Changing Interpretations of Soviet Russia: The Redeemer Cometh: John Claydon Analyses the Increasingly Rich Profusion of Writings on the Nature of the Bolshevik Revolution and of Subsequent Soviet Rule. (Talking Points)

By Claydon, John | History Review, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Changing Interpretations of Soviet Russia: The Redeemer Cometh: John Claydon Analyses the Increasingly Rich Profusion of Writings on the Nature of the Bolshevik Revolution and of Subsequent Soviet Rule. (Talking Points)


Claydon, John, History Review


The last ten years has been a dramatic time for anyone interested in gaining a balanced understanding of the history of Soviet Russia. Alongside the exhilaration felt by opponents of communism across the world, and by most Russians, at the collapse of Communist rule in Russia in 1991, historians had good reason to be excited too. From the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 until the beginning of the period of glasnost, or greater openness, under Gorbachev from 1985, Russia had largely been a closed society, and although outside observers found the politics and history of Soviet Russia fascinating, they had little access to tangible evidence. The only significant exception to this came as a direct result of Russia's invasion by Germany in the Second World War when a huge collection of government and Communist Party records was left behind by the retreating Russians in the important city of Smolensk. The Germans captured Smolensk in 1941 and took the records back to Germany where they were seized by the Americans in 1945. The archive does not tell us a great deal about the major issues of Soviet history to that point, and no one knows whether the Russians took the most sensitive documents with them, but there is a wealth of detailed information on how the Soviet system of government operated.

From the mid-1980s onwards historians felt an immense sense of anticipation at the prospect of the records of the Communist regime becoming available for detailed scrutiny, especially the presidential archive in Moscow, which was eventually opened up to scholars in 1993. They have leapt upon this newly available information with great relish, and the fruits of their investigations are beginning to change and adapt accepted views, though research is inevitably still in its infancy.

Early Interpretations

For most of the period of Communist rule, explanations of Bolshevism and of the ruling system to which it gave birth were necessarily crude. Interpretations of Russian origin were either the official version of the Communist Party, a fiction with history deliberately manipulated to serve the political requirements of the moment, or the views of exiled opponents of the regime. Trotsky was by far the most influential of these because of his standing in the Party, and his massive history of the revolution is the starting point of detailed study of the revolutionary period. After his banishment from the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1929, he continued to write about Russian politics and history until his assassination by a Stalinist agent in 1940. He maintained contacts in Russia throughout the 1930s and left behind a huge correspondence which remains a very valuable source; but his interpretation of events is inevitably less detailed and more conjectural after his departure.

Similarly historians in the West can most readily be divided into two camps: those with Marxist beliefs themselves who supported the regime, and those who tended to be critical of it. The debates among historians centre on four principal issues: the reasons for the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917; explanation of the rise of Stalin and the ending of the New Economic Policy; and, connected with that, whether the style of Soviet dictatorship under Stalin differed markedly from Lenin's; and, fourthly, the origins of the Purges of the 1930s.

The main stages of the evolution of the historiography of the period are easy to discern. Until well after Stalin's death in 1953 the regime itself turned out Communist Party propaganda in the name of history. Stalin himself was portrayed in heroic terms, building on the foundation created by Lenin, who was the acknowledged architect of the Soviet state. It was in fact impossible to pursue serious historical research of the Soviet era inside Russia. The only historical work of any merit carried out by scholars working within the Soviet Union at this time was on much earlier periods of history where Party gloss was not seen to be so important. …

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Changing Interpretations of Soviet Russia: The Redeemer Cometh: John Claydon Analyses the Increasingly Rich Profusion of Writings on the Nature of the Bolshevik Revolution and of Subsequent Soviet Rule. (Talking Points)
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