History mattered a great deal in that part of the world where communist regimes unabashedly relied on it to legitimate themselves.And, history was a contested domain in Stalin's empire where national cultures often clashed with communist dogma and the ever-changing party line in all areas of public and intellectual life.
Soviet-Polish relations after World War II are a textbook example of such multi-layered tensions.Stalin, his Soviet subordinates and his communist allies in Poland tried to control Polish society in part by replicating Soviet cultural and institutional models.They did so against many odds.As they were re-forging Soviet-Polish past and present, they moved against a jet stream of historical memories that featured more than three centuries of conflict, more than a century of Russian imperial domination of Poland, the Soviet-Polish war, two decades of interwar diplomatic animosity, the Soviet complicity in wartime division of Poland with Nazi Germany, the 1940 Katyn forest massacre and the controversial Soviet decision to let Warsaw burn during the 1944 uprising against the Germans. In setting out to rewrite history, the Stalinists needed to remake the academic discipline, but also to re-knit the fabric of social memory.
While much has been written about the politics of history in Poland and in the USSR, in his meticulously researched book Jan Szumski is the first to explore at length how the Soviets controlled and contested Polish history-writing in the two decades after the war.Few historians have ever disputed that the Soviet authorities closely monitored and even shaped the politics of history broadly understood throughout its East European empire.But Szumski, a researcher at the Institute of the History of Science of the Polish Academy of Sciences, contributes to the field by tracing the minute details of the this key aspect of Soviet-Polish cultural relations.
The author of Polityka a historia examines the subject in eleven chapters that cover the structure of Soviet institutional supervision of East European historiography (Chapter 1), Soviet interventions and Soviet-Polish exchanges in the immediate postwar era (Chapter 2), and the birth of the Institute for Slavic Studies of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (Chapter 3); Chapter 4 outlines the Soviet ideological context of the historiographic battles in the early 1950s, Chapter 5-- the development of communist historiography in the USSR and in Poland in Stalin's last years; in Chapter 6, Szumski discusses the impact of Stalin's death and the USSR's new political climate on the Polish historical science; in Chapter 7 he examines the Soviet writing and publication of the three-volume work The History of Poland; in Chapter 8 he analyzes the politics of access to Soviet archives; Chapter 9 is devoted to Soviet Polish collaboration on published document collections; Chapter 10 traces the intensification of Soviet – Polish scientific contacts in 1957-1964; and finally, zooming in on the same period, Chapter 11 explores the role that the politics of history played in the relations between the Soviet and Polish communist parties.
Szumski's stated goal is "to show the main tendencies in the policies of [...] the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (bolsheviks) with regards to the institutions responsible for the historical science in Poland in 1945 – 1964, and their implementation" (p. 17). In pursuit of this objective, the author analyzes an impressive array of sources primarily from Russian archives (RGASPI, RGANI, GARF, the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences), as well as largely Russian and Polish, but also some English-language scholarly literature.Szumski is the first to rely on such massive Russian archival base to examine so thoroughly the politics of history in Soviet-Polish contacts.The author decided on the timeline of his study by the availability of the Russian sources (p. 17), which are indeed extremely difficult to access for the post-1964 period.
In the final paragraph Szumski, expresses his hope that some "materials presented, and their analysis, might enable the verification of some received knowledge," while "others will offer a new perspective" (p. 384).In the book, the balance is skewed toward the former: Szumski offers more confirmations of what has been known or suspected to be true than earth-shattering conclusions based on new sources or insights. The freshest and most enjoyable are Szumski's empathetic passages about the intertwined biographies of Polish historians and especially their Soviet peers such as Boris Grekov and Vladimir Picheta, and the mounting obstacles to personal contacts and international scientific exchange that all of them had to face during the increasingly suspicious and hostile climate of the Soviet Cold War. Moreover, Szumski demonstrates that this older generation of Soviet historians often opposed the impulses of their younger, more radical colleagues who furiously pushed to transform Polish historical science as they knew it (p. 169).It is well known that the Sovietization of Polish sciences was an incomplete process in part because, as John Connelly has shown, the Polish academic milieu actively resisted the Soviet incursions. Szumski helps to explain the failure to Sovietize by showing the community of Soviet historians to be a divided one in its approach to the shaping of Polish history.
Apart from introducing new sources and finessing some revisionist arguments, the book could be seen as an informative guided tour through Soviet propaganda institutions in charge of producing historical knowledge for and about the East European "People's Democracies."These institutions included various echelons of the party, the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Glavlit (responsible for censorship), and an array of institutions participating in international cultural outreach such as VOKS (the All-Union Society for Cultural Contacts with Foreign Countries), or the Soviet Information Bureau.There, Szumski's book solidly backs up the widely held supposition that the Soviet officialdom cared a great deal about the politics of history in (and of) Eastern Europe.
Despite Szumski's success in achieving his stated objectives, my feelings about the book remain ambiguous.I simply kept wondering whether those goals could have been more ambitious given the wealth of sources to which the author has gained access.Throughout, Szumski cites numerous passages from archival folders but rarely helps us understand what they mean to him, letting the voices from the past speak for themselves.A hint for a rationale behind this strategy can be found in a reference to "white spots" in Polish history (p. 22).White spots are those moments in the Polish past that have been unexplored, often because the communist regime declared them taboo; they are gaps in knowledge that need to be filled with truthful descriptions of the past "as it really was".Yet I am among those who wonder whether that once-useful approach to writing history has not outlived itself.Nearly three decades after the fall of communism, it might not be too provocative to suggest that while many aspects of the history of Soviet-Polish relations still await to be verified through archival discovery, the factual side of the history of Soviet-Polish relations has been sufficiently rescued from state-sponsored obscurity and distortion to enable us to engage in a sustained reflection on what that past meant.One would have wished there were more of such reflection in Szumski's hefty volume.
Overall, Polityka a historia helps us understand Soviet-Polish relations after World War II by mapping out the hierarchy of the Soviet institutions involved in the production and supervision of Polish history, by tracing many of the decisions related to Polish history and history-writing via the multiple levels of Soviet power, and by assessing the scale and scope of Moscow's control over Polish attempts to write Poland's past.Although it offers few big surprises, specialists of contemporary Russian and Polish history will appreciate the book's encyclopedic value.