- Istoriia Rossii: XX vek [A History of Russia: The 20th Century]. 1: 1894–1939, and:2: 1939–2007
Istoriia Rossii is a welcome addition to the debate over Russia’s turbulent 20th century—if only because this new interpretation offers so much with which to disagree. These two massive volumes follow several relevant and recent milestones, such as the controversial teacher’s manual Noveishaia istoriia Rossii, 1945–2008 (Russia’s Contemporary History, 1945–2008) and the accompanying textbook Istoriia Rossii, 1945–2008 (A History of Russia, 1945–2008); the creation in May 2009 of the Presidential Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History; the release of the documents on the Katyn Massacre; and Russian legislation that has made it illegal to deny the “results of World War II.” A veritable battle is taking place in the post-Soviet world around the construction of public memory and the role that history education plays in political socialization. Eventually, this debate will receive a scholarly examination, and indeed some academic journals have already exposed it to scrutiny.1
After two and a half years of work, 43 contributors (most of them academics) have put together what Richard Pipes has called “a refreshing contrast to previous Russian histories.”2 Indeed, quotations from his books eclipse all other Western authors, although the overt Orthodox bent of the project is clearly not something of which one would expect him to approve. With the exception of one foreign author, all the contributors are people of Russian background who teach or research in various Russian cities or [End Page 233] at foreign universities.3 The project’s organizer and chief editor, Andrei Borisovich Zubov—history professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO, Russia’s elite diplomatic academy) and professor of religious history at the Moscow Spiritual Academy—admits that the project was “financed by people who prefer not to be named.”4 Originally released in 5,000 copies, this “first non-Soviet history,” in the words of the publisher’s advertisement, has already undergone a second edition of 10,000.5
The controversial new interpretation and the high production quality—color maps, a name index, and solid editing—amply reward the commitment needed to read the volumes. The factual density of the narrative makes this a valuable reference volume rather than material for casual reading. The chapters are split into sections and subsections that number almost 370. The great advantage of the Zubov project is that it quotes from an enormous number of primary sources and includes a list of suggested readings at the end of almost every section—mostly the latest Russian historiography, but also many Western works, although most of the foreign texts were published between 1950 and 1980.
Istoriia Rossii claims to go beyond mere political history by focusing on ethnic groups, religious minorities, and individuals caught up in the whirlwind of the 20th century. Instead of portraits of famous leaders, photographs of ordinary people adorn the covers of both volumes, emphasizing the central argument that a political regime ought to be judged by its effect on ordinary citizens—specifically, on their “spiritual and material formation.”6 Zubov himself intended Istoriia Rossii to become a “history of mistakes, a history of political speculations” that encourages historical “redemption.”7 Istoriia Rossii thereby undermines the Western stereotype of the current Russian government monolithically enforcing its view of history and at the same time challenges many Soviet myths about the 20th century. [End Page 234]
Although Istoriia Rossii started out as a textbook, the scale rapidly got out of hand. Zubov himself balks at the term, arguing instead that Istoriia Rossii is an “in-depth exploration” and an “honest history of the 20th century” from which textbook authors can glean insights.8 Consensus formation, however, is not the goal here; and indeed, Zubov has argued publicly that striving for a single view of history is a “remnant of a Soviet type of thinking” and...