Events

Book Discussion: "Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia"

February 23, 2009 // 11:00am12:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Cold War International History Project

"The legacy of Stalin remains an integral part of the fabric of Russian life today," stated Jonathan Brent, Editorial Director, Yale University Press, at the Kennan Institute discussion of his newly published book Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia. The publication is the result of a research project started in 1992 by a group of American and Russian scholars in the wake of President Boris Yeltsin's opening of the Soviet archives.

Of particular interest to Brent was Stalin's private archive, whose contents are still largely unknown outside of a limited circle. The archive itself contains over 28,000 documents whose origins range from the pre-Revolutionary period to 1955, when the last of the condolence letters for Stalin's death were received. Brent discussed Stalin's meticulous annotations of various texts, displaying images of various passages in which Stalin had crossed out certain words and sentences and added his own detailed thoughts. In some cases, Stalin had even written over existing text, physically replacing authors' arguments and ideas with his own.

Such documents provide immense insight into Stalin's own beliefs and understanding, and in turn, the system which he was trying to engrave in the minds of Soviet citizens. Stalin's correspondence is similarly revealing. From his exchanges with Nikolai Bukharin, for example, one sees that Stalin understood the purges to be necessary for eliminating both "the guilty and the potentially guilty." In Stalin's words, "no man, no problem." According to Brent, this sort of thinking created the pervasive mistrust in Soviet society which supported the necessity and primacy of state authority, and explains why many of those who survived the GULAG hated the criminality of their oppressors, yet still believed in the Soviet system.

Throughout the duration of the research project, Brent and his scholar team were asked about the relevance of these archives to present-day Russia. Brent answered by arguing that the Soviet model of interpreting authority still governs present-day Russia in many subtle and stark ways. "Ideas live not in books or archive documents," he explained, "but in people's minds where they become the building blocks of expectations in daily life, a way of understanding reality, and ultimately, a substratum of one's existence." After the fall of the Soviet Union, Brent argued, the cultural substratum formed by its Stalinist past remained, though its visible symbols and organizational mechanisms disappeared. An alternative, valid value structure was not able to replace it and therefore, Brent concluded, "the subsequent return of Russia to its Stalinist past must be understood as a search for its own identity."

Written by Lidiya Zubytska

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