Soviet Historiography: Totalitarian Vs. Revisionist

The politics and socio-economic conditions within the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era is only one factor in determining the separate historiographical schools of totalitarianism verses revisionism.  Also indistinguishable are the inherent social and cultural biases of the historians who study the period, and considering the Cold War, western historians originally embraced the totalitarian school on ethical and moral grounds, as well as historical ones.[1]

The totalitarian paradigm of historical interpretation considered Stalin’s Soviet regime as a completely top-down government, one that imposed its will on the population primarily through force and terror.[2]  This was due in part to the prominent focus on political history prior to the 1970’s.[3]  The revisionist school of history, however, focused more on social history rather than solely political, allowing for their views to ultimately gain merit and even be taken for granted in the field of Russian history.[4]

The most contentious of the disagreements between the revisionist and totalitarian paradigms focused, perhaps naturally, on the purges that took place under Stalin’s regime.  The totalitarians, from an ethical standpoint condemned these as evil, a condemnation that – in the totalitarian view – characterized the entire soviet regime.  Revisionists, on the other hand, were more skeptical of the scope of the purges, demanding evidence for the totalitarian paradigm’s high (and perhaps inflated) numbers and attempted to find the underlying good not only of the Soviet machine but also of the Bolshevik revolution that led to it.[5]  Questioning the ideology behind the purges and refusing to accept the numbers of victims affected outright, however, was tantamount to justifying the purges themselves and attempting to grant legitimacy to Stalin’s reign of terror for totalitarian historians.[6]  Scholars who adhered to the totalitarian paradigm went so far as to claim that the revisionist ‘whitewashing’ of the Stalinist regime was comparable to denying the holocaust – an accusation that certainly inflated the acrimony between both parties.[7]

In the broader historical context, it becomes clear that repression, terror and methods of social control in Russia were not exclusive to Lenin or Stalin’s leadership – they had been maintained by the Tsar as necessary for centuries prior to the revolution.[8]  Given that, the totalitarian school’s fixation on the purges as a defining characteristic of Stalin’s immoral regime does not seem to fit with the flow of history.  The resort to violence under Lenin and Stalin’s leadership was not solely an effort to establish and maintain a dictatorship as much as it was a failure to adequately adapt to the cultural and economic realities of Russia prior to the revolution and the order that the Bolsheviks attempted to impose.[9]  The fact that Bolshevik leaders were divided – also contentiously – over almost all of the party policies makes it somewhat more understandable that historians studying soviet history are still divided today.

[1] Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism in Soviet History,” History and Theory 46, no. 4 (December 2007), 80.

[2] Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism,” 80.

[3] Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism,” 80.

[4] Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism,” 86.

[5] Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism,” 83.

[6] Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism,” 83.

[7] Fitzpatrick, “Revisionism,” 85.

[8] Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 385.

[9] Pipes, A Concise History, 393.

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