- A Harvard Project in ReverseMaterials of the Commission of the USSR Academy of Sciences on the History of the Great Patriotic War—Publications and Interpretations
It is not possible to write a complete history of the war on the Eastern Front by relying solely on “official” materials, even if they are archived and not intended for publication. In particular, this applies to the social history of the war, whether it concerns the front, rear, or occupied territories. Hundreds, if not thousands, of memoirs published in the Soviet period are mostly useless to historians and useful only to researchers of the “politics of memory.” These memoirs were edited multiple times, carefully censored and uniform in character. There were exceptions (for example, the memoirs of Marshal Andrei Eremenko or the diaries of Konstantin Simonov), but they are quite rare. Memoirs of the “officially sanctioned” veterans were almost always written by ghostwriters.
In addition, the authorities prevented not only publication but also the preservation of spontaneously recorded memories. A typical example of this practice was how Soviet authorities dealt with the famous Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov’s proposal to create a repository of “soldiers’ memoirs.” In 1979, Simonov (at that time secretary of the Writers’ Union of the USSR and member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [CPSU] Central Auditing Commission) proposed the creation of such an archive. The memoirs to be collected were not for publication, due to the literary weakness of the texts, but because they contained information that might be useful to future historians that would otherwise be lost. The materials were to be stored at the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense (TsAMO). This proposal provoked a sharp rebuke from the then-chiefs of the General [End Page 175] Staff and the Main Political Directorate of the Soviet Army. This was because reluctant military commanders considered it taboo to encourage differences of opinion on the history of the war. Or rather, they did not want to allow any interpretations other than the official version of events. As a result, Simonov received an answer from the CPSU Central Committee that it was inexpedient to collect memories.1
The situation radically changed in the 1990s. In the former USSR, there was not only an “archival revolution” but also a “revolution of memory.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of memoirs were published, in rare cases written in Soviet times “at the table,” or off the record, but most appeared in the wake of the wave of historical revision of the Soviet past. Thousands of interviews with war veterans were recorded. Primarily, veterans conversed with military history enthusiasts and amateur historians.2 The problems with interviewing veterans are obvious. First, these were the accounts of people who lived to the late 20th and early 21st centuries; the overwhelming majority of the deceased remained silent. Second, the veterans who were interviewed were not the people they had been half a century or more ago; in addition to the natural aberration of memory, their life experiences and what they had since read, heard, and seen affected the veterans’ accounts. They unwittingly followed the established canon, which also had an impact. Finally, interviews were not always conducted professionally, and they were often edited, sometimes without restraint.
Given these circumstances, the value of more than 4,000 interviews recorded by professional historians in “hot pursuit” of events during the Great Patriotic War or immediately after its end becomes clear. The Commission of the USSR Academy of Sciences on the History of the Great Patriotic War recorded these interviews. The commission was established in January 1942 and worked until December 1945.3 Formally, Grigorii Aleksandrov, the head of the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the VKP(b) (All-Union Communist Party [Bolshevik]) Central Committee, presided over the commission. The initiator and leader of the commission throughout its work, however, was Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences [End Page 176] Isaak Izrailevich Mints (1896–1991). As a result, the commission became known as the Mints Commission.
During the Civil War, Mints was a commissar in the cavalry corps of the Red Cossacks. He was an experienced organizer of research and took...