The Soviet Union and Authoritarian Revisionism
In authoritarian regimes, history is rewritten to legitimize control and justify governmental actions. Throughout the twentieth century, the leaders of the Soviet Union frequently revised Marxist-Leninist ideology and Russian history to help explain the need for political repression, wars, and interventions, and personal leadership. This, in turn, led to the suppression and censorship of dissenting views; anyone who challenged official interpretations of history was classified an enemy of the state.
During the 1930’s Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s revisionism embodied all of the attributes of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Often inconsistent and contradictory, Stalin altered the historical record to enhance his role in the formative years of Soviet history. Instead of correctly placing himself on the periphery of V. I. Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard movement, Stalin had himself depicted in Soviet textbooks as Lenin’s closet aide. He erased the names of all key party officials who were purged from the historical record. Stalin demanded that historians depict his chief rival, Leon Trotsky, as a bandit and betrayer of the revolution, and all books that were either critical of Stalin or his brand of Marxist-Leninist communism were removed from the library shelves.
During the 1980’s Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev utilized historical revisionism to defend his reform policy. While still interested in maintaining the party’s control over the Soviet Union, Gorbachev realized that the government needed to loosen its control in order to survive. If the party was to maintain its legitimacy, however, this process had to be explained within the context of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Echoing the mood of the Soviet people, he endorsed widespread attacks upon Stalin, depicted Lenin as a social democrat rather than as the absolutely unprincipled dictator that he was, and dismissed the party’s goal of egalitarianism.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 ushered in another era of historical revisionism. Freed from the bonds of authoritarian control, Russian historians reexamined the crimes that Stalin had buried years ago. Articles were published on the purges in Byelorussia, for example, where more than two million people were murdered by Soviet secret police during the 1930’s. Historical novels critical of authoritarian government and Soviet rule appeared in Russian libraries. Stalin’s defenders still attempted to preserve his reputation, but with the end of authoritarian rule, Russian historiography is no longer subjected to strict governmental censorship.