Interview with Oleg Khlevniuk, author of Pushkin Prize 2016 shortlisted book 'Stalin'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack

Why did you decide to write about Stalin?

I’m not really a biographer of Stalin. I’m a historian who deals with Stalin’s period in Soviet history. My interest is in Soviet political history, the gulag, in economic policy. One day I got a proposal to write a book about him. After some hesitation, I decided I could do it because I know a lot about him and his time. The aim was not to write directly about Stalin but taking an unusual route through his times, structures and policies. So it’s a book about Stalin and his time, not a biography in a general sense with a narrow focus on his life, surroundings and habits.

What was the idea behind the book?

This book is more important for Russian readers than western ones because in Russia we have no academic biographies. We have quite dangerous views about Stalin linked to our current problems: some people believe it is possible to return to his era, to reproduce his style of government and industrial policy. I try to destroy his myth and to explain the real history, not the imagined one. It is interesting for me to understand what was his role, how he influenced our history, when he was a main actor and when a passive one influenced by Russian traditions and circumstances.

What emerged for you most powerfully during your research?

How strongly the country depended on his will; how many millions of people were victims of his direct decisions; and how easily he destroyed people. I still don’t understand his awful dictatorial nature: that he so easily killed so many people. He was so personally involved in decisions about terror and the economy. He tried to control not only decisions but even their implementation. If he thought something was wrong or not good for him, he put pressure on different state structures to absolutely enforce his will. We have a lot of material which proves that he initiated and controlled all decisions and their implementation. He was very attentive.

How easy is it to gain access to the archives?

Stalin’s period is the most recent in our history which we can research. There are NKVD and KGB archives which are not open, but we have a lot of material which was released in the 1990s. We have Communist party decisions, government papers, very interesting personal files – not only his own, but his lieutenants like Molotov, Malenkov, Mikoyan and Voroshilov. There was his correspondence with ordinary people. It’s true access is more difficult today. It’s a very strange bureaucratic logic. Sometimes they close off very common materials which have already been published and you can find in books and foreign archives. It’s very strange if not stupid. We more or less have all the necessary material.

What were the challenges with your research?

The archives are very extensive, so you need a lot of time. I spent many years in them. The problem is how you use even old materials: in what context you put them, how you can explain something new with old materials, with new interpretations and in new contexts. I hope and suppose some new documents will be declassified in the future, but I’m not sure anything will change our understanding. Sometimes the material is very uncertain: we have decisions but no explanation of why or how they were arrived at. It’s very common that officials discussed issues among themselves or Stalin decided something, but those decisions were never put on paper. It’s not true that we can find everything in the archives. It’s possible that a lot of documents which we hope to find never existed.

What has been the reaction to your book?

The Russian edition of my book is quite popular - not a bestseller but they really sold copies and have reprinted it, and some pirates have put it on the internet. There has been no official criticism. You see some attacks from Communists or Stalinists, which is understandable, of course. But I have had very good support from my colleagues, and at meetings, lectures and trips. I am very happy with the reaction. It’s useful for our discourse about Stalin. I decided to publish with a commercial publisher, and the book will be translated into 16 languages. I’m very glad.

What role did your translator Nora Seligam Favorov play?

She is absolutely brilliant. This is not our first book together. She knows and understands history very well, she is very experienced and attentive. I have to say that she corrected a lot in my manuscript – sometimes she understands what I want to say better than I do. It was very important to cooperate with Nora. It’s possible that the English version is better than the original Russian. I try to use her corrections in the Russian version too. Sometimes it was very difficult to express how Stalin made mistakes in his written Russian. Nora was very effective in suggesting ways to do so.

What are the lessons for Russia today?

In one way it is really a struggle. We try to explain what the situation was like. We have very aggressive opponents who are not so sophisticated in academic analysis. They are very aggressive and try to manipulate the facts, claiming that we need to repeat Stalin’s approach to solve all our problems, to destroy corruption and build a prosperous and mighty state which restores Russia as a great power. It’s a very politicised version of history. But most professional historians have a normal, historical position. I am hopeful that we can win this battle about our past. There are different history textbooks which in my view are not so bad. At least they mention all the problems of the gulag, the terror and reality of life. We’ll see what happens in the future but personally I have some grounds for modest optimism. When people understand the myths around Stalin, maybe they will change their views.