Haunted by Stalin's Ghost: With the End of the Cold War, Russia Witnessed a Renaissance in the Study of History. Yet, since Then, Myths about the Country's Past Have Flourished as Various Elements of Post-Soviet Society Compete to Establish a Historical Identity

By Merridale, Catherine | History Today, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Haunted by Stalin's Ghost: With the End of the Cold War, Russia Witnessed a Renaissance in the Study of History. Yet, since Then, Myths about the Country's Past Have Flourished as Various Elements of Post-Soviet Society Compete to Establish a Historical Identity


Merridale, Catherine, History Today


The rebirth of history in Russia began at least two years before the European turning point of 1989. It was Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness, launched in 1986, that encouraged the tentative debates, discussions that were sponsored initially by the Kremlin itself. As a graduate student in Moscow University's Faculty of History in 1986 I watched the process unfolding and I followed its gathering momentum during the next three years. The debates were unforgettable and culminated in a crisis so profound that school and university examinations in history had to be cancelled. Textbooks, teachers and curricula faced ignominy; the old questions were irrelevant. It was as if the past had come to life after more than 70 years, breaking through the tissue of political illusion to reclaim its place at the centre of Russia's national imagination.

First came the so-called 'revelations'. One after another, Lenin's revolutionary comrades were rescued from historical obscurity. Even to pronounce their names had once been a dangerous mistake, but now their achievements were praised and the stories of their imprisonment, torture and judicial murder were narrated in graphic, fully documented detail. More shocking still, however, was the unravelling of official truths, the questioning, over the next two or three years, of Stalin's economic policies, Lenin's Civil War tactics and, finally, the justification for the 1917 October Revolution itself. With that last step, the entire Soviet Marxist experiment was discredited. It was no coincidence that the Soviet regime's final reckoning should have arrived at just this point but, however dramatic the news stories from Moscow, history usually enjoyed an equal billing, not least because it was predictable. The names of the long dead, of Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky and, later, Tsar Nicholas II continued to merit front-page coverage throughout Gorbachev's premiership. As Eastern Europe's people gathered to defeat dictatorship, their cousins in Soviet Russia were preparing, with a similar courage, to confront the possibility that their 70-year march to Communism had been a sham.

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Twenty years on, the region as a whole has changed, not just in terms of politics but also physically. Russia's major cities look brighter, brasher, their drab geography transformed by the glare of capitalism. Moscow's once-bleak and still windswept heart is now a maze of dazzling mails where shoppers jostle for Swiss watches, diamonds and designer furs. It would be easy to conclude though it would be a mistake to do so--that Moscow's middle class is too busy in the present to bother about the past. The public hunger for historical facts, for revelations and confessions, has certainly evaporated, while the number of university students enrolling on history courses has dropped, a striking change to set beside the queues for business studies, economics, marketing and law. Yet though the appeal of serious historical research has declined, resurgent Russia's national identity relies almost entirely on a reading of the past, a tale of progress and triumph whose shaping owes a lot to direct government intervention. Liberal commentators in and outside Russia have begun to talk of a return to the bad old ways.

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The scramble to expose Soviet lies was never likely to last long. Since it was part of the collective impatience with economic stagnation and corrupt, failing government, the public craving for facts was satisfied, or largely so, when the Soviet regime fell. At that point, too, there were more urgent pressures in most people's lives, for the economy collapsed soon after the end of Gorbachev's presidency and for much of the early 1990s Russians contended with physical hunger, cold, uncertainty and the very real danger of civil war. An underlying anxiety of another kind was gnawing away, too, for the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the accompanying loss of empire and ideological purpose struck many Russians like a personal blow. …

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