The centenary of the Russian Revolution has just passed, leaving a rather eerie silence, as Vladimir Putin’s Russia decided not to hold any official commemoration. In the current climate of what has been called a ‘new Cold War’ with Russia, people in the West often forget that the Soviet Union and its communist regime ceased to exist in 1991. The Russia of our imagination is still a superpower – despite the fact that its GDP has shrunk to approximately the size of Spain’s, putting it just below Australia in global ranking. Putin is not Stalin, however; for him the Soviet past is a mixed bag, part of which he wants to keep and part not. The once sacred October Revolution seems to be on the throw-out list.
Western Russia scholars were wary of the centenary, too. The general tenor of their assessments was that the revolution was a failure because it led to Stalinism. While Eric Hobsbawm’s judgement in The Age of Extremes (1994) was that the Russian Revolution was the key event of the global twentieth century, historians in the centenary year were keen to downplay its significance. In this, as in many other issues during his distinguished career in Soviet studies, American historian Ronald Grigor Suny is not marching in step. He thought the revolution mattered in the 1960s, when, as a young radical Marxist, he entered the historical profession and became a Soviet specialist, and he thinks it matters now. His lively and erudite new book, comprising six historiographical essays focusing on the interpretation of the revolution and its aftermath, is eloquent testimony to this belief.