Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Stalin’s Russia, by Chris Ward

But we need to remind ourselves of the point of academic history. It is not to establish a mythic truth. Nor is it to point the moral tale. Nor is it to praise winners and condemn losers, or vice versa. Hard though it is and imperfect though the attempt must always be, historians should try to see all round a problem; to understand and make comprehensible old policies, old factions and past lives. And understanding – that effort to suspend disbelief and enter into the world of men and women for whom we may now have no particular sympathy – requires more than a modicum of empathy.

– from the Conclusion to Stalin’s Russia

Stalin’s Russia is not a book about Stalin. It is about Stalinism, which – to me, at least – is a far more interesting subject. It is also about the reading and writing of history. Chris Ward does not only reflect on his own role as a historian of a particularly complicated topic in a conflict-riddled field; rather, his thoughts and reflections frame the central corpus of a book which is first and foremost an exercise for the reader.

This is my very favourite thing about Stalin’s Russia. The book is structured in such a way that the reader is supplied with everything necessary to gain a fundamental understanding of the topic, vast as it is – chronology, glossary, biographical notes, maps, constant suggestions for further reading – but is denied an easy explanation. Instead of a simple linear narrative, the book is divided into seven self-contained chapters, each addressing a different aspect of the history of the USSR under Stalin (from internal politics to economics, foreign policy, and culture). An extract from the Table of Contents shows precisely how each chapter is laid out:

1. The rise of Stalin, 1917-1929

Narrative

Stalin to 1922 – The leaders in power – The triumvirate and the semerka – The defeat of the Left – The defeat of the Right

Interpretations

The heroic approach – The administrative approach – The party history approach – The ideological approach – The socio-cultural approach – The Trotskyist approach

Evaluations

Personality – Intentionality – Two legacies – Looking for Napoleon – The evolution of the party-state – The intra-party struggle – Why Stalin?

Suggestions for further reading

This structure achieves two quite distinct aims: to break down a very complex topic into manageable chunks, and to communicate to the reader something of the subtlety and subjectivity of historical interpretation. Ward’s writing is clear and enjoyable to read, which means that all the difficulties come from the sources and ideas themselves. In other words, Stalin’s Russia is a hard read, but in the right way. And since it presumes little or nothing in the way of previous knowledge (it is frequently used in schools as well as universities), it is accessible to anyone with the interest and inclination to take on a challenging topic.

Another distinguishing feature of Stalin’s Russia – and a divisive one, in my experience – can be seen in the extract cited at the head of this review. This book, like Ward’s writing in general, is free of any emotive quality when it comes to analysing the mechanisms and manifestations of Stalinism. There is no wringing of hands over the dead; no cursing of the big, bad General Secretary with his “yellow eyes”; no speculation about Russian barbarism or Asiatic cruelty (two concepts that never fail to horrify me when I see them in historical writing). All this is perfectly consistent, since the declared purpose of the book is to be a work of academic history, and Ward’s concept of academic history involves the minimum possible in terms of value judgments, moral punditry and ethnocentrism. I say the minimum possible, because complete objectivity is itself a myth; we cannot completely and utterly overcome our bias, or shed all of our pre-emptive assumptions. Neither can we travel back in time to see things for ourselves (and even if we did, our perspective would still be hopelessly coloured by subjectivity, not to mention severely limited). But the attempt to overcome our innate limitations is the essence of rigour in academic history, and it is something that Chris Ward does very well. Nobody loses out if we attempt to look at Stalinism objectively; on the contrary, our understanding of that time and place can only be enriched, and ultimately we ourselves benefit from trying to comprehend perspectives and beliefs vastly different from our own. It is only natural – and from a moral philosophy point of view, entirely laudable – that events such as the purges of 1937 should make us react on a visceral level, that we should have thoughts and feelings and opinions about this or that episode from the past; but this is not history. The power of good historical writing is in laying bare events and as far as possible exposing the mechanism behind them. The evidence can and should speak for itself.

In conclusion, I would unreservedly recommend Stalin’s Russia to historians and lay readers alike, but most particularly to those who are interested in reading about Stalinism rather than about Stalin. This is not an easy book to read, but it is accessible, and it is also a good introduction to the historiography of the period. It also has a strongly defined ethos; you may not agree with this reviewer in finding it utterly sound, but that is all the more reason to read it. After all, the most enjoyable aspect of history is debate, and every source is there to be interrogated.

Arnold (second edition July 29 1999), paperback, 304 pp., ISBN 978-0340731512

10 comments on “Stalin’s Russia, by Chris Ward

  1. Moira
    June 24, 2008

    “The power of good historical writing is in laying bare events and as far as possible exposing the mechanism behind them. The evidence can and should speak for itself.”

    That should be engraved on the wall of every university and college in the country. In my experience entirely too many ‘historians’ are anything but …

    Good, thought-provoking stuff, Kirsty. As always.

  2. kirstyjane
    June 24, 2008

    Thanks Moira! I was sweating writing this review, because it’s hard enough to explain what I like about this book without going off on a vast rant about the ways people write about Stalin/Stalinism. Stay on topic, Kirsty, stay on topic…

  3. rosyb
    June 25, 2008

    Ooo, very intrigued by this. And interesting topic of debate quite apart from a review. I might even…but do you think I’d understand a word of it, Kirsty?

  4. Lisa
    June 25, 2008

    “Ward’s concept of academic history involves the minimum possible in terms of value judgments, moral punditry and ethnocentrism. I say the minimum possible, because complete objectivity is itself a myth; we cannot completely and utterly overcome our bias, or shed all of our pre-emptive assumptions. Neither can we travel back in time to see things for ourselves (and even if we did, our perspective would still be hopelessly coloured by subjectivity…”

    Interesting thoughts there, Kirsty. Something I’ve been thinking about lately too. I know nothing about Stalinism, and this does sound like an intense read, and yet you do make me want to buy it.

    Could you say a bit more about the ‘strongly defined ethos’? Do you mean in its lack of handwringing and its avoidance of value judgements?

  5. kirstyjane
    June 25, 2008

    Yes – Ward has a strictly defined idea of what it is to write history, and value judgments do not come near it; he’s also very, very rigorous about use of language. It seems strange that this should count as an “ethos”, since surely it’s the point of writing history; but unfortunately, at least in Russian studies, even academic history is so often (sometimes hysterically) pro- or anti-whatever (Stalin, Trotsky, Communism, the usual suspects) that adopting this kind of stance becomes contentious. At least, this is my experience.

    If you are interested in the history of Stalinism, Rosy and Lisa, I would recommend this book. You don’t have to sit and read it cover to cover of course; it’s an excellent reference to have on hand, particularly if you’re reading literature or popular history related to the period.

  6. Jackie
    June 27, 2008

    I agree with Moira that this tenet ought to be more widely used by historians. It almost seems a novel idea the way you and the author put it. This does sound like a really good book for anyone interested in the subject and it appears to work no matter the level of one’s expertise and previous experience. That’s a high compliment to the author.

  7. Leena
    June 29, 2008

    ‘To break down a very complex topic into manageable chunks, and to communicate to the reader something of the subtlety and subjectivity of historical interpretation’ – that’s what we’re always looking for, isn’t it? And yet so few succeed in it. Sounds like Chris Ward does.

    Thank you so much for this review, Kirsty – I’ve always wanted to know more about the subject, but never knew where to begin. Stalin’s Russia sounds like the right book.

  8. Pingback: The Road to Terror: Stalin and the self-destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov (Part of the Annals of Communism series) « Vulpes Libris

  9. Pingback: A Minor Change of Plan: the 2009 Russian Series Quiz « Vulpes Libris

  10. learnlangthoughts
    November 4, 2013

    But has no-one noticed that the first map 0.1 ‘The USSR in the mid 1930s’,on page xviii, is not a map of the USSR in the mid 1930s at all?- it shows the USSR after 1945

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on June 24, 2008 by in Entries by Kirsty, Non-fiction: history, Russian Series and tagged , , , .

Categories

Archive

Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.

Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 886 other followers

    %d bloggers like this: