Interview with Professor Grover Furr, author of "Anti-Stalinist Villainy"
One of the most unusual new non-fiction books to appear recently is the Russian translation of the book by historian Grover Furr, professor at Montclair State University, titled "Anti-Stalinist Villainy" (Antistalinskaia Podlost') , Moscow: Algoritm publishers, 2007), in which the famous report to the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU by Nikita Khrushchev is dissected in detail.
Thousands of readers have become acquainted with it in the short time since its publication. It has received both curses and praise in the reactions of its first reader-critics, and has succeded in becoming a bibliographical rarity even in our market-oriented time.
For this reason we believed it would be instructive to turn to Professor Furr himself, to get to know the author himself better and ask his opinions, as they say, at first hand.
Q- Professor, please tell us how and why you, a Princeton University Ph.D. whose doctoral dissertation was devoted to the French Middle Ages, became interested in Soviet history of the Stalin era?
A - My first field of specialization is medieval studies. I don’t have any formal certificate that would "qualify" me to do research on the history of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s time.
But as a medievalist I have been trained to do deeply historical research. For instance, to use primary sources in languages other than English. Never to rely on "received knowledge" or "received opinion." Not to trust the opinions of "recognized authorities." To check everything for myself.
As a graduate student from 1965-69 I opposed the US war in Vietnam. At one point somebody told me that the Vietnamese communists could not be the "good guys", because they were all "Stalinists", and "Stalin had killed millions of innocent people".
I remembered this remark. It was probably the reason that in the early 1970s I read the first edition of Robert Conquest’s book The Great Terror when it was published. I was shaken by what I read! I should add that I could read the Russian language since I had already been studying Russian literature since High School. So I studied Conquest’s book very carefully. Apparently no one else had ever done this!
I discovered Conquest was dishonest in his use of sources. His footnotes did not support his anti-Stalin conclusions! Basically, he used any source that was hostile to Stalin, regardless of whether it was reliable or not.
Eventually I decided to write something about the so-called "Terror." It took a long time, but in 1988 I finally published "New Light On Old Stories About Marshal Tukhachevskii: Some Documents Reconsidered" ... During this time I studied the research being done by the new school of historians on the Soviet Union that included Arch Getty, Robert Thurston, Roberta Manning, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Jerry Hough, Lewis Siegelbaum, Lynne Viola, and others.
Q - These names will, I think, mean little to a Russian reader. It is hard to imagine that after Conquest representatives of any new Western "school" could contribute anything different to the conception of the history of the Soviet Union...
A - In fact it is just the contrary. The school of which I speak arose as the antithesis to Conquest and to the totalitarian conception of Sovietology of the Cold War period.
By carefully studying the evidence already available, and – most important – by trying hard to be objective – the researchers of this new school were already showing that all the Cold-War, Trotskyist, Khrushchevite, and later the Gorbachev-Eltsin "history" was fatally compromised by political bias. These had managed to so compromise their work by their political prejudices that their books should be viewed not as history but examples of propaganda.
In the world of scientific history the book The Origins of the Great Purges by J. Arch Getty, one of the founders of the new school, became a genuine sensation. In it Getty successfully disproved a large number of falsehoods that had been accepted as true. This included, among others, the notion that the repressions of the 1930s had been actions planned in advance by Stalin.
It was this scholar’s misfortune that his work was published in the USA during the years of "perestroika". During this time, under the false cover of "glasnost’" or "opennness", only the works of Getty’s opponents, the Cold Warriors, were published, and those in huge editions. How could Russian readers find out about Getty’s pioneering works if not a single one of his books on Russian history has as yet been published in Russia itself?
The same situation holds in the case of most of the historians whose names I mentioned above. But fortunately there are also more encouraging examples. A few months ago a Ukrainian internet magazine published one of the excellent works by Professor Mark Tauger of the University of West Virginia. Tauger’s work utterly disproves the Nazi-inspired myth that the famine of 1932-3 was a "Holodomor", or "man-made famine" carried out by Soviet leaders.
Q - How and why did you become interested in Khrushchev’s Report to the 20th Party Congress?
A - The "closed" or, as it is called in the West, the "secret" report of Khrushchev’s is without exaggeration one of the most influential speeches of the 20th century. No matter how or by whom the report is evaluated, with "plus" or "minus" sign, it fundamentally changed the path of Soviet and Russian history. It’s significant that precisely this speech has become one of the pillars of the political conception of "anti-Stalinism", the foundational source for what can be called "the paradigm of the 20th Congress".
In short, no one interested in the history of the Soviet Union can ignore a document of such importance.
Q - But that is why this topic is a rather well-trodden path. How do you explain all the interest in your book "Anti-Stalinist Villainy" (in Russian: Antistalinskaia podlost’)?
A - It’s hard for me to say. Let the readers judge for themselves... I can only speak about what struck me as a researcher.
When I was forming a conception of this work my goal was modest. I wanted to place the "revelations" in the report alongside the historical sources that have been made public thanks to the declassification of some documents from the former Soviet archives. This kind of research could be done by a Russian historian or, for that matter, a Chinese historian, for during the past 10-15 years a large number of new sources have been made available to scholars that make possible an objective evaluation of one or another statement in Khrushchev’s speech.
And at this point a curious picture began to emerge. For as it turned out, out of all the "revelations" affirmed in the report that I could verify, not one of them turned out to be true. Not a single one!
A few of Khrushchev’s falsehoods were, of course, known earlier. For example, during the secret session itself a few of the delegates to the Congress evidently noted that some of Khrushchev’s "revelations", such as his absurd declaration that Stalin "planned military operations on a globe", were to say the least far from the truth. But that the entire speech was made up of "revelations" like this one – that was astonishing.
Q - Aren’t you exaggerating? It is very hard to believe that the speech consists of nothing but falsehoods. You must be simply defending Stalin, and so with that goal in mind you are denigrating Khrushchev and his epoch-making report.
A - I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I am not "defending" Stalin or anyone else. As a researcher and a scholar I deal with facts and evidence. If the object of my research had been a speech of Khrushchev’s on, let us say, space, maize, or the program of the CPSU, I’d have to study the sources related to these areas of concern. In fact, though, the topic of my research became that of the report that supposedly "uncovered" crimes of Stalin and Beria.
I isolated sixty-one "revelations" or accusatory assertions. I researched each one of them in light of the historical sources. The end result was that in Khrushchev’s "Secret Speech" not a single one of such "revelations" turned out to be true. There is no question here of "defending Stalin". The burden of proof always rests with the accuser’s side – Khrushchev’s, in this case. And not one of the "revelatory" assertions of the "Secret Speech" can withstand a confrontation with the evidence.
A word about the question of "belief." No serious researcher has the right to accept or reject any statement as true on the strength of his own convictions or preconceived ideas. Like it or not, in view of the historical evidence presented in "Anti-Stalinist Villainy" it is impossible to view the history of the Soviet Union in the funhouse mirror of the "Secret Speech" any longer.
Q - By the way, "Antistalinist Villainy" – that’s not a very appropriate title for a work of scientific research, is it?
A - The book was published with bibliographical and name indexes, footnotes, and documentary appendices – in a word, in full conformity with all the requirements of any solid academic edition. And, in fact, it was published in a larger edition. Can any author reasonably expect more?
Of course, when I was working on the manuscript I had a different working title. I also had an original chapter in which I organized the work in a narrative way to reflect the essential points of the work I had done. But for reasons of length, I assume, or for some other reasons it was not included in the final published volume.
The publisher suggested a different title as well, as often happens. After all, it is up to the publisher to organize the editorial, artistic, and other forces in order to produce a work that will be successful in the marketplace.
Q - There’s still something that doesn’t add up here. On the one hand, as you have written, Khrushchev’s speech is a tissue of lies, while on the other hand not a single person in the leadership of the USSR ever pointed out the falsity of any of these revelations.
A - I’d go even farther and say that by their silence every single one of them showed complete solidarity with Khrushchev. And here we encounter one of the most intriguing questions.
Despite the widespread impression to the contrary, the main target of the "Secret Speech" was not Stalin himself but the political course, a certain direction of development, that was associated with his name. The Russian historian Yuri Zhukov has stated it clearly: Khrushchev’s goal was to put an end to the democratic reforms begun but far from completed during Stalin’s lifetime.
Today – and, it must be said, under the influence of Khrushchev’s Speech – "Stalin" and "democracy" are antipodal concepts in the minds of most people, conceptions that denote two incompatible extremes, phenomena that are polar opposites. But this view is in error. Stalin shared Lenin’s views on representative democracy and strove to root its principles in the building of the Soviet state.
It was Stalin himself who stood at the head of the fight for democratizing Soviet society, a struggle which was at the very heart of the political processes that took place in the USSR during the 1930s to 1950s. The essence of this program was as follows: the role of the Communist Party in the governing of the state would be reduced to normal limits, like those in other countries, and the political leadership of the state would be chosen not according to party lists but on the basis of democratic procedures.
Not only Khrushchev but, evidently, other Soviet leaders too disagreed with the course of such reforms. In any case Malenkov, Molotov and Kaganovich, the major political figures associated with Stalin, accepted, even if unwillingly, the secret subtext of the "Secret Speech" and assented to it. Khrushchev was able to come to power, deliver his potentially explosive "Secret Speech," and establish his own ideas only because he was able to win the Soviet Party elite to his side.
Let me take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Yuri Zhukov (Russia) and John Arch Getty (USA), two historians whose works inspired me in my own work on the "Secret Speech", who uncovered the fact, deeply hidden since Khrushchev’s time, of Stalin’s dedication to the principles of democracy.
Internet interview by S. Khartsizov
Literaturnaia Rossiia No. 24, 06.13.08