- “Smolenskii Arkhiv” i amerikanskaia sovetologiia
Someone who has worked in the immense holdings of former Soviet archives must view the 538 files of the "Smolensk Archive" in much the same way the habitué of American supermarkets in the 1960s would have viewed the nearly empty shelves of a Russian village store. Researchers who relied upon the Smolensk materials certainly did not entertain the illusion that they were drawing upon the riches of a documentary emporium. They were seeking to make use of the only available collection of original sources for the Soviet 1920s and 1930s that had not been pre-approved for publication in the USSR. The Smolensk Archive proved a far cry from the Rosetta Stone that allowed Champollion to decipher the first Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Nevertheless, historians should not expect any document – or any amount of documents – to yield definitive answers to their questions. Insofar as past events engage contemporary passions, they are likely to remain subjects of debate. Many historical propositions will likely never be established beyond all doubt. Such propositions are not even comparable to Fermat's Last Theorem, which had to wait more than 300 years to be proven. Historical questions do not comprise neatly circumscribed problems, whose whys and wherefores can be demonstrated in a straightforward and definitive fashion. Perhaps more often than not, those events that appeal to our curiosity amount to a rather complex set of issues whose scope expands or contracts with time. The eventual emergence of some sort of consensus regarding historical problems indicates merely that those questions do not resonate as they once had. Such consensus hardly precludes the emergence of new questions and new attempts to answer them, as well as new discussions surrounding those efforts.
Several of these points do not seem entirely clear to Evgenii Kodin or, at any rate, they do not seem to concern him. Kodin's book on the use of the Smolensk Archive in American Russian studies may even cause its readers to wonder if the author does not aspire to Ranke's accomplishment, as credited by Lord Acton: the historian banishing himself from his own writings.1 All the same, one cannot [End Page 204] but be impressed by the effort Kodin has invested in tracing the views of a bewildering range of students who drew upon material in the Smolensk holdings. Only two chapters of Kodin's book are more or less devoted to the Smolensk records themselves. They recapitulate the few things we know about the documents' fate under Nazi occupation and the path by which they made their way to the West. These chapters also explain the nature of the Smolensk sources and give an outline of the early history of Soviet studies. Finally, they demonstrate that researchers of the 1950s and 1960s were strongly inclined to interpret the Smolensk evidence in the light of theories predating their investigation of the original sources, whereas later interpretations mobilized this material to challenge such previously accepted ideas. The remaining three chapters partially overlap with a presentation of such theoretical models. Chapter Three describes Western characterizations of Soviet power, Chapter Four deals with the role and scope of Soviet repression, and Chapter Five treats collectivization as an exemplification of Bolshevik practices. The author relies on the work of foreign scholars, the documents in the Smolensk Archive, and on sources which were returned to Smolensk after the war.2
Kodin demonstrates remarkable intellectual integrity in recounting the views of scholars of very different persuasions, who arrived at widely differing and at times diametrically opposed conclusions. It is a sad commentary on academe that such honesty in relating others' views should be counted as a virtue worthy of comment. Indeed, something not unlike an oral tradition has spread within certain circles of learning, by means of which savants employ incriminating labels in respect to certain works. Even as they constantly evoke and criticize such works, these labels simultaneously serve to dissuade others from reading the actual texts being criticized. This tradition has now reached Russia, where – O...