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Mainstream, VOL LX No 31, New Delhi, July 23, 2022

Review: Dreeze on Revising the Revolution by Larry E. Holmes

Friday 22 July 2022


Reviewed by Jonathon Dreeze (Cornell College)

Revising the Revolution:
The Unmaking of Russia’s Official History of 1917

by Larry E. Holmes

Bloomington: Indiana University Press
2021. 220 pp.
(paper) ISBN 978-0-253-05479-1; $27.99
(e-book), ISBN 978-0-253-05482-1.

Historians pride themselves on the ability to study the past objectively and produce quality academic research. However, as political developments continue in the United States, with local and state governments attempting to exercise greater control over what teachers and scholars can or cannot say at the primary, secondary, and tertiary education levels, individuals and groups might attempt to use historical scholarship to reinforce troubling political trends. Larry E. Holmes’s Revising the Revolution: The Unmaking of Russia’s Official History of 1917 reveals that the sacrifice of historical scholarship and its purposeful manipulation to buttress political ideologies is nothing new. In this work, he examines the life and times of the Commission for the Collection, Study, and Publication of Materials on the October Revolution and History of the Communist Party, or Istpart for short, during its brief existence in the Soviet Union from 1920 through the end of the decade. Holmes argues that the original intent of Istpart’s historians was to create works that had both high scholarly and political value. Istpart publications not only were meant to be professional-grade reference and academic works but were also meant to be political tools that fully legitimized the power of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Holmes contends that Istpart was briefly able to maintain this balance between scholarship and politics in the 1920s. But the ultimately untenable balance between scholarship and politics, lack of institutional support for Istpart, and professional rivalries with other organizations led to Istpart’s dismemberment in 1928. The subordination of historical scholarship to contemporary political goals reveals the Communist Party’s lack of respect for history as a professional discipline and its willingness to blatantly distort the past to justify its political goals before the onset of Joseph Stalin’s revolution from above.

Holmes’s work focuses on the relationship between the central Istpart administrative organs in Moscow and the regional Istpart branches throughout the Soviet Union, specifically the Istpart branch in the city and province of Viatka. Istpart was established, with Vladimir Lenin’s blessing, by the Council of Peoples Commissars in 1920, with the mission to catalog sources and produce scholarship on the revolutionary Bolshevik movement and the early years of Soviet power. Holmes notes that from the outset, Lenin wanted a historical narrative that could serve to justify the Bolsheviks’ monopoly on power and counter any alternative accounts of the October Revolution. Despite Istpart’s inherent political origins, scholars in Viatka worked to create historical works that were of high academic and political value. To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution in 1925 and the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1927, the Viatka branch published a variety of historical monographs and articles on the revolutionary experience in the region. In both instances, Istpart historians used a range of sources, including those from non-Bolshevik organizations, like the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, and White pro-monarchist groups. Historians in Viatka produced works that broadly aligned with the historical past and emphasized how the Bolsheviks in the region, due to their weakness, worked closely with other revolutionary organizations in both 1905 and 1917.

Holmes notes that, as the decade progressed, the scholarship from Istpart became more and more politicized. Istpart officials in Moscow heavily criticized the Viatka branch’s accounts as they did not correspond with the “official” grand narratives of 1905 and 1917 that portrayed the Bolsheviks as the sole dominant revolutionary vanguard. However, this politicization did not come from specific directives from the Communist Party but rather happened spontaneously among the increasingly politicized and militant scholars within Istpart’s administrative leadership in Moscow. A resolution from an Istpart conference in 1927 concluded that Istpart had to “in the future coordinate all of its research work with the party’s current political struggle and use our revolutionary past for the revolutionary present” (p. 109). Holmes connects this growing politicization of history, and the willingness of Istpart officials to fabricate a past, with Stalin’s growing dominance over party and state politics in the 1920s. By the end of the decade, Istpart publications presented distorted historical narratives that portrayed Stalin as being Lenin’s closest comrade and co-conspirator in the October Revolution, and thus as Lenin’s rightful successor, while also delegitimizing Stalin’s political rivals by arguing they had originally doubted Lenin’s plans.

In addition to discussing Istpart’s subjugation to the political wills of the Communist Party, Holmes also discusses the mechanics of Istpart and its scholarly production. Istpart suffered from a major lack of resources during most of its existence. The central offices in Moscow were cramped and confined to just one room, employees were often overburdened with administrative work outside of Istpart, and funds were always in short supply. Regional Istpart branches often consisted of only one or two workers, and many branches existed only on paper. Due to a lack of funds, Istpart branches were often financially dependent on local party organs in order to simply function. This poverty stood in direct contrast to the well-funded Lenin Institute, which had been created in Moscow in 1923 to archive, study, and publish on the works and legacy of the Soviet Union’s founder and served as Istpart’s main rival. Despite its chronic penury, Istpart continued to maintain an impressive research and publication regime. Holmes notes that Istpart had plans for massive and unrealistic publication goals for the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution and the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. This publication load proved to be a major problem that further undermined Istpart’s shaky finances. Istpart published more than 250 historical works for the 1905 Revolution’s twentieth anniversary at major expense, more than half of which sat in bookstores or warehouses unsold.

Holmes’s arguments on Istpart’s relationship between scholarship and politics differentiates itself from previous work that focuses on the organization’s origins and mechanics. He demonstrates that it was ultimately impossible for scholarship and politics to exist coequally in historical works. Communist Party authorities wanted Istpart to function, despite its mandate to adhere to a professional level of academic writing, as a de facto wing of the Communist Party’s propaganda department. The lack of differentiation from the propaganda department, combined with its chronic financial woes and professional rivalries, eventually led to Istpart’s absorption into the Lenin Institute in 1928. The party wanted historical works that adhered to a fabricated grand narrative that helped to fulfill political goals, regardless of historical accuracy. Holmes reveals that the subjugation of history to ideology was well underway before the onset of Stalin’s revolution and thus establishes a level of continuity between the New Economic Policy (NEP) era and Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Holmes connects Istpart’s legacy to the eventual publication of The Short Course, the truncated and distorted political history of the Communist Party personally edited by Stalin, in 1938. Holmes contends that The Short Course, which finally provided readers with a sanitized grand narrative of party history, was representative of the very type of historical texts that Istpart would have been fated to create had it lived longer.

Holmes’s arguments also show the interesting dynamic between ideology and history from the perspective of the Soviet center and periphery. He asserts that Istpart leaders and scholars spurred on the increasing level of politicization as a result of personal and professional rivalries, as well as affirmed and maintained Istpart’s relevance. While they ordered regional Istpart branches to intensify the politicization of texts, the Viatka branch continued to create relatively accurate historical works that emphasized the weakness of the Bolsheviks in the region, and thus prioritized the local historical experience of the revolution. By attempting to distort and rewrite the regional revolutionary narratives, Istpart officials in Moscow worked to silence the historical reality of communities and populations in the Soviet periphery. That the regional Istpart branch in Viatka produced historical works which deviated from the master narrative indicated that scholars were attempting to adhere to Istpart’s original mandate of creating quality academic works that also had political value. However, the eventual absorption of Istpart into the Lenin Institute silenced these regional alternative narratives, thereby reinforcing Soviet dominance over not just the present and future but also the past.

Holmes’s arguments are straightforward, although at times the chapters feel episodic and disconnected from each other, which results in a disjointed narrative. Furthermore, the chapters, and the text as a whole, are brief and the entire work comes in under two hundred pages. However, this brevity does have its advantages and makes the text a relatively quick and accessible read. In conclusion, Holmes offers insightful arguments on the history of Istpart, its regional branches, and the ultimate subordination of historical scholarship to communist ideology. Although likely not his intent, Holmes also offers a warning about the manipulation of history and academia for political purposes, which appears increasingly relevant given the current state of the world.

[This above review from H-Net is reproduced here under under a Creative Commons License]

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