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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.1 (2006) 71-109

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Writing History and the End of the Soviet Era

The Secret Lives of Natan Eidel´man

Dept. of History
Claremont McKenna College
850 Columbia Ave.
Claremont, CA 91711 USA
[Erratum from issue 7.2]

Historians of Soviet historical writing have tended to concentrate their attention on the connections between historical scholarship in the Soviet Union and the Communist Party's shifting ideological line, on debates over the interpretation of great events in Russian and Soviet history, on the institutional framework of historical scholarship in the Soviet Union, and on the tensions between communist internationalism and ethnic nationalism, including Russian nationalism, at various moments in the Soviet past. Alongside the many books and articles on these subjects is a handful of publications focusing on the intellectual biography of prominent Soviet scholars, especially those active in the first decades of the Bolshevik regime. The present article adds to the existing scholarly literature by exploring the life and historical research of a well-known "semi-dissident" intellectual active from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s, the political and literary historian Natan Iakovlevich Eidel´man. Precisely because much of Eidel´man's astonishing career took place outside normal Soviet institutional venues (that is, outside the Academy of Sciences and the leading university departments of history and higher pedagogical schools), his intellectual biography throws light on the gradual development after 1956 of a semi-autonomous scholarly elite and of a nascent civil society that intermittently showed signs of ideological pluralism even before Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev launched his campaign to rebuild Soviet socialism. After 1985 Eidel´man publicly supported Gorbachev's effort to reform the Soviet Union from above. Indeed, his activities from 1986 to 1989 tell us much about the aspirations of the "liberal" intelligentsia in the twilight of Soviet power and about the constraints, both external and self-imposed, in which they operated in those critical years. [End Page 71]

The article opens with an introduction to Eidel´man's life and work, followed by a brief analysis of his recently published diary, the document on which much of the subsequent discussion rests; an overview of Eidel´man's formation as a Soviet historian; a discussion of the problem of secrecy in Eidel´man's scholarship and in Soviet society after 1956; an exploration of Eidel´man's writing on political dissidence under the old regime and an analysis of the ways that his writing indirectly depicted Soviet-era dissent; a commentary on Eidel´man's ambiguous status as an assimilated Jew writing Russian history and on his sensitivity to renascent antisemitism in the Soviet Union; an analysis of various aspects of Eidel´man's role as public intellectual during the perestroika era; and a suggestion that Eidel´man's life and death strangely mirrored the history of the Soviet Union itself.

The article is based on two assumptions: first, that the careful reading of a scholar's diary and published work can provide insight into the political subtexts of that work; and second, that intellectual biography is one valid method among many others for understanding Soviet cultural and political history. In the present case, the biographical approach is the one best suited to analysis of certain elusive cultural phenomena: the fetishization of secrecy and concealment in Russian historical scholarship; the persistent yet often repressed longing of intellectuals to break selectively with Soviet codes of secrecy, to transgress ideologically enforced and culturally determined taboos affecting public life; and finally, the difficulties experienced by non-Russian intellectuals, especially Jews, in writing about imperial Russian history from a critical perspective.

A Scholar's Legacy

During the final quarter-century of Soviet power, Natan Iakovlevich Eidel´man occupied a unique position, at once enviable and perilous, in the turbulent world of the Moscow intelligentsia.

Eidel´man was a prolific historian of that period of the Russian empire between the early 18th and mid-19th centuries...


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