Historian: Adam Ulam

adam ulam

Name: Adam Ulam

Lived: 1922-2000

Nationality: American of Jewish-Polish origins

Profession: Writer, academic (professor of history and politics at Harvard)

Books: Bolsheviks: The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia (1965), Stalin: The Man and his Era (1973), Russia’s Failed Revolutions: From Decembrists to Dissidents (1981), Communists: The Story of Power and Lost Illusions (1992), A History of Soviet Russia (1997).

Perspective: Unclear

Adam Ulam was born into an affluent Jewish family in eastern Poland, now Ukraine, in April 1922. He left Europe in August 1939 to study in the United States, avoiding World War II and the Holocaust that would claim the rest of his family.

In 1947, Ulam obtained a doctorate from Harvard. He returned there the following year as a lecturer; his first class was attended by a young student named Henry Kissinger. Ulam remained at Harvard as an academic and a professor until his death.

In his lifetime, Ulam would write 18 books, the vast majority concerned with communism, Soviet Russia and Cold War politics.

Assigning Ulam a label is difficult. He was neither Marxist nor liberal nor revisionist. His attempts to study figures like Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were open-minded and analytical rather than judgemental. Ulam continually asks questions of his subjects and never settles for simple explanations.

In this, Ulam was predominately humanist. His histories are interested in how individuals responded to conditions and crises and curious about why they acted as they did. He did not believe people were wholly motivated by ideology, by systems or organisations. There were more fundamental reasons for their choices and behaviours.

Ulam’s best-known work is his 1965 text The Bolsheviks. Despite being written long before the availability of material from Soviet archives, it remains one of the definitive studies of Lenin’s revolutionary party.

In its pages, Ulam traces the roots of Bolshevism back into the early 19th century. He contends that Lenin and his ideas were shaped by history, context and circumstance. Lenin shaped and defined the Bolshevik movement, in a similar way to how Gandhi shaped and defined the Indian independence movement.


“The Bolsheviks did not seize power; they picked it up.”

“Lenin’s was a grandiose experiment that failed only because Russia of those years was not suited to socialism. The man himself was a teacher and practitioner of intolerance, but one cannot fault his ultimate vision and goal – that of social justice and of humankind united under socialism, and thus freed from the scourge of war.”

“In the beginning, there was the enormous shock of his brother’s execution. This was followed by curiosity … A simple motive of revenge and veneration of his brother would have urged Lenin into the same path, that of a revolutionary and a terrorist. But in fact no sooner was his period of study of revolutionary movements and literature over, than the eighteen-year-old Lenin chose a different road to revolution: Marxian socialism.”

“It must be an indelible stain on Lenin’s record that for all his humane instincts he allowed this cult … of terror to develop … He allowed mass terror not only to be practised but to become legitimate and respectable.”

“Was the Civil War ever in fact concluded? What was Stalin’s collectivisation campaign of 1929-33 but an almost military operation directed against a large part of Russia’s population, a campaign, to be sure, against people who had no means of armed resistance but who by their very mode of existence blocked the road to communist objectives?”

“He [Stalin] was corrupted by absolute power. Absolute power turned a ruthless politician into a monstrous tyrant. The terror was necessary, not only to keep men obedient but even more to make them believe.”

Citation information
Title: “Historian: Adam Ulam”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/historian-adam-ulam/
Date published: May 3, 2019
Date accessed: May 28, 2020
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