Archive for November, 2010

Sheila Fitzpatrick on working in the archives

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Doyenne of Soviet historians Sheila Fitzpatrick has written a charming essay for the London Review of Books on her experiences as one of the very first outsiders to gain access to Soviet archival sources (Hat tip: Ralph Luker at Cliopatria). Reading her, it’s clear that much has changed, but to a surprising degree things have remained precisely the same.

Bureaucracy and lines are the obvious ones, but there’s more. We now have access to archival catalogs, but we are still subject to the whims and affections of archivists when it comes to the documents we can see, or perhaps even more important, where we ought to be looking for them. As Fitzpatrick remembers, the archivists were quite choosy about whom they might assist: “after a while, if they thought you were a hard worker and therefore a real scholar (not a spy), the archivists would cautiously begin to help you.”

This is precisely my experience, which is why I was so fortunate to be funded in 1994-1995 in a way that let me go to Moscow and stay for sixteen months, long enough to really establish my iron-assed credentials as a serious researcher. Fitzpatrick also was lucky enough to burst into tears at the right moment to get some additional material. I didn’t do that, but I did unwittingly benefit from the pitying maternal instincts of archivists who couldn’t imagine how a poor boy, all alone in Moscow, might manage to keep body and soul together.

Fitzpatrick also notes how historians can’t help to some degree identifying with the worldview and priorities of the people and institutions they study. Tongue-in-cheek, she remarks that the secret police would have been better off to

give Western scholars access to the most taboo of Soviet archives, the NKVD’s, so that the scholars would stop slandering this fine institution and see things from its perspective: the Central Committee cadres department reassigning any Gulag officers who showed signs of competence and sending the Gulag administration nothing but duds, the difficulties in setting up native-language kindergartens for Chechen deportees to Kazakhstan, and so on.

I found the same thing–going native–happening to me. It wasn’t that I decided that Stalin was a good guy (I didn’t), but that I began to sympathize with Stalin’s bureaucrats. They had tough jobs, and worked hard to solve real problems. Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Stalin’s minister of industry, was quite the cold-hearted bastard when it came to the politics of his native Georgia. I studied him, though, when he was trying to build steel mills and tractor factories amidst shortages of everything. He drove himself and others mercilessly, built real esprit de corps, and finally killed himself in despair over Stalin’s Great Purges. I couldn’t help liking him.

In the Red Army, Stalin’s long-time minister of defense Kliment Voroshilov never struck me as anything but an idiot far out of his depth. I likewise never warmed to the ostensible genius Mikhail Tukhachevskii. He was happy to persecute those with suspect pasts, was quite out of his mind on a number of questions related to tank production and military technology, and popularized the ideas devised by brighter minds junior to him. But lesser-known figures like Ieronym Uborevich and Innokent Khalepskii–they were bright, hard-working, and effective. Stalin had them killed, of course.

To be sure, there are limits to going native. I was looking at industrialists and military men. All modern societies have and need armies and industry, and so I could look at them to some degree independently of the regime they served. If, on the other hand, I had been studying those who carted kulaks and their families off to Siberia, I doubt I would have been quite so sympathetic.

“Russian prosecutors drop charges against businesswoman who died in custody”

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Thanks to Johnson’s Russia List, we confirm once again that the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine. RIA Novosti tells us that “Russian prosecutors drop charges against businesswoman who died in custody.”

Vera Trifonova died in April 2010. What makes her case noteworthy is not that charges were dropped once she was dead, but that “new charges were brought against Trifonova in October, five months after her death.”

Softer side of Vladimir Putin

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

SofterSidePutinHow could anyone question this man? (Hat tip to Johnson’s Russia List for the image)

Russian Spy Ring Update, Updated

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Yesterday’s Johnson’s Russia List (#210, 11 November 2010) had a very interesting piece from Kommersant offering up an explanation for the Russian spies uncovered and summarily expelled from the US this summer (previous commentary here, here, and here).

According to Kommersant, which is one of the best Russian newspapers and generally reliable, a Colonel Shcherbakov (no other names given), head of the American desk of the clandestine service, handed over not just the names but also the actual files of the illegals working in the US before disappearing.

In an object lesson in the importance of going to original sources, the Russian-language version adds a little tidbit that does not appear in JRL’s English-language text: the reporters were told that “”They’ve already sent a Mercader after him.” That is, Ramon Mercader–the NKVD agent who assassinated Lev Trotsky in Mexico City. True or not, that is certainly what the Russian intelligence community would want Shcherbakov and any other potential Shcherbakov’s to think.

Kommersant’s follow-up story includes confirmation by a number of figures of the substance of its account. Member of the Duma’s Security Committee Gennadii Gudkov blames the whole affair on “total degradation of morality, when everything here is bought and sold.”

I’d be inclined to lay the responsibility on a total lack of tradecraft. If Kommersant is right, no one in the Foreign Intelligence Service noticed or cared that the head of clandestine operations against the US had a daughter in America. Is the problem that it’s hard to find members of the Russian elite who don’t have some relatives living, working, or studying abroad? If my circle of acquaintances is any measure (and I recognize the problematic nature of the sample), it could be quite difficult to find someone with a high-quality education and NO Western entanglements.

UPDATE: Russian media are now claiming that Shcherbakov was indeed a traitor, but that another individual inside the Foreign Intelligence Service, named Poteev (alternate transliteration Poteyev) is the one responsible for handing over the Russian spies to the FBI.

Soviet Union at War now available in the US

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010


The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945
is now available in the US through Casemate, its American distributor. Amazon and other outlets should follow shortly.