Revisionist view of the Russian Revolution

December 23, 1990|By ANTERO PIETILA

The Russian Revolution.

Richard Pipes.

Knopf.

946 pages. $40.

The crisis in the Soviet Union is unfolding so fast now that any book-length discussion of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika attempt is doomed to be badly out of date by its publication date. In this situation a thoughtful newspaper reader will need a reliable guide that informs and fills gaps but is up to date. This book is it -- it tells us how the Soviet Union got into this mess.

It is ironic that "The Russian Revolution," the second volume of a contemplated historical trilogy covering the last years of czarist rule and early years of communism, is likely to make its strongest impact not in this country but inside the Soviet Union. It has been greeted here with more suspicion in liberal and leftist circles than it is likely to receive once the Russian edition, now under preparation, is published in Moscow.

The main reasons for the suspicion expressed are these: Although Richard Pipes is a recognized Harvard historian, his strong anti-communism is a matter of record. He is thought to have a particular ideological ax to grind because he served as President Reagan's National Security Council adviser on Soviet and East European affairs. Anyone starting out with these objections can claim satisfaction of having been right: In his examination, Mr. Pipes debunks the dogmas and fundamental myths of communism with gusto and -- even more shocking! -- draws a very unflattering picture of Lenin.

Why, then, is this book likely to get a more enthusiastic reception in the U.S.S.R.? For some very good reasons: The scholarship is excellent, the variety of sources impressive. Many Westerners still may resist a reassessment of Lenin, but Soviets are ready for it.

One of the burning topics among Soviet historians in recent years has been whether Stalin's rise to power was an accident or a logical consequence of the communist practices started by Lenin. Mr. Pipes' answer is unequivocal: "The foundations of the police state . . . were laid while Leninwas in charge and on his initiative."

Mr. Pipes goes farther. He writes that the one-party regime developed by Lenin was a prototype of a new totalitarian system soon to be refined by other dictators, particularly Hitler. "Lenin hated what he perceived to be the 'bourgeoisie' with a destructive passion that fully equaled Hitler's hatred of the Jews: nothing short of its physical annihilation would satisfy it," he writes.

All this conflicts with the hagiography of Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution that was started by John Reed in "Ten Days That Shook the World" and then perpetuated over the years by Soviet and Western sympathizers. Interestingly, a thorough reappraisal of the communist experiment is gaining momentum in the Soviet Union but largely lags among Western intellectuals.

Mr. Pipes' revisionist book argues convincingly that the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 not as a result of a popular revolution but a coup -- a view increasingly shared by Soviet historians.

"The Russian Revolution" is divided into two parts. The first describes the decay of czarism and the forces that not only brought down the monarchy but tore apart the country's political and social fabric. These chapters often are eerie; they seem to depict today's disintegration and chaos in the Soviet Union.

The second part describes how the Bolshevik Party seized power and created a one-party regime with its terror apparatus and centralized economic system.

Because this volume is part of a larger totality, Mr. Pipes wastes no time in establishing his belief that the deception and lies that later became the trademarks of Stalin's rule were part of communist practices from the very beginning. Their conviction that a worldwide revolution was only a matter of time seemed to justify the means. Thus treaties and agreements with capitalist countries from the very beginning were seen only as temporary concessions to be broken when the situation warranted.

The murder of the czarist imperial family provides an early insight to the communist duplicity. Recent disclosures in Moscow support evidence collected by Mr. Pipes that Lenin personally ordered the family shot even though he insisted the decision was made by local authorities in Siberia. Even so, months after the execution official Bolshevik emissaries negotiating with the German government still were proposing the swap of Czarina Alexandra and her children for arrested revolutionaries!

Mr. Pipes' undertaking is an ambitious one. As the truth about communist practices finally is beginning to emerge from Soviet archives, his demythologizing of Lenin and the Bolshevik period will be looked at as a seminal effort.

Virtually every day is bringing out disclosures that support his arguments. The latest -- too recent to be included in his book -- concern the cruiser Aurora, which has won a hallowed place in the communist mythology because it supposedly fired the opening salvo of the 1917 revolution.

What is the truth?

The Aurora indeed fired one shot. It was a blank; the ship had no live ammunition. Yet for decades the Aurora has been shown to Soviet and foreign dignitaries visiting Leningrad as a symbol of the revolution. But newly released documents show that what is purported to be the Aurora in fact is a fake, constructed after the communist takeover to be a museum piece.

But then, the "Great Soviet Encyclopedia" defines Leninist truth as a quality that changes according to circumstances.

Mr. Pietila, a member of The Sun's editorial board, was the paper's correspondent in Moscow from 1983 to 1988.

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