Ten Years after the "Remarkable Decade"

Article excerpt

In the spring of 2001, a still youthful Kritika reflected on the "remarkable decade" since the fall of communism. Back then, such an exercise in historiographical retrospection required absolutely no apology. The 1990s had indeed been exciting times; expectations ran high that new archival access would transform scholarly habits, that the way would be open to new and more productive forms of intellectual exchange across national boundaries, and that paradigm shifts would not be far behind. Even if scholarly output did not bear out the more outlandish projections--the effects of the "archival revolution," for example, were more incremental than transformational--there was an enormous amount for the 15 authors of the 2001 special issue to reflect on. (1)

How, though, do we justify a further long look backward in 20117 After all, the second post-Soviet decade has ostensibly been more workaday than remarkable. The most eye-catching areas of post-glasnost' historiography--the Terror, the Gulag, Stalinist "civilization"--have generated such a volume of research that it is almost inconceivable now for a single work to make the impact of Magnetic Mountain or Everyday Stalinism. (2) The archival gold rush is no more, and researchers in certain fields have settled back into the familiar pattern of only limited access to the documents that most interest them. As Russian politics has become more predictable--and, on balance, more distasteful--to Western observers, professional historians of Russia have a reduced capacity to hold the attention of the wider public.

We believe, however, that there are good reasons not to be blase. Historians need time to work through the intellectual consequences of epoch-defining events; ours is a "delayed-reaction" profession. By this logic, one might expect the most meaningful historiographical responses to the fall of communism to come not in the first half of the 1990s but a decade or so later--on the completion of the life cycle of the first postarchival Ph.D. projects. Nowhere is this hypothesis more amply borne out than in the field of Soviet history. The headline story of the 2000s has been the rise to prominence and maturity of postwar and post-Stalin history, whose practitioners have a sense of common purpose that was previously a Stalin-era monopoly. Very soon, moreover, it will be possible to speak of the hitherto oxymoronic field of "post-Soviet history": already researchers are interested less in the causes of the Soviet collapse than in the nature and extent of continuity across the 1991 divide.

Yet, while noteworthy, these shifts in historiographical perspective are fairly predictable consequences of "objective" changes in the research environment: with the passing of time, the opening of archives up to the 1970s, and new opportunities for fieldwork and oral history, it was only to be expected that scholars would turn their attention to the later decades of Soviet history. The intellectual vibrancy of recent times is even more striking in fields farther removed from the present day. The topics of the ten essays here overlap very little with those of the 2001 special issue. This is not a matter of change for change's sake. Partly it has to do with the opening or expansion of new areas of research, but mainly it results from the rethinking of fields of inquiry and the redrawing of intellectual boundaries. Take, for example, the Stalinist 1930s, which accounted for 2 of the 11 main essays in 2001. This time around there is no specially designated piece on the interwar period. But that does not mean that the Stalin era is absent from our thoughts: two of the essays (on war and society and on transnational history) draw much of their material from the 1930s and 1940s. Assumptions of Soviet isolationism have given way to wide-ranging exploration of Russia's 20th-century interactions--whether cultural, economic, or political--with the wider world. Ten years ago it was still possible to study World War II in Europe without taking much interest in the Eastern front; it was left to an eminent historian of Nazi Germany to make the case to a general historical audience that "Russia's war" mattered. …