By Richard Pipes

Knopf. 944 pp. $40

LIKE AMNESIA victims awakening after an extended illness, today's Russians are turning to their neighbors to restore their historical memory. So debased is the Soviet historical profession following seven decades of state-dictated half-truths and lies that many Russians look abroad, to Western scholars, seeking answers to their most pressing historical questions. Chief among these is the problem underlying all of Gorbachev's reforms: What, if anything, should be saved from the wreck of Communism? Did the Bolshevik Revolution run off the rails only after Stalin gained control, or did the tracks laid by Lenin lead directly to the camps of the Gulag?

Russians will find no easy, uniform answers from Western historians. For 15 or more years, a school of scholars calling themselves "revisionists" has dominated the study of the Russian Revolution. Emerging during the Vietnam era and reacting to disillusionment with American foreign and domestic policies, this group has sought to soften the traditional image of the U.S.S.R. as, from its inception, a rapacious totalitarian power. Although disagreeing among themselves, the revisionists have advanced several broad propositions: Czarist Russia was not undergoing serious reform before World War I, and thus revolution, not incremental reform, was in the cards even without the spur of war; Bolshevism was relatively decentralized, even "democratic" in 1917 since it often responded to its constituents' wishes and did not always unquestioningly obey Lenin's will; once in power, the Bolsheviks had no alternative to using force to stem the economic and political chaos unleashed by war and revolution; owing in large part to foreign intervention during tle civil war of 1918-21, Lenin's party lost its tolerant, decentralized nature as it became militarized and resorted to terror in a struggle for survival. Finally, the revisionists argue that the supposedly benign communist system created by Lenin did not create the preconditions for the forced social engineering and pervasive state terrorism of the Stalin period. Some of the more extreme proponents of this view even question the magnitude of Stalin's terror, claiming that the victims only numbered a few thousand. One hears little from this latter group recently, and it is to be hoped that the exhumation of numerous mass graves in the U.S.S.R., containing hundreds of thousands of slaughtered corpses, will humble them somewhat.

In this massive tome, the first of a new two-volume history of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes of Harvard University responds to the revisionists. An architect of President Reagan's early anti-communist policies, Pipes has no patience with claims that the Bolsheviks were swept along by historical currents beyond their control. "Rebellions happen; revolutions are made," he writes. The Revolution being "the result of deliberate action . . . it is very properly subject to value judgment." Dedicating his work "to the victims," Pipes judges severely. His unwillingness to give the Bolsheviks any quarter on even the smallest details may blind some readers to the accuracy of his broader judgments.

As those familiar with his Russia Under the Old Regime will know, Pipes does not idealize the czarist system. He shows how it failed to keep pace with rapid social and ecoomic change, and he faults Czar Nicholas and his advisers for their vacillations and dishonesty. The real villain of the period for him, however, is Russia's socialist intelligentsia, "an unusually large and fanatical body of professional revolutionaries . . . A class in permanent opposition, hostile to all reforms and compromises, convinced that for anything to change everthing had to change." The revolution "was the result not of insufferable conditions but of irreconcilable attitudes." Pipes faults Russia's radicals for their intransigence and wishes they had been "more mature -- more patient, that is, and more understanding of the mentality of the monarchic establishment." Then Russia might have made "an orderly transition from a semi-constitutional to a genuinely constitutional regime."

With hindsight, it is easy to agree that Russian intellectuals should have accepted piecemeal reform rather than revolution. And many Russian radicals were indeed repellent, even more puritan and authoritarian than the regime they sought to destroy. But some Russians opted for radical socialism over moderate reformism because the ossified czarist order had made liberalism and constitutionalism seem almost as utopian for Russia as the wilder dreams of the Bolsheviks.

Pipes is at his best detailing the Bolsheviks' many sins and demolishing some historians' attempts to excuse or explain away Lenin's nascent despotism. Claiming to study history "from below," the revisionists point to several instances when the Bolshevik rank and file acted against Lenin's orders, citing these occasions as proof that the party was not authoritarian. One might just as well study an army platoon, prove that it sometimes ignores its commander's orders and deduce that the army is a democratic institution after all. Pipes shows convincingly how Lenin always sought rigid control over his party, even though he did not always achieve this.

As for the argument that the Bolsheviks had to use force to restore political and economic order: here too Pipes argues persuasively that Lenin reaped what he had sown. Social and political chaos did not fall unexpectedly from the skies; before seizing power, the Bolsheviks did all they could to foment disorder to undermine the Kerensky government. Once in power, Lenin intentionally stoked hyperinflation to destroy the "bourgeois" economy; having exploited agrarian discontent to seize power, Lenin later treated the peasants as "petit-bourgeois" class enemies, seizing their grain at ludicrous prices and finally by armed force; and his early attempts to create a planned economy spawned the elephantine bureaucracy still crushing the U.S.S.R.

In perhaps his most original contribution, Pipes disputes the conventional treatment of foreign interference in Russia beginning in 1918. He shows that the Bolsheviks, far from being passive victims of Allied hostility, in fact benefitted from foreign intervention. Not only did Lenin accept assistance from the Germans before his rise to power; following the separate peace with the Kaiser in 1918, German support "which {the Bolsheviks} welcomed and solicited, very likely saved them."

Nor was Bolshevik terror simply a response to military crisis. Early on, Lenin and his party evinced an unmistakable blood lust transcending mere self-defense, as though sufficient killing would prove the seriousness of their intent to create a new world. Lenin's "attorney general" Nikolai Krylenko enthused: "We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more." Grigory Zinoviev spoke blithely of "annihilat{ing}" the undesirable tenth of Russia's 100 million inhabitants. Feliks Dzerzhinsky, head of Lenin's political police, hailed the utility of concentration camps as tools to punish "unconscientious attitude toward work, for negligence, for lateness, etc." Reading the history of early Bolshevism as Pipes lays it out, it is difficult to dispute his contention that "One can perceive here, not only in principle but also in practical detail, Stalin's concentration camp empire: it differed from Lenin's only in size."

This book is clearly the product of years of research and a lifetime of reflection by one of America's great historians; it is also a gripping read. Soon to be published in the U.S.S.R., it will provide little comfort to those Soviets hoping to find a usable Leninism to which they can return after shedding the supposed "perversions" of the Stalinist period. The Soviet Union's ills appear to be less the distortions of Leninism than its ultimate fruit.

Steven Miner, who teaches Russian history at Ohio University, is the author of "Between Churchill and Stalin: The U.S.S.R., Great Britain, and the Origins of the Grand Alliance."