Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
In my new book, The Russia Anxiety, I have a lot to say about Stalinism. My arguments steer down the middle of today’s historiography on the period, though a couple of reviewers have presented my views in a different way. Here is my response that The Times Literary Supplement published as its lead letter on 19 June 2019.
I hope the editor does not mind if I reproduce my letter here:
‘[Amy] Knight omits from her review several of the most important framing statements I make,’ wrote Matthew E. Lenoe in these pages on 2 September 2011, ‘in order to suggest that I have some kind of a soft spot for Stalin.’ I feel his pain. In her review of my book The Russia Anxiety, published on 12 June, Amy Knight strings together a sequence of quotations which she discusses out of context, distorting in every case — from the Skripals to Ivan the Terrible — the points I seek to make. Readers will judge for themselves the value of this method.
I must, though, object to the implication of neo-Stalinist genocide-denial. When I write that Stalin and his circle believed in socialism, and that one of the purposes of the Gulag camps was the re-education — or mental reforging — of inmates, I seek precisely to show the dreadful totality of the Stalinist project, not the reverse. Stalinism, I write, ‘was one of the most terrible phenomena in human history’. On the Ukrainian famine of 1932-3, which was one of the worst of these Stalinist atrocities, Amy Knight writes that ‘Smith rejects the idea that it was genocide’. But after describing events, the numbers killed (3.9 million), and Stalinist culpability for this deadly onslaught against Ukrainians, I write merely that analysis of the ethnic genocide motive remains ‘disputed’ and ‘politicized’, and refer readers to the works of Anne Applebaum and others who have researched the matter in detail. Throughout the book, I engage sympathetically with the works of the Ukrainian historian she mentions, Serhii Plokhy.
The Russia Anxiety aims to challenge some of the most hostile perceptions of Russia and its history, but in a way that opens up a space for debate, not closes it down. I think many people are keen to take part in an exciting, open-minded and history-driven discussion about one of the great issues of our time. Contemporary Europe badly needs it. I hope Amy Knight will join us.
Mark B. Smith
Faculty of History, University of Cambridge