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Modernization from the Other Shore: American Intellectuals and the Romance of Russian Development.

Modernization from the Other Shore: American Intellectuals and the Romance of Russian Development, by David C. Engerman. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2003. 399 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).

David Engerman's fascinating study examines how American intellectuals viewed Russia's social and economic transformation in the years 1870 to 1940. Engerman argues that flawed judgments about Russian national character were central in shaping perceptions of Russia and the Soviet Union. In assessing modernization under both the tsarist and Bolshevik regimes, generations of American experts sanctioned repressive and brutal policies in the name of progress, justifying heavy human sacrifices as necessitated by the "backwardness" of Russian national character.

American views of Russia would seem to be a well-worn topic, but Engerman brings fresh insights and new breadth and depth to the subject. His account is exhaustively researched, drawing on some seventy-seven private archival collections as well as official US government sources, and his findings contribute to a re-evaluation of several important historical debates. (Engerman also worked extensively in Russian archives, but what he found there adds relatively little to his account.) The author situates his analysis of American experts in broad context, including short forays into issues ranging from the history of American journalism to contemporary debates over multiculturalism. Along the way, he offers biographical sketches of major figures in Russian and Soviet studies and charts the professionalization of the emerging academic field. Among the book's virtues is that the detailed footnotes provide a useful introduction to the literature in many fields (and several languages).

A revision of the author's PhD dissertation, the book provides a sobering account of the stereotypes and prejudices that shaped the views of the journalists, scholars, and diplomats who were America's leading Russia observers. Drawing on a long intellectual tradition that saw geography (long winters and vast plains) as the basis of a peculiarly Russian national character, these observers attributed Russia's economic and political backwardness to the country's fundamentally "Asiatic" nature and to the "bovine" passivity, laziness, and sometimes even the sheer "stupidity" of Russian peasants.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the next generation of American observers--succumbing to what the diplomat George Kennan called the "romance of economic development"--legitimated violent and murderous modernization policies as the price of economic advancement. Even as ideas about universal progress gained ground over particularist views of unique national destinies, derogatory national stereotypes persisted. As Engerman shows, such views crossed political lines. Even those who opposed the Bolsheviks shared their faith in the benefits of industrialization and the conviction that human suffering was necessary to achieve those benefits. The human costs, in this view, were inevitable because all those unfortunate national traits had to be eliminated or transformed in order for progress to occur. It was not, Engerman conclusively demonstrates, that these Americans were unaware of the human costs, in particular the costs of the devastating famine that accompanied Stalin's collectivization campaign. As the author puts it, "American observers found the sacrifices worthy because they considered the people sacrificed so unworthy" (p. 242). Engerman takes issue with scholars like Paul Hollander who explain American intellectuals' interwar fascination with the Soviet experiment as a product of disillusionment with America or of partisan politics. The "romance," according to Modernization, began before the Depression and engaged Americans from across the ideological spectrum. In an age that celebrated the use of experts to formulate rational solutions to economic problems, the USSR seemed to many like a case study in the implementation of modern economic practices.

A chapter on the 1932-33 famine, revisiting the author's important American Historical Review (2000) article, argues that the failure of American journalists to reveal the extent of the catastrophe was due to an ingrained belief that moderuization necessarily entailed high costs. Walter Duranty, the New York Times reporter who infamously won a Pulitzer Prize in part for reports that "there is no actual starvation" (p. 227), liked to repeat Robespierre's dictum that "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." But it was a sentiment shared even by Duranty's later antagonists, Eugene Lyons and William Henry Chamberlin, whose reports at the time similarly argued that the benefits of collectivization might outweigh the costs.

Engerman has little to say about American views of Russian Orthodoxy or about the differences between American and European views of Russia. He only partially succeeds in filling in the connections between perception and policy. Like many studies that focus on discourse, Modernization implicitly suggests that the views under examination are wrong without suggesting which views would have been more accurate. Engerman acknowledges drawing inspiration from Alexander Herzen, who challenged the assumptions underlying doctrines of universal progress. Like Herzen, Engerman is clearly repulsed by the idea that a nation should sacrifice its present for the sake of a utopian future (p. 1). But where to draw the line between present needs and future aspirations, between particularism and universalism, between cultural difference and economic progress? Engerman merely points to the dangers of the extremes at each end.

He concludes his account with the rise of universalistic social theories in the 1950s, when modernization theory and the totalitarian paradigm pushed particularistic explanations based on national differences out of favour. Ideological explanations of the Soviet Union came to the fore with Kennan's famed "X article" of 1947--a piece that Engerman points out was actually an anomaly for Kennan, who otherwise emphasized Russian traits over communist ideology in explaining Soviet behaviour. What happened after will form the subject of Engerman's next book, on American Sovietology during the Cold War. In the meantime, Modernization from the Other Shore should give contemporary Russianists food for thought, as we contemplate what some future historian will reveal about our own blindspots.

Barbara Keys

California State University, Sacramento
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Author:Keys, Barbara
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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