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Shifts in Soviet Historiography

Writing History in the Soviet Union: Making the Past Work by Arup Banerji

Shifts in Soviet Historiography

Sobhanlal Datta Gupta

n this part of the world, scholarly studies on issues relating to the Soviet era are now almost passé after 1991 a lthough in the west there has been virtually a kind of resurgence of research c oncerning that period, following the opening of the Russian archives and the consequent findings emerging out of the new revelations. R W Davies, Orlando F iges, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Robert Service, John Keep, Roger Markwick and even R ichard Pipes, the veteran cold war historian, to name a few, have come out with new studies, providing new insights, some of which are, indeed, refreshingly new, treading a path that leads to exploration of the grey zones of history. These, unfortunately, never constituted the focus of a ttention of the Party historians of the S oviet Union; they did not engage the attention of the historians of the cold war, propped up by the west, either.

One major objective of this book is to provide “an updated review” (Preface, p ix) of historical research concerning the understanding of history in the Soviet era in the light of the emergent new historiography after 1991. This exercise has led the author to take a stock of how history was officially authored in the Soviet p eriod, what were its major concerns and what kind of scholarly debate ensued among the Soviet historians. Understandably, this is an ambitious study, demanding great mastery over the extremely vast and complex intellectual scenario spanning the Soviet period, namely, 1917-91. The task of the author has, however, been facilitated by a number of classic studies made earlier by scholars like Baron and Heer (1977), Barber (1981) and Davies (1989), as evident in the extensive footnotes.

While drawing heavily on these researches, together with a vast array of new studies conducted by a host of distinguished historians, predominantly in the west and some also in post-Soviet Russia, the author has scripted the book by

book review

Writing History in the Soviet Union: Making the Past Work by Arup Banerji (New Delhi: Social Science Press), 2008; pp 300, Rs 695.

f ocusing on the following themes. These are, namely, the organisational changes that went into making in the rewriting of Russian history after 1917; the impact of Glasnost on writing history in the Soviet Union; the changed outlook in the interpretations of the history of the Soviet Communist Party; shifts in the understanding of the Russian Revolution; the state of the historical archives, and the handling of history of the Soviet era in the Russian schools in post-Soviet Russia. While the identification and importance of the themes is quite justified, the title creates a problem; strictly speaking, the last two chapters, dealing with the state of the archives and the teaching of history in today’s Russian schools respectively, do not match the title, namely, Writing H istory in the Soviet Union, since their h istorical context is the Russian Federation and no longer the Soviet Union.

In the Stalin Period

The Introduction and the first chapter constitute a fairly good, although in places a bit schematic, survey of the principal thrusts of Soviet historiography from 1917 to the end of the Brezhnev era. In this well-documented account, Banerji provides a detailed analysis of the role of M N Pokrovskii, the doyen of Marxist historical research in the Soviet Union, in the shaping of the new school of Marxist historians in the USSR, in the formation of the Institute of History under the auspices of the Communist Academy, the Society of Marxist Historians, all of them being used as the ideological arsenal by Pokrovskii in his fight against liberal, bourgeois historical scholarship that dominated the academia in pre-revolutionary Russia. He

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also examines how, with the advent of the Stalin period, Pokrovskii’s rather deterministic/objectivist understanding of h istory came under attack, calling for r eplacement of abstract objectivism by a

kind of voluntarism, which came to be a ssociated with recognition of the role of individual personalities in history.

This shift, in the carrying out of which the leading role was played by Emelian Iaroslavkii, incidentally, marked the a dvent of the Stalin era. That the Stalin period virtually amounted to a resurrection of Great Russian nationalism, if not chauvinism, and that in the name of projection of concrete facts, figures and personalities in history (i e, Ivan the Terrible) it was the personality cult of Stalin which was carefully built up, history thus serving an instrumentalist cause, is glaringly evident. During the time of the second world war, this glorification of Russian n ationalism, personified in the figure of Stalin, reached absurd heights. While the 20th Congress of 1956 was certainly a break, it, however, never attempted a break with this instrumentalism. The Brezhnev period – which practically r evived many of the odious features of the Stalin era – has been, however, summed up in a rather sketchy manner within a span of just three pages. This period d eserved a better coverage.

For the consideration of the author a couple of observations perhaps would not be out of place. First, while Banerji has very rightly discussed the crucial significance of Stalin’s 1931 letter “On some questions concerning the History of B olshevism” in Proletarskaia revoliutsiia (pp 52-56) for the rewriting of history in the Stalin period, to understand the full-scale impact of this letter, it needs to be pointed out that it is this letter which gave birth to the concept of what came to be known as “Luxemburgism”, that is, a variant of Menshevism which was allegedly indistinguishable from the ideology of the Social Democratic German Left. The Russian historian L G Babichenko, in an article “Pismo Stalina vs ‘Proletarskyiu Revoliutsiiu’ i ego posledstviia”, published in Voprosy i storii KPSS, 6, 1990, based on the newly a ccessible archival sources, examined this

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question in great detail and showed how this single article, because of its authoritative status, not only excommunicated Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky from the arena of international communism but also gave birth to the worst kind of sectarianism visà-vis Social Democracy.

Second, the author’s treatment of the period in the aftermath of the 20th Congress betrays a feeling of optimism relating to more openness in historical research, the overall constraints of the Soviet system notwithstanding. But that this relaxation operated within the confines of a framework that continued to remain rigid and conservative even in the Khrushchev era needs to be emphasised. This was most glaringly evident in the tragic fate of the distinguished labour historian, Anna M Pankratova (1857-1957), who, once an ardent follower of Pokrovskii, suffered twice; once during the Stalin period, when, Pokrovskii and his followers fell from the grace of the leader; she then turned against Pokrovskii, her mentor, to save her skin and then, again, in 1955-57, when, as the chief editor of Voprosy i storii, she boldly aimed at introducing the spirit of Glasnost in the running of the journal, and hit the roadblock of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the key players plotting against her being Suslov, Pospelov and Khrushchev himself. With the publication of Reginald E Zelnik’s extremely resourceful manuscript on Pankratova in 2005, all these facts have now come to light (Reginald E Zelnik, Perils of Pankratova – Some Stories from the Annals of Soviet Historiography).

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 provide a very wellinformed and exhaustive analysis of the shifts in the Soviet historiography from the Stalin era to the Gorbachev period and this covers, apart from themes like collectivisation of agriculture and the war, two major issues, namely, the history of the CPSU and the history of the Russian Revolution. Banerji has also, quite rightly, examined in this connection the changes that took place in the perspective of history writing, when the Khrushchev era witnessed the withdrawal of The Short Course on the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), published in 1938, p opularly known as The Short Course in communist circles, and a cclaimed for generations by party hardliners as the bible of Marxism-Leninism and one of the most creative contributions of the Stalin period, followed by the publication of History of the Communist Party of the S oviet Union in 1960 (second edition, 1962).

What emerges out of the facts which have been unearthed now are: while The Short Course was faithfully tailor-made to suit the political aims of Stalinism, the product of the Khrushchev era treaded a cautiously crafted centrist path. Although in the Brezhnev period The Short Course was not certainly revived, yet every a ttempt was made to soften any diatribe against Stalin and Stalinism and it reached a climax when, just before Gorbachev’s assumption of power in 1985, a whole group of Party hardliners like Ustinov, the D efence Minister, Chebrikov, the KGB Chief, and Tikhonov, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, came out with d enunciation of Khrushchev for his alleged portrayal of Stalin in black.

A Methodological Problem

In the Gorbachev period an ambitious project of writing a new Party history was launched and we are informed that two

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volumes covering the period up to 1921 had been prepared, awaiting publication, but they never saw the light of the day, as the Soviet Union disintegrated (p 179). The chapter on “Russian Revolution”, however, has a methodological problem, which could be avoided. It virtually p rovides a summary of the variants of the western historiography on the Russian Revolution covering Chamberlain, Florinsky, Daniels, Keep, Smith, Ferro and, finally, Pipes, to name a few. The methodological problem that the reader would encounter here is that these scholars were not engaged in “writing history in the S oviet Union”; what they did was that

o ffered contending interpretations of the Russian Revolution and thereby scripted the “history of the Soviet Union”, guided by their own conviction and logic. The t itle of the book, on the contrary, presupposes that it studies the Soviet experience of encountering the task of history writing and, furthermore, that the focus is not on the outsider’s view but on the view of S oviet history from within. If one has to go by the title, making good use of the i nformation provided by these western historians in the footnotes does not n ecessarily justify their elevation in the main text.

The last two chapters deal with the archival situation and the rewriting of school textbooks on history in post-Soviet Russia, providing an updated and well- informed account of how changes in the political situation have impacted on the archival as well as the textbook scenario. There is, however, one anomaly. Although the chapter on archives (chapter 5) deals with facts involving the reorganisation of the Russian archives as late as 2000 (p 252), it is not clear why the last section in this chapter describes the period as 1991-93 (p 245).

The book is definitely a challenging work of scholarship, as the author, an I ndian, has ventured to enter a territory which has been a domain monopolised by western scholars for generations. How ever, since the book is a product of hard labour, full of great promises for the f uture, a couple of concluding remarks need to be made. First, in a number of places the author has stated revealing facts, at times quite startling, without any supporting evidence in the footnotes. For example, it is stated that Stalin was later compelled to qualify the outlandish charge brought by him in 1931 against Rosa Luxemburg and Parvus that they subscribed to the semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution (p 54). Again, in reference to Mikoyan it is mentioned that in the Khrushchev period he sharply criticised The Short Course and its baneful effect on the Soviet social s ciences (pp 147-48). F urther, in a sensitive reference to how Khrushchev had sided with Stalin on 30 January 1937 in denouncing Sokolnikov, Serebriakov and Radek, no documentary evidence is p rovided. Second, it is quite puzzling that not a single book or article in Russian figures in the Bibliography which is otherwise excellent, although in the f ootnotes Russian sources have been used. Third, it was perhaps necessary to


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    may 16, 2009 vol xliv no 20

    Economic & Political Weekly


    provide a systematic account of how the history of the non-Russian nationalities was viewed in the Soviet era, in view of the fact that this addresses the sensitive and contentious question of valorisation of Russian nationalism vis-à-vis

    o ther nationalities.






    These gaps notwithstanding, the author deserves congratulations for presenting a book which is otherwise very richly crafted. After finishing the book the discerning reader would be persuaded to understand why the real truth of history, the grey zones, always eluded even the finest


    -h istorians of the Soviet era, as partiinost’ had the last word. What followed from partiinost’ was instrumentalism which finally explains the tragic fate of historians and history writing in the Soviet Union.







    may 16, 2009 vol xliv no 20

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