Soviet “Experiments” with History

IWMPost Article

The historical narrative promoted by the Kremlin replicates tropes of Soviet history policy in the 1920s and 1930s, substituting concepts and eliding certain events. Soviet attempts to spin history failed in the long run—what does that tell us about today?

After Russia occupied Crimea and Donbas in 2014, it immediately rolled out a large campaign to falsify the history of Ukraine. The creation of myths about “Banderites,” “one nation,” Crimea as a part of Russia, the “Donbas nation”—these are all elements of the fake version of Ukraine’s past that has been spread by Russian authorities, media, and historians. On top of that, over the last year President Vladimir Putin has tried to style himself a historian. In July 2021, he published an absurd article titled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” And in a video address in February, days before the start of the full-scale invasion of the country, he lied again, saying that Ukraine was created by Lenin.

This narrative, particularly the formation of a “correct” version of the past, replicates the methods of constructing history that were used in twentieth-century totalitarian states, and especially in the Soviet Union. The political forces that came to power in newly totalitarian and authoritarian states after the First World War, including Germany and Italy, used history as an instrument to legitimate their own authority and as a tool of political manipulation. In the Soviet Union the creation of a “correct” past continued throughout the state’s existence, but it was during the interwar period—which for Ukraine became known as the “red decade” because of repression, the Holodomor of 1932–1933, and the Great Terror—that Soviet “experiments” with history were most active. To treat the past Soviet-style means to substitute concepts and to elide certain events.

One of the first such campaigns consisted of the searches for a revolutionary past (above all the events of 1905–1907), writing the history of the Communist Party and the October Revolution, which were presented as the main events and starting points of Soviet history. A special commission, the Istpart, was founded in 1920 to “communize” time and space in those territories where the Bolsheviks established their authority. It collected documents and reminiscences of those who took part in revolutionary events, published “historical texts,” organized exhibitions, and created archives. The Bolsheviks declared that the Istpart was fighting against “bourgeois calumny” purveyed by “White-Menshevite-Social Revolutionary pen pushers.  The promulgation of a new past was also facilitated by the erection of monuments to Bolshevik figures and party ideologues, renaming streets after them, showing films about the revolution, and marking the anniversary of the October Revolution.

The Istpart’s activities in the 1920s in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic led to a revision of the past and the creation of “correct” approaches to treating the present, especially the events of 1917–1921: the Ukrainian revolution had to be “correctly” included in the Bolshevik concept of civil war in Russia and Ukrainian political actors were deemed “enemies of the revolution.” The Ukrainian 1917 had to be forgotten and in its place came the myth of the October Revolution: not a rebellion, but a revolution that supposedly had taken place everywhere the Bolsheviks had seized power. This construction of the history of the October Revolution was also used to create the image of Ukrainian others in Soviet society, with Bolshevik propaganda labeling those who took part in the Ukrainian revolution in 1917–1921 as “nationalist elements.” 

In the 1920s, these measures for the construction of history were a way for the authorities to expand their control over society. But the Stalinization of history (conducting scholarly research according to the concepts introduced by Stalin) was already well underway in the 1930s. In 1931, Proletars’ka revoliutsiia published a letter by Stalin titled “On several questions of the history of Bolshevism.  This marked a new era: history was under the control not of the authorities but of the dictator and only he could determine the correctness of historical narratives. From that time on, Stalin set the course of the struggle on the “historical front”: correcting the multivolume History of the Civil War, overseeing the writing of history textbooks and the short course on the history of the Communist Party, and correcting scripts for historical films to make them ideologically correct.  

In 1931, a new historical project was announced: writing the history of industrial enterprises in the Soviet Union. To conduct this campaign, a Commission on the History of Factories and Plants was established by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the head of which was the proletarian writer Maxim Gorky. 

One of the tasks of the campaign was to elucidate the economic “successes” of the Soviet Union, the results of the first Five-Year Plan in particular. The commission, a network of republic-level and local editorial boards, was meant to collect materials about industrial objects, above all the memoirs and diaries of workers. Based on these ego-documents, commission members were meant to write texts on the history of specific factories and mines. These publications were supposed to show the rapidity of industrialization, and accordingly how superior the Soviet Union was to the West and how much things had improved in comparison to imperial times. 

This project lasted several years, but it was never completed because several members of the commission were arrested during the Great Terror. More generally, the goals laid out for it were never achieved: a few works on the history of particular Soviet factories were published, but significantly fewer than planned. Some texts were kept from publication by the censors. The commission’s failure to fulfill the plans was blamed on the actions of “saboteurs” (“Trotskyites,” “nationalist groups”) who supposedly were involved in local editorial boards and had undermined their work.

If the 1920s campaign to write the history of the October Revolution was meant to lead to forgetting the Ukrainian past, the 1930s project on the history of industrial sites was meant to demonstrate the achievements and flourishing of the Country of the Soviets. But this campaign was a sort of crooked mirror because it exactly coincided with the Holodomor and the repression of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. 

Characteristic of Soviet history writing was not only erasing certain events from the historical canvas or revising the way they were treated, but especially keeping silent about the here and now. The principles of constructing Soviet history that were established in the 1920s and 1930s continued in the postwar period, especially in shaping the concept of the Great Patriotic War.

But these Soviet falsifications came to naught after the collapse of the “red prison of nations” in 1991. The Holodomor, a forbidden topic in the Soviet Union, has been the subject of comprehensive study by scholars for the past thirty years and has been recognized as a genocide against the Ukrainian nation. The Ukrainian revolution of 1917–1921 has also been at the top of the scholarly agenda. The work of people denounced as enemies during the Soviet period has been rethought; many repressed Ukrainians have been rehabilitated. 

Soviet attempts to write “correct” history eventually collapsed, just like the Soviet empire. This example should be instructive for Russia today. As the experience of Soviet history “experiments” shows, with time everything that has been falsified will be disproved and everything hidden will be brought to light. And the attempts by dictators to set the course of history ultimately end in fiasco. So we just have to wait until Putin, who copies Stalin’s manner of falsifying history, replicates his fate entirely: that is, until Putin’s own 1953 arrives. 

“Ot Istparta,” Letopis’ revoliutsii 1922, No. 1, p. 5.
Stalin, I.V. “O nekotorykh voprosakh istorii bol’shevizma ,” Proleterskaia revoliutsiia 1931, No. 6, pp. 3-12.
Stalin, I.V. Istoricheskaia ideologiia v SSSR v 1920-1950-e gody. Pt. 1: 1920-1930e gody. Ed. M.V. Zelenov. St. Petersburg: Nauka-Piter, 2006. PP. 291, 303, 312-439, 440-466.

Oksana Klymenko is a senior lecturer of History at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. She was a visiting fellow at the IWM in 2021–2022.

This article appeared in the special Ukraine supplement to IWMPost 129