Posted by: mydarkestplaces | September 16, 2012

Historiography

The fact that I was a history major in college should surprise absolutely no one who knows me. I love to know the who and why of where we are. If you’ve ever had a conversation with me about my studies in college, it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that my focus in college was on early Soviet history with a particular focus on the USSR under Stalin. What a super uplifting topic, eh?

However, one of the classes that I took in college was on the American Revolution. I was obsessed with the Revolution when I was a kid, so taking a class that focused on it seemed only natural. Funnily enough, I hated that class. It was probably my least favorite class of my entire college career – that includes the classes I took on Feminist Political Thought, Chemistry and Calculus.

See, this 300-level course was less about the hows and whys of the American Revolution and more about how the American Revolution is studied by scholars. This is the class that first taught me the word “historiography” – a word that still sends shivers down my spine and makes me want to cry. But lately I’ve found myself returning to the lessons that, evidently, my subconscious retained.

My Book Dealer, Josh, turned me onto a group of Russian books that were profiled at this year’s BEA. Given the background mentioned above, I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I instantly messaged Josh and said I wanted Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents From Russia’s Secret Archives by Edvard Radzinsky. I started reading it almost immediately after Josh special ordered it for me.

I was captivated almost immediately. Despite knowing a more than your average American about the USSR under Stalin, particularly the 1930s, I didn’t (don’t) know much about Stalin from before he was Stalin.

Some of the theories that have been put forth by Radzinsky are mind blowing and schema altering. Which, of course, made me question the methodology of how the book was written. Especially since there are no citations. To be fair to Mr. Radzinsky, he is a playwright and, while trained as an historian, most biographies I’ve been able to dig up describe him as a “popular historian”. He is not a scholar. Regardless, I feel when putting forth theories about young Joseph Dzhugashvili’s involvement in various organizations there should be citations.

This has all given rise to thoughts of an advanced degree in history (TOTAL pipe dream, but a thought nonetheless) and really solidified my desire to learn Russian.

Many of the books and articles I’ve read have been written by a Westerner – whether English or American. This doesn’t mean that the scholarly work has been shoddy, but there’s no way that an American writing a book about Stalin and Stalinism during the 1960s isn’t going to be informed by the Cold War. In order to get a less biased picture of the atrocities that were committed during the early years of the USSR I would have to go read and research the primary source documents themselves. This is where my current thoughts of becoming an academic stem from. Despite the “liberalization” of Russia in the years since the fall of the USSR, the Russian government still strictly limits access to their archives. Of course, I’d need to learn Russian in order to be able to read whatever primary sources I was able to dig up. So, even should I land in academia again, dreams of sitting in the the building that houses the Politburo’s archives is light-years away.

It’s nigh impossible to know what is fact, what is fiction and what has been written and rewritten with poetic license in regards to the early years of the USSR (for example, Stalin reportedly changed his birthday soon after the Revolution), especially not as a casual student of Russian history. So until I find the attention span to sit in a classroom filled with academic wannabes and to write 500 page treatises on how the Ukrainian Famine was the direct result of policies enacted by Stalin I’m going to have to continue reading Russian, American and British authors and hoping that they’re giving me an accurate (or at least not bastardized) portrayal of the primary sources they’re employing.


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