Publication Date

November 1, 1995

I have been attending the meetings of the International Congress of Historical Sciences (ICHS, or CISH in the French version, Congres International des Sciences Historiques) at five year intervals for the past thirty years. Some readers of Perspectives may recall my comments on the Stuttgart meeting in 1985 prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union (Perspectives, December 1985) and on the Madrid meeting in 1990 following the collapse (Perspectives, June 1991). I went to the 18th ICHS meeting in Montreal the last week of August with heightened curiosity. What would be the attitude of historians from the two great centers of world power following the sudden collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and the general discrediting of socialism around the world?

What I discovered startled me. The historians from the Soviet Union, of whom I had been extremely critical in my two previous essays, were open and forthcoming. The only voices raised in support of the Soviet historiographical traditions of the past came from Americans in the audience at several of the sessions, who claimed, for example, that Stalin had perverted the system and that Marxism-Leninism, despite 70 years of failure, really would work if properly implemented. Academician Sergei Tikhvinsky, about whom I wrote critically in 1985 and 1990, was present but was no longer head of the Russian delegation or spokesperson for the rapidly changing character of Russian history. Valery Tishkov, who served as an expert on nationalities under Gorbachev, submitted a brilliant paper on the conflicts among the various ethnic groups within the USSR and discussed how the inept handling of these conflicts by politicians contributed to the breakup of the Soviet state. Younger historians like Vladimir Sogrine and Alexander Fursenko exuded a dynamism and confidence uncharacteristic of their predecessors at earlier congresses.

But why were the epoch-making events of the 1980s and early 1990s not reflected in the program of the international congress? The themes set by the controlling body seemed calculated to avoid any discussion of the collapse of the most powerful historical force of the 20th century. Instead, the following three major themes were chosen: (1) “Nations, Peoples, and State Forms (Ethnic Groups and Indigenous Peoples; Nation-States and Multicultural States; Changing Forms of Nationalism)"; (2) "Women, Men, and Historical Change: Case Studies on the Impact of Gender History (The Role of Gender and Male-Female Relations in Major Historical Transformations—Political, Social, Religious"); and (3) "Peoples in Diaspora: Changing Sources, Forms, and Meanings (Greeks, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Irish, Armenians, etc.)." When I asked the president of the ICHS, Theodore C. Barker of the London School of Economics, why the themes matched so precisely the profession's currently fashionable concern with race, class, and gender, and ignored the collapse of communism, he emphasized that the themes were broadly defined and that the specific shape of the sessions and content of the papers were the responsibility of the organizers of each session rather than of the ICHS.

The character of each of the major theme sessions did in fact vary enormously. The diaspora session was imaginatively and tightly organized by the two individuals responsible, Natalie Zemon Davis of the United States and Yosef Kaplan of Israel. Some who attended the session complained that the category of diaspora was being expanded beyond all recognition by many migrant groups anxious to establish their oppressed status. Others complained that the mass migrations (or diasporas) of the English, French, and Spanish were being ignored because of their presumed roles as oppressors rather than as oppressed. Yet, under the guiding hands of Davis and Kaplan, even these complaints stimulated useful and intelligent discussion. Perhaps, I thought, the collapse of the Soviet Empire and its effect on historiography throughout the world would be dealt with in the 16 less prominent "specialized themes." What about "The Fall of Empires in Comparative Perspective"? Only one paper on the fall of the Soviet Union was presented in this session, that by Gerhard Simon of Germany, among the many papers on the collapse of ancient empires. Among the 35 free-discussion roundtables there was one session entitled "Contemporary Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Latin America."

My greatest hope was focused on the specialized theme session "Power, Liberty, and the Work of the Historian (The Implications of Political, Economic, and Cultural Controls on the Organization of Historical Research and Publication),"organized by Alexander Tchoubarian, director of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Russia, and Manuel Espadas Burgos of Spain. My hope was partially realized because of the uncompromising presentation of N. N. Bolkhovitinov, head of the Center of North American Studies of the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, whose paper emphasized the distortions in Russian historiography during the period of communist rule. In other presentations at the session Japanese historian Tokushi Kasahara noted that Japanese historians are now vigorously debating the justifications for Japan's actions during World War II, and Herbert Shapiro of the University of Cincinnati ridiculed the idea that the American academy is threatened by political correctness imposed by the radical left, suggesting instead that the real threat comes from the radical right.

There was, in the programs of some of the affiliated international organizations that meet separately but in loose association with the ICHS (such as the International Association for Southeast European Studies and the Commission on the History of Historiography), occasional consideration of the collapse of communism. Among those concerned with southeast Europe, I was surprised to see an acquaintance from the 1980 Congress in Bucharest, Cristian Popisteanu, still surviving as editor of Romania's Magasin Istorie. The Commission on the History of Historiography, under Hungarian auspices, presented a series of papers under the title “The Soviet System and Historiography, 1917-89: The Influence of Marxism-Leninism on the Historical Sciences,” which did focus directly on the collapse of communism.

Although I have more often been a critic than a supporter of some of the ICHS initiatives, and regret the virtual absence of a consideration of possibly the most important historical event of the century—the collapse of communism—at Montreal, I continue to find these meetings invaluable.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.