Mar 17, 2006

Review: Nikolai Bukharin - The Last Years

Medvedev, Roi Aleksandrovich (Roy). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983, 176 pages

Medvedev’s book, as the title indicates, is a biography of the last nine years of the life of Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik revolutionary, Marxist intellectual, and Soviet politician. From a life of great acclaim as a theorist of socialism, Bukharin eventually wound up as victim of Stalin’s Great Purge; he was a defendant in the Trial of the Twenty One, was convicted, and shot to death by the NKVD. The author argued that Bukharin was not deserving of the fate of being branded a traitor to the Revolution, and that the “murder” (Medvedev’s term) of Bukharin was a crime influenced by Stalin’s paranoid fear of political rivals that ended the life of one of the most brilliant Bolshevik thinkers.

Medvedev was a prominent historian during the Soviet era who criticized Stalinism, and was purged from the Party after the publication of his book Let History Judge. The author’s writing presents a highly unfavorable view of the Soviet dictator, and this book is an especially critical condemnation of the excesses of the Great Purge. Using archival materials, personal interviews, and heretofore unpublished government documents, Medvedev skillfully wove a well-documented narrative that highlighted the nefarious campaign to discredit and destroy a much-loved leader of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The author argued that, whatever his deviations from the general Party line, Bukharin remained a loyal Bolshevik to the very end. Originally a member of the Left Opposition that opposed the Brest-Livotsk treaty in 1918, Bukharin later supported the moderate and right wings of the party in the post-Lenin debate over the NEP. Medvedev traced the growing hostility that Stalin demonstrated toward Bukharin to the period following Stalin’s political victories over the Left Opposition in 1925. The author argued that, in particular, Bukharin’s opposition in 1928 to Stalin’s plans for the collectivization of agriculture set the Soviet leader on a course to destroy Bukharin. Despite his loyalty to the Party and public support for Stalin, Bukharin increasingly found himself marginalized by Stalin’s public attacks on his purported anti-Revolutionary positions.

The author’s account of Bukharin’s last few months is especially harrowing, and reads like scenes from Orwell’s 1984. Bukharin’s friends disappeared, both literally and figuratively; those not imprisoned went to great pains to distance themselves from the Bolshevik outcast. One such ally was Kliment Voroshilov, later to have a less-than-distinguished career as a Marshal commanding Soviet forces in the 1940 Finnish campaign. The author quoted a passage from a tersely worded letter that Voroshilov wrote in reply to a desperate Bukharin, in which the former friend siad: “’I beg you, Comrade Bukharin, never to approach me again with questions of any kind.’” Clearly conditions were such in the Purge-era Soviet Union that longtime confidants were forced to humiliating acts of self-preservation.

Medvedev’s book is written in accessible language, although the frequent references to obscure Bolshevik figures necessitates either prior knowledge of the period or access to suplemetary texts. The author’s research was groundbreaking, as Medvedev brought new material to Western historians. Medvedev, in his zeal to push for the rehabilitation of Bukharin, occasionally overstated his arguments.

One such example involves Medvedev’s examination of a document that Bukharin wrote, which had a decidedly pro-Stalinist viepoint. The author dismissed the writing as “clearly quite wrong,” instead of considering that Bukharin may have simply composed the article as a means to get back in the good graces of Stalin. In a passage describing the recollections of Ilya Ehrenburg, an associate of Bukharin, the author described the account as “clearly wrong testimony.” Nonetheless, these minor criticisms do not take away from the power of Medvedev’s narrative, and this book is an essential read for a microhistory of the Great Purge.


Anonymous said...

Bukharin was the last great hope of the Soviets and Stalin killed him.

Dariush said...

Thanks for this review, Mike.

I'll definitely have to pick up a copy of this book.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Bukharin -- even more than his physical liquidation (look at Trotsky and his legacy, after all) is the fact that perhaps the greatest figure of Bolshevik Russia (both as a human being and as a political philosopher/writer) had his presence virtually wiped clean from the history books.

Monthly Review Press published a great anthology of his writings a couple of years ago, along with one of Rosa Luxemburg. Both are worth picking up.

I'm curious. Have you had a chance yet to read Simon Sebag Montefiore's book on Stalin's "court"?

historymike said...

Nope, but it's on my list, Dariush. Glad you liked the review - Medvedev stuck his neck out and almost singlehandedly led to the rehabilitation of Bukharin in the Soviet Union.

Stefan Schmidt said...

I unfortunately know very little of Nikolai Bukharin--- all my acquired knowledge about this man stems from reading about other Soviet revolutionaries--- so don’t be afraid to correct me if I am wrong….

Bukharin was a true idealist---believing in a form of communism (not sure of the name unfortunately) that was some times at odds with Marxism, Lenin, and Stalin--- and in Stalinist Russia there was no room for idealists.

Stalin incorporated some of Bukharin’s ideologies (namely the thesis: Socialism in one country)--- but in the end, a non-monolithic communist party spelled trouble for Stalin since another alternative might inspire the people to seek that alternative.

Just like Stalin’s war against Christianity--- he had to create a state that was centralized around him, any detractors like Bukharin were trouble and had to be liquidated.

Stalin managed a totalitarian state quite well but he was not an intellectually heavy weight, great orator, or charismatic figure. He did not inspire hope and thus he had to crush hope by intertwining the ideology, well-being, and culture of state around him--- Stalin was communism, was God, and was the Soviet Union to the Russian people.

He was a common street thug that was pragmatic enough to be able to hold onto his state even if the costs were piles of dead bodies of his countrymen.

One has to still admire the original communist revolutionaries---even if they were naïve. I will definitely pick up this book, Mike. Thanks.

Stephanie said...

"The author argued that Bukharin was not deserving of the fate of being branded a traitor to the Revolution, and that the "murder" (Medvedev’s term) of Bukharin was a crime influenced by Stalin’s paranoid fear of political rivals that ended the life of one of the most brilliant Bolshevik thinkers."

From my limited knowledge of Stalin, I can't imagine how any of his trial and executions were just. The argument that this one wasn't doesn't seem like it would be that hard to make.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Bukharin, though greatly influencing later history sadly suffered the fate of many great minds who meticulously constructed their own air-tight coffins.

Great review Mike!