Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Never trust the capitalists

The blurb on the book’s back cover –“Read in an afternoon. Remember for a lifetime”– might be stretching the attention span of most readers but it fairly hits the mark when claiming this history of the Soviet Union is not a book easily forgotten.


Lenin, Soviet Union. Photo by Rizobreaker /Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Sean Sheehan


The main text covers a mere 230 pages but they contain hardly a sentence that isn’t worth reading.

The author, Sheila Fitzpatrick, is a leading scholar when it comes to the history of the Soviet Union and she has managed to distil her knowledge of the subject with remarkable concision. The reader comes to trust her judgement calls when, for example, she presents Lenin as not being the one-dimensional character that popular caricatures would have us believe.

The Soviet Union came into existence in 1924 and its essential background and establishment occupies the book’s first pages. Fitzpatrick is in superb form when crystalizing into just five pages the tumultuous events between February and October of 1917. She is equally adept at showing how the Soviet Union was established from the broken state of Imperial Russia, creating separate territorial administrations for Ukraine, Belorussia and the Central Asian republics (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Krigizstan); the Baltic and Polish provinces chose independence (lost in World War II).

The succession struggle after Lenin’s death is deftly described and a chapter is devoted to the decades of Stalin’s rule that witnessed collectivisation and political purges.

Bolshevism’s cannibalism, devouring its own creators by accusing them of treason, is peculiarly hard to comprehend and Fitzpatrick situates them by way of tensions with Nazi Germany and the murder of a party leader in 1934.

Stalin was an instigator but show trials, executions and deportations to labour camps in Siberia took on a momentum of their own.

A chapter is devoted to the USSR’s pivotal role in World War II, followed by a chapter about the dramatic political thaw that came with the death of Stalin in 1953.

An amnesty brought the release of political prisoners (for more on this, see The Architects) and Khruschev became the new leader of the USSR,  launching an astonishing social-welfare project that enabled 100 million people to move into new apartments between 1956 and 1965.

The material on Khruschev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev make fascinating reading, pointing out the broadly egalitarian nature of Soviet society under their administrations and how everything traumatically changed with the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Yelstin’s wild conversion to the free market.

The map of the USSR. Photo by Gabriel /Flickr. Creative Commons License.

The postscript to Moscow’s relationship with its non-Russian republics, an insighful constant in all the chapters, was the assurance by West Germany and the US that US-led NATO would not expand into Eastern Europe in the wake of the Union’s unravelling: Fitzpatrick remarks how Gorbachev, ‘should have ‘remembered never to trust the capitalists’ and, as a lawyer, he “should have known that you get your assurances in writing”. Her words have some bearing what is now happening in Ukraine.

“The shortest history of the Soviet Union” by Sheila Fitzpatrick is published by Old Street Publishing.

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