Back in the USSR on its people's own terms

The Structure of Soviet History
November 26, 2004

Ronald Suny’s objective in this collection of “articles, memoirs and documents is an effort to offer materials that can assist the reader to reach independent judgements about the intricacies and contradictions of the Soviet past”. He wants to present a neutral perspective that allows readers “to think for themselves and begin to create their own history of the Soviet Union”.

I would not quarrel with such aims. It must be the aim of all historians to make people think for themselves. For those who live in modern democracies, it is often difficult to understand why those living in less free societies could be loyal to the regime.

Under high Stalinism, in particular, the paradox is clear: many people were arrested, imprisoned and died, the regime could be arbitrary and very harsh, and yet countless Soviet citizens thought that they gained a great deal, especially in education and in the new opportunities being opened up to them.

This compilation is already being used as a textbook in many US universities and doubtless will be used in the UK, too. Especially valuable is the selection of documents dealing with the USSR after Stalin, as there are fewer textbooks covering this period.

But this work requires guidance. The ambitiousness of the project means that many disparate sources have been brought together. Most of the selected extracts are given some explanation, but it may be confusing to include extracts from historians almost as if their opinions were on a par with the selected documents.

Just as the documents need to be seen in context, so does the historical debate that has been affected no less than the documents by the complexities of the political situation and attitudes engendered by it.

I am sorry that the publisher did not see fit to provide a bibliography or an index for a volume that would help many busy teachers and their students. For those who already have some familiarity with the subjects under discussion, this is a useful guide and summary of the history of the USSR.

Catherine Andreyev is lecturer in modern European history, Oxford University.

The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents. First edition

Author - Ronald Grigor Suny
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 573pp
Price - £43.99 and £18.99
ISBN - 0 19 513703 5 and 513704 3

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