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When Lavrenti Beria, boss of the NKVD, killer and jailer of millions and a sexual sadist, was murdered in his turn after Stalin's death, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia were sent a replacement entry, in the form of a lengthy disquisition on the Barents Sea. We smile, but what happened in the West after the equally abrupt demise of communism? "Replacement entries", as it were, were rapidly made in books and articles by many an intellectual, as the equivocators and apologists found themselves uncomfortably to the left of opinion in the countries they had spent years defending. Some, such as the China specialist Jonathan Mirsky, had the grace to perform a mea culpa. Others brazenly changed their tone, and hoped no one would notice.

As a Russian specialist at Oxford over many years, Archie Brown has seen a lot of such trimming, or worse: the university's most eminent and influential Russian specialist was E.H. Carr, an apologist for Stalin. With China it was as bad. Oxford's most venerable sinologue, Raymond Dawson, was in China when the Great Leap Forward was launched (some 40 millions died), but was loathe to be unkind to the Chairman, while a book he published at the height of the Cultural Revolution defended the practice of "struggle meetings" (forced confessions), at a time when untold numbers of Chinese were being struggled to death. Not a pretty record when you think of it, but in gentlemanly Oxford not too many do.

Brown's book aims to be comprehensive, running all the way from the communistic movements of the 16th century to the post-Marxist societies of the 21st, taking in Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea, as well as Russia and China. And unlike some histories I have read, he finds room for a section on the delusions of Western thinkers and writers. In another section he asks why communism lasted so long. The first has something to do with the second. The legitimation afforded to the creed in the West, and the readiness of so many journalists, academics and left-wing politicians to act as its agents of influence, did much to ensure the stability of many a murderous regime. Brown cites Sidney and Beatrice Webb, authors of the deathless lines "The ancient axiom of ‘Love your neighbour as yourself' is embodied in Soviet society", and "during the present year strenuous efforts have been made, both in the trade union movement and communist party, to cut out the dead wood." Given that the year was 1937, the height of the show trials and purges, the "dead wood" metaphor is sublime.

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