Historical Inquiry and Stalinism

This is relevant to 20th century topic 3: Single Party States, and the HL option Europe and the Middle East.

As I breezed through the local university library, I saw a copy of Master of the House, the most recent text available on Stalin, this one by Oleg Khlveniuk, a senior fellow at the state archive of the Russian Federation. At first, I jubilantly walked by it, encouraged by the fact that, for the first time in years, Stalin was not my Prescribed Subject and I really didn’t need to read everything that ever came out about the Man of Steel.

But then, I picked it up off the shelf and began to read the jacket: “Meticulous research … previously unavailable documents … unreleased Soviet archives ….” Hadn’t I read this all before? Was reading this really going to increase my depth of knowledge of Stalinism or increase my students’ interests? Was this text going to change how people view Soviet history? Was there really anything new under the sun?

Even so, I picked up the book and started skimming the introduction, looking for the thesis so I could set my mind at ease, knowing that I didn’t need to read this book. And then there it was on page xix: “Although Politburo members may have enjoyed certain independence in deciding many matter, the historical record shows that Stalin tended to have the final word.” Hah! I didn’t have to read on.

But then came the admonishment. “Even though these conclusions may lack a certain sensationalism, they are the conclusions that the evidence forces us to accept.” Oh dear. There is evidence here; it supports a valid argument that may not have changed from those given decades ago, but it was here and substantiated. It therefore was my duty to read yet another text on the USSR under Stalin, not because there would be new conclusions drawn, but because there was new evidence that needed to be processed. And the data rejected the more-recent scholarship that made Stalinist terror less his personal objective and more systemic in nature. The Great Purge and accompanying terror, Khlveniuk argues, were part of Stalin’s goal of centralizing all power under his control.

With a sigh, I picked the book up and took it to the counter for check-out. Evaluation of sources never ends.

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