While the history of every country is embattled in some sense, the history of Russia is particularly contested, a subject of public debate, History Channel specials and pundits’ polemics. Yet because the cause for which so many fought, died, killed and suffered no longer holds its former potency, there appears less incentive to try to convey the story’s full complexity and moral ambiguity. Mass culture–books and movies–favors a simplified anti-Communist version of the tale, complete with the dramas and tragedies of Stalinism, the gulag and the Great Terror. The central metaphor for the Soviet experiment has become the prison camp, and the central figure is neither the state’s founder, Lenin, nor the well-intentioned reformer who unraveled the system, Gorbachev, but rather Stalin, the unexpected heir of the revolution and, for many, its gravedigger. While academic historians might still engage in subtle and elaborate explanations of the ambitions, successes and failings of the Soviet regime, their publications find a small professional audience; most popular accounts range from indictments to flat-out condemnations. The Soviet monster must be killed over and over again, for like the slasher in horror films it may rise again, perhaps in a new form: authoritarianism lite, capitalist but statist, reinvigorated by a small, fit, dour policeman.

The Soviet experience stands culpable first and foremost because of the violence it visited on its own citizens and other peoples. From Edmund Burke on, conservatives have emphasized the willfulness of revolutionaries, their decision or at least willingness if not enthusiasm for violence, bloodshed and terror. For the left, the use of force has often been excused as unavoidable, a corollary of the chaos accompanying social change. Eggs must be broken. Revolutions cannot be made with white gloves or on polished floors. Whatever else might be said about Russia’s revolutions–both Lenin’s and Stalin’s–they were extraordinarily violent. They maimed or destroyed the lives of millions as they rushed into a rough modernity, held back the flood of fascist barbarism and built a peculiar and crude version of socialism.

The debate over the direction and the necessity of the revolution began in the first days after October 1917, among participants, supporters and opponents of the Bolsheviks. Perhaps most famously, mere months after the October Revolution, Karl Kautsky, the patriarch of German social democracy, blasted the Bolsheviks’ use of terror in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1918). Kautsky maintained that workers could move toward socialism only through democracy, not dictatorship. As he put it, “There exist only two possibilities, either democracy, or civil war.” He was answered by Lenin in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918); and Trotsky’s replies, in Terrorism and Communism (1920), illustrated the thinking of the Bolsheviks: “Who aims at the end cannot reject the means” and “The man who repudiates the dictatorship of the proletariat repudiates the socialist revolution and digs the grave of socialism.” Trotsky argued that since the bourgeoisie has all the weapons in its hands–factories, banks, newspapers, universities, schools, the army, the police–democracy works for it. He applauded the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, Russia’s grand constitutional convention, which had been elected relatively democratically, and censorship of the opposition press, which was a weapon in the hands of enemies. “If the White Terror can only retard the historical rise of the proletariat, the Red Terror hastens the destruction of the bourgeoisie,” Trotsky wrote.

The origins of Soviet “state” terror are explored in the latest volume of what has turned out to be a trilogy on the revolution in the Russian capital, Petrograd, by historian Alexander Rabinowitch, a professor emeritus at Indiana University. His detailed exploration asks the central question of the post-October period: why did a democratic revolution based on grassroots councils and committees turn into a dictatorship that employed state terror against its opponents, real and imagined, within months of its coming to power? In his previous two volumes–Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising (1968) and The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (1976)–Rabinowitch famously argued that rather than being a coup d’état engineered by a disciplined, centralized party with little popular support, the October Revolution was broadly backed by workers and soldiers in Petrograd who envisioned a government based on democratically elected soviets and including representatives of all the socialist parties.

In one of the earliest “revisionist” accounts of the revolution, Rabinowitch showed that the Bolshevik Party, rather than being the monolithic organization that it would become under Stalin two decades later, was an “open, relatively democratic, and decentralized” collection of argumentative and contentious activists who, while loyal to their revered leader, Lenin, were repeatedly willing to reject his analyses and policies and form oppositional factions within the party. Rather than discipline and obedience, it was the flexibility and responsiveness of the self-styled “vanguard” that attracted followers and helped them garner mass support in the turbulent revolutionary year 1917. Bolshevik doors were open to all kinds of recruits, and the party, Rabinowitch writes, “followed its constituency rather than the other way around.” Moreover, while they employed the conventional Marxist terminology of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in fact the Bolshevik (and more generally Social Democratic) ambition for the years leading up to and through the Russian Revolution was the establishment of a democratic system representing working people. The influential group of moderate Bolsheviks, which included Grigori Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and David Riazanov, was fervently committed to a peaceful transition to Soviet power and to the popular formula of a “homogeneous socialist government,” meaning one inclusive of parties from the Right Socialist Revolutionaries (Right SRs) and Mensheviks through to the Leninists.

But, Rabinowitch argues, Lenin had in mid-September given up on compromise with those socialist parties that continued to advocate a coalition with the “bourgeois” liberals, and even with the moderates in his own party who opposed his notion of a seizure of power by force, even before the Second Congress of Soviets, which was about to meet. Lenin repeatedly warned his comrades that history would not forgive them if they missed the moment presented by the weakness of the Provisional Government led by Prime Minister Aleksandr Kerensky. But it was only when the feckless Kerensky attempted pre-emptively to launch an attack on the Bolsheviks that Lenin’s lieutenants came around and took action. When it opened its first session, the Second Congress was presented with a fait accompli and the proclamation of Soviet power. In a cascade of unpredictable events that disastrously eliminated one political possibility after another, first the Right SRs (the party most influential among the peasants) and then the Mensheviks (the more moderate Marxists) and finally Iulii Martov’s Internationalists walked out of the Congress, leaving only the Bolsheviks and their erratic allies, the Left SRs, to support the new government. Rabinowitch blames Lenin’s precipitous grab for power for eliminating the possibility of the Right SRs and Mensheviks participating in an all-socialist government, an outcome he seems to believe would have prevented the drift toward dictatorship. Lenin followed his October success with a rejection of his party’s moderates’ efforts to bring other parties into government, something favored by the Left SRs as well. The demiurge here was “Lenin (supported by Trotsky)–his supreme confidence in his ability to gauge the revolutionary situation in Russia and internationally, his iron will and dogged determination to achieve his goals irrespective of the strength of the opposition, his consummate political skill, and his lack of scruples.”

Rabinowitch might be right that patience and compromise in October may have kept the “democracy” united around a multiparty government. Yet he provides sufficient evidence in his minute-by-minute account of the negotiations for a reader to conclude that no effective government could have contained the great distance between, on one side, the Right SRs and Mensheviks–who still wanted an alliance with the liberals, refused to have Lenin and Trotsky in the government, and remained opposed to moving beyond the bourgeois revolution to the socialist–and, on the other, the Bolsheviks and Left SRs, now committed to Soviet power, an international socialist revolution and exclusion of the upper and middle classes from government. In many ways Lenin’s rejection of the moderates exacerbated the schism among the socialist parties, and within the month many workers, moderate Bolsheviks and even the Left SRs concluded that a coalition with their former comrades to the right was no longer possible. More consequential was the decision of leading Bolsheviks in January 1918 to dissolve the Constituent Assembly rather than let it present an alternative sovereign authority to the Soviet government. By using armed force, first against demonstrators and then to prevent the delegates from reassembling, the Leninists in a real sense declared civil war on all those in propertied society, on the non-Russian peripheries and among moderate socialists who were unprepared to accept their formulation of socialist revolution. October drove important groups into opposition, and January drove many more to armed rebellion.

Lenin was unafraid of civil war; indeed, he may have welcomed it. For him and his comrades, the lessons of history, as interpreted by Marx, came from France in 1792 and 1871. Lenin was correct that the liberal Kadet Party and its military supporters were already fomenting civil war. “To this there can be but one reply,” he proclaimed. “Prison! That is how [the Jacobins] acted in the great French revolution; they declared the bourgeois parties outside the law.” Yet what is most striking about the first months, even most of the first year, of Bolshevik rule is that mass terror was not employed, that the use of violence was restrained, deployed sporadically and tactically, and was reactive, usually instigated by armed challenges from opponents.

By contextualizing Lenin’s choices, Rabinowitch distances himself from those historians who believe in essential characteristics of Russia or Russians that inevitably lead to authoritarianism and violence. Rather than arising from national character or a fatalistic political culture, terror was inscribed in civil war, which in turn was unavoidable once the Leninists had made certain strategic choices. Contingency and human agency are central principles of his arguments, though the devastation of World War I, the chaos of the revolution and the weakened fabric of Russian society tightly constrained what any leader could have done. Once the civil war was won and the foreign interventionists had retreated, the Communists drastically moderated their policies, reducing state coercion through much of the next decade–until Stalin launched his “revolution from above.”

To the victims of violence the purposes of the perpetrators may matter little, but for historians it is important to understand why state actors turn to the use of force. Since Stalin’s collectivization drive of the late 1920s-early 1930s employed many of the techniques and much of the rhetoric and style of the leather-jacketed militants of the civil war, some have seen the violence of the Stalin years as a continuation and expansion of Lenin’s policies. But violence in war is fundamentally different from violence in peace. Violence in conditions of anarchy or near anarchy, where sovereignty and the nature of the state are targets, is not the same as violence by a constituted sovereign state directed at large numbers of its own population in an effort to transform radically the social and political structure. For Lenin, terror was a weapon against real enemies armed to overthrow his government–and even those not armed with guns but with ideas still presented an existential threat to Soviet power.

Stalin extended terror in the 1930s, not only to eliminate enemies but to remove all potential threats to his power. By arresting, exiling and executing the old elites, particularly within the Communist Party, he opened the way for a new elite loyal to himself and to his form of state socialism. Stalin’s excessive (or surplus) repression was employed to achieve a particular form of autocracy when many highly placed party members preferred a more bureaucratically rational and oligarchic administration. At the same time, the profound isolation of the Soviet Union internationally and the growing peril from Fascist Europe and Japan created an environment in which violence against potential, hidden domestic enemies appeared to many to be an effective, even necessary, tool of self-defense. In a world in which you are surrounded by enemies, paranoia comes close to rationality. Stalin’s rule reproduced Machiavelli’s insight that fear rather than love was invaluable for the prince, and his application of unpredictable terror worked in governing a diverse and rapidly changing society.

In much of her work Sheila Fitzpatrick has gone beyond, and sometimes underneath, the surface appearances of Stalinist society to uncover how ordinary Soviet citizens lived during the years of Stalin’s dictatorship. Australian-born and British-educated, Fitzpatrick is recognized as one of the most influential Western historians of Stalinism, a prominent pioneer in the revisionist historiography of the 1930s. Her latest work explores how people adjusted to the new regime by acquiring, sometimes forging, new identities. The Bolsheviks propagated a Manichaean view of a world made up of allies and enemies, those with them and those against them. Class was the key determinant of loyalty, but class in a roiling postrevolutionary society that had overturned a centuries-old autocratic order with fixed social estates was exceptionally difficult to determine. Were you a worker by birth or prerevolutionary experience, or was your current occupation to be definitive? Why not both? Being ascribed by authorities to a certain class brought with it privileges, if you were from the poor peasantry or proletariat, or disadvantages, if you were a former bourgeois, landowner or cleric. The elaborate process of being fixed into class and other categories–for example, nationality–led to impersonation, assuming an appropriate persona, or even imposture, falsely taking on an advantageous identity. Party officials and zealous ordinary folk constantly engaged in denouncing and “unmasking” those who claimed to be who they were not.

For Fitzpatrick, Marxist class categories not only did not reflect social realities in the Soviet 1920s and ’30s but had to be invented and imposed on a society that they did not fit. Class was therefore somewhat artificial, an imagined community (she borrows the phrase from Benedict Anderson’s familiar characterization of “nation”) that was then applied to diverse people. Marxists, she contends, had a rather inflexible notion of class, which they used to define people’s relationship to the means of production: some were owners, the bourgeoisie; others had nothing but their labor power to sell, the proletariat. She leaves out discussion of what may have been occurring on the ground, except to note the social dislocation of the revolutionary and early Stalinist years. It is invaluable to point out how group identities were the product of elite conceptualization of the group–acts of imagination and, yes, even invention. But Fitzpatrick sets herself off from those Marxists and other social theorists (among them Anderson) who in the past few decades have been arguing that groups of all kinds are not merely imagined as sharing common traits and differing from others but also develop some level of actual coherence from greater social communication and integration. In their analysis, class, like nation, happens over time most effectively when identity and meaning generated from above resonate with cultural understandings down below. Once brought into being, such communities may still be imagined, but they are definitely not imaginary, as people are ready to fight, kill and die for them.

In its first decades the Soviet Union moved away from the radical democracy of 1917-18 to single-party rule through the 1920s to unanticipated authoritarianism and bloody repression in the ’30s, turning from a society of villages to one of massive industrial work sites and burgeoning cities. The old classes of capitalist Russia dissolved, and a new Soviet stratification of workers, peasants, intellectuals and officials replaced them. Fitzpatrick tells a history of individuals from below, drawing on their autobiographies and letters, the forms they filled out and their heroic quotidian efforts to make a life for themselves and get ahead as the whirlwind of collectivization and the Great Terror tore up the lives of many and propelled others upward into the new Soviet elite. Her sovki (Soviet people) wrote constantly to authorities seeking help, used blat (reciprocal favors) to acquire scarce goods and services, as well as connections, patronage networks, people you could “go to” for protection or favors. Stalin was the ultimate patron but dispensed his favors arbitrarily, while others, like Nikolai Bukharin and Avel Enukidze, both of whom had formerly been close comrades of the vozhd’ (leader), were able to help only until their fateful falls brought down clients as well.

Terror (both upper- and lowercase) lurks behind Fitzpatrick’s stories of denunciators and deceivers–the con men she calls “virtuosos of self-invention”–and their unsuspecting victims. But her dissection of Stalinism undermines the rather rigid model of totalitarianism propagated during the cold war. “It is difficult,” she writes, “to see a society in which con men and imposture flourished to this extent as being under effective totalitarian mobilization and control.” Rather, the Soviet Union of the 1930s “was characterized…by poor communications, lack of effective accountability, institutional habits of hoarding, and ‘off-budget’ distribution, credulous and ill-educated officials, and personalistic practices.” Soviet citizens appear motivated primarily by the drive to survive. They are rational and desperate people rather than idealistic socialists or dedicated patriots. In a chapter on denunciations, for example, Fitzpatrick points out that the case of the infamous Pavlik Morozov, the poster-boy denunciator who turned in his family members, was quite atypical, that there were very few denunciations of family members. But she explains this finding not by citing the affective ties of parents to children or husbands to wives but by “practical reasons.” To denounce a close family member would taint and endanger all who were closely related to the traitor. She explicitly contrasts her take on Soviet subjectivity with those of younger scholars who propose that Bolshevism and Stalinism produced a particularly nonliberal sense of self and purpose, a desire to fashion oneself as an authentically “Soviet Man” or “Woman.” Instead of self-absorbed egoism and personal satisfaction, a true Soviet person would aim to become a politically conscious builder of the new socialist society, and generations of those who lived under Stalin’s iron fist strove not to forge individualistic identities but to merge with the collective.

The quintessential Soviet for Fitzpatrick was a shrewd manipulator able to adapt to shifting opportunities, maneuver through ever-present dangers and “con” the authorities when necessary. Actual and fictional Soviet con men were read as Jews, she claims, and the immensely popular novels of Ilf and Petrov, with their trickster hero, Ostap Bender, were banned in the late Stalin period during an anti-Semitic campaign targeting intellectuals, doctors and other professionals. By the time the ban was lifted in 1956, Stalin was gone and the Soviet Union had become a much more mundane society, routinized and bureaucratic, with its revolutionary pretensions nothing more than pretensions. Soviet citizens, in the words of dissident writer Andrei Siniavskii, had imbibed Bender’s survival skills, and, Fitzpatrick adds, “the Jewish trickster, in short, had become the personification of really existing Soviet Man.” In the last sentence of the book she concludes, “On the road to new post-Soviet identity, the impostor, Janus-faced, was once again in the vanguard.”

So, one wonders, was it all a waste of time, of millions of lives and several generations who had sacrificed and vainly hoped for a different outcome? That seems to be the verdict in much of the developed world, certainly in the United States, which treated the demise of the Soviet experiment as inviolable proof that it alone deserved to inherit the globe. Few remain who would condone the excesses of Stalin or defend his revolution ex post facto because it was the Soviet army and people who were the main force that defeated Hitler–and, ironically, made possible the revival of the capitalist West. More would reserve judgment on 1917, with its aspirations for a new society of greater equality, social justice and popular power. Historians will long stay employed fighting over when the revolution went wrong and whether Stalinism was already present in the genetic code of Leninism. Philosophers and politicians will question whether and under what circumstances violence and terror might be justified. How could it be justified? By its ends, it seems, for nothing but ends justify means. But if the means make it impossible to reach the ends or so taint the ends that they cease to be worthy or desired, then those means cannot be justified by the ends.

Eggs and omelets have been repeatedly used metaphorically to justify violence and terror. In real-world politics we break eggs because we want omelets. The Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once retorted that he had seen the broken eggs, but no one he knew had ever tasted the omelet. There are those who believe that it was a waste of eggs to make such an impossible, utopian omelet, and others who believe in the omelet but not the breaking of eggs. But if one concludes that there are some omelets that are worth broken eggs, one should at the start make sure that all the ingredients are available and, as anyone who has made breakfast knows, remember that eggs must be broken delicately, not smashed so that yokes, whites and shells all get cooked together.