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.