The Historian and the Source: Problems of Reliability and Ethics
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The analysis of historical sources is perhaps the most important aspect of a historian’s work. The professional competence of the historian can be measured by his or her ability to make the right choices when choosing from many sources, as well as by his or her ability to ascertain the authenticity of a source, verify the information it contains, and compel it to “speak.” Even if the validity of the information contained within the source is doubtful , it still retains value as a rebection of its epoch—a source of information about the time and the individuals responsible for its content and appearance. I do not want to create the impression that the competent historian is omnipotent in his or her work with sources. A source can also be a guileful informer. In these instances, the historian cannot be prepared enough for the analysis he or she has to do. At the same time, the creativity of each historian is unique. From a historiographical viewpoint, it is therefore not a paradox that the historian examining the sources becomes a source him- or herself. A working biography of a historian, his or her publications, helps readers to learn not only about the author’s personal professional qualities, but also about the time in which he or she lived and the priorities he and his contemporaries may have chosen in studying the past. Likewise, a historiographer in the future could study the program of our seminar as well as the papers and authors, and regard these as historical sources rebecting the professional culture and the professional interests of our time. In the last ten years, the study of the Soviet period as well as the publication and analysis of new sources have become the main priorities of scholars specializing in Russian history. The serious study of Soviet history without the publication and analysis of sources is impossible , but historians of the Soviet period are faced with serious difaculties in trying to determine the accuracy of facts these sources reveal. I want to focus especially on this issue. The Problem of Determining Validity The difaculties in working with newspapers and journals of the Soviet period derive from the fact that the press was under strict state control. All censors required the ofacial state point of view concerning all issues during this period of time. Of course, we must still use these sources, and we can, providing we pose questions that are answerable. Let us imagine that historians are examining the newspapers during the days of Stalin’s funeral in order to and out the attitudes of common people toward Stalin. Historians would and in these newspapers sentiments of national love for the state leader, pictures of many people with grieving faces, reports about tens of thousands of people coming to Moscow from different cities of the country in order to say good-bye. In not one newspaper would historians and even the smallest sign of any critical thoughts concerning Stalin’s personality. Does this mean that the newspapers presented information of unconditional validity about national admiration for the dead leader? Of course not. However, the newspapers can answer many other questions, for example, about the role of propaganda and its inbuence on the masses during this time. Similarly, the memoirs of political agures published during the Soviet period might have been edited as a re490 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ The Historian and the Source Problems of Reliability and Ethics Boris V. Ananich ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ sult of the censorship, depending on whether ofacial opinion toward something in the past had changed since they were written. Sometimes, memoirs were even rewritten by the authors themselves. It is known, for example , that Gorky rewrote his memoirs about Lenin. During the last few years, the documents of high-ranking Communist Party ofacials as well as the documents of the secret police that had to do with the organization and conduct of political trials in the Soviet Union have become the object of special attention by historians. I would like to share some of my own experiences in working with publications and documents of this type. At the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s a series of political trials were launched at the direction of the Politburo of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. During May 1928, in Moscow, the socalled Trial of the Mining Engineers began. A group of mining engineers in the Donbass region were accused of sabotage and counterrevolutionary conspiracy. At the end of 1930 a...