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  • Stalinism and the Stalin Period after the “Archival Revolution”
  • Oleg Khlevniuk (bio)

The latest general work on Stalinism illustrates an important trend of the past few years: historians to a greater extent than ever before have begun to study the phenomenon of Stalinism as an historical problem.1 In the past, arguments were waged over political-theoretical constructions, during the course of which some researchers attempted to set forth the rather meager amount of empirical evidence that existed about Stalinism, while others declined to do so. Now, comparative analyses of the Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships are based to a greater degree on genuine insight into the mechanisms by which power was exercised in both regimes.2 Numerous "sensations," such as the claim that Stalin was almost uninvolved with the system that bore his name, remain, one can only hope, a thing of the past.

The main factor that allows us to call the past decade a distinctive period in the study of the history of Stalinism (as is the case, to be sure, in other areas of Soviet history as well) is the partial opening of the archives, a process that has become known as the "archival revolution." For the time being, the Stalin period is the latest era in Soviet history that can really be studied on the basis of archival materials. The results of archival investigations carried out in the last ten years make quite an impression. Such a large flood of information has appeared that even specialists cannot completely keep track of it. Preoccupied with their searches and discoveries, driven by (as a rule) friendly competition, historians, it appears, are not inclined to stop and ask basic questions. What have we gained from the archives? Where has the "revolution" led us, and do we need to change course?

The decade-long "archival period" of work on Soviet history, which has affected the study of Stalinism first and foremost, has fully reconfirmed the significance and potential of archives and their place in the hierarchy of research priorities. Historians have overcome the syndrome of "archival over-expectation," and generally have come to understand what one can and cannot expect from the [End Page 319] archives.3 They have almost learned to use them in the same way as they used previously accessible sources before. This has to be considered one of the most important results of the decade.

Comparisons between "pre-archival" and contemporary developments in the historiography reveal a closer connection between the scholarship of both periods than had been expected at the outset, when the archives had only begun to open. For this reason the most sophisticated research is being conducted in areas that had been at the forefront in the period before the opening of the archives. This continuity is demonstrated by the fundamental works of historians who already possessed a great deal of experience in their own fields and who actively took part in incorporating the archives into their work: R. W. Davies and Mark Harrison on economic history, Peter H. Solomon on the Stalinist legal system, and Sheila Fitzpatrick on social history.4

In Russia the work of agrarian historians such as Viktor Petrovich Danilov, Il'ia Evgenevich Zelenin, and N. A. Ivnitskii can serve as examples of such historiographical continuities. The most productive scholars of the previous period, these scholars together with Western colleagues (Roberta Manning, Lynne Viola, Robert Johnson, R. W. Davies, and S. G. Wheatcroft) focused their energies on publishing and annotating a large complex of documents pertaining to the history of the Soviet countryside, collectivization, and dekulakization.5

Our current knowledge of the archives suggests that many scholarly works could have been written even without archival materials and that those materials, like the sources that were available earlier, do not hold the answers to many questions. It is true, however, that the new materials have substantively enriched such research and have in a number of cases clarified previously disputed issues. Archival materials assume more significance in works that could not have been written earlier, given the absence of crucial information in the extant sources. For example, Lynne Viola's works on peasant uprisings during collectivization and OGPU operations against the...


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pp. 319-327
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