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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.1 (2004) 81-105

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On the Primacy of Ideology
Soviet Revisionists and Holocaust Deniers (In Response to Martin Malia)

Michael David-Fox
Dept. of History
2115 Francis Scott Key Hall
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-7315 USA

A fundamental irony lurks behind what Martin Malia calls our "sandbox Historikerstreit," the latest, 21st-century reprise over the legacy of "revisionism" in Soviet history. This is a historians' controversy Malia himself has done much to provoke in many outposts of public discussion. In a barrage of heated broadsides, Malia has issued the call for a postcommunist Vergangenheits bewältigung with the field's Sovietophilic scholarly past. These broadsides appeared in a wide array of publications in 2001 and 2002, ranging from daily newspapers (TheLos Angeles Times), prestigious book reviews (TheTimes Literary Supplement), and scholarly journals (Kritika, The Russian Review) to the right-wing political press in the United States and abroad (National Interest, Commentaire). 1 Judging by the silence or brief dismissal that has followed Malia's writings, an introduction to the state of Russian studies written through the prism of an attack on revisionism seems to many specialists to be an unpleasant anachronism that is best ignored.

J. Arch Getty, for example, has rebutted some of Malia's charges discussed below by dismissing him as a "specialist on the 19th century who has never done original research on the Soviet era." 2 But taking refuge in the authority [End Page 81] of specialization and archives in this case will not do. Intellectual historians, although rare in our field, generally are not archival specialists; prodigious archival research, while crucial in Soviet history today, does not automatically answer the large interpretive, political, moral, and historiographical issues Malia has been raising. Malia's early work, moreover, was not on any aspect of the 19th century but on Alexander Herzen and the birth of Russian socialism. He is the author of two major, influential, and in many ways brilliant books that treat the 20th century—The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 and Russia under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum 3 —and is one of the most prominent American commentators on Russian history for the broader nonspecialist public.This essay, then, begins with the premise that Malia's recent writings must be taken seriously, for two reasons. The first lies in the irony with which I began, all the more important because of Malia's stature: the greatest exponent of the notion that ideology was the driving force in Soviet history in all its dimensions appears blind to the quintessentially ideological features of his own historiographical Blitzkrieg. Indeed, as I discuss, Malia's comparison and rhetorical equation of erstwhile social-history revisionists in the Soviet field with David Irving and other Holocaust deniers is a quintessentially ideological move. When made so prominently in the public realm, this outrageous accusation, whatever one thinks of revisionist scholarship in the Soviet field (I have criticized major aspects of it myself) demands a full-fledged response. More fundamentally, Malia's insistence on not merely the special importance but the primacy of ideology in all interpretive aspects of Soviet history is itself an ideological stance, linked as it is to a reading of Russian/Soviet development as a pathological departure from the universalized "normal" evolution of the liberal, market systems of the West and a grand-narrative approach to historiography that understands rival contributions primarily in relation to that single postulate. 4

Malia's recent writings thus prompt us, first and foremost, to debate the core problem of ideology. It is more than surprising that in the Russian and Soviet field, a realm in which the role of ideology and conceptions of it are of such self-evident importance, even the "post-revisionist" era has not witnessed probing new methodological discussions about how to define ideology and its roles in Soviet history—even from the most...


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