Publication Date

May 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


The week of August 26, 1990, began with six bulls being dispatched in the Plaza de Toros in Madrid. The week ended on September 2 with an equal number of historians, gathered for the seventeenth World Congress of Historians, dispatched at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense. The bulls were sent on their way by sword and lance. The historians by silence, contempt, or non-appearance.

Spanish fighting bulls are bred in as much isolation as possible from the presence of men so that they will not readily learn to distinguish between the bullfighter standing temporarily immobile and the cape (the capote or muleta) that he moves to attract the bull. The bull chases after the appearance of the reality he faces, not the grim reality itself. Similarly, the historian bred in the pure air of Communist ideology finds it difficult to recognize the real world lying beyond the world of slogans in which he has been raised. Communist historians are more comfortable charging forward under the banners of “socialism,” “dialectical materialism,” and “historical inevitability,” or chasing after class and national enemies identified under the hostile banners of “imperialism,” “colonialism,” and “the bourgeoisie.”

The Russian bulls who made their appearance in the amphitheaters of Madrid’s leading university represented the past, present, and future of the Soviet historical profession.

Among the old bulls, the most notable was academician Sergei Tikhvinsky, President of the National Committee of Historians of the Soviet Union as well as one of six “assessor members” of the International Committee of Historical Sciences, the permanent body, formed in Geneva in 1925, which organizes the international congresses at five-year intervals. For the previous congress at Stuttgart in 1985 Tikhvinsky had written in Social Sciences, the quarterly review of the Section of the Social Sciences of the USSR Academy of Sciences, that he expected to see the “end of history” with the collapse of capitalism and the triumph of communism. When that goal was reached history would end since the end of history (as seen from a Communist perspective) would have been achieved.

Needless to say, Tikhvinsky in Madrid was no longer foreseeing the imminent triumph of communism. Rather he amiably presented to the Secretariat of the International Committee at the opening session (in accordance with a long-standing custom), new books from his country (a “product of perestroika,” as he put it) including articles by Soviet historians (who have a hard time divesting themselves of the old ways of thinking) asserting that perestroika was “an historical inevitability.” In addition, Tikhvinsky participated in relatively innocuous discussions of “Methodological Problems of Historical Biography” and “Historians and Preservation of Cultural Heritage of Mankind” as well as giving a paper on “The Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact of April 13, 1941.” Because of Tikhvinsky’s key position in the administrative hierarchies of the historical profession both at home and abroad it was probably inevitable that he should be present at Madrid. But his presence left a bitter taste in the mouths of “young” Soviet historians (a category not defined exclusively by age but by their non-dogmatic outlook) who managed to get to Madrid with difficulty, but with fewer obstructions than in the past when they were usually not allowed to travel out of the Soviet Union at all.

The young Soviet bulls were not formally incorporated into the program of the congress. When they appeared in the amphitheaters and meeting rooms of the university they had to express themselves in comments from the floor on papers by others. Or else they could talk, often cautiously, in private conversations with Western historians outside the halls.

Situated between the old bulls and the young bulls were those in the middle who, by their intelligence, skill, or merits, have achieved status in the rigid Soviet hierarchy of institutes, universities, and committees without losing their fundamental integrity. These individuals are regarded with a hesitant admiration by both their younger and older colleagues, sometimes merely for their skill in being able to maintain high positions while working to rescue Soviet historiography from its Stalinist past, and sometimes for their perceived honesty within a corrupting and potentially coercive system.

Individuals in this category were quite frank in Madrid in condemning the past Soviet policy (as in the Soviet-Finnish War in 1939–40 and in Afghanistan in 1979–89) and in calling for the “supremacy of common human values over class values,” as Colonel General (and professor) Dimitry Volkogonov expressed it in a paper (somewhat softened in its oral presentation) on “The Fortunes of War and Peace: Soviet Experience.” Volkogonov, though not a professional historian,—probably an advantage given the character of Soviet historiography—has aroused the ire of some members of the Soviet establishment not only for expressing critical views of Soviet policy (in his recent Triumph and Tragedy: A Political Portrait of Stalin, which was to be published in English this spring) but also because he is known to be working on similar studies of Trotsky and Lenin.

The older bulls, like Tikhvinsky, have made the usual elaborate readjustments to current political trends in the Soviet Union and, in an issue of Social Sciences, prepared for the Madrid Congress prior to November 1, 1989, has expressed their conclusion that the new Soviet historiography can be built on what is described as “the creative energy of Leninism we are so much in need of today.” Their proposed “new” interpretation of history focuses particularly on “the dramatic development of his [Lenin’s] remarkable personality and his indelible trait—humaneness, his most impressive contribution to perestroika.” Even Marx is refurbished in the new USSR Academy of Sciences approach to history. Marx’s injunction that “Not only the result of the investigation, but also the way leading to it must be truthful” is exalted by those attempting to redefine Soviet historiography. Indeed, Marx’s statement that “study of the truth must itself be truthful….” forms the title of academician Ivan Kovalchenko’s prominently placed contribution in the same issue of Social Sciences. But it is not clear that those mouthing the new language of perestroika intended to do anything but salvage their own reputations and positions. The “humaneness” and “truth” that might save Soviet historiography might better come from the authority of a Havel or a Sakarov.

Some of the old Russian bulls did not have to be dispatched in the amphitheaters of the university. They were dispatched by non-appearance. Thus, in the session on “National Consciousness, Unity, and Popular Movements in Asia and Africa,” J.N. Rozaliev, who had submitted a summary of his paper entitled “Socio-Political and Psychological Aspects of the Liberation Movement in Countries of Asia and Africa,” did not appear to read it. A glance at Rozaliev’s summary explains why he was “given the hook” by the Soviet authorities. His communication is embarrassingly phrased in rhetoric more appropriate to the 1985 meeting in Stuttgart. After noting that “the preconditions for liberation of peoples of Asia and Africa began to shape themselves in the middle of the last century” when industrial revolutions had given rise to “new forms and methods of exploitation of colonies,” Rozaliev asserts that the events associated with World War I, including the “Great October Socialist Revolution” and the “victorious civil war in Russia,” gave a “new impetus to an unprecedented scale of the liberation struggle in Asia and Africa….” World War II saw “the final ripening of prerequisites for an independent development of colonies and semi-colonies, ” and the eventual “liquidation of the system of a direct colonial oppression” achieved through “the growing influence of socialism and world working movement on the course of the world history;….” Finally, “the establishment of the system of European socialist countries, victory of national revolutions in China, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, a powerful post-war rise of the working and socialist movement in all developed countries, international assistance and support of the liberation movement considerably enhanced the objective need of national liberation.” One need hardly read on to the discussion of who “the system of a financial enslaving of developing countries was formed” and how “the influence of transnational corporations and banks on the socioeconomic structure of Oriental countries leads to distortion of law-governed stages of evolution,” and so on, to realize that Rozaliev may simply not have “gotten the word” that he should have rephrased his interpretations in terms of the “humaneness” of Lenin and the “truthfulness” of Marx.

Some of the Soviet satellite bulls were also “no-shows.” In the case of Romania, history overtook the historian. Ilie Ceausescu, brother of the late dictator and a high-ranking Romanian military historian, and Christian Popisteanu, long-time editor of the Romanian journal Magazin Historic, had submitted, for a session on “Revolutions and Reforms,” the summary of their paper on Romania’s leading role in facilitating the Soviet advance in Central Europe in the fall of 1944. The paper, like the authors, dropped through the cracks at Madrid.

The session “Center and Periphery: Home Countries and Colonies,” chaired by old bull A. Iskenderov in the absence of co-chair Immanuel Wallerstein, whose influential The Modern World-System has been the intellectual crutch for any number of anthropological and historical studies of the peripheral “dependency” of Third World countries on “metropolitan” centers. The Russian had to suffer the sting of the banderillas wielded by Jan Kieniewicz, a Pole, who compared Western overseas colonialism with the “submission, captivity, and subjugation” of countries in Eastern Europe. Kieniewicz, who expressed this view under the nose of the Russian chairman, was careful not to make the comparison explicit in his summary or in his formal paper but only in his oral presentation.

Both the real bullfight at the beginning of the week and the intellectual bullfight that continued throughout the week shared certain characteristics. Most of the bulls in both arenas failed to display the aggressive instincts expected in such events. No one was satisfied: certainly not the real bulls, the bullfighters, or the crowd, nor the historian-bulls and bullfighters pleased with their performances, whether as papergivers, commentators, or listeners.

When the eighteenth World Congress of Historians meets in Montreal in 1995 where will the Soviet bulls be? I suspect that the old bulls will be dead or put out to pasture (let’s hope not to stud). The young bulls will then be charging not at the ritualistic abstractions of the communist historical theories of the past but at those actual historians and politicians who, waving their meretricious slogan-inscribed cloth banners, led the peoples of the Soviet Union on a seventy-year-long trip down a dead end road from which they are now painfully trying to come back. The middle group of “smart” bulls, who know only too well how the trick was played on generations of their predecessors, may, with some of the younger scholars, be the respected new leaders of the historical profession of the Soviet Union.

Wilcomb E. Washburn is director of the American Studies Program of the Smithsonian Institution.