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Journal of European Studies
The online version of this article can be found at:

DOI: 10.1177/0047244107074186
2007 37: 51 Journal of European Studies
Sheila Fitzpatrick
The Soviet Union in the twenty-first century

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Journal of European Studies
The Soviet Union in the twenty-rst century
University of Chicago
The subject of this article is how historians and others have understood
Soviet history since the demise of the Soviet Union. It is argued that,
despite the opening of archives, changes in interpretation have been driven
as much by external political and disciplinary developments as by greater
availability of data. Important external considerations have been the
Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991. The main his-
torical schools examined are the totalitarian (whose heyday was the 1950s);
revisionist (1970s); and post-revisionist (1990s). Interpretations of the
Soviet Union in the Russian media and popular opinion, ranging from
condemnation of communism to nostalgia, are also discussed.
Keywords: archives, communism, historiography, nostalgia,
The Soviet Union used to be associated with the future, at least in
the minds of its admirers. Now it belongs to the past, and it is the view
of the Soviet Union in retrospect that is the subject of this essay. On
the death of individuals, we usually follow the maxim of speaking
nothing but good (De mortuis nil nisi bonum). The death of regimes,
however, produces the opposite response. When a regime dies, ob-
servers take this as a proof of its inadequacy (not t to survive), so the
convention for speaking of recently deceased regimes is nothing but bad.
This is basically how both Western and Russian (former Soviet) area
specialists dealt with the Soviet Union in the decade after its demise,
though historians, as we shall see, followed a somewhat different
path. The mantra of Western commentators could be summarized
Journal of European Studies 37(1): 5171 Copyright SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi and Singapore) [200703] 0047-2441/10.1177/0047244107074186
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as What Went Wrong with the Soviet Union and How the Soviet
System Failed to Work.
Of course, the nothing but bad approach was overdetermined in the
Soviet case. The Cold War produced strongly unfavourable opinions
of the Soviet Union (alive or dead) in the West. Moreover, the Soviet
Unions grandiose claims for itself meant that even relatively neutral
outsiders would be tempted to celebrate its comeuppance. According
to the Soviet version, Lenins political revolution, and then Stalins
economic one, had precipitated Russia out of its historic backwardness
into the vanguard of history. No longer a latecomer to capitalism, the
Soviet Union was now bypassing it to go straight to socialism. The
West was no longer the model to be imitated; rather, it was the Soviet
model (the great socialist experiment) that pregured the future of
the degenerate capitalist West.
The vanguard claim was taken most seriously in the 1930s. This
was the time when foreigners came to the Soviet Union to observe
the socialist experiment in the worlds greatest political laboratory.
In the Second World War, the Soviet Unions vanguard sense was
temporarily shaken by defeats but then reinvigorated by victory. In the
post-war period, the vanguard nation was recast as a superpower in
a sense a step up, except that there were two superpowers, and the
Soviet Union was the second. By the Khrushchev period, the Soviet
stance had become somewhat schizoid: on the one hand, yet more
insistent claims of vanguard status, with communism achievable
within 20 years; on the other hand, playing catch-up with the West
on consumption and living standards (a non-vanguard position, even
if ultimate victory was assured).
The catch-up game failed; communism failed to materialize. By
the time the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, the belief that the Soviet
Union led the world was retained by even fewer of its citizens than
held to the old faith on the leading role of the Party. The inevitable
march of history was still in the picture after 1991 but now it was
going in the opposite direction: not away from capitalism, but towards
it. Thus recongured, Russia dropped from superpower to something
not very different from a Third World country, hopelessly trying to
catch up with the West. It was back to being a latecomer to capitalism
for Russia except that now, a century after its rst delayed entrance,
it was really late.
1991 and interpretation of Soviet history
In the mid 1990s, John Gaddis entitled his book on Soviet diplomatic
history and the Cold War We Now Know, meaning that with archives
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opened, historians questions had received definitive answers
(Gaddis, 1997). But it is not always that simple. Archives rarely give
unambiguous answers to the questions historians ask, even when the
questions are simple factual ones: for example, to the question Was
Stalin responsible for Kirovs murder?, the archives answer turns
out to be: Probably not, but theres no denitive documentary proof
either way.
Moreover, data are not the only driving force, perhaps
not even the main one, in the evolution of historical interpretation.
Perhaps an essential, complete and true history of mankind exists,
but if so, it is accessible only to God; what we normally call history
are stories made by historians according to professional conventions
and their interpretation of available data. Thus the story I will out-
line of changing historical interpretation after 1991 is only partly a
story of what we found in the archives. Equally important are his-
torians reactions to the current political and cultural environment
and to changing methodological and interpretative fashions within
their profession.
Nevertheless we can begin by reviewing what we found in the
The material newly available to Western scholars in the
1990s included central and local party archives
and the Comintern,
but not the KGB and its precursors
or, by and large, the archive of
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A substantial segment of the Party
archives, moreover, was removed under Gorbachev to a separate
Presidential Archive which remains off limits to almost all researchers
and all foreigners. As to the state archives, most of GARFs unclassied
materials had already become available by the mid to late 1980s, but
its classied section, which turned out to be large, was opened only
(and not completely securely) with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The same is true of the state economic archive, RGAE.
These new materials were particularly illuminating for high politics
from the revolution to the mid 1950s, especially after the Presidential
Archive released to RGASPI the personal archives of Stalin, Molotov,
Kaganovich and other key political gures of the Stalin period. The
rst area to be illuminated was Gulag and the scale of repression in
the Stalin period that old warhorse of the 1980s numbers argument
which could finally be more or less satisfactorily answered on
the basis of archival data (Getty and Naumov, 1999: 58794; Getty
et al., 1993). The archives showed that neither the high-end estimate
of numbers in Gulag (tens of millions) nor the low-end (hundreds
of thousands) were accurate: in 1939 the number of prisoners in Gulag
labour camps was 1.3 million, with a total incarcerated population
(including prisons and labour colonies) of around two million
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(Getty and Naumov, 1999: 590; Getty et al., 1993: 1019). Another archival
discovery (albeit known in general form to any readers of Gulag
memoirs) was that only about a third of the prisoners in Gulag were
politicals, sentenced for counter-revolutionary offences (Getty et al.,
1993: 1030). Most important for understanding the scale and forms
of repression was the discovery of large-scale executions during the
Great Purges (almost 700,000) (Getty and Naumov, 1999: 591), and
increasing understanding that the many forms of administrative exile
constituted a major form of repression in the Stalin period. (The numbers,
in complicated and dispersed records, have not yet been sorted out,
unlike Gulag, where there was a central institution that had to know
its own numbers for budgetary and supply purposes.)
The most interesting nding about the Great Purges was that there
were several terror campaigns going on at the same time, only one
of which (that directed primarily against the Communist elite) was
visible. The largest invisible one was a remarkable cleansing campaign
directed against social marginals (de-kulakized peasants returned
from exile or escaped from Gulag, habitual criminals, sectarians, horse
thieves), with each region of the country receiving targets in the tens
of thousands for executions and Gulag sentences (by administrative
troiki, outside the normal judicial process) which, to quote the title
of a major work on the topic, was what really made the terror great
(Iunge and Binner, 2003). Also notable was the terror against diaspora
nationalities in the Soviet Union: that is, those like Poles, Germans,
Finns and Greeks with a national state outside the Soviet Union which
was a potential competitive focus of loyalty (Martin, 1998; 2001).
The archives revealed much that was interesting and new about
high politics.
Revelations about Lenins tough-mindedness and wil-
lingness to shed blood made less plausible the old argument
that his
rule was qualitatively different from Stalins in this respect (Pipes,
1996; Volkogonov, 1994), while biographical details from the archives
showed him a more sensitive and neurotic personality, prone to dis-
couragement and troubled by ill health, than had been recognized
before (Service, 2000). On Stalin, the revelations were of a different order
(since his tough-mindedness and willingness to shed blood were not
in question): successive archive-based biographies showed, in addition
to the well-known paranoid streak, an intellectual who continued to
read seriously even in power, dominated his associates partly simply
by intellectual power as well as political skills, had trouble with his
difcult wife and took her suicide hard, and after her death lived in
a largely transplanted-Georgian social milieu which dissolved when
many of its members were arrested presumably with his consent,
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though it left him personally isolated and lonely in the Great Purges
(Monteore, 2004; Service, 2004; Volkogonov, 1989).
As for Stalins form of rule, the archives have shown several previous
hypotheses to be untenable. He was not anyones puppet, nor was he
a lazy charismatic leader on the Hitler pattern, but rather a hands-on
hardworking, well-informed ruler who (with Molotov, his political
alter ego in the 1930s) was personally involved in almost all important
policy decisions. After the defeat of the right at the beginning of the
1930s, there were no stable factions based on policy positions in his
Politburo, although the representation of institutional interest was
allowed. The status of the Politburo as an independent institution
declined steadily, especially after the war, as Stalin substituted a
variety of ad hoc groups of Five and groups of Nine as advisors and
sounding boards (Khlevniuk, 1996). In the provinces, regional party
leaders had their own little efdoms and mutually protective political
families, despite the centres constant efforts to break them up (Harris,
1999). After the war, Stalins health, as well as his paranoia, worsened
and his workload dropped. The authoritative archive-based study of
post-war high politics gives a picture of bifurcated rule, with Stalins
Politburo/Presidium on one side, functioning more or less on the model
of court politics, while on the other side the government bureaucracy
headed by the Council of Ministers (long Molotovs sphere) became
increasingly complex, efcient and rule- and expertise-governed: in
short almost Weberian (Gorlizki and Khlevniuk, 2004).
In Stalins last years, his associates (and heirs apparent) in the
leadership seem to have developed a surprising degree of collegiality,
generally resisting Stalins efforts to play them off against each other,
as well as a kind of silent consensus on the desirability of some major
reforms that, it was recognized, were probably unrealizable while
Stalin lived. (Gorlizki and Khlevniuk, 2004: 1667). As for the lower
levels of government, hints are starting to emerge of enlightened
bureaucrats (shades of Nicholas I!) (Hessler, 1998); and recent studies
of a range of social-policy issues suggest that 1953 is by no means as
clear-cut a turning point as had earlier appeared (Frst, 2006). This
suggests that when researchers get down to serious work on pol-
itics and government in the Khrushchev period, some interesting
discoveries about bureaucratic reform initiatives (as well as the always-
to-be-assumed bureaucratic resistance to reform) may be made.
In the realm of social history research (which had been partially
archive-based, even for foreigners, for some time before 1991), the
opening of the archives tended both to conrm existing hypotheses
and suggest new lines of enquiry. The basic conclusions of social
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historians work from the 1970s stood up well under the new archival
evidence: for example, on working-class support for Bolsheviks in 1917
and a more ambiguous situation thereafter; on peasantization of the
working class through massive out-migration from the villages during
collectivization; on the formation of a new elite via working-class
and peasant upward mobility; on the privileges of this New Class;
on the hostile response of peasantry to collectivization; on the phoniness
of the kulak label, especially as applied punitively during de-
kulakization. At the same time, the new accessibility of the provinces
and regional archives to historians broadened perspectives and served
as a corrective to the previous dominance of the capitals in historians
imagination (Baberowski, 2003; Harris, 1999; Kotkin, 1995; Kuromiya,
1998). It became possible to trace the complex patterns of Soviet trade
in the legal and informal economy (Hessler, 2004) and illuminate the
wretched situation of many workers in the post-war period, which
may have permanently alienated many who entered the blue-collar
workforce in the 1940s (Filtzer, 2002).
There were surprises for social historians in the archives. One
was the discovery of huge numbers of letters to authority (petitions,
denunciations, appeals) from individual citizens, which the archives
of the institutions concerned had routinely classied as secret (in
contrast to the formal group letters from schools, collective farms and
so on, thanking comrade Stalin, which were in the open archives).

One researcher discovered tens of thousands of 1930s petitions to
the Supreme Soviet from disenfranchised citizens reposing in an obscure
depository in Yalutorovsk in Western Siberia (Alexopoulos, 2003). The
petitions are a magnicent social history source, providing insight into
ordinary peoples lives and preoccupations hitherto unavailable, as
well as giving interesting glimpses of bureaucratic responses. At the
same time, their unexpected prevalence and what appears to be the
systemic importance of individual communication with the authorities
as a means of problem-solving has led to some new thinking about
the nature of Stalinist society, which some now label neo-traditional
because of the prominence of practices like petitioning and patronage
(Fitzpatrick, 2005: 153202; Lenoe, 2004: 24854; Martin, 2000).
Another area of enquiry that has come into prominence since the
opening of the archives is social marginals (tramps, beggars, prostitutes,
exiles, released prisoners, runaway deportees and other uprooted or
homeless people). This is to some extent a function of the opening of
the archives (since marginals are often a police concern, and police
archives of all kinds were formerly closed), though it also follows
naturally from an interest in social classication that developed in the
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eld as condence in the analytical utility of Marxist class categories
declined (Fitzpatrick, 2005: 387). Kulak deportees have received
serious scholarly attention (Viola, 2001 and forthcoming), as has the
topic of policing, with particular reference to the treatment of marginals
(Hagenloh, 2000; Shearer, 2001). This new work reminds us that there
are large regions in the Russian north, Siberia and Kazakhstan where
the population of convicts, ex-convicts, exiles and deportees was so
large, absolutely and in relation to the free population, that it is not
possible to relegate them ( la Solzhenitsyn and earlier social history)
to the other side of an invisible line separating them from the every-
day Soviet world: the social history of regions like Kazakhstan simply
cannot be written without them (Pohl, forthcoming).
Disciplinary developments: totalitarianism, revisionism,
Access to new data was not the only thing inuencing change in his-
torians choice of subject matter and interpretations. Equally important
were shifts in the general political climate (the end of the Cold War)
and developments within the academic discipline of history (historians
embrace of theory, the cultural turn).
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Cold War had a signicant inuence
on Soviet studies in the West, especially in the United States. As the
Soviet Union succeeded Nazi Germany as the ideological enemy and
political competition for the liberal democracies, many Western scholars
embraced totalitarianism as a framework for understanding the Soviet
system (Gleason, 1995: 12142). The totalitarian model highlighted
the similarities of regimes that appeared to be polar opposites on the
leftright continuum, in particular the similarity of the Nazi regime
in Germany to Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Its heyday in the United
States corresponded with the dominance of political science over other
disciplines in Soviet studies; and given the Soviet Unions status as
the putative enemy it was also closely linked with security studies.
Soviet ideology and propaganda, high politics (approached via
Kremlinology), and shifts in centrally articulated policy in various
areas were its major concerns, and Pravda and other authoritative
mouthpieces for the regime its major sources.
In the 1970s, the totalitarian school came under challenge from
so-called revisionists, who objected to its Cold War bias, the assumption
of monolithic control from above and neglect of social forces. Many
of the revisionists were in fact social historians, whose problems with
traditional Sovietology arose partly just out of disciplinary differences
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with political scientists: it is the social historians trade to look at
history from below, whereas political scientists and political his-
torians are much more likely to focus on the centres of power, i.e. from
above. However, the debate between the two groups was conducted
with maximum rancour for many years, the revisionists calling their
opponents Cold Warriors while their opponents retorted with
accusations of fellow-travelling and pro-Sovietism. In the 1970s and
80s, revisionist social historians concerned themselves mainly with
issues of social support for the regime (and sometimes also its opposite,
resistance), labour and peasant history, and social mobility. For many,
though not all, of their research topics, it was already possible to use
Soviet archives by the 1980s, though Soviet political archives, notably
that of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, remained
rmly closed to Western scholars.
The central question for the totalitarian-model scholars was how
regimes could enslave populations, restrict civil society and deprive
citizens of individual freedom; state terror and propaganda were among
their major preoccupations. Revisionists, by contrast, doubted that
terror alone could have kept the regime in power, especially during
the Second World War, and wanted to nd out about the regimes
social support. Among the various possible loci of support discussed
in the 1970s and 80s were the industrial working class (with particular
reference to the revolutionary period); the new administrative and
professional elite formed in the 1930s largely by recruitment from
the working class and the peasantry; the poor peasants (bedniaki)
that the regime considered its natural rural allies in the 1920s; and
youth. The rst two lines of enquiry proved the most fruitful, though
critics challenged the assumption that working-class support for the
Bolsheviks in 1917 could be extrapolated into some sort of permanent,
open-ended commitment (Brovkin, 1994). With respect to upward
mobility as a process generating support for the regime, the focus
on workers and peasants of the 1970s (Fitzpatrick, 1979) has recently
been supplemented by a new interpretation of the experience of Jews
in the Soviet Union that suggests that the upward mobility of Jews
out of the shtetl and into big towns and the new Soviet intelligentsia
after the revolution constituted an equally important source of social
support (Slezkine, 2004).
The social support arguments of the 1970s were highly controversial
and exposed their authors to a great deal of criticism in the Cold War
years. By the mid 1980s, perhaps as a result, revisionists appeared to
be drawing in their horns on questions of social support. This was no
doubt partly because of a shift in attention to the peasantry, where
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social support for the regime was hard to nd after the 1920s because
of the intense unpopularity of collectivization.
After 1991, social
support dropped off the social historians scholarly agenda almost
entirely, its place as the main focus of investigation in social history
being taken by resistance (Fitzpatrick, 1994; Rossman, 2005; Viola, 1996;
Viola, 2002) and aspects of the everyday (Thurston, 1996; Lebina, 1999;
Fitzpatrick, 1999; Vikhavainen, 2000; Alexopoulos, 2003). Resistance
was a from below topic, but much less provocative and controversial
than social support.
It became one of the pervasive themes in the
study of everyday life that took off in the late 1990s, which focused
particularly on survival strategies such as petitioning, denunciation,
blat (reciprocity arrangements for getting scarce goods) and patronage
(Alexopoulos, 2003; Fitzpatrick, 1999; Nrard, 2004). The problems and
discomforts of Soviet everyday life were also highlighted, particularly
with reference to communal apartments (Obertreis, 2004; Utekhin,
2004). The historians work on the everyday was no doubt inuenced
by the burgeoning of anthropological studies of post-Communist
change in everyday practices in the former Soviet Union (Humphrey,
2002; Shevchenko, 2002), as well as Eastern Europe and the GDR. Oral
history a possibility which, like anthropological eldwork, opened
up only with the collapse of the Soviet regime has become an
important resource for historians (Engel and Posadskaya-Vanderbeck,
1997; Kovalev, 1996; Ransel, 2000; Vitukhnovskaia, 2000).
It is debatable whether scholarly arguments in the humanities and
social sciences are ever denitively won in an intellectual sense. There
are paradigm shifts, to be sure, but these often have more to do with
external changes of perspective and fashion and demographic change
than with the denitive demonstration via data (experiment) that one
argument was right and the other wrong.
In the case of the revisionist
v. totalitarian argument in Soviet studies, the argument was won by
social historians by the late 1980s, meaning that the conventional
wisdom of the eld now embraced many of their propositions, and the
majority of young scholars in the eld focused on their questions. At
the same time, many of the revisionists who had been young Turks in
the 1920s had become full professors and trainers of graduate students,
while the older totalitarian generation was gradually disappearing
from the scene. Totalitarianism became yesterdays concept as far as
Western Soviet studies were concerned.
In Russia, however, things were different: the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the overturning of values associated with it meant that
the formerly proscribed concept of totalitarianism had great appeal
(Gleason, 1995: 21116); indeed, according to one commentator in
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Russia, the term ever more clearly claims the status of chief explanatory
model of our recent past (Kara-Murza and Voskresenskii, 1989: 5). To
be sure, there was confusion about what totalitarianism actually meant:
although it was completely clear to any man in the street in any city in
our country [that] totalitarianism is what we used to have, a symbol
of the bad in all senses, nevertheless nobody knows exactly what
that bad consisted of (Verchenov and Igritskii, 1993: 7, 15). Whereas
in earlier Western scholarly usage, state terror, ideology and the Party
as a mobilizing force (that is, basically the Stalinist model) were at the
heart of the analysis of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian regime, post-
Soviet Russians seemed more interested in the interference in private
life and invasion of privacy (Zamkovoi, 1994: 2) that was actually more
characteristic of the Khrushchev period than its predecessor.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, some of the surviving totalitarians
notably Richard Pipes, Martin Malia and Robert Conquest claimed
that their view of Soviet history had been vindicated by the collapse
of the Evil Empire and its condemnation by post-Soviet Russians.

This, however, had only a marginal inuence on developments within
the discipline. By the 1990s, the heyday of social history was over
in the modern Russian (Soviet) eld, as it was in history in general.
But in the West (in contrast to the former Soviet Union) it was not
back to totalitarianism. A new generation had arrived to challenge
the paradigms of both the parents and the grandparents.
For this new generation, cultural and intellectual history was the
name of the game, and ideology often now in the guise of discourse
was back at centre stage. This partly reected a shift within the whole
discipline of history in the 1980s which hit Soviet history later than in
many other areas. Michel Foucault was a major intellectual inuence,
especially the Foucault of Discipline and Punish, whose interests in
surveillance and various forms of external and internal discipline
were reected in a number of inuential works (Haln, 2003; Holquist,
1997; Kharkhordin, 1999). Kotkins Magnetic Mountain, arguing that
neglecting ideology (as the revisionists had done) made no sense for
a period so suffused by ideological concern as the Stalinist one, set
the agenda for a cohort of younger historians. Kotkin saw Stalinism
as a utopian project, descended from the European Enlightenment
and creating an alternative modernity to the liberal modernity of
twentieth-century Western Europe and North America. He rejected
the idea of any Great Retreat in the 1930s (Timasheff, 1946), since it
was the Stalin period that was in his picture the real-life instantiation
of the Revolution. Kotkin used Foucaults understanding of power as
something diffused and constantly renegotiated to good effect as a
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way of escaping from the old from above or from below argument.
In his view, Stalinism was not simply a regime project imposed on
Soviet citizens; it was also a project of Soviet citizens themselves.
Like some of the revisionists, Kotkin had a strong sense that
peoples behaviour is guided by their individual self-interest; thus,
on the question of the motivation for learning to speak Bolshevik,
he put the question of belief or unbelief to one side as unknowable
(Kotkin, 1995: 22530). Some of the younger historians inuenced
by him reproached him for this and for his neglect of the subjective
aspect of Stalinism (Haln and Hellbeck, 1996). A whole school of
studies of Stalinist subjectivity sprang up in Kotkins wake, much of
it examining what it meant in experiential terms to be Soviet in the
1930s, with emphasis on the individual internalization of Soviet
values (i.e. belief) and learning Bolshevik as an individual project
(Haln, 2000; Hellbeck, 2006; Hoffmann, 2003). On a different track,
British scholars in the eld of cultural studies were making their own
important contribution to Soviet cultural and social history.
It is somewhat ironic that the study of Stalinist subjectivity which
became popular among young scholars in the second half of the 1990s
was an area of scholarship where archives now nally open to Western
scholars were secondary and archival discoveries comparatively
unimportant. As with the old ideology studies, the press and other
published sources like memoirs can provide the texts for discourse
analysis; the exception is diaries, whose collection (generally outside
the state archive system) was one of the benets of the post-1991
An even greater irony, however, lies in the fact that, just as the
revisionists were backing off from their arguments about social support
because of the political heat it engendered, a post-revisionist generation
was coming in to make a considerably bolder and more global argument
of the same kind and getting away with it, thanks to the end of the
Cold War. While the revisionists focused on resistance in their work
of the 1990s, post-revisionists were pursuing the old revisionist social
support line with a new vocabulary and theoretical underpinning.
Kotkins subtitle, Stalinism as a Civilization, was one that in earlier years
no revisionist would have dared to use for fear of being accused
(however inaccurately and unfairly) of being a Stalinist. In fact, the
claims now being made about popular identication with Soviet values
are much broader (and, some might think, less well focused) than
the revisionists earlier investigations of the support from particular
social groups; indeed, much of the Stalinist subjectivity work could
be reframed in terms specically of youth support for the regime. This
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consonance of interpretative thrust helps to explain the otherwise
puzzling fact that revisionists have generally welcomed the work of
the post-revisionists, even when the latter presented themselves as
the revisionists critics and challengers.
If much Russian commentary of the 1990s dwelt on the failings of the
old Soviet Union, a signicant discourse of nostalgia for the old
order, or at least for some of its artefacts, has appeared in Russia (and
probably in other former Soviet republics as well) since 1991. Since its
demise, the Soviet way of life has acquired a nostalgic appeal to many
people in the former Soviet Union, undoubtedly including some who
earlier railed against its boredom and restrictiveness. In this Soviet
world remembered, a job was guaranteed, as well as a living wage
and a roof over ones head, and one did not have to work hard for it.
There was camaraderie at the workplace and guaranteed support and
loyalty from friends (uncomplicated by the cash nexus) and family;
children honoured their parents; the streets were safe; science and
culture were respected and generously funded; education was a core
value; and the state protected its citizens from pornography and other
forms of moral corruption. The Soviet Union was a proud multinational
state with a civilizing mission, organized at home on the principle of
friendship of peoples and extending a big brotherly hand abroad
to the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the Third World. It
was a superpower respected by the whole world, whose successes in
space exploration were envied even by America.
Reversing the values of the late Soviet period, when Western con-
sumer goods were prized over Soviet ones, the post-Soviet era produced
at least a partial reaction in favour of local products and a nostalgia for
those that had disappeared (Shevchenko, 2002). This was not quite at
the GDR level, as depicted in the movie Goodbye Lenin: the Moskvich
did not retrospectively acquire the same cachet as the Trabant. Still,
throughout the 1990s the immensely popular television series Staraia
kvartira (The Old Apartment) revisited the Soviet past and the things
associated with it (from sausage to carpets to popular songs) year by
year, with enthusiastic participation from its studio audience. Old
Soviet lms were shown and watched by millions; songs from the
Second World War were reissued on CD.
While some of the current Soviet nostalgia involves an unmistakable
whitewashing and idealization of the past, other versions feature an
unregretful but, in retrospect, affectionate recollection of the past
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and its hardships and embarrassments. The migr literary scholar
Svetlana Boym leads the way here, with an unforgettable reminiscence
of embarrassment in the communal apartment in her rst book and
a whole volume on the topic of nostalgia in her second (Boym, 1994:
12167; Boym, 2001). Nostalgia for the circumstances of ones youth
is a near-universal sentiment; as is nostalgia for ones original place in
an increasingly diasporic world. As far as the scholarly community is
concerned, it is a world in which the old sharp delineation between
Russian (Soviet) and Western scholars in the humanities and social
sciences no longer exists as a result of the retraining of young
Russians in Western theory and academic practices, emigration and
the appointment of Russians to academic jobs in Europe and North
America, and collaborative projects. Moreover, Western scholars can
have their own rueful nostalgia for the bad old days, when international
exchange students roughed it in Moscow student dormitories, fought
with bureaucrats about archival access and eld trips, made friends
with Russians (always with a wary glance over the shoulder to see
if anyone was watching) and learned to drink vodka and join in
the Russian talk around kitchen tables (Baron and Frierson, 2003;
Fitzpatrick, 2003; Graham, 2006).
While there is some work like Boyms and Shevchenkos, the nostalgic
mood and insights associated with it are otherwise not much reected
in scholarship. One possible exception to this, however, is the sudden
emergence in scholarship of the Soviet welfare state, taken as a given
(as we all know) rather than a discovery. No doubt we did all know
about the Soviet welfare state in a way, but it was rarely written about
before 1991; and the interest of social historians in entitlements and
the entitlement claims made by various groups such as veterans is a
phenomenon of the post-Soviet era.
This is not to suggest that the
entitlements scholarship is itself nostalgic, only that its emergence as
a theme probably owes something to the prominence of the welfare
state motif in the nostalgia (world we have lost) discourse since 1991.
(A similar interplay of real-world developments and scholarship may
be observed with the term empire, used only sparingly, and often in
an anti-Soviet context, before the Soviet Unions collapse before 1991,
but universally afterwards.)
How the past may look in the future
It is unlikely that in the next couple of decades we will have big new
discoveries and accessions of data of the type that were almost
routine in the early 1990s. As I have argued in this essay, however,
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new data, even when abundant, are not necessarily the main engines
of change in historical understanding. That historical understanding
will change is a given. There will be new historical fashions and new
paradigms. Historians will challenge current conventional wisdom
and rediscover what?
No sensible historian engages in prediction, since historiography as
well as history is a chaotic system. So I offer a few concluding remarks
about the shape of the historiographical future purely in a spirit of
speculation. If our present preoccupation is, crudely expressed, to nd
out what was wrong with the Soviet Union, the cyclical (dare one say
dialectical?) nature of historical enquiry suggests that what was right
with it may be next on the agenda. Already one can see a few early
signs, especially in the work of Russian scholars who, happily, are
now part of the international scholarly community, whether working
in Russia or abroad: for example, in work explicitly or implicitly chal-
lenging Western assumptions about the Soviet Union, such as that all
Soviet citizens in the Brezhnev period were secret dissidents whose
public allegiance to Soviet values was pure hypocrisy (Yurchak, 2006),
or that the history of Jews in the Soviet Union can be told purely as a
victim story (Slezkine, 2004).
Another interesting sign comes in the
economic eld. After a couple of decades of reading the Soviet economy
in terms of malfunctioning and dependence of the rst (ofcial)
economy on the second (unofcial) (Kornai, 1992), we now nd a
Russian economic historian claiming that the high point of Soviet
economic performance came in the post-war 1950s and was a product
of state planning in the days when it was still bolstered by unabashed
repression (Khanin, 2003).
One young Russian historian of science now working in North America
told me recently that he was planning to try reverse McCarthyism
in his next project, meaning exploring the inuence of Soviet ideas
and practices Big Science (Kojevnikov, 2002), the welfare state and
afrmative action for starters in the West. This was not a nostalgia
project; rather, it was based on the premise that since Soviet inuence
was for so long a prohibited area for Western scholars (afraid of in-
advertently practising non-reversed McCarthyism), there should be
interesting discoveries to make. The approach is also appealing because
it upsets the stereotype that cultural transmission necessarily goes
West to East. We have heard so much of Western inuences over the
years, and held so rmly to the premise that Russia is always back-
ward and Europe (America) always the international metropolis,
that a little of the Provincializing the West
spirit in Soviet history
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might be a welcome change. If this is the way the scholarship goes,
we will have another view from the twenty-rst century not just of
the Soviet Union, but also of the intellectual history of Europe and
North America in the twentieth century.
1. See the different interpretations of the evidence in Knight (1999) and Lenoe
2. This is strictly an impressionistic survey. For detailed expert information
on Soviet archives and their accessibility, readers should consult Patricia
Grimsteds many publications, especially Grimsted (2000), also available in
Russian as Kozlov and Grimsted (1997).
3. There are two central archives of the CPSU, both of which have had repeated
name changes. One, currently called RGASPI (Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi
arkhiv sotsialno-politicheskoi istorii), covers the period up to 1953 and is
largely open to scholars. In the other, currently called RGANI (Rossiiskii
gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii), covering the period from 1953,
many materials are still restricted.
4. Note, however, that some NKVD/MGB materials, including a valuable Gulag
archive, ended up serendipitously not in the NKVD (KGB) archive but in the
state archive, GARF (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii).
5. For no logical reason, the archives of government economic ministries
(industry, agriculture, statistical administration) held in RGAE (Rossiiskii
gosudarstvennyi arkhiv ekonomiki) are organizationally separate from the
archives of other government ministries held in GARF, though the two are
housed together and share a reading room.
6. In addition to the interpretative works discussed below, there are many
Russian-language publications of archival documents on politics. For a survey
and selective list, see Fitzpatrick (2004a).
7. In the 1970s, this was an important argument of Soviet de-Stalinizers (Medvedev,
1971) and one wing of Western revisionists (Cohen, 1977; Lewin, 1968).

For a typology of these materials, see Fitzpatrick (2005: 15581); for an analysis
of one rich set of citizens letters, see Davies (1997). On denunciations, see
Fitzpatrick and Gellately (1997).
9. In an essay written in the early 1990s (published as Fitzpatrick, 2004b), I
argue that the poor peasant support evident in the 1920s evaporated as those
poor peasants (many of them otkhodniki with urban connections and young
people frustrated in their desire to leave by the shortage of urban industrial
jobs during NEP) took the opportunities offered by rapid industrialization
and afrmative action to leave the village.
10. The assumption of the revisionists critics was that those who wrote about
phenomena like social support and upward mobility were necessarily
themselves supporters of the Soviet regime. In presenting resistance as the
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safer option, I do not mean to suggest that I or any other revisionist consciously
made such a calculation. This explanation of what seemed at the time a natural
development of research interests occurred to me only in retrospect.

This, of course, is how Kuhn (1962) sees paradigm shifts in the natural sciences
also, but many natural scientists believing their disciplines to be cumulative
and their generalizations to be falsiable in principle and in practice by new
experimental data have problems with the Kuhn argument, whereas social
science and humanities people love it.
12. See, for example, Harris (2006); Shlapentokh (1989). LaPierre (2006) shows
how the denition of hooliganism, previously restricted to bad behaviour in
public places, expanded to cover bad behaviour in the home in the Khrushchev
13. Much of this writing appeared in journalistic form, in publications like the Times
Literary Supplement and Commentary; but see also Pipes (2003: 22134).
14. The excellent journal Kritika has been the main organ for this new generation.
For a new generation critique of both totalitarians and revisionists see
David-Fox (2004).
15. See in particular the work of Catriona Kelly (2001, 2005; Kelly and Shepherd,
1998); Stephen Lovell (2003); and Susan Reid (Reid, 2002; Crowley and Reid,

For rediscovery of the welfare-state motif, see Kotkin (1995: 1821); for an
example of recent work highlighting entitlements, see Edele (2004).

Yurchak grew up in Russia, went through American graduate school in the
1990s and now lives and works in the United States; Slezkine, professor of
Soviet history at Berkeley, was a 1980s migr.

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Sheila Fitzpatrick i s Di sti ngui shed Servi ce Professor of
History at the University of Chicago. Address for correspondence:
Department of History, University of Chicago, 1126 E. 59th
Street, Chicago IL 60637, USA [emai l: sf13@uchicago. edu]
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