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The Shaping of Popular Consent: A Comparative Study of the Soviet Union and the Unit ...

Chapter :  Introduction
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The Shaping of Popular Consent:


“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Steve Biko1

The common assumption has long been that the United States of America and the Soviet Union were polar opposites. Paul Hollander made this point very clear. To think about the US and the USSR, he wrote, is to think about “the enormous contrast between an imperfectly pluralistic (and democratic) [US] as against an imperfectly totalitarian (and authoritarian) [Soviet] society”.2 Or as John Gould Fletcher succinctly put it, the choice between the US and the USSR is that of “democratic capitalism or demagogic dictatorship”.3

The dominant school of Soviet historiography, represented most lucidly by Robert Conquest, has for decades claimed passionately that the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin and especially during the 1930s, was maintained through the use of near-total, inhumanly violent coercion. Stalin was, according to Conquest, “the incarnation of an intensely active force, in conflict with the rest of humanity and reality, like an only vaguely humanoid troll or demon from some sphere or dimension in which alien physical and moral laws apply, who tries to force the differently ordered Middle Earth to fit his rules”.4 In conventional wisdom Stalin is seen to personify the Soviet Union, and descriptions of him are to be read as descriptions of the regime he gave birth to.