ISSUE 4-2015
Victor Zamyatin Victor Chirila Igor Tyshkevich Bogdana Kostyuk
Daniş Emrah Emin
Ярослав Шимов
Petr Vagner
Vera Novikova

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Petr Vagner | Historian, the Czech Republic | Issue 4, 2015

Long time ago, I began my career as a historian with the attempt to understand history of such complex and at the same time so exciting phenomenon as alchemy is. After several years of study I reached some results but I had an intensive feeling that I was moving only on the surface of the topic and substance was running out of my reach like mythical Atalanta. Of course, it was not too encouraging discovery but as minimum a cognitive process was more than interesting.

Much later my interests substantially changed. History of charming and inspirational alchemy was replaced with gloomy and depressive history of the Soviet Union. I tried then to understand what was happening with my country after WWII when our ancestors decided to build happy tomorrows under aegis of the U.S.S.R. What my surprise was when after several years of the research I realized that I was facing the same feeling as I had studied alchemy. The subject was slipping through my fingers again.

However, I thoroughly tried to lined up and analyze one fact by another I had strong persistent feeling that almost everything what I tried to describe could happen in a different way. This feeling has been coming back anytime when I finished reading of another book from endless library devoted to the history of the construction of communism in the U.S.S.R.

Yes, facts and versions have meshed more or less together but no doubts that it would be possible to create other, equally credible, construction. Let’s recall in this context the polemic between Victor Suvorov and his opponents concerning beginning of the war between Germany and the U.S.S.R. in 1941. Both sides have bulletproof arguments confirming their completely opposite versions but reality could be only one.

Recently I bought two books dealing with interesting and important topics in Soviet history. One of them analyzes ways how Bolsheviks usurped the power in 1917;[1] another one tries to explain prehistory of ominous year 1937.[2] Unlike some contemporary Russian historians, who write their books as they would sit with Stalin and his cronies around one table and only recorded what was said, both authors worked with historical sources as well as use respective literature. However, results of their research can be only taken as another contribution to possible versions of the interpretation what was happening then.   

Speaking about the first book, it is, e.g., the question of the role of German money in October 1917. In this case we have been moving from decisive to marginal role of German influence. Author does not overestimate this role and also in other cases he demonstrates a sober attitude to the topic. He did a good job but is picture painted by him realistic? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Second book look for roots of 1937 and tracks development of Stalin’s attitude towards OGPU and its heads. We can find here also some not too verisimilar stories (surmise that Stalin provoked depression in 1929) but most of presented results of the research look more or less acceptable.

History is a discipline where one plus one is not necessarily two therefore interpretation of the same historical fact can bring different results. In the case of history of the U.S.S.R. the problem with interpretation is even more insistent. We do not have substantial problems to describe events and processes which occurred from 1917 till 1991 but very often we cannot answer a crucial question: Why? What stood behind? We have been working with bigger or smaller number of different versions but we are not able to say which of them the true one is.

Difficulties with the interpretation are also closely connected with various reasons why the history of the U.S.S.R. has been studied.  Researchers have approached history of communism from various positions and having different motivation. Some of them have tried to justify it in style you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Others have tried to bring evidences that the idea was condemned to doom from its very beginning and it was only matter of time when it will happen. Most of historians have been acting between these two extreme positions to try to establish more evenhanded interpretation. As result we have several main streams in the interpretation of the Soviet history.

History of the U.S.S.R. fails in the role of Magistra vitæ. It is alarming because answers to some questions have their importance also for present time. It would be useful, for example, to have clear answers done by history and cognate disciplines to questions as: Is terror inevitable for establishment and preservation of communism and other similar ideologies? In which way should democracy defend itself against misuse of its achievements particularly by bearer of extremist ideas as it happened in history several times?  Can we experience or are we experiencing return of some of last horrors?

We have not had at our disposal such clear answers yet and we can only hope that with help of books bringing new or repeating old interpretations we are approaching coveted goal. If we want to accelerate the process we should pay attention not only to looking for new sources but also to the methodology of their reliable interpretation.  Excessive imagination and too many versions can be harmful in this case.

[1] АНТОНОВ-ОВСЕЕНКО, Антон. Большевики. 1917. Как кучка людей сокрушила империю? Moscow: ACT, 2014. 351 p., ISBN 978-5-17-085307-6.

[2] ЦЫРКУН, Сергей. Сталин против «красных олигархов». Секретная предыстория 1937 года. Moscow: ЭKCMO, 2014. 318p., ISBN 978-5-699-69029-9.

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Ярослав Шимов
Vera Novikova
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