- Interview with Professor Alter L´vovich Litvin(Department of History, Kazan State Federal University)
Alter L´vovich Litvin is a distinguished historian who began his career teaching in a secondary school in Kazan but later joined the faculty at Kazan State University (KGU, KU), where he continues to lecture and train graduate students.1 A gifted lecturer with a keen sense of audience, Professor Litvin has also compiled over his long career a lengthy list of publications and achieved a considerable international reputation, primarily for his works on the Civil War in the Volga region and, in recent decades, on Stalin’s purges.2 In his works on the Civil War he documents the extraordinary levels of violence on all sides, including the Samara-based Komuch, and examines closely and with empathy the behavior and lived experience of peasants in Kazan province. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Litvin has devoted his energy to the publication of previously inaccessible documents, largely from the archives of the Federal Security Service (FSB), including files on Boris Savinkov, Fanny Kaplan, Evgeniia Ginzburg, and, most recently, the diary of the historian S. A. Piontkovskii.3 Litvin’s introduction to Piontkovskii’s diary, as well as his essay in a voluminous recent collection of FSB documents, are especially revealing of his experience of and reflections on both the purges and archival sources from the Soviet era. While in his earlier work, Krasnyi i [End Page 941] belyi terror, he did not hesitate to condemn Lenin and others on all sides for their ruthless disregard of human rights, in the introduction to Piontkovskii’s diary he refrains from judging a man whom most readers will find an odious human being. Litvin’s insistence on working directly from the documents and on publishing, to the degree possible, complete archival collections has parallels with the work of Petr Zaionchkovskii, whose lifelong commitment to drawing conclusions about political developments exclusively from direct exposure to primary sources was legendary and, of course, separated both of them from the reigning Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.4 Although Alter L´vovich celebrates his 80th birthday this year, he shows no sign of slowing down, as either a teacher or a scholar.5 The following interview was conducted on 25 and 28 December 2009. I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Evgeniia Sosnovskaia in transcribing the recordings of the interviews and of Hiroaki Kuromiya, Marina Mogil´ner, Alexander Rabinowitch, and Tat´iana Saburova for careful readings of the text.
Professor Litvin, will you say a few words about your childhood and family? How you became a historian?
It’s hard to be brief [about one’s childhood]; after all, it’s an entire segment of one’s life. I was born in Kazan in 1931 in a working-class family. My parents were born in Belarus, in Arshansk district, Vitebsk province. My mother’s father was a cantor in the synagogue; my father’s father was a shoemaker; in short, a petty artisan. My parents married in 1928, but there was no work to be had in Belarus. In Kazan a fur kombinat was being established and a call [orgnabor] went out for workers. This was how they came to Kazan. They settled down on the left side of the Bulak Canal, in a two-room apartment on the second floor, with a kitchen and small bedroom. Beneath us was the cellar, and for that reason the apartment was cold in the winter. We heated by wood, so we had to gather, chop, and chip the wood. We also put up potatoes in the cellar to last the winter. In short, we lived like everybody else.
Papa brought along his own mother. Later, all his brothers and sisters found refuge in Kazan, and this is how they survived the war. But all my mother’s relatives stayed behind in Belarus. Twenty-seven of them perished in the Vitebsk ghetto. I never got to see them and sorely regret that. At the time there were no connections between places, and I was, after all, still very young. But after the war Mama sent me there to discover their fate; I found only my...