The books I have been asked to briefly comment on are both learned works of indisputable scholarly quality. At the […]

Published on on June 30, 2011

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The books I have been asked to briefly comment on are both learned works of indisputable scholarly quality. At the same time they are very different. They differ in scope and character, in aims and ambitions. The one is a piece of original research, based almost completely on primary sources; the other is a historiographical survey of what I would like to call a literary landscape, with broad intellectual horizons, covering a relatively short period of intense scientific struggles with the near past. I use the term “scientific” here, in the traditional German sense, to mean techniques and methods applied by historians and social scientists when they confront a reality that is not easily discernable through pure common sense. The Communist Age, running from the October Revolution in 1917 into Boris Jeltsin’s coming into power 74 years later, is exactly such a reality – a reality that has passed away but lingers, in the sense that it has produced innumerable intellectual and scientific, in addition to everyday, problems. They in turn have given rise to public interest, quite naturally in societies that were transformed – and in many respects degraded – by Communist rule and misrule, but also in societies that felt themselves influenced, sometimes attacked by a regime that was in effect a modern – somebody would argue, even monstrous – empire.

Yet, these two books are the result not of public debate or political considerations but of academic activity. They focus primarily on Russia, in its once Soviet shape, and they draw – directly or indirectly – on what has been called the “archival revolution”, which was made possible after the break-up of the Soviet state in the early 1990’s – the first book presenting a case study of the relations between a still relatively shaky, however increasingly despotic Bolshevik regime and Swedish middle-of-the-road cabinets during the 1930’s with respect to foreign and security policy, the second book summarising a large number of – mainly contemporary Russian – historical case studies and seminal works concerning particular periods in, or aspects of, the Russian sort of Communist state-building, socialist economic transformation, military and territorial expansion etcetera, between 1917 and 1991.

I’ll start with some remarks on the latter book.

Professor Lennart Samuelson’s impressive work Sovjetepoken i backspegeln (The Soviet Era in Retrospect), is, to my mind, an achievement of great value and importance. It is valuable and important to the expert as well as to the layman. It gives you, in one single volume, an overview of two decades of diverse attempts to tackle a past so utterly neglected in terms of critical discourse by those who were the principal actors and those who were dependent on them and to elevate modern historical research in Russia to a stage of “normality”, if there ever is such a thing. What Samuelson underlines throughout the book is that Russian and international historians finally have come to speak the same language (at least the huge majority of them do) and that they (more or less) have access to the same body of knowledge.

Samuelson’s book has many merits. I can only mention a few.

One merit is that it gives us a balanced account of the many themes and topics that have been objects of research and discussion within the historian’s, albeit to a lesser degree the social scientist’s, community in nowadays Russia. He has not avoided or promoted scholarly efforts on ideological grounds, he has not tried to be mainstream or politically correct, whatever that might mean in a Russian context, he is neither judge nor prosecutor. To the advantage of Samuelson speaks that he himself has been an active member of this community for a fairly long time. He has attended seminars and conferences, and he has stayed for lengthy periods in archives. In other words: he knows the people and he knows the source material. This gives him the ability to evaluate in an authoritative way what has actually been accomplished. Of course, his account cannot claim to be complete or even comprehensive, but it seems to me that it is representative – and it is reliable.

Another merit of the book at hand is that it – by its sheer chronological, yet systematic approach – gives the reader, even the ordinary reader, an easy way into the often dramatic new-interpretations and the enormous wealth of new knowledge that are given in the scholarly literature. Often the Russian monographs and minor studies are set in relation to what parallel, or a generation or so ago, has been carried out by foreign scholars whose findings or estimates are either confirmed or discredited by recent Russian research that allegedly has had all the benefits of the archival revolution. Seemingly, there is a dialogue in this field, which does not exclude controversy. Samuelson is apt at stressing where differences in opinion show up, and that also goes for differences among Russian scholars themselves. Contrary to what many a trendsetter in West seems eager to state, repressive traits in Russian society and the Putin-sort of state-apparatus have not hampered pluralism to emerge in Russian academic life. Pluralism of opinion exists and there might even exist quarrels and factions. If one is to believe Samuelson, there are no forbidden subjects whatsoever in the ongoing discourse; and he implicitly asks: just give me one example! Yes, indeed, if one is to believe Samuelson, and one’s own eyes, there might be fewer forbidden themes among Russian historians than among Swedish. Of course, this is extremely encouraging – I mean to the Swedes. They can learn a lot.

A third merit of the book I would like to mention is that it shows that not everything that was done under the old regime is outdated or totally worthless. History as a discipline, after all, didn’t founder. Certainly, many findings were suppressed; many scholars were removed, persecuted, some even executed. Nevertheless, manuscripts were hidden, and thus – perversely enough – prevailed. The vast bulk of the documents about the actual happenings in Russian society were secret and not available outside the tiny clique of top office-holders. Much of this has been published in recent years, in scholarly editions, shedding light over a particularly dark age in Russian history. A general tendency seems to be: the more you go into the archives, the more you have to revise figures earlier presented as pure estimates, for instance when it comes to victims in the labour camps – and revise them downwards. It would be hard, though, to say that this is retrospectively encouraging. It is the way you do historical research. You must never trust hearsay or guesswork!

Samuelson’s book can be acclaimed and recommended for many other good reasons. Now, time forces me to turn to the second of the volumes under review.

This splendid little book, I stormaktspolitikens periferi (In the Periphery of Great Power Politics), is co-written by Samuelson and two Russian colleagues, Aleksandr Rupasov and the late Oleg Ken, and may be regarded as an exemplary piece of diplomatic history. The 1930’s constituted a crossroad, both in Swedish and in Soviet foreign policy. The two countries had for very long upheld friendly relations, dating back to the year 1812 when Russian Emperor Alexander I and the newly elected Swedish Crown Prince Karl Johan, who six years later was to become monarch of the realm, agreed on a common future of non-interference. It was a de-facto dynastical pact concluded at the near-end of the Napoleonic Wars. After the end of the Great War, 1914–1918, there were no unsolved questions between these two countries, apart from some remaining Swedish big business property on Russian soil – which was nothing compared to the obstacles that strained the relations between Soviet Russia on the one hand and Finland, the Baltic States, not to speak of Poland on the other.

In spite of that, and though Moscow regarded Sweden as the most important of the minor Baltic littoral powers, perhaps the leading country in all northern Europe, when Russia hade come over its internal troubles and launched its path to modernise around 1930, the two countries never found a common play-ground. In the midst of the decade, Russia had accepted membership in the League of Nations and abolished its former policy of promoting bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries in favour of the concept of “collective security”, whereas Sweden as a result of the gradual weakening of that concept and the resurrection of international power-politics, not least due to Hitler’s coming into power, turned to a more or less “strict neutrality” course, as a way to defend the Baltic Sea area from German threats, trying to include other Baltic states in a concerted front. Moscow wanted nothing of this. They suspected Britain behind the change of policy, and since Britain had allowed a German marine rearmament in 1937, neutrality could well be seen by the Soviet government as aa attempt to encircle, and eventually push back, the Soviet Union. Moscow did not like Sweden to stay neutral in case of a highly possible war between Russia and Germany. Neutrality was simply, as Stalin and his cheerleaders put it, a way of “gaining pre-war and future military super-profits”. Neutrality, according to Moscow, was mere fiction; there was no possibility of standing by. Neutrality conflicted with peace. It was out and out a bourgeois bluff (though carried out by Swedish Socialist politicians!).

The ambassador of the Soviet Union throughout the 1930’s, Aleksandra Kollontay, sought to act as a go-between and make Swedish positions understandable in Moscow. She was not especially successful. The month-to-month drama played in this power-game, that was not prioritised by the Soviet government, is excellently recapitulated and interpreted in the present volume. It contains fine-tuned portraits of the main actors, among them the Swedish foreign minister during most of the time, Rickard Sandler, and his Soviet counterpart, Maxim Litvinov.

In a little longer run, the book In the Periphery of Great Power Politics, through its very presence and its high intellectual standard, promises that further explorations in the hitherto hidden histories of Soviet-Swedish co-operation, and confrontation, will enrich our knowledge enormously. Needless to say, perhaps, that this ought to take place on a common playground.

Note. – The text was delivered at a book launch on May 3, 2011, organised by the Stockholm Institute of Transitional Economics (Stockholm School of Economics).