The ISCIP Analyst
Behind the Breaking News
Send us a note to subscribe to Perspective.
Reclaiming Russian History
What is the significance of history for a society which diligently and obediently has tucked its history into a Procrustean bed? A society that treated the past according to Ptolemaic laws? Ptolemy's ideas were simple and useful; one clearly sees the sun rising in its orbit and circling the earth. The triumph of socialism on all fronts was equally obvious. History textbooks overflowed with the dry remains of the ideas of Lenin-Stalin and, to a slightly lesser degree, of Marx-Engels. Paradoxically, history became an exact science; its formulas and hypotheses became axiomatic, no longer requiring evidence.
Today, as we structure our identity, we also begin to study our past. We begin with a void, with what there is not, with the investigation of emptiness and the absence of speech. The effort to pierce this veil of heavy silence consists of recapturing and revealing our history. This is a tangible process, and it is already manifest.
The newfound ability to look at facts without prejudice, without an a priori construct into which facts must be fitted, presents us with an opportunity to reclaim our history. Memory is an element of social consciousness, which fundamentally must be historical in nature. By straining our memories we seek to find meaning in our lives, to understand our place in history, and ultimately to know ourselves.
Our memory of the past is distorted; it harbored collective mythologies and was the object of prolonged manipulation by the authorities. History is called upon to overcome this condition. In the Russian State University for the Humanities we have just completed work on the six-volume Russia of the Twentieth Century. This is the first major effort to restore Russian history on the basis of logic and fact, rather than a priori constructs. We have attempted to exert some influence on the peculiar relationship between memory and history that developed over the decades of Soviet rule, to bring them together by transforming our history from a factory of lies into a means of liberation. This effort can help the collective memory rid itself of those aspects that the regime tries to retain in the "official memory."
This reclaiming of history involves mastering hitherto concealed documents. The point of departure for most Sovietologists was that the big picture of Soviet history had already been drawn--the remaining research would develop the details, but not alter radically the thematic and factual outline. It was believed that no new ordering of names, dates, and events would do more than focus and sharpen the picture; it would not alter the factual basis of macrohistory. This approach was sufficient for the period up to and including the Gorbachev years when, for the most part, we merely were confirming truths widely available in Western Sovietology, but inaccessible to our own subterranean history.
Newly publicized facts do more than simply accumulate detail. Frequently they alter our perception of the past, mercilessly destroying national stereotypes. It is now clear that the materials on the Lenin period, World War II, and the Cold War currently being published not only affect concepts of Russian history but also the nature of world history in this century.
In 1938 the Russian government archives were transferred to NKVD oversight. Since then, scholarly admittance to the archives has been highly problematic: Access was tightly controlled and in effect the use of archival materials was censured by party and archive organs. This led to falsification and distortion of history, a narrowing of the documentary basis for scholarship, and self-censorship about certain facts and events to please particular personalities and to agree with ruling doctrines. As a result, creative discussions and arguments ceased as early as the 1930s; instead, historians merely illustrated party documents, speeches, and presentations.
During the Khrushchev "Thaw," government and party archives were slightly more accessible, with immediate effect upon the study of history; a whole series of documentary publications and scholarly works appeared (for instance, on the history of collectivization and the peasantry). Unfortunately, this period did not last long. After Khrushchev was removed, Stalinism was revived, with a particularly pernicious effect on the humanities. S. P. Trapeznikov, a historian by profession and an ardent Stalinist by calling, was placed at the head of the sciences department and the education organs of the CPSU Central Committee. Again, many archival collections as a whole arbitrarily were deemed secret; in other cases, particular documents would not be shown to scholars unless the appropriate agencies consented.
In effect scholars lost access completely to materials from the SovNarKom (Council of People's Commissars) and Gosplan, TseIKa (Central Executive Committee) and VTseIKaa (Supreme Central Executive Committee), and VChK-OGPU-NKVD (the organs that subsequently were named the KGB). All party archives, central as well as local, were classified; access was forbidden not only to scholars who were not party members but also to party members without special clearance for secret work. The active archives of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Kremlin archive of the Politburo were completely secret; one could not even speak of them.
When it was first proclaimed in the 1980s, glasnost' was intended to be partial and gradual, although it proved to be the major condition for fundamental change. Yet, even the first steps towards declassifying government archives served to broaden access for historians and prompted the publication of documentary sources as well as monographs based on those sources.
Access to Archives
There also has been a trend toward new editions of previously published materials, works like the twenty-volume Archive of the Russian Revolution, which was first published in Berlin in the 1920s, the sixteen-volume almanac Menyvsheye (The Past), the collection Beloe Delo (White Cause), and the memoirs of leading figures among the Whites--Denikin, Vrangel, Krasnov, Milykov.
The volumes previously held in special collections are now available for scholarly and literary pursuits and those working with these materials no longer have to fear persecution. The Russian Foreign Historical Archive (RZIA) is now accessible to the public. This collection of over 350,000 sources on the history of the Whites was founded in the 1920s by White activists living in exile in Prague and after World War II was given by the Czechoslovak government to the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
Overall, local authorities have been more courageous in declassifying archives than the central government. To this day, the Kremlin archives of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU (now called the Presidential Archive) are closed to research. This collection contains the most valuable sources, those that document the policy-making and implementation process in foreign and domestic matters. The archives of active ministries and departments, only now are beginning to be utilized for scholarly purposes.
However, some documents have been published on one of the most painful subjects in Russian history, the peasantry. Material from the Presidential Archive renders possible the determination of the particular roles of the party-governmental leaders during the late twenties and thirties in the persecution of the peasantry (forced collectivization, persecution of kulaks, and deportation of millions of peasants in the course of Stalin's revolution from above).
Documents from the archives reveal that repression against the peasantry continued and in some cases intensified after collectivization was complete. For instance, we now have a decision of the Politburo of the Communist Party's Central Committee from 2 July 1937, "On anti-Soviet Elements," forwarded by Stalin to N.I. Yezhov (NKVD), kraikom and obkom secretaries, and Central Committees of Communist Parties of the Union and Autonomous Republics. This documents suggests that "the majority of former kulaks and criminals, who have been exiled to Northern and Siberian rayons, upon their return from exile to their former oblasts ought to be monitored so that the most hostile among them can be immediately arrested and shot," and the others exiled. In accordance with this decision, more than 72,000 persons were subject to execution and more than 270,000 were subject to exile. This occurred after 1932, the year in which Stalin himself had concluded that "kulazhevstvo, as a class," has been destroyed.
The Phenomenon of Soviet Historiography
This task is complicated by the fact that in the country "of the triumphant socialist revolution," understanding current events was never a high priority. The political leaders, who were also the main ideologues, had an unassailable and predetermined interpretation of current and past events: The country experienced a socialist revolution in accordance with the laws discovered by Marx and Engels, and developed by Lenin, Stalin, and the Communist Party. The historians labored to prove what had long been obvious for the founders.
This is the traditional approach to scholarship for the entire history of Marxist-Leninist thought. First Marx writes The Communist Manifesto, in which he outlines the basics of the Marxist approach to social processes, and after twenty years he writes Capital, which contains the thesis essential for the conclusions outlined earlier in the Manifesto. First Lenin presents scathing criticism of the narodniki (populists) for underestimating the state of capitalist development in Russia, and then writes Capitalist Development in Russia. Lenin tells a congress of communist parties that socialist revolution proceeds according to a scientific pattern (at the time most people in the country and in the party referred to it modestly as an overthrow of the regime). Then for ten years historians endeavor to confirm this assertion, until after Stalin's "explanation" they discover that the pronouncements of top leaders do not require any confirmation. First comes the announcement that the country has reached advanced socialism, and then for two decades historians ponder what advanced socialism is and when was it built?
The language and problem areas of Soviet historiography stem from these general principles. Formation, process, class, party, law, Marxism, proletariat--these words are the foundations of the new historiographical vocabulary. From the first Soviet historians to the late 1980s the most widely used term in Soviet historiography was "struggle." Hence the formulation of the main themes in historical research: the history of the revolutionary movement in Russia, the history of the Russian revolutions, the history of class and party struggle, the history of the Bolshevik Party, and the two overarching themes for the whole period of Soviet historiography--all things pertaining to Lenin and the history of the Great October Socialist Revolution.
A Cog in the System
From the beginning the Soviet regime developed new principles to guide the interaction between the government and the sciences. Naturally, the pre-existing relative autonomy of scientific centers and universities was no longer acceptable. The Academy of Sciences--with its branches and institutes, its traditions of academic freedom and opposition--became an alien element. Of course, the Academy could have been liquidated altogether, especially since those it brought together were hardly Marxist. Instead, the new regime saw an opportunity to transform what had been a purely scholarly organization into an organ for maintaining ideological purity in the various disciplines. Science had a well-defined structure; it would have been a sin to waste it. This solution must have seemed optimal to the new leadership since it allowed for the pretense of championing science. With similar goals in mind, new associations of writers, artists, theatrical personnel, etc. were formed.
Since few in the Academy of Sciences could be counted among Marxists or supporters of the new government, there came a decision to create parallel Marxist scholarly centers. A June 1918 decree was issued on the creation of a Socialist Academy, in August the VTseIKa confirmed its membership, and the Academy opened on 1 October. In August 1920 a commission on party history (Istpart) was created; it quickly monopolized the storage, processing, publication, and study of the history of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik party. Soon the commission was transferred from the aegis of People's Commissariat to the Communist Party Central Committee. In 1921 the Institute of Marx and Engels was founded, followed in 1923 by the establishment of the Lenin Institute. In 1921 the Institute of Red Professors came into being and in 1923 the Russian Association of Social Science Research Institutes was created. By 1925, the Bolsheviks were strong enough to reorganize radically the Academy of Sciences (just in time for its 200th anniversary) and install purely Marxist structures. In 1936 the Communist Academy (formerly Socialist) was inserted into the Academy of Sciences, spelling the end of the traditionally "bourgeois" organization.
The Soviet state needed historians for whom political expediency ranked ahead of historical accuracy. This criterion was reflected not only in professional historical training but also in character formation. A historian was a professional to the degree to which he defined himself as a "party activist." This condition frequently led to professional and moral deformities.
During one of the most loathsome political campaigns of the Soviet regime--the campaign against "cosmopolitanism" based on nationalism and antisemitism--the leading scholars demonstrated their loyalty to state and party and accepted the roles assigned to them. Characteristically, forty years later a prolific and talented historian, L.V. Cherepin, was to describe this Black Hundreds orgy as a wide exchange of views "on questions of theory and ideology, which raised the level of historical scholarship."
Under the Soviet regime, the authorities and the historians came to an understanding; the authorities would strive to subordinate everything and the historians would strive to submit. This precluded the possibility of creative, independent thinking and installed self-censorship, which for many historians to this day remains an even greater obstacle than the feudal dependence on party decisions.
For Russian historiography the crisis of the communist world view is particularly painful. Russian historians face a complicated problem of learning new research skills and methodologies and basing their efforts on a culture of dialogue. For a long time the historian's relationship with sources was that of a detective rather than of a researcher--we did not have a critical "dialogue" with the sources, we interrogated them, reserving the prerogative to judge them. No wonder that today the information explosion has left historians puzzled and unprepared.
Moreover, the emergence of a new information system did not resolve all the problems related to ensuring access for scholarship. Relying on confused and inconsistent directions from the highest authorities, including the president, official departments and organizations retain their "right" to classify documents arbitrarily. As a consequence the historian's dream of a unified information space is disappearing at a rapid rate.
Copyright ISCIP 1996