Soviet historiography: Wikis


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Soviet historiography is the way in which history was written by historians within the Soviet Union. Soviet historiography is also the practice of current historians studying how historians wrote history in the Soviet Union.[1] Soviet historiography is marked by alternating periods of freedom allowed and restriction imposed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and also by the struggle of historians in the Soviet Union to conduct history by their own estimates.


Theoretical approaches

Enteen identifies two approaches to the study of Soviet historiography. A totalitarian approach associated with the Western analysis of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian society, controlled by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, this school "thought that signs of dissent merely represented a misreading of commands from above."[2] 363 For Enteen the other school of writing on Soviet historiography is the social-history school which draws attention to "important initiative from historians at odds with the dominant powers in the field."[2] 363 Enteen is unable to decide between these different approaches based on current literature.


In Markwick's view there are a number of important post war historiographical movements, which have antecedents in the 1920s and 1930s. Surprisingly these include culturally and psychologically focused history. In the late 1920s Stalinists began limiting individualist approaches to history, culminating in the publication of Stalin and other's "Short Course" History of the Soviet Communist Party[3] This crystalised the piatichlenka or five acceptable moments of history in terms of vulgar dialectical materialism: primitive-communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism.[4] 284

While the triumph of Stalinist history was being imposed, different modes of history began to emerge. These included BA Romanov's People and Morals in Ancient Rus' (1947), a study of mentalités at the height of the Zhdanovshchina. However, it was not until the 20th Congress of the CPSU that different schools of history emerged from the Stalinist freeze. Firstly, a "new direction" within Leninist materialism emerged, as an effectively loyal opposition to Stalinist dialectical materialism, secondly a social psychology of history emerged through a reading of Leninist psychology, thirdly a "culturological" tendendency emerged.[4] 284–285

The era of Brezhnev was the time of samizdat (circulating unofficial manuscripts within the USSR) and tamizdat (illegal publication of work abroad). The three most prominent Soviet dissidents of that era were Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Roy Medvedev.[5] Of the tamizdat authors, Solzhenitsyn was the most famous, publishing his The Gulag Archipelago in the West in 1973. Medvedev's Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism was published in 1971 in the West.[6] Neither could publish in the Soviet Union until the advent of Perestroika and Glasnost.

Party line

In the original version of this photo (top), Nikolai Yezhov, the young man strolling with Joseph Stalin to his left, was shot in 1940. He was edited out from a photo by an editor at some publication.[7]
Historians are dangerous and capable of turning everything upside down. They have to be watched.
Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1956[8]

Soviet historiography had been severely criticized by scholars, chiefly — but not only — outside the Soviet Union. Its status as "scholarly" at all has been questioned, and it has often been dismissed as ideology and pseudoscience.[9] Robert Conquest concluded that

All in all, unprecedented terror must seem necessary to ideologically motivated attempts to transform society massively and speedily, against its natural possibilities. The accompanying falsifications took place, and on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, real statistics, disappeared into the realm of fantasy. History, including the history of the Communist Party, or rather especially the history of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons disappeared from the official record. A new past, as well as new present, was imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet population, as was, of course, admitted when truth emerged in the late 1980s.[10]

That criticism stems from the fact that in the Soviet Union, science was far from independent. Since the late 1930s, Soviet historiography treated the party line and reality as one and the same.[11] As such, if it was a science, it was a science in service of a specific political and ideological agenda, commonly employing historical revisionism.[12] In the 1930s, historic archives were closed and original research was severely restricted. Historians were required to pepper their works with references — appropriate or not — to Stalin and other "Marxist-Leninist classics", and to pass judgment — as prescribed by the Party — on pre-revolution historic Russian figures.[13]

The state-approved history was openly subjected to politics and propaganda, similar to philosophy, art, and many fields of scientific research.[8] The Party could not be proven wrong, it was infallible and reality was to conform to this line. Any non-conformist history had to be erased, and questioning of the official history was illegal.[8]

Many works of Western historians were forbidden or censored, many areas of history were also forbidden for research as, officially, they never happened.[8] As such, it remained mostly outside the international historiography of the period.[9] Translations of foreign historiography were often produced in a truncated form, accompanied with extensive censorship and corrective footnotes. For example, in the Russian 1976 translation of Basil Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War pre-war purges of Red Army officers, the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, many details of the Winter War, the occupation of the Baltic states, the Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, Allied assistance to the Soviet Union during the war, many other Western Allies' efforts, the Soviet leadership's mistakes and failures, criticism of the Soviet Union and other content were censored out.[14]

The official version of Soviet history has been dramatically changed after every major governmental shake-up. Previous leaders were always denounced as "enemies", whereas current leaders were usually a subject of a personality cult. Textbooks were rewritten periodically, with figures - such as Lev Trotsky or Stalin himself - disappearing from their pages or being turned from great figures to great villains.[8][15]

Certain regions and periods of history were made unreliable for political reasons. Entire historical events could be erased, if they did not fit the party line. For example, until 1989 the Soviet leadership and historians, unlike their Western colleagues, had denied the existence of a secret protocol to the Soviet-German Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and as a result the Soviet approach to the study of the Soviet-German relations before 1941 and the origins of World War II were remarkably flawed.[16] In another example, the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 as well as the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 were censored out or minimized from most publications, and research suppressed, in order to enforce the policy of 'Polish-Soviet friendship'.[8] Similarly, the enforced collectivisation, the wholesale deportations or massacres of small nationalities in the Caucasus or the disappearance of the Crimean Tatars are not recognized as facts worth of mention.[8] Soviet historians also engaged in producing false claims and falsification of history, for example Soviet historiography falsely claimed that Katyn massacre was carried out by Germans rather than by Soviets as was the case.[17 ] Yet another example is related to the case of Soviet reprisals against former Soviet POWs returning from Germany; some of them were treated as traitors and imprisoned in GULAGs for many years, yet that policy was denied or minimized by Soviet historians for decades and modern Western scholars have noted that "In the past, Soviet historians engaged for the most part in a disinformation campaign about the extent of the prisoner-of-war problem."[18]

Marxist influence

The problems of Soviet historiography are the problems of our Communist ideology.
Anna Pankratova, Soviet academician, 1956[12]

The Soviet interpretation of Marxism predetermined much of the research done by historians. Soviet historiography was unreliable, to a large extent, due to this predetermination. Some Soviet historians could not offer non-Marxist theoretical explanations for their interpretation of sources. This was true even when alternate theories had a greater explanatory power in relation to a historian's reading of source material.[8][9]

The creation of the Soviet Union was presented as the most important turning event in the human history, based on the Marxist theory of historical materialism. This theory identified means of production as chief determinants of the historical process. They led to the creation of social classes, and class struggle was the 'motor' of history. The sociocultural evolution of societies had to progress inevitably from slavery, through feudalism and capitalism to communism. Furthermore, the Communist Party became the protagonist of history, as a "vanguard of the working class", according to development of this theory by Lenin. Hence the unlimited powers of the Communist Party leaders were claimed to be as infallible and inevitable as the history itself [19]. It also followed that a world-wide victory of communist countries is inevitable. All research had to be based on those assumptions and could not diverge in its findings.[8]

The Marxist bias has been also criticized, for example, for assigning to the rebellions in the Roman Empire the characteristics of the social revolution.[8][9]

Often, the Marxist bias and propaganda demands mixed: hence the peasant rebellions against the early Soviet rule were simply ignored - as inconvenient politically and contradicting the Marxist theories.[11]

Reliability of statistical data

"The deceptive figure". This is the translation of a widely cited article ("Lukavaia Tsifra") by journalist Vasilii Seliunin and economist Grigorii Khanin, in Novyi Mir, February 1987, #2: 181-202[20]

The quality (accuracy and reliability) of data published in the Soviet Union and used in historical research is another issue raised by various Sovietologists.[10][21][22][23] The Marxist theoreticians of the Party considered statistics as a social science; hence many applications of statistical mathematics were curtailed, particularly during the Stalin's era.[24] Under central planning, nothing could occur by accident.[24] Law of large numbers or the idea of random deviation were decreed as "false theories".[24] Statistical journals were closed; World renown statisticians like Andrey Kolmogorov or Eugen Slutsky abandoned statistical research.[24]

As with all Soviet historiography, reliability of Soviet statistical data varied from period to period.[23] The first revolutionary decade and the period of Stalin's dictatorship both appear highly problematic with regards to statistical reliability; very little statistical data were published from 1936 to 1956 and [23] The reliability of data has improved after 1956 when some missing data was published and Soviet experts themselves published some adjusted data for the Stalin's era;[23] however the quality of documentation has deteriorated.[22]

While some researchers say that on occasion statistical data useful in historical research (such as economical data invented to prove the successes of the Soviet industrialization, or some published numbers of Gulag prisoners and terror victims as Conquest claims) might have been completely invented by the Soviet authorities[10], there is little evidence that most statistics were significantly affected by falsification or insertion of false data with the intent to confound the West.[22] Data was however falsified both during collection - by local authorities who would be judged by the central authorities based on whether their figures reflected the central economy prescriptions - and by internal propaganda, with its goal to portray the Soviet state in most positive light to its very citizens.[21][23] Nonetheless the policy of not publishing - or simply not collecting - data that was deemed unsuitable for various reasons was much more common than simple falsification; hence there are many gaps in Soviet statistical data.[22] Inadequate or lacking documentation for much of Soviet statistical data is also a significant problem.[21][22][23]


Not all areas of Soviet historiography were equally affected by the ideological demands of the elite; additionally, the intensity of these demands varied over time.[23] The impact of ideological demands also varied based on the field of history. The areas most affected by ideological demands were nineteen and twentieth century history, especially Russian and Soviet history. Part of the Soviet historiography was affected by extreme ideological bias, and potentially compromised by the deliberate distortions and omissions. Yet part of Soviet historiography produced a large body of significant scholarship which continues to be used in the modern research.[25] For example, Soviet works on Byzantium, created and published in Soviet Union, are held in high regard.

Life experiences of individual Soviet historians

Mikhail Pokrovsky (1862-1932) was held in the highest regard as a historian in the Soviet Union and was elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1929. He emphasized Marxist theory, downplaying the role of personality in favour of economics as the driving force of history. However, posthumously, Pokrovsky was accused of "vulgar sociologism", and his books were banned. After Stalin's death, and the subsequent renouncement of his policies during the Khrushchev Thaw, Pokrovsky's work regained some influence.

When Burdzhalov, then the deputy editor of the foremost Soviet journal on history, in spring of 1956 published a bold article examining the rôle of Bolsheviks in 1917 and demonstrated that Stalin had been an ally of Kamenev — who had been executed as a traitor in 1936 — and that Lenin had been a close associate of Zinoviev — who had been executed as a traitor in 1936 —, Burdzhalov was moved to an uninfluential post.

Influence of Soviet historiography in modern Russia

The 2006 Russian book, “A Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006: A Manual for History Teachers” has received significant attention as it was publicly endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin said that "we can't allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us," and that the new manual helps present a more balanced view of Russian history than that promoted by the West. The book acknowledges the repressions carried out by Stalin and others, but argues that they were "a necessary evil in response to a cold war started by America against the Soviet Union." It cites a recent opinion poll in Russia that gave Stalin an approval rating of 47%, and states that "The Soviet Union was not a democracy, but it was an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society."

The Economist magazine contends that the book is inspired by Soviet historiography in its treatment of the Cold War, as it claims that the Cold War was started by the United States, that the Soviet Union was acting in self-defense, and that the USSR did not lose the Cold War but rather voluntarily ended it. According to The Economist, "rabid anti-Westernism is the leitmotif of [the book's] ideology." [26]. However, this single book is only one out of many approved by the Ministry of Educacion, many promoting opposite views.

In 2009 president Dmitri Medvedev created a History Commission to against anti-Soviet and anti-Russian propaganda. Officially the mission of the Commission is to "defend Russia against falsifiers of history and those who would deny Soviet contribution to the victory in World War II".[27] Also United Russia has proposed a draft law that would mandate jail terms of three to five years "for anyone in the former Soviet Union convicted of rehabilitating Nazism".[28]

See also "Historical revisionism: Soviet and Russian history".

See also


  1. ^ It is not the history of the Soviet Union. See definitions of historiography for more details.
  2. ^ a b George M. Enteen, "Recent Writings about Soviet Historiography," Slavic Review 61 (2) 2002: 357-363. jstor stable link
  3. ^ Joseph Stalin and others. "Short Course" History of the Soviet Communist Party", Moscow, 1938.
  4. ^ a b Roger D. Markwick, "Cultural History under Khrushchev and Brezhnev: from Social Psychology to Mentalités," The Russian Review 65 2006: 283-301.
  5. ^ Sellers, Lea. Soviet Dissidents and the Western World. Fletcher Forum of World Affairs (at Tufts University), 1976.
  6. ^ Let History Judge by Roy Medvedev; ISBN 0231063504
  7. ^ The Commissar vanishes (The Newseum)
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ferro, Marc (2003). The Use and Abuse of History: Or How the Past Is Taught to Children. London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415285926. See Chapters 8 Aspects and variations of Soviet history and 10 History in profile: Poland.
  9. ^ a b c d Gwidon Zalejko, Soviet historiography as "normal science", in Historiography Between Modernism and Postmodernism, Jerzy Topolski (ed.), Rodopi, 1994, ISBN 9051837216, Google Print, p.179-191.
  10. ^ a b c Robert Conquest Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000) ISBN 0-393-04818-7, page 101
  11. ^ a b Taisia Osipova, Peasant rebellions: Origin, Scope, Design and Consequences, in Vladimir N. Brovkin (ed.), The Bolsheviks in Russian Society: The Revolution and the Civil Wars, Yale University Press, 1997, ISBN 0300067062. Google Print, p.154-176
  12. ^ a b Roger D. Markwick, Donald J. Raleigh, Rewriting History in Soviet Russia: The Politics of Revisionist Historiography, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, ISBN 0333792092, Google Print, p.4-5
  13. ^ John L. H. Keep: A History of the Soviet Union 1945-1991: Last of the Empires, pages 30–31
  14. ^ Lewis, B. E. (1977). Soviet Taboo. Review of Vtoraya Mirovaya Voina, History of the Second World War by B. Liddel Gart (Russian translation). Soviet Studies 29 (4), 603-606.
  15. ^ The Liberators (Освободитель), 1981, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, ISBN 0-241-10675-3; cited from Russian edition of 1999, ISBN 5-237-03557-4, pages 13-16
  16. ^ Bidlack, Richard (1990). Review of Voprosy istorii i istoriografii Velikoi otechestvennoi voiny by I. A. Rosenko, G. L. Sovolev. Slavic Review 49 (4), 653-654.
  17. ^ Decision to commence investigation into Katyn Massacre, Małgorzata Kużniar-Plota, Departamental Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, Warsaw 30 November 2004, (Internet Archive) (also see the press release online), last accessed on 19 December 2005, English translation of Polish document
  18. ^ Rolf-Dieter Müller, Gerd R. Ueberschär, Hitler's War in the East, 1941-1945: A Critical Assessment, Berghahn Books, 2002, ISBN 1571812938, Google Print, p.239
  19. ^ David Satter. Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, Yale University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-300-08705-5
  20. ^ Alan Smith, Russia and the World Economy: Problems of Integration, Routledge, 1993, ISBN 0415089247, Google Print, p.34-35
  21. ^ a b c Nicholas Eberstadt and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Tyranny of Numbers: Mismeasurement and Misrule, American EnterpriseInstitute, 1995, ISBN 084473764X, Google Print, p.138-140
  22. ^ a b c d e Edward A. Hewett, Reforming the Soviet Economy: Equality Versus Efficiency, Brookings Institution Press, 1988, ISBN 0815736037, Google Print, p.7 and following chapters
  23. ^ a b c d e f g Nikolai M. Dronin, Edward G. Bellinger, Climate Dependence And Food Problems In Russia, 1900-1990, Central European University Press, 2005, ISBN 9637326103, Google Print, p.15-16
  24. ^ a b c d David S. Salsburg, he Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century, Owl Books, 2001, ISBN 0805071342, Google Print, p.147-149
  25. ^ Hannes Heer, Klaus Naumann, War Of Extermination: The German Military In World War II, Berghahn Books, 2004, ISBN 1571812326, Google Print, p.304
  26. ^ Russia's past. The rewriting of history, November 8, 2007, The Economist
  27. ^ УКАЗ Президента РФ от 15.05.2009 N 549 (Russian)
  28. ^ "Medvedev Creates History Commission". The Wall Street Journal. 2009-05-21.  

Further reading



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