Michael Haynes and Rumy Hasan, 'A Century of State Murder? Death and Policy in Twentieth Century Russia'

IssueDecember 2003 - February 2004
Review by Sian Glaessner

At times worryingly naïve this is a book that goes some way to readdress the myth of “transition” in Post Soviet Russia.

Packed with tables and charts there is no doubt that Mssrs Haynes and Hasan have done serious research, and it shows. They avoid many of the cliche's that appear in books about Russia: centuries of endurance, the mysterious Russian Soul etc, and for anyone new to that part of the world, the facts and figures of (Post)Soviet life and death will be truly horrific.

Their premise? That transition failed as capitalism in the same way that the Soviet Regime failed as Communism. Sadly they do not observe that just as Soviet Power was never intended to be “Communist” so too free market capitalism was never the envisaged goal of “transition”. Sometimes their prose lacks clarity and finesse: “In Russia before 1914 death was commonplace” and the reader often wonders if there is any escape from statistics into the cool light of prose.

This book vividly portrays the casual brutality characteristic of central rule from Moscow and history yields some fine examples “the young Tsar danced while his murdered subjects were taken from a field”, but this is not a history. Statistics aside, this is polemic. They impose their own agenda on the past, downplaying the tensions between nobles, landowners and the monarchy and their analysis of 1917 is marred by the lie of the Bolshevik revolution being infused with ideas of a “classless society”. It was not. It grew out of class divisions and sought to perpetuate them.

In their assumption of the inherent superiority of proletariat over peasant, Lenin and the Bolsheviks condemned over 80% of the population to servitude. The peasants (whom Lenin regarded with utmost contempt) were “backward” and an “obstacle to progress” who were most useful as cannon fodder or serving of the needs of the town. In continuing the myth of pre 1928 Bolshevik rule as “benign at heart” the authors are doing a disservice to the people they seek to honour with accuracy.

The past does not speak in this book, it is made to dance relentlessly like a macabre puppet to their tune. That said, the chapters dealing with the Gorbi-Yeltsin-Putin years are more sound - if a little off on the October 1993 crisis, and the “Darlings of the West” are unceremoniously dismantled. And while it is a shame that the power struggle that dogged Communist rule between the Kremlin and the KGB is not brought to bear in their analysis of the Yeltsin-Putin handover, we are left in no doubt as to the nature of the current regime. But this is not enough to free the book from the ideology the authors have chosen to clothe some important issues in. If “the dead deserve nothing but the truth” they do not get it from Haynes and Hassan.

Topics: History, Russia
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