The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned in A Decade Studying the Soviet Union

I was first introduced to the Soviet Union as a topic of academic study in 2005, when I took a undergraduate survey on Soviet history. As someone on the political left with a visceral hatred of authoritarianism, I was fascinated to find out more about what historian Ronald Grigor Suny has called “the Soviet experiment.” Over the next decade of my studies, I found that authoritarianism was far more insidious in practice than the dictatorial vision that I had to that point imagined.

One of my first lessons was that a totalitarian understanding of the Soviet Union was insufficient to explain the breadth of Soviet experience. To call the Soviet Union totalitarian is more than to describe its leader as autocratic. It is a thesis about the nature of life there that could not withstand a careful reading of the evidence. This was, critically, not a judgment about whether or not the Soviet system was authoritarian, let alone commentary on whether or not one would have liked to live there.

It clearly was authoritarian. The years I have spent studying Soviet history have certainly confirmed that conclusion. But to understand the Soviet Union writ-large, not just the political leadership, we must take seriously the lives that people lived there. Doing justice to those people meant not consigning them to a kind of plodding mass incapable of exerting any agency over any portion of their lives. The ramifications of this straightforward observation for understanding the nature of authoritarianism are far-reaching.

Was the Soviet Union Totalitarian?

Such an interpretation of Soviet History was made popular by a cohort of historians called the “revisionist school.” Although “revisionist history” is commonly used as a pejorative term to talk about historical cranks of one sort or another, in this case the term refers to historians who wanted to “revise” the totalitarian interpretation of Soviet history.  They integrated ideas from sociology and anthropology into historical study in an attempt to study the lives of everyday people and their roles in history. The totalitarian school of Soviet history, by contrast, focused on the more, you guessed it, totalitarian aspects of the Soviet political system.


Historians from the totalitarian school like Robert Conquest focused on the oppression of Stalin and Stalinism in studies like The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the 1930s, published in 1968. Even with the limited sources available to him in the 1960s, Conquest was able to piece together an account of Stalin’s purges that focused on the brutal violence committed during the “terror” – a phrase he borrowed from scholars of the French Revolution. Conquest’s “terror” was all-encompassing and total.

A cohort of historians writing in the following decades turned their attention to culture and society in the same period, producing works like Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921-1932 (1979) and much later, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, Soviet Life in the 1930s (1999). Fitzpatrick’s account of life under Stalin is far less totalitarian, but still very authoritarian. The state plays nearly as-prominent a role in Fitzpatrick’s story as it does in Conquest’s.

According to Fitzpatrick, the powerful and heavily bureaucratized government in the Soviet Union created a complex system that demanded citizens interact with, or attempt to circumvent, the state in very many aspects of their lives. The crucial difference is that Fitzpatrick sees the expression of power as complex and multi-directional. It is not that power was expressed equally by everyday Soviet people and the Soviet state, but rather that room existed for some exchange between the two, not to mention exchange between Soviet people.

If we look at their intentions with charitable eyes, both schools of thought were based on a desire for some measure of justice for the Soviet people. The totalitarian school thought that focusing on dictatorial nature of the Soviet government highlighted the plight of those living under its rule and better captured the historical reality of Soviet authoritarianism. The revisionist school insisted that a complete historical understanding of Soviet authoritarianism could not exist without understanding the Soviet society on an operational level.

The best historical evidence suggests that the Soviet Union was authoritarian and had a rich but embattled sphere of everyday life and culture. At times, this authoritarianism was expressed in every bit as harsh and brutal a way as you or Conquest could imagine. Of this, there can be no doubt. But individuals nonetheless carried on and nevertheless lived lives that are intimately recognizable to us when we uncover and piece together their stories in archives, in diaries, in verbal accounts.

This, at last, brings me back to my title and to the most important thing that I have learned in a decade of studying the Soviet Union.

Authoritarian practice is almost never “total” in the way that we often imagine. It is brutal. It is oppressive. It puts people in no-win situations out of which they sometimes cannot rise. But it is not so often total. Even North Korean dictatorship, the humanitarian disaster that it is, is not absolute in its power. The perhaps-surprising but unavoidable revelation is that authoritarianism can be as qualitatively “bad” as it seems according to Conquest’s account of Stalin’s purges and still fall short of completely dystopian autocratic totalitarianism.

If this seems somewhat contradictory, that is because it is. If we want to truly grapple with the reality of authoritarianism, we must learn to contend with its contradictions. Noticing the historical limits of authoritarian reach should not downplay its effects. Rather it should sensitize us to its existence in a much wider set of political circumstances.

Insidious Authoritarianism

As a culture, we have become hyper-sensitized to the dangers of totalitarianism and autocracy – Germany under Hitler, the worst years of Stalin’s reign, or the dystopian vision that currently holds sway in North Korea. We are right to abhor and resist anything that might resemble such political orders. We must also be careful not to marshal our defenses against totalitarianism in a way that leaves us vulnerable to other avenues by which authoritarianism can arrive.

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Any whiff of authoritarianism leads to cries of fascism and worries of autocracy. If we stave that off, we think, then we have beaten it. We imagine that we will know when authoritarianism has been achieved because our lives will resemble Winston Smith’s harrowed existence in 1984.

In spite of the roles as archetypal villains that Stalin and Hitler play in our popular imagination of authoritarianism, oppression and oppressors in the twenty-first century are unlikely to announce themselves as heirs to those of the twentieth. If, as it seems is true, it is was entirely possible to have everyday experiences under Stalin that seem shocking for their normality, we must recognize that political bogeymen are only a narrow slice of political concern in the fight against authoritarianism.

The truly frightening conclusion about authoritarianism, I dare say much more frightening than even the totalitarian school’s interpretation, is that it can coexist with experiences we value. The mechanisms for authoritarianism can exist alongside your child getting a good education or the ability to take vacations to the shore. Although twentieth-century authoritarianism at its worst did resemble something Orwellian (Orwell did draw inspiration from them, after all), it very frequently looked quite different in its day-to-day practice. But the fact that it looked different does not make it less authoritarian or less abhorrent.

When we worry openly about authoritarianism, it is almost always about a dystopian future (near or distant) that we hope to avoid. In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism nearly sold out on Amazon. 1984 was the best selling book on the platform. People are worried and are reaching out for ways to make sense of our political reality.

My critique should not lead us to conclude that North Korea is not a dictatorship or that autocracy is not a valid fear or concern. Rather, it is that if we only focus our attention only on avoiding that fate, we risk leaving ourselves vulnerable to authoritarianism that fails to announce itself with tacky epaulets and military parades. We must grapple with the possibility that people can live under authoritarianism and not to fully recognize and comprehend it.

What to do?

Without the election of Donald Trump, I imagine I would not be writing these words. Yet, our analysis of authoritarianism in Trump’s America must take into account not just Trump, but America. Had Hillary Clinton won the election by that proverbial “stadium full of voters” in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, we would still have to grapple with the fact that enough people had supported candidate Trump to make for such a close race.

I am sure such analyses would have been written, but the counterfactual itself is less important than the conclusion that the thought experiment leads me to. If we believe, today, that America is in a very precarious relationship to authoritarianism, then America was in very nearly the same relationship on November 7, 2016.

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Authoritarianism, at its base, is a way of thinking and acting that assumes that further discussion is unnecessary or even threatening. Such ideas are just as authoritarian when proffered by elected leaders as those who enforce their rule through threat of violence.

Donald Trump does represent an acute authoritarian problem in American politics. “Trumpism”, such as it is, has been authoritarian from the beginning insofar as it seeks simple answers and casts out dissenters. That mentality has clearly informed the early days of his presidency. It has already nearly reached the point of crisis with recent revelations about his attempts to derail the Russia investigation and then firing FBI Director James Comey. With the recent ouster of Reince Priebus, things seem to be only escalating.

Fighting back against Trumpian authoritarianism is a worthy cause and we are right to combat it using all institutions available to us, from the press to the courts, from taking to the streets to expressing discontent at town halls. As a part of American political life, this is something in which we are well versed. It is, more or less, political activism within the U.S. system of government. Our institutions are still intact and we should use them.

Trump is severe and brutish, swinging wildly from strongman to renegade tweeter. He does not, however, represent the root of our authoritarian problem. Trumpism is merely its latest expression. The more important task will be to build a society that is less hospitable to authoritarian thinking. That means building non-state institutions at all levels of society that promote discussion, community, and diversity. That someone like Trump, with an explicitly authoritarian campaign, can run and win the presidency, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the election and the margin of victory, already suggests that those institutions have been critically weakened.

Credit: Continentaleurope

The maintenance of anti-authoritarian institutions is a process. Such social institutions are not built once nor repaired once if they are damaged. They are an expression of democratic action carried out again and again. Democracy is not achieved by checking off a list. Free elections, check. An independent judiciary, check. Freedom of the press, check. Acceptance of difference. Check. There is no list that, having checked off enough such boxes, we could call ourselves or any other society a democracy in anything but a fleeting sense, because all such institutions are inherently provisional and must be continually reified.

An authoritarian like Trump can be defeated at the ballot box as long as our institutions hold, but authoritarian thinking must be consistently beaten back at a much more grass-roots level. Defeating the authoritarian is not the same as defeating authoritarianism. If we assume they are one and the same, we are all the more vulnerable to missing its rise.

This places a large burden on anyone who claims to care about democracy and civil societies. One cannot rest assured that anti-authoritarianism will prevail and must constantly participate in civic life. At the same time, it grants us hope even in the darkest, most authoritarian times. Engaging in democratic and anti-authoritarian practices, from celebrating diversity and reading subversive literature in your personal life to taking to the streets or engaging in civil disobedience present a path back from from authoritarianism. The cost can be high even in our own still relatively democratic society, as the stabbings earlier this year in  Portland demonstrate. But make no mistake, those lives were lost in the name of anti-authoritarianism. The rest of us must have the same courage to fight against authoritarianism we will need to continue long after Trump’s presidency is over.