communism, within a decade of the revolution?" Which are you asking?
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:02 AM on April 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

For a detailed explanation of why the economic system didn't work, look at Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell, particularly the index references to the Soviet Union. For instance, his account of how people in the Soviet Union dealt with the lack of brand names on products is fascinating. I would read this along with a broader historical account such as the Richard Pipes book recommended in the first comment.

Don't believe anyone who says: "Communism was never tried!" It was tried in the Soviet Union. It failed.
posted by John Cohen at 8:04 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Soviet Century by Moshe Lewin provides a good background on the Soviet Union in general.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:05 AM on April 9, 2012

Nasreddin is still around. I think a combination of Gorbachev's "Perestroika" and "Lenin's Tomb" by David Remnick would be a good start.
posted by spicynuts at 8:29 AM on April 9, 2012

I think the usual argument is the soviet union never claimed to be communist, it was union of soviet socialist republics. It had centrally planned economy, totalitarian one-party political system and many socialistic policies like free healthcare, universally subsidised (effectively free) housing, constitutionally guaranteed work for every citizen.

From a certain perspective, both US and western europe are more communist than soviet union because companies can and often are owned, wholly or partially, by workers through partnerships or ownership of shares; worker's ownership of production being one of the core ideas of communism. In the Soviet Union, that never happened except for a few years in the 20s and in a small tightly controlled ways (via cooperatives) towards the end.

In other words, one might say that Soviet Union was much more socialist than the US and western europe but at the same time they were somewhat more communist.
posted by rainy at 8:45 AM on April 9, 2012

Seconding Armageddon Averted, if what you're looking for is why did the Communist Party lose power, the USSR break up and the Warsaw Pact dissolve (and all relatively peacefully, hence the title).

If you're looking for something like "Why did the USSR go from being an economic success story in the 50s to a relatively stagnant economy later", I thought Red Plenty was fascinating.
posted by bonecrusher at 8:47 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Gates of November by Chaim Potok. (Potok: American Jewish 20th century novelist, author of The Chosen, My Name is Asher Lev, known for his writing about American Jewry.)

This is Potok's first (and only?) non-fiction book. It follows a Jewish family from the Bolshevik Revolution through the 1980s. It starts out with Solomon Slepak, a Bolshevik revolutionary who was deported to Vladivostok as a young man, but rode the political tides and eventually became a high-ranking diplomat. Slepak's son, Volodya, grew up to be a refusenik, and was deported to Siberia. The book does not actually cover the fall of Communism, (having been written before the USSR fell) but instead talks about the oppressiveness of the Soviet regime and how that oppression manifested for the Slepak family in particular and Jews in general.

It's obviously not the only book you'd want to rely on about how the Soviet Union functioned/malfunctioned, but it's a very compelling and genuinely interesting (not to mention educational) read.
posted by brina at 9:10 AM on April 9, 2012

If you are interested in the wider question of the failures of communism beyond Russia, I've added (sadly recently deceased) Lucio Magri's most recent work The Tailor of Ulm: A History of Communism to me wish list after reading a great essay by him at the NLR. Magri was a major figure in the Italian communist movement (inside and occasionally outside the party).
posted by Abiezer at 9:34 AM on April 9, 2012

Seconding the Remnick. It's basically an oral history interspersed with analysis.
posted by vecchio at 9:39 AM on April 9, 2012

Empire by Dominic Lieven looks at the Soviet Union as a multi-ethnic empire first and a planned economy second with many interesting results, I think, about why "Communism, DUH" is not a very intelligent answer to the Soviet Union's collapse.

Seeing like a State by James C. Scott is an excellent analysis of what frequently goes wrong in centrally planned economies of all sorts, communist or capitalist.

The first is probably closer to what you're looking for than the second, but they're both great books that take advantage of recent scholarship, and tackle the challenges of the Communist system as developed in the Soviet Union from a perspective that is not aligned with the traditional capitalist critique.
posted by psycheslamp at 9:52 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

thirding armageddon averted
posted by beukeboom at 10:24 AM on April 9, 2012

fourthing Armageddon Averted.
posted by raihan_ at 10:38 AM on April 9, 2012

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford is a nice little book which is a fictionalized (it's essentially nonfiction) retelling of some of the failures of the Soviet economy. Part of the problem with declaring "Communism" an obvious failure in the Soviet Union is that it was initially so successful that the West was threatened by it and responded to it: think Sputnik, wholesale reforms in education and science, etc. For decades the USSR sustained surprising rates of growth starting from a primitive barely post-feudal state.

The upshot is that the USSR was run like a very large vertically integrated corporation (different state monopolies operated on a profit/loss basis where profits were calculated using an interpretation of the "labor theory of value".) Every large corporation is run by "central planning" so that the same problems in optimizing investment that the Soviet's encountered were worked on in parallel in the West.

You aren't going to find an unbiased account. For every book you read, you have to decide what story the author is trying to tell.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:49 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thirding Red Plenty for a look at how the Soviet economy actually operated.
posted by synchronia at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2012

You should check out Nomenklatura: The soviet rulling class. The argument there is that Lenin (and later Stalin) had no interest in communism as described by Marxist theory. They used the rhetoric to gain power and stay in power. It sheds some light on why soviet style communism failed..
posted by aeighty at 11:32 AM on April 9, 2012

I'll add a vote for Remnick's Lenin's Tomb.
posted by feste at 1:20 PM on April 9, 2012

I'm not sure if nasreddin (who is a Russian history scholar, albeit of a different century) is around here much anymore, but a while ago he vouched for Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000.

I actually bought this book based of Nasreddin's recommendation and I, too, in turn, recommend it. I reviewed it on LibraryThing. Be aware that 1) the introduction is so badly written it nearly put me off the whole book, which would have been a grievous mistake, and 2) the first copy I got was a first edition with a terrible printing error wherein about 100 pages are repeated, the proper pages are effectively replaced by the repetition, which sucked!

My only other caveat is that Kotkin's book is very macro-focused and bird's eye view, he only briefly touches on what life for the everyday Russian is like in concrete ways. Nonetheless, the book gave me a much more thorough understanding of the cause of collapse.
posted by smoke at 4:18 PM on April 9, 2012

treating every ideological system in the least pejorative way possible

I don't think Sowell fits the bill, then. He's a fairly doctrinaire libertarian thinker; I find it hard to imagine he'd provide you the factual, non-pejorative account you're looking for.
posted by mediareport at 6:13 AM on April 10, 2012

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