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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.1 (2005) 5-54

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Writing History for Stalin

Isaak Izrailevich Mints and the Istoriia grazhdanskoi voiny

Dept. of History
University of West Georgia
Carrollton, GA 30118 USA

In April 1937, Isaak Izrailevich Mints—former Civil War commissar, historian, future academician and Stalin prizewinner—stood accused of harboring enemies in the research apparatus he had headed since 1932. Only two years earlier, he had been sitting at the home of the famed proletarian writer Maksim Gor´kii, poring over Civil War maps with Stalin and Klim Voroshilov, debating key battles and strategy.1 Looking out at the officials and the apparatus workers gathered to denounce his work, Mints sought to balance dutiful contrition and determined self-defense. Somehow, perhaps through the intervention of Stalin himself, the historian escaped arrest. The Great Terror of 1936-38 did not count Mints among its casualties.

This episode, which brought Mints to the very brink of ignominy and death in Stalin's Russia, is part of a life story that is a virtual biography of historical writing and survival in the Soviet Union. Mints wrote, edited, and compiled over 50 scholarly articles and books. An eyewitness to revolution and civil war, he lived through every decade of Soviet power, successfully steering his way through every change in leadership and party policy. His experiences under Stalin, however, are particularly compelling, for they provide insight into the processes that permanently blurred the line between history and politics in the USSR.

Moved by a combination of motives, Isaak Mints helped lay the foundations for Stalinist historiography through his work on a major Stalinist project, the multi-volume Istoriia grazhdanskoi voiny v SSSR (History of the Civil War in the USSR, hereafter IGV). The initial volumes of the IGV revealed to the Stalinist leadership the value of historical discourse for shaping a desired historical reality and for unveiling a pantheon of invented military heroes (Stalin, Voroshilov, Semen Budennyi, etc.). Many of the conceptions initially worked out in this project went into what became the textbook for [End Page 5] the Stalinist revision of history, Istoriia VKP(b): Kratkii Kurs (A Short Course on the History of the All-Union Communist Party [Bolshevik]), published in 1938.2 His work on the IGV made Mints one of the early "executors" of the Stalinist will and an architect of the "Stalinist conception of the past."3 Despite having participated in such venerated events as the October Revolution and the Civil War, Mints found himself involved not just in the conscious distortion of these events but in the distortion of historical identity itself. Mints helped transform Stalin into the joint leader of the Revolution, standing side-by-side with Lenin in directing the Bolsheviks toward an armed uprising in October 1917, and the single-handed "organizer and creator of the Red Army."4

Mints's work between 1932 and 1949 on the Civil War history project, the IGV, therefore, offers a unique window into the evolution of the historical profession during the Stalinist era—indeed, into the larger process of Stalinization itself. Mints played a significant role in the Soviet historical profession as historian, teacher, administrator, and organizer; he was part of the first generation of Marxist-trained historians who rose to prominent roles in the Stalinist system of higher education and academic research. Yet at several points under Stalin, Mints came perilously close to falling into the abyss of the Stalinist repression. His life is thus a testament to the potential for success and upward mobility that Stalinism provided and to the thin line between success and ignominy, between life and death, in Stalin's Russia. Examining Mints's experiences puts a human face on the factors shaping the Stalinist system, with its complex mixture of popular idealism, personal opportunism, and fear.

Current directions in the study of Soviet historical writing, Soviet science, and Stalinism make Mints a compelling subject for analysis. His biography tells more than just his own personal...