- Revisiting Old Wars
Lev Trotskii once supposedly remarked: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Whether the great revolutionary in fact uttered these words or not, they neatly capture an important idea that emerges from several contributions to this issue: the unavoidable reality of adapting to a war that most participants would rather not fight.
This issue’s cluster of articles on Central Asia, for example, highlights adjustments to the demands of war and the impact of those adaptations on life and politics after the conflict. In the process, they kill two rabbits at once, as the Russians say. First, they offer new findings and analytical approaches for understanding the Central Asian past; and second, they connect the region to broader issues of Soviet and world history (coincidentally fulfilling a wish expressed in a recent forum in these pages devoted to the state of the historiography on the region).1
More generally, the articles remind us of the noteworthy uptick and qualitative turn taking place in recent works on the Soviet experience of World War II. The motivations and “actually existing” conditions facing Red Army soldiers (as opposed to those suggested in sanitized official narratives of the war), as well as the war’s broader impact on Soviet identity and politics are now lively areas for study. New research continues on the Holocaust in the East and the Jewish communities of the USSR.2 We also note a steady stream of article submissions in recent years devoted to what could be generally called the social history of the war and its lasting impact on the Soviet polity. [End Page 489] Putting all this together, it is hard not to conclude that something is afoot in the field.
Given the trauma of the Great Patriotic War and its obvious ideological and symbolic importance in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, it is surprising on the face of it that historians did not begin to turn sooner toward a more comprehensive view of the conflict. For decades the field remained defined by a handful of now classic works by Alexander Dallin, Alexander Werth, and Harrison Salisbury, among others.3 At the same time, the lag in coming to a fuller reckoning with the war is also understandable. The scale of the subject is daunting, to say the least. During Soviet times archival access was difficult if not impossible. The political taboos hanging over war-related topics during the Cold War were also considerable, making it a highly sensitive subject for historians, Westerners and Soviets alike, to consider with any degree of openness. Finally, for Western scholars during the postwar decades, many topics of Soviet history other than the war seemed somehow more urgent to explain, such as the social effects of the Bolshevik revolution and the causes and dynamics of the Great Break, the purges, and Stalinism in general.
Thus, while heated scholarly debates raged over these issues, the history of the Great Patriotic War, with the exception of traditional narratives focused on military operations, remained largely unexamined in the West, especially from an archival perspective. Things began to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s as historians such as Nina Tumarkin, Richard Stites, John Barber, and Mark Harrison took advantage of the new openness brought about by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR to reexamine the country’s varied experiences of the war, including in popular memory.4 From there, the ice broke relatively quickly, turning the history of the war into a growing concern of the field. Innovative scholarship in the late 1990s and early 2000s began positioning the war at the center of the Soviet experience. Novel lines of research appeared: on partisans, on the Holocaust and German occupation policies, on the evacuation and the Soviet rear, on women’s experiences during the war years, immediate postwar retribution and reconstruction, wartime [End Page 490] identity, and so forth.5 As a result, by the end of the “noughts,” the much more expansive view of the war’s importance that we now accept as a given had largely settled into place. Dynamic work, including the publication of...