Full disclosure: I’m writing a book. Not a #nanowrimo, fiction sort of book, but a non-fiction book. One that I think needs to be written. I’m writing a book about Stalin.
Since the majority of you have either read this blog, seen my Twitter, heard me geek out in real life, it should be no shock to any of you that I have spent much of the past ten years being incredibly fascinated by Stalin. I even (kind of sort of) wrote a paper about him my senior year of college.*
Why am I here now, planning on writing a book about one of the worst despots in history? Well. Let me ask you a question (this is my elevator pitch, so be ready): what do you know about Stalin? My friends are all exceedingly bright. Many were humanities majors in college, many have gone on to attain higher degrees (JD, MA, PhD), many are just naturally curious. When I’ve posed that question to them they had the same blank look I imagine you’re wearing right now.
When I was growing up – post-Cold War, mind you – the USSR was the big, bad wolf. Alluded to as being “not good” (dirty Commies), but no real detail that I can remember. And Stalin? He came up twice in my secondary history books (certainly didn’t come up before high school): he was Lenin’s successor and he rescued the allies during World War II.**
So. Here I am. Writing a book.
Well, right now I’m in the research phases. Which means I’m reading many journal articles and books. Again, if you follow my Twitter account or are friends with me on Facebook, I’ve been spending a lot of time kvetching about the methodology that some of these “scholars” are using (for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick writes an article based almost solely on contemporary Pravda articles).
What’s been irking me the past couple days, as I work my way through Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror (2008 edition), is he often holds up what he’s finding in the now-opened Soviet Archives as truth. While you can certainly round out and build up more solid conclusions based on information being released from the archives, I am having a really tough time with authors and scholars saying, “well, this OGPU/NKVD/KGB [different generations of Soviet Secret Police] file said it, so it must be true.”
I get that with the release of many millions of documents hitherto secret in the USSR in the 1980s (and in Russia in the 1990s) there was,and is, a lot more information available about what happened in the USSR, particularly under Stalin. I think that we should absolutely be using these files to round out what we have known and to draw more conclusions about the mechanics of what was going on.
What’s giving me pause, and making me so uncomfortable, is that many scholars are saying, “Well, this NKVD file says it, so it must be true!” This seems to disregard the fact that the NKVD lied about stuff. That the Russian government continues to be secretive about what happened back in the day. That many of the most dire directives and actions were never actually written down.
We absolutely need to take into account the files that have come to light in the last twenty years. We absolutely need to listen to the contemporary voices who are, only now, starting to feel secure enough to speak out. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still have a healthy skepticism about what the government is reporting. Chances are better than even we are never going to have a complete picture about what happened in Russia in the 1930s and 40s.
That isn’t to say we should stop trying to see the complete picture – we dishonor the memory of Stalin’s millions and millions of victims if we stop. I just wish that scholars would stop saying, “Because this official document says it, it must be true.”
*I’m still sorry the paper wasn’t better, Dr. Gabriel!
**At least I want to think he came up twice. I do remember him coming up in terms of WWII because I remember the picture of him, Churchill and Roosevelt, but I may just be hoping that my history classes touched upon the Russian Revolution. Which is to say, I might be making that up.