In the endless campaign for ideological purification which goes on in the Soviet Union, the "historical front" is accorded high priority. No academic discipline has received such constant attention and supervision from the Party as that called "historical science," and no group of scholars has been so frequently out of step.

Since 1934 Russian history has been extensively rewritten to serve the Party in several ways: 1, to show that the Marxist laws of history have been working in the past; 2, to inculcate a new Soviet patriotism which will act as a counterweight to the nationalism of non-Russian subjects; 3, to prove the correctness of Party decisions, past and present.

To a Soviet historian who disappeared in Stalin's purges in the middle 1930s, and who returned to Khrushchev's Russia two decades later to resume his work, the new Soviet histories must have seemed to be caricatures concocted by some "bourgeois falsifier." In no field would he have encountered more surprising changes of interpretation than in the history of tsarist colonialism. He would have remembered the Russian conquests of the Caucasus and Central Asia as particularly brutal campaigns carried out by generals called by Soviet scholars "tsarist satraps." In the new histories-some of them by the same authors-he would find that many of the conquests did not take place at all, but that annexation to Russia came about peacefully with the consent of the inhabitants. In other cases he would find brief accounts of hostilities, subordinated to discussion of the progressive results of annexation. As for the Russian generals, they were now more remembered as benevolent administrators and civilizers than for their military skills.

Not only had the villains become heroes, but the heroes had become villains. The resistance movements against tsarist expansion had earlier been typed "national liberation" movements and were characterized as just and heroic efforts of the masses to preserve their freedom. The leaders of these movements were among the greatest heroes and martyrs in Russian history. But now our returning historian would find that most of these movements were regarded as reactionary uprisings, and their leaders were denounced as representatives of the feudal landlord class, or as spokesmen for a reactionary religious ideology, or even the henchmen of foreign powers-Britain, Turkey or Persia.

Other revelations awaited our scholar. He would discover that trade and cultural relations between the Slavic and non-Slavic peoples went back to medieval or even ancient times, and that the friendship of peoples was one of the constants of Russian history. He would learn that the colonies were settled by the best sort of Russians. If he chanced to read into the popularized history of "Russian America," as written during his absence, he would find that "the settlement of Alaska by Russians bore a clearly expressed laboring and democratic character dissimilar to the trade- plundering colonization by the Anglo-Saxons, who recruited their agents from among tramps, adventurists and criminals."[i]

In short, our returning scholar would find that the history of tsarist colonialism has been turned inside-out, and the new history is one which could, for the most part, be read with approval by the tsars themselves. Its theses are remarkably similar to the 1864 circular of the Russian Foreign Minister, Prince Gorchakov, in which he justified Russian expansion in Central Asia as a civilizing mission and a necessary step for stabilizing boundaries.


The Soviet revision of Russian colonial history came much later than other revisions because of the strong anti-colonial position of Marx, who had called the Russian Empire "a prison of peoples." Indeed, early Soviet histories had stated that the subject peoples of Asia had been under a "double oppression:" a "national colonial oppression" under reactionary tsarism and "a feudal oppression" under the native aristocracy which frequently collaborated with the Russian governors.

There were a few attempts in the 1930s by the Party to influence the interpretation of colonial policies, especially in connection with the building up of a new concept of the long and unshakable friendship of peoples in the Soviet family. But the first celebrated case involving a widely known book occurred after the publication in 1943 of "History of the Kazakh S.S.R.," co-edited by one of the best known Party historians, Anna Pankratova. The work was severely criticized in Bolshevik (No. 6, 1945) for its emphasis on Kazakh "military traditions" and the fight for independence. The Party journal also took serious objection to the glorification of Kenesary Kasimov, who had led a resistance movement against incorporation into the Russian Empire in the 1830s and was regarded by the Kazakhs as a national hero. It pointed out that he was a member of the exploiting class and was supporting feudal institutions and not the interests of the working people. The attack in Bolshevik evoked a resolution from the Central Committee of the Kazakh Party, acknowledging the criticism as just and appropriating funds for a new history of Kazakhstan. But before that history appeared, a distinguished Kazakh scholar, E. Bekmakhanov, published in 1947 his "Kazakhstan from the 1820s to the 1840s," which continued and even enhanced the heroic role of Kenesary. Bekmakhanov's book not only invoked Party rebuke, it was made the subject of a public debate in 1948, Historians were divided and Voprosy Istorii (No. 4, 1949) was alarmed because some of the most distinguished Soviet historians had favored Bekmakhanov's views.

During the same years, some effort was made to revise the history of the Caucasus, but with even less success. The most celebrated of all the "national liberation" leaders was Shamil, the fiery leader of the Murids, a fanatical sect of Moslems in Dagestan. For 25 years Shamil held down Russian armies far outnumbering his own and built such a reputation that he was treated with special respect after his capture in 1859. In 1947, K. G. Adzhemian read a paper on Shamil which ran counter to the long respected interpretation. He declared that Shamil was the leader of a reactionary religious sect and that he had received aid from Britain and Turkey. The annexation of the Caucasus to Russia brought these people "the first gleam of civilization, and opened the road . . . to broad European development." Since Shamil and his movement stood in the way of this progressive historical event, they could be characterized only as reactionary. In the discussion which followed the paper, Adzhemian found himself completely without support, and the chairman of the meeting, N. M. Druzhinin, president of the Institute of History, laid the matter to rest with a concluding statement charging that Adzhemian had given no criticism of the sources and had not demonstrated knowledge of some of the facts.

If Adzhemian's paper was a Party warning, it was unheeded. Soviet histories published during the next two years left Shamii on his pedestal, and in 1949 one of Shamil's countrymen was to carry his praise to new heights. The book "From the History of Social and Political Thought in Azerbaidzhan in the Nineteenth Century," by Geidar Guseinov, praised Shamii not only for his military prowess but as a great democrat and statesman. The volume was hailed by early reviewers as a major publishing event, and was nominated for a Stalin Prize.

It was apparently the reception of this book and its nomination for the prize which convinced Party ideologists that they must leave off scholarly admonitions and institute a crackdown in the style of the recent Zhdanovshchina. On May 14, 1950, Pravda announced that the committee on Stalin Prizes had admitted an error. The article went on to state that Guseinov's book "radically distorts the real meaning of this movement, which was nationalistic and was in the service of British capitalism and the Turkish Sultan." Two days later the prize nomination was withdrawn: Adzhemian's forgotten argument of three years earlier had triumphed.

The chief spokesman for the new line was M. D. Bagirov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Azerbaidzhan Communist Party and close associate of Beria. Writing in Bolshevik (No. 13, 1950), he emphasized that annexation was, for the people of the Caucasus, "the only possible path for the development of their economy and culture." By annexation they "obtained protection from external enemies." Shamii was a feudal chieftain and beast of prey, in the pay of imperialist Britain and Turkey.

Bagirov's charges caused reviewers and journals to make their usual round of apologies and retractions, but there was none from the author, Guseinov, who, according to an announcement made a decade later, committed suicide. Two large conferences were called to discuss the matter, and the Praesidium of the Academy of Sciences passed a sweeping resolution which fired historians and administrators, called for new research and appropriated 150,000 rubles for a new history of Dagestan.[ii]

On December 25, 1950, Pravda renewed the Party fight with the historians of Central Asia in a long article condemning half a dozen histories. Kenesary was given the same treatment as Shamil, and a particularly harsh rebuke was reserved for Bekmakhanov, whose book had continued to idealize Kenesary in spite of an earlier Party directive.

For the next few years Soviet historians hewed to the new Party line in a flurry of activity. A number of uprisings and their leaders were analyzed and pronounced reactionary, more conferences were called and volumes of documents appeared. Museums in the borderlands were purged of art objects and dozens of folk epics were denounced as reactionary. The drastic revision was explained as the result of new and more detailed research on a "scientific Marxist level," which had overcome the survivals of "bourgeois nationalism" in historical writing.

The revision came to be more and more closely linked with one of Stalin's favorite themes-Great Russian leadership. Emphasis was increasingly placed on the civilizing mission of the Russians and on the friendship of peoples of the U.S.S.R. This trend resulted in a revision and finally the denunciation of the "lesser evil" formula. This scheme had been used to reconcile tsarist oppression with the progressive consequences of annexation. According to this argument, the border peoples faced the alternative of being taken over by reactionary Britain, Turkey or Persia or of being annexed by Russia and being set on the road to eventual Communism. The latter was clearly the "lesser evil." But Bagirov, in his speech to the Nineteenth Party Congress (October 1952), denounced the "lesser evil" formula because there was too much evil implied in it. What he wanted-and got-was something like an "absolute good" formula, which left tsarist colonialism with no negative qualities. The term "elder brother"-referring to the Great Russians-came to be substituted for the "lesser evil."

Following such reasoning, a Kazakh historian rewrote the history of his country in these terms:

The Kazakh steppes were not conquered by the Russian state, and the incorporation of the . . . Kazakh hordes was carried out with their complete approval. . . . The isolated punitive expeditions carried out by the Russian frontier troops in reply to marauding expeditions of Kazakh batyrs, in the course of which many innocent Kazakh villages also suffered, cannot be regarded as a general campaign of conquest. . . . The Russian construction of military forts was progressive, designed to bring order to the area. . . . The inhabitants approached the Russian fortified line in search of protection and because they were attracted by the prospect of a more stable existence.[iii]

The tsarist generals, too, had to be rehabilitated. General Ermolov, the "proconsul of the Caucasus," was pictured in the 1947 edition of Pankratova's ninth grade textbook as a conqueror who "applied military and administrative measures of a very-drastic nature," who built forts with such awe-inspiring names as groznaia (the Dread) and zlobnyi okop (Wicked Trench). He was said to have forced the mountaineers into submission by hunger and siege. The 1953 edition omitted all these passages and substituted a new one which mentioned three of the general's activities: the development of the silk industry, the opening of schools and the abolition of slavery.[iv]


For a few months in 1956, it appeared that this entire structure, so carefully erected by the Party and historians, would be toppled in the general campaign of de-Stalinization. The first open criticism came in the now famous Readers Conference of the journal Voprosy Istorii, held in January 1956 on the eve of the Twentieth Party Congress. E. N. Burdzhalov, deputy editor of the journal, and the leader of the anti-Stalin revision movement to come, presided at the conference and announced that the gross distortions and falsifications resulting from the "cult of personality" must be corrected. He gave a prominent place to the correction of errors about Shamil and Muridism and he blamed them on Bagirov, who was at that moment awaiting trial and the death sentence as a henchman of Beria. He gave the floor to a middle-school teacher named A. M. Pikman, who made a blistering attack on the authorities in historical science, who, he said, had grossly distorted Marx and Engels, falsified documents and denied space in journals to anyone in disagreement on the Shamil question.[v]

Further historical revision was called for in the speeches at the Twentieth Party Congress. Mikoyan characterized the writing of Party and social history as "perhaps the most backward sector in our ideological work," and called on historians to correct all the errors resulting from the "cult of personality." Khrushchev threw the "elder brother" out the window in a single phrase when he said that "our Party has succeeded in removing the mutual distrust which existed among the peoples in tsarist Russia, and in uniting all the peoples of the Soviet Union in bonds of fraternal friendship. . . ." This reference to mutual distrust, whether made by intention or a slip of the tongue, contradicted the "friendship of peoples" theme so painstakingly constructed by Soviet historians in the last few years. Pankratova carefully noted the reference, and parroted it in her speech to the Congress. She confessed a number of errors of her colleagues, stressing in particular that Soviet historians had idealized tsarist colonialism. She preferred to have it both ways: tsarist colonial policy was extremely oppressive and reactionary, but annexation was progressive in the long run.[vi]

After the Party Congress there was the characteristic flurry of conferences, editorials and articles. Three large conferences were held in 1956 alone on the Shamil question. The unusual thing about this spurt of activity was that there was no unanimity. Scholarly arguments found their way into print, and history journals sometimes carried two points of view in the same issue. A. M. Pikman, who had become the spokesman for Shamil's reputation at the Readers' Conference, spoke his mind in the March issue of Voprosy Istorii. He pronounced Shamirs movement progressive in no uncertain terms, and he was backed up by a Dagestan scholar in the July issue. At the same time the journal carried an account of an April conference at which some of the most respected Party historians vigorously disagreed. The historians of Central Asia, who were closely watching the Shamil issue as a test case, proceeded somewhat more cautiously. It was pointed out that the peoples of Central Asia were making solid progress before the Russians came, implying that annexation was hardly essential to the well-being of the people. One reviewer chided a Central Asian author for attributing too much cultural influence to Russia and dismissed a chapter on the progressive consequences of annexation as superfluous.[vii] Through all of this it is possible to detect a contest between the non-Russian historians, who were eager to restore their heroes and traditions, and the Moscow historians, who preferred to move more cautiously.

That fall Soviet schools opened with old textbooks and new interpretations. A pamphlet was hurriedly prepared as a guide for teachers, who were cautioned not to use certain sections of the textbooks. As far as tsarist colonialism was concerned, the guidebook expressed an ambivalence which has been characteristic of Soviet writing on the subject ever since. The oppressive nature of tsarist colonial policies was to be fully emphasized, but at the same time the annexation of territories was always to be considered progressive. Shamil should be presented as "a gifted ruler, warrior and military leader" but also as "a representative of the feudal class" who was inconsistent in his fight for independence.[viii]

The period of indecision ended with a sharp rebuke of Voprosy Istorii in March 1957 in Kommunist. The Party journal charged the editors of Voprosy Istorii with numerous errors, and specifically condemned Pikman's article, declaring that "it is clamorous in tone, weak in argumentation, and ignores the attained level of scientific knowledge." Pikman was denounced for representing Shamil as a democrat, for denying the role of Britain and Turkey and for not mentioning that annexation was progressive.

Shortly thereafter the editorial board of Voprosy Istorii was purged and the following number of the journal (No. 3, 1957) carried a long lead editorial in which the new editors denounced their predecessors. Among other things they charged that "the publication of Pikman's article was totally unjustified. . . . The underlying theme of this article is a veiled denial of the progressive nature of the unification of the Caucasus with Russia."

After these developments the issue subsided in Moscow but was kept alive in Shamil's homeland. The Dagestan Party Bureau passed a resolution late in 1956 which sought to soothe regional sentiments and at the same time to meet Moscow's main demands. It called upon scholars of the Caucasus to engage in further research on "the peoples' struggle for independence and freedom under Shamil's leadership" but also on "the progressive significance of Dagestan's entry into the Russian state and the beneficial influence of Russian culture on Dagestan's cultural development."[ix] The scholars complied. They published two editions of the proceedings of the Makhachkala Conference, at which they had been outspoken on the question, and a new history of Dagestan which returned Shamil to the role of heroic leader of an independence movement. In 1958 they published a second printing of Guseinov's book, which had started the whole issue. The following year they published a volume of documents, designed to answer a documentary collection of 1953 entitled "Shamil-Henchman of the Sultan of Turkey and the British Colonizers." The Moscow journals had little to say about all of this: Voprosy Istorii did not review the Guseinov book until January 1963.

The Central Asian historians have been less troublesome. Bekmakhanov removed his errors of a decade earlier with the publication of "The Annexation of Kazakhstan to Russia" in 1957. It regarded Kenesary Kasimov as a reactionary and devoted a long chapter to the progressive consequences of annexation. It was well received, as was "The History of the Kazakh S.S.R.," the third general history of that Union Republic demanded by the Party in a little over a decade.


From a study of the tortured path of Soviet historians in recent years it is possible to construct a catalog of priorities which the Party has imposed on historical writing about tsarist colonialism. Two themes-both highly tendentious to the Western mind-are absolute requirements and must be explicitly affirmed. They are the friendship of all Soviet peoples and the progressive nature of tsarist acquisitions of territory. The Party's sharpest rebukes have been aimed at those historians who have denied them or even omitted mentioning them.

On the other hand, current Soviet histories give a much wider variety of opinion on some phases of tsarist colonialism than would have been tolerated in Bagirov's day. It is permissible now to discuss tsarist brutalities and oppression, provided the long-range progressiveness of annexation is considered. Thus it is possible to find in one recent history a detailed account of the confiscation of land, the destruction of crops, the burning of villages, the requisitioning of foodstuffs "which sometimes degenerated into plain robbery," while other histories dwell almost entirely on the advantages brought by the conquerors. In a new history of the Soviet North, for example, Russian guns are mentioned only once, in this passage: "the firearms which they [the natives] received from the Russians were instrumental in greatly increasing the development of hunting."[x]

The resistance movements have been examined in great detail, and some of them are now again designated progressive. The Party has insisted that each movement be analyzed in the context of the class struggle, with the result that any leader of aristocratic origin is ipso facto reactionary. Sometimes Soviet historians are obliged to find the class struggle in hitherto undiscovered areas, or to define classes in an arbitrary fashion. The peoples of the Soviet North, for instance, have been divided into social classes on the basis of the number of reindeer an individual herded. For a movement to be pronounced progressive, it must have been of peasant origin (leaders and followers), it must have been aimed primarily against local feudal lords or "foreign imperialists," and not Russians, it must have been free of "reactionary religious ideology," and it must not have been separatist in nature. Needless to say, not many pass the test. Some verdicts are mixed: a movement is said to be partly progressive and partly reactionary, or to have begun in one category and ended in another. The revolts of 1898 and 1916 in Central Asia are particularly slippery when examined by these standards, and a number of minor revisions have been put forward in the last few years.

Why was the process of house cleaning in the Soviet historiography of tsarist colonialism, which was clearly called for at the Twentieth Party Congress, checked after a few months? The answer can be given in a word: nationalism. Nationalism in the non-Russian republics is a major centrifugal force in the U.S.S.R., and is undoubtedly the main deterrent to that fusion of cultures and elimination of internal boundaries envisioned in the new Party Program. The Program recognizes nationalism as "the chief political and ideological weapon used by international reaction" against the unity of Communist countries.

Several developments have prompted the Party to move cautiously here. At the very beginning of the de-Stalinization campaign, there were nationalistic riots in Georgia on the third anniversary of Stalin's death, and before 1956 was over there were object lessons in the strength of nationalism as a divisive force in Poland and Hungary. Guilt of "bourgeois nationalism" was given as the reason for the wholesale firing of officials in the non-Russian republics, particularly in Central Asia.

The Party is also wary of several potential threats-some imagined and some real. Rehabilitation of the Moslem leaders of the resistance movements might inspire the emergence of a new Kenesary or Shamil; it might encourage current Moslem leaders to new resistance; it might upset the delicate "friendship" of Moslem and non-Moslem peoples of the U.S.S.R. Restoration of the old themes might give encouragement to Soviet subjects to form separatist movements with their brothers across the borders. Recent Soviet denunciations of Pan-Islamism, Pan-Turkism, Pan-Iranism and Pan-Arabism seem to be far more alarmist than the reality of the situation would justify. Central Asia, which is ideologically unreliable, is also a key pawn in the Soviet-Chinese conflict. It is significant that the recent Soviet denunciation of alleged Chinese border violations in Kazakhstan also charged (Pravda, Sept. 23, 1963) that the Chinese leaders, "by concentrating the attention of people on border questions . . . artificially stir up nationalistic passions and hostile relations with other peoples."

Today the term "national liberation movement" is reserved almost completely in Soviet usage for foreign countries, where the Communists hope to use the forces of nationalism to overthrow capitalism. As Richard Pipes has pointed out, nationalism is regarded by Soviet leaders as either their worst enemy or their best friend, depending on whether it is the domestic or foreign variety.

It seems unlikely that the Soviet history of tsarist colonialism will be stabilized in its current posture. Interpretations will probably change to meet new policy demands. The usefulness of history to the present situation is illustrated in the August 1963 issue of Voprosy Istorii, which vigorously refutes recent Japanese claims to the Kurile Islands. The Kuriles are historically Russian, runs the familiar argument, because the Russian ties with the islands are very old, dating from 1632, because the Russians brought civilization to the islands, because the inhabitants are bound in firm bonds of friendship with the Russians, because the Russians have protected them from imperialistic external enemies.

After a brief aberration from its course in 1956, Soviet historical writing has been returned to its place as a handmaiden of politics. The case was stated succinctly in a recent editorial admonition in Voprosy Istorii (No. 2, 1962) by the historian M. P. Kim: "Historical science," he said, "must make its own contribution to Communist construction-that is the main thing."

[i] Literaturnaya Gazeta, Nov. 3, 1951, as quoted by Walter Kolarz, in "The Peoples of the Soviet Far East," London, 1954, p. 25.

[ii] Current Digest of the Soviet Press, II, No, 48, p. 13-14.

[iii] S. E. Tolybekov, "O reaktsionnoi borbe kazakhskikh sultanov i batyrov mladshevo zhuza protiv dobrovolnovo prisoedinenia k Rossii" [On the reactionary struggle of the Kazakh sultans and batyrs of the lesser horde against voluntary annexation to Russia], Vestnik Akademii Nauk Kazakh S. S. R.., No. 6, 1955, p. 43-59.

[iv] "Istoria S.S.S.R." A. M. Pankratova, ed., Moscow, 1947, II, p. 171; ibid., 1953 edition, p. 270-271.

[v] Voprosy Istorii, No. 2, 1956, p. 199-213.

[vi] Current Digest, VIII, No. 5, p. 12; No. 8, p. 10; No. 12, p. 10.

[vii] Central Asian Review, No. 1, 1957, p. 3-4.

[viii] Current Digest, VIII, No. 38, p. 3-6.

[ix] Voprosy Istorii, No. 1, 1957, p. 195-6.

[x] V. Uvachen, "Peoples of the Soviet North." Moscow, 1960, p. 13.

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