Historians Still Debating What Fueled the Survival of the USSR

Roundup: Talking About History

Alice Gomstyn, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (Feb. 6, 2004):

During the cold war, a debate flourished among American scholars studying Russian history: What fueled the survival of the Soviet regime? Unlike the two superpowers themselves, the opposing sides waged no proxy wars. They fought each other with the tenacity of babushkas on a bread line, armed with dueling theses and impassioned critiques.

One group of scholars, known as the"totalitarians," argued that the oppressive power wielded by Soviet leaders compelled Soviet citizens to work as cogs in the system, ensuring the regime's survival. The other group, the"revisionists," held that the Soviet people themselves provided the support necessary to keep the regime afloat.

The opposing historians locked horns for more than two decades. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of its zealously guarded archives, new information came to light that held the promise of resolving the debate.

And it did -- to a point.

For today's generation of Russian historians, the totalitarian-revisionist divide plays only a peripheral role in their research, which focuses on topics that include multinationalism and cultural differences in the far-flung empire. Few young scholars any longer voice support for either the totalitarian or the revisionist school; most draw upon works from both sides and adopt a dispassionate, middle-of-the-road stance.

In some corners of the field, though, the debate rages on. A smattering of books, book reviews, newspaper editorials, and magazine articles published in recent years illustrates the fervor of those who continue to argue over the role of popular support in upholding the Soviet regime. Time has not healed all wounds.

In a book review published in The Los Angeles Times in 2000, the historian Martin Malia, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and an advocate of the totalitarian viewpoint, denounced a new book on Stalinism by the leading revisionist J. Arch Getty, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, as an"exercise in denial-with-a-social-science-face." Mr. Getty responded with a letter to the editor calling Mr. Malia"a specialist on the 19th century who has never done original research on the Soviet era" and dismissing the critique as"nonsense."

The persistence of this scholarly divide -- marginalized as it may be -- is a disheartening phenomenon for some historians."The totalitarian-versus-revisionist argument was a very productive one for a short time," says David C. Engerman, an assistant professor of history at Brandeis University."But it ceased to be productive long before it ceased to be active." ...

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