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

By
Edita Krunkaityte

One "of the key episodes in my new book is devoted to America's response to the famine that devastated the Soviet Union in 1932-33," stated David Engerman, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Brandeis University, and former Title VIII-Supported Short-term Scholar, Kennan Institute. At a 19 February 2004 Kennan Institute seminar, Engerman discussed his book Modernization from the Other Shore: American Intellectuals and the Romance of Russian Development. Engerman said that the book covers the period 1870-1940, beginning with the writings of Siberian explorer George Kennan "the elder" and ending with the early career of his great nephew George Frost Kennan.

Engerman focused on three trends that shaped American writings on Russia and the Soviet Union. First is the long-standing belief in a Russian national character that explains the country's past, present, and future. Russians were seen as "passive, fatalistic, and conservative, and as a result, the argument continued, Russian society was backward, despotic, and prone to violence." According to Engerman, this way of thinking about Russia was not unique to Americans. American experts on Russia did distinguish themselves from those in other nations with their enthusiasm for modernization—a second theme of his book. The third theme, Engerman continued, deals with American efforts to learn from the Soviet Union's economic experience.

In his book, Engerman devoted considerable attention to the Soviet Union's first Five Year Plan and the resulting famine. In late 1932, when the Soviets announced the successful completion of the Plan, the U.S. Secretary of State solicited a report on the Soviet Union's economic potential from George F. Kennan, then posted at the U.S. Embassy in Latvia. Engerman explained that Kennan's reply detailed many reasons for pessimism about the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Kennan was impressed with the Russian population's enthusiasm for the changes taking place. Kennan believed that young Russians were willing to "sacrifice the comfort and nerves of their entire generation in order to bring about change." Engerman suggested that the "romance of economic development" that Kennan described was equally relevant among American observers as within the Soviet Union.

According to Engerman, in 1932, as Kennan was citing popular enthusiasm as the reason for Soviet economic success, the Soviets themselves were paying the costs of declining food supplies, forced collectivization, economic and demographic turmoil, and "shortages of everything but lines." The Bolsheviks had hoped to finance their industrialization through grain exports and were willing to take extraordinary measures, such as the total requisition of grain from the countryside. Engerman noted that when reports of widespread starvation in the principal grain growing regions began to arrive in Moscow, Party officials worked hard to suppress news about the famine. Soviet authorities even banned foreign journalists from traveling outside of Moscow.

Today many criticize American journalists such as Walter Duranty of the New York Times for downplaying the mass starvations during the first Five Year Plan. Engerman argued that this "non-reaction" illustrates the major intellectual trends of the period where economic ideas, more than political ideology, played a central role in Western perceptions of the Soviet Union. America's Russia watchers from across the political spectrum were entranced by the transformation of the "Empire of Peasants" into a modern industrial power. Engerman stressed that they justified the financial and human costs as a small price to pay for building an industrial society.

Engerman explained that many American experts found it easy to discount the sufferings of ordinary Russians because of their negative views of Russia's "Asiatic heritage." For example, Eugene Schuyler, one of the first recipients of an American doctoral degree, often used Asia "to describe an uncivilized culture, waiting for European benevolence to control and civilize it," Engerman said. Because Russians were seen as culturally predisposed toward backwardness, state-enforced modernization was their only hope for progress.

Many of those attracted to the Soviet cause had "little attraction to Communism," according to Engerman. They were romanced by Soviet development, not by Soviet doctrine. The rise of a philosophy of experimentalism contributed directly to the romance of economic development. Engerman said that many educators, planners, philosophers, and social scientists were interested in the Soviet experiment in social and economic transformation. They insisted that it should be allowed to "work itself out in order to provide insight into possibilities of planning," he said.

Engerman concluded that American "excitement" about Russian and Soviet modernization must be understood in terms of economics rather than politics, because both supporters and opponents of the Soviet Union had similar views of its industrialization programs. According to Engerman, "Viewing events in the Soviet Union as part of an ongoing experiment distanced observers from the potential costs of a failure, let alone the costs of success…[Americans] could cheer the process of industrialization, and even the Russian sacrifices, without risking their own skins."

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