Magazine article History Today

From Soviet to Russian History

Magazine article History Today

From Soviet to Russian History

Article excerpt

At a recent international conference in Russia on the fate of |historical science' during the twentieth century, several native speakers denied that there was a crisis in their discipline. So far, they argued, in spite of many economic and social difficulties, there had been no significant interference in the freedom of enquiry and expression enjoyed by them since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. To outside observers, this had some ring of truth -- just by comparing the proceedings of the April 1993 Moscow conference with another held there three years before. Then, some of the remarks had been guarded; now, there was little evident restraint.

On the other hand, a number of Russian colleagues asserted that there was indeed a crisis in the profession. First, they insisted, if they themselves received no salary, or academic publishers went broke, the market economy did indeed impinge upon their work. Secondly, they alleged, some archives were still effectively closed, and others were not easy to enter. Several specific examples were given, although there were protests from the audience that ways round the obstacles could be found. Thirdly, there were fears that Clio might be asked to become the handmaiden of the new state as she had been of the old. Would flattery of Russian leaders become as necessary as it had been for Soviet? Fourthly, and most seriously for several speakers, the former methodology of history had collapsed, and no replacement had yet been found.

Especially for those whose careers had been intimately connected with it, the departure of Marxism-Leninism has left a |scientific' vacuum. One member of the old guard complained that one of his postgraduate students, asked to begin a paper with an indication of his methodological approach, had dared to suggest that he would adopt his own. in order to avoid such youthful arrogance, and for more general purposes, the supervisor suggested a remedy in harmony with the spirit of the market economy, a prize of a million roubles for a new handbook of methodology. But one equally senior speaker expressed his full agreement with the empirical approach: take care of the details, he asserted, and the generalisations will take care of themselves.

Amen to that, many, even the majority of Western historians, would say, as they also bid a far from tearful farewell to Marxism-Leninism. A considerable number might well nod in assent as they observed their Russian colleagues taking up the concept of totalitarianism (for them one of the more acceptable generalisations?). On the other hand, somewhat ironically perhaps, a significant proportion of Western specialists in the history and social science of the Soviet Union have been turning from the totalitarian model as a less than satisfactory key to an explanation of events and developments in the USSR from 1917 to 1991. To put the point simply, such a model appears to represent what participants and observers hoped or feared would happen, rather than what did happen.

In a free world, with pluralist approaches to understanding, by all means let the totalitarian model thrive among those who find it satisfactory. However, there was and is at least an element of the thing itself in its application. In other words, there has been, even remains, the implication that those who have not accepted the totalitarian model are a little suspect, not quite sharing Western values. Such an attitude was reinforced throughout the years of the Cold War by a succession of Soviet dissidents, notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn (until he himself began to denounce Western values).

Let us be clear about this. Of course, the Soviet period of Russian history should not be whitewashed any more than denigrated. Of course, millions of innocents went to the gulag, and a large proportion of them perished. The conditions for those who survived were often appalling. But there was more to the Soviet Union, even during Stalin's years as leader, than repression and the gulag. …

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