Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.1 (2004) 27-54
[Access article in PDF]
Politics as Practice
Thoughts on a New Soviet Political History
Dept. of History
University of Chicago
1126 East 59th St.
Chicago, IL 60637 USA
As Kritika's attention to the topic indicates, it is time to think about new approaches to political history. The subject has languished long enough, particularly in the Soviet context. Soviet political history has been under a cloud for the past 20 or 30 years for a number of reasons. First, the long heydays of social and cultural history meant that in the historical discipline as a whole, political history fell out of favor. Second, Soviet historians of my generation and the one that followed it (the social historians of the 1970s and the 1980s) often had a particular distaste for politics in reaction to the dominance of political scientists and Cold War attitudes in Sovietology and because of a commitment to seeing history "from below," not through the perspective of states and their leaders. Finally, there were daunting source problems for aspiring political historians as long as Soviet archives, especially those bearing on high politics, remained largely inaccessible. Under the circumstances, the avoidance of political topics by most Western historians of the Soviet Union before 1991 was fully understandable.
All the same, it was one of the ironies of historiography that when the Soviet archives finally (partially) opened, making it feasible to untangle some of the old mysteries of Soviet political history, comparatively few scholars rushed in. On the Western side, the most notable exception was J. Arch Getty, one of the few historians of the 1970s-80s working on politics. Younger scholars like Yoram Gorlizki, James Harris, and Terry Martin followed, but not many of them. On the Russian side, Oleg Khlevniuk switched to political history at the beginning of the 1990s and has since done the work of ten, but he is one of the few Russian historians producing interpretive monographs on political history, as opposed to collecting and publishing archival documents. Soviet politics, whose secrets were a matter of such heated speculation in the old days of closed archives, has been left mainly to journalists, who tend to focus on "sensational disclosures," and archival document-publishers, who usually keep commentary to a minimum. [End Page 27]
Publication of archival documents has been one of the brightest aspects of the past decade. Several teams of Russian and Western scholars have been engaged in valuable work on the collection and publication of archival documents and inventories (opisi ) ; and the material available in print and microform now includes such valuable data as Politburo agendas, correspondence between Party leaders, records of Stalin's Kremlin appointments, stenographic reports of Party meetings and political trials, and much more. A new crop of memoirs has also appeared, 1 and even a few political diaries. 2 The selective survey of these archival materials and publications offered in an appendix to this article is by no means exhaustive, but it should give some idea of the wealth of information waiting to be digested by scholars. With all this archival material accessible to scholars without even the bother of a trip to Russia, it is surely time to start thinking and writing about Soviet political history in earnest.
Soviet Political History: A Brief Historiographical Survey
One of the likely reasons that scholars are not flocking into political history is that for a long time it has been unfashionable, perceived as dull, atheoretical, suitable only for popular historians. 3 The accusation of popularity is, of course, accurate, for there is a nonspecialized audience for narrative political history that simply does not exist for most brands of social or cultural history. This gives rise to envy, on the one hand, and—since disciplines thrive by cultivating esoteric knowledge, inaccessible by definition to the lay public—a degree of professional disdain, on the other. Whether or not that [End Page 28] disdain is deserved is not my topic here, although we should not...