Eyewitness: re-writing Russia's cold war history

August 10, 2001

Ten years after the cold war's end, Russia's rising young historians are working with US and western European researchers to re-evaluate 40 years of frosty East-West relations with the help of formerly secret archives.

At a summer school at central Russia's Saratov State University last month, 25 of Russia's best young university historians, some of the world's top political scientists and a handful of cold-war eyewitnesses gathered to seek new ways of interpreting the struggles of old foes.

The school, organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences and hosted by the university's history faculty with Soros Open Society funding, was intended to allow international authorities in cold-war studies to share insights with Russia's new generation of historians and to help revise outdated textbooks still used in Russian universities.

Velikan Mirzekhanov, dean of the faculty, said: "Our history has been completely overturned. It is essential to revise the textbooks as it is practically impossible to teach history with the existing resources."

Inviting witnesses to the key events of the cold war was an innovation designed to recreate the feel of the period.

"To create a real cold-war atmosphere, we invited not only academics but people such as the son of Anastas Mikoyan (the Soviet statesman who dominated foreign and domestic trade under Stalin and Khrushchev). We wanted him to tell us how the family of such a prominent figure treated the cold war; what they felt at the beginning and the end of the cold war."

Roger Bartlett, professor of history at the School of East European and Slavonic Studies at University College London, who will be at a similar summer school in Saratov next month, said: "The Russian historical establishment - people who were in the middle and upper ranks in 1991 - have had to confront the problem of what to do with historical science.

"The old historical science was already breaking down then, and there have been a lot of attempts in different directions - chauvinist nationalist, western liberal, popular paperback history - as Russians tried to come to terms with the collapse of their system."

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