This is a most unusual history of Russia, possibly bordering on the unorthodox. Outwardly conforming to an accepted chronological framework with the usual separation of imperial Russia from its Soviet successor, David Christian plunges the reader from the outset into "a single coherent argument" that is designed to inform the entire book, the main theme of which is "the transition to modernity". By modernity, the author understands "new ways of mobilising resources through commercial exchanges rather than direct appropriation" with "consequent effects on the political and social system". Political power and economic privilege are inextricably linked, as are privilege and state power. Christian characterises the mobilisation of wealth and the implanting of associated privilege by two modes. The first is "direct mobilisation", involving coercive or persuasive power of the state combined with unity and discipline among those most likely to benefit. The other involves "indirect mobilisation", dependent on neither force nor persuasion (save for taxes) but rather on the generation of profit through commerce.
In a text that is part narrative and part extracts from contemporary sources, Christian argues that by the early 20th century forms of indirect mobilisation were coming to dominate Russia's economic life. His explanation for the catastrophe that caused tsarism to collapse is that the social and political structures generated by direct mobilisation collided with the imperatives of modern economic management and undermined the tsarist state.
If tsarism failed to meet the "challenge of modernity", how did the Communists fare? In Christian's view, they too failed spectacularly in their attempt to break the link between political power and economic privilege. They did not reduce, much less eliminate, that inequality endemic to both forms of "wealth mobilisation".
The problem was to find or to invent "a socialist engine of growth". In the 1920s, the debates embraced both strategies of mobilisation, though Nikolai Bukharin's preference for the indirect mode suffered from two debilitating weaknesses: it was slow, it meant "riding to socialism on a peasant nag", and more damagingly, it would not eradicate Soviet military inadequacy.
Stalin applied and personified the revitalised strategy of direct mobilisation to produce industrial growth and amplify military power. He inaugurated the ruthless mobilisation of resources from the countryside. Christian sees survival and final victory in the second world war as a certain vindication of Stalinist direct mobilisation. In his closing chapters, Christian examines the "end of the Soviet experiment", when the reforms needed to raise productivity began to endanger the command economy and its political and social structures.
Much as imperial Russia failed the modernity test, the Bolsheviks failed to develop a viable "non-capitalist route" to modernity. But Christian does not see this as signalling the death knell of the "socialist project" or conceding that growth must forever trample on equality. He asks two rhetorical questions. Will capitalism hit the same impasse experienced by the Soviet system in the 1980s? On present evidence, capitalism is arguably repeating Soviet mistakes: devouring resources at an unsustainable rate and demanding "constant expansion of output". If the crunch comes, what next? Christian guesses that the socialist experiment and the quest for fairness will be re-examined.
On the surface this is a useful textbook on Russian and Soviet history, replete with readings, explanatory comments, a statistical appendix and an extensive bibliography. On another level, Christian is clearly consumed by the meaning of "growth" and what it means for social equality when choosing equality over growth results only in weakness and inevitable decline.
Undismayed, Christian ends on an evangelical note: where social justice becomes a condition of survival, socialist ideals will re-emerge. President Yeltsin, be thus warned.
John Erickson is professor of defence studies, University of Edinburgh.
Imperial and Soviet Russia: Power, Privilege and the Challenge of Modernity
Author - David Christian
ISBN - 0 333 66293 8 and 66294 6
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 478