Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Reliance on Archives Alone Leads to Mistaken View of Stalin as Liberal, Pavlova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 29 – Often, historians believe that once they gain access to the archives, they gain access to the truth, forgetting that what anyone might write down at any particular time in a totalitarian or even authoritarian state reflects what the rulers want recorded rather than what in fact is the case, US-based Russian historian Irina Pavlova says.

            Just as Nazi officials knew what to write and what not to in Germany under Hitler, she suggests, so too Soviet officials in Stalin’s time knew what they should record and what they should not. But those who fail to recognize that are now claiming on the basis of archives alone that Stalin was a liberal, the historian says (

            The archives quite accurately reflect what Stalin wanted people to think, but they do not reflect in all too many cases what his real intentions and real policies were, Pavlova continues. What the Soviet dictator did and what he wanted people in the USSR and abroad to believe were clearly different things.

            Unfortunately, over the last two decades, there has been a revisionist trend that ignores that reality. It was begun in Russia by Yury Zhukov of the Moscow Institute of History and has been developed by Arch Getty now at UCLA. But the latest manifestation of it has appeared in the translation of a book by a Russian researcher now based in the US.

            In 2018, Olga Velikanova published a study entitled The 1936 Constitution and the Mass Political Culture of Stalinism in which she argued that Stalin and his regime were “disappointed” that the Soviet people had not achieved the level of democracy he hoped for them and that was enshrined in his basic law.

            That volume has now been translated into Russia by NLO, and its author has given an extensive interview to Novaya gazeta in which she underscores her view that Stalin wanted to liberalize the system but was unable to because of the level of culture of the population (

            Pavlova says she was “nauseated” by Velikanova’s remarks but says they are part and parcel of the trend in the thinking of some Russian and Western researchers that Stalin was not just “an outstanding statesman” but someone quite “capable of carrying out liberal reforms,” an idea for which there is no evidence except the claims of his subordinates in the archives.

            Archival work is critical to historians, but they bear a responsibility to their field and to society to take into consideration why some things may be found in archival documents and why others, which may be far more important, cannot.

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