Judith Devlin: Remembrance and Survival in Russia
Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia, by Jonathan Brent, Atlas, 304 pp, $26, ISBN: 978-0977743339
Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and War, by Owen Matthews, Bloomsbury, 320 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0747596608
Jonathan Brent’s Inside the Soviet Archives and Owen Matthews’s Stalin’s Children tell of personal encounters with Russia’s twentieth century history. The authors are descendants of Russian émigrés, refugees from that history and its tragedies: Matthews is a journalist, based in post-Soviet Moscow and married to a Russian; Brent is an American publisher and academic. Each book attempts to make sense of the Soviet past, although different strategies are adopted. Matthews relates a family epic: his parents met and fell in love in Moscow during the Khrushchev Thaw and he explores their biographies, their star-crossed romance and the burden history placed on them. Brent’s perspective is different: he recounts, in often hilarious vein, his adventures and travails in bringing to fruition one of the great publishing ventures of our times, Yale University Press’s Annals of Communism.
The Annals of Communism are dedicated to the publication of historical documents released for the first time after the fall of the Soviet Union. Each volume is dedicated to a major theme, fundamental to the understanding of Soviet history: over twenty-five volumes in the series have now been published, including Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, Stalinism as a Way of Life and The Road to the Terror. This is a collaborative venture, in which both Russian and Western historians and the Russian archives participate, bringing to it the insight and knowledge their different perspectives afford. While no “smoking gun”, as Brent puts it, has been discovered, the series has served to establish if not a definitive consensus, at least a far better understanding of Soviet history, and it has made available not only key documents but, just as importantly, representative material which illustrates the mechanisms and motivations of Soviet power.
The significance of this enterprise should not be underestimated. Archival access is no longer as open as it was in the early nineties: commissions are rumoured to be touring the archives with a view to introducing new restrictions. Certain archives are off-limits to all but the most privileged researchers, notably the presidential archive (where high-level party documents reportedly remain classified) and the KGB/FSB archives. Even if restrictions are not introduced, it is evident that the anti-Stalinism of the late eighties (which in any event probably never extended beyond the intelligentsia) is a thing of the past. The mood in Moscow, since Putin’s ascent to power, has been more tolerant of a hazily understood Stalinism. As in the Brezhnev period, when grudging references to the Terror reluctantly conceded its “errors” (notably in decimating the Soviet nomenklatura) while the emphasis was placed on Stalin’s putative achievements in industrialising the country and winning the war, so now he is complacently regarded as a state-builder and imposer of order.
Opinion polls in the last decade have revealed consistently high ratings for the former dictator. This is partly attributable to the chaotic nineties and their discrediting of Western political and economic values; and in lesser measure to a protest vote. However, school history texts are also introducing a more positive view of Stalin. More recently, pundits close to the Kremlin have intoned about “memory wars”, mainly in reaction to the critical views of Stalinist history advanced by Ukraine and the Baltic states in what is seen in Moscow as an attempt to denigrate not only Stalin but also the Russian state, and to move away from the Russian sphere of influence. Implicitly, the attacks on Stalin’s record are resisted as an attack on the power and prestige of