Revisiting the Great Debate

A rather strange article appears in today’s Johnson’s Russia List #53 and I’m not sure why. It’s a piece by Alice Gomstyn called “Where the Cold War Still Rages” from the February 6, 2004 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Gomstyn revisits the “totalitarian”/”revisionist” debate that has structured Russian historical studies in the United States for the last 25 years. I mention the article here because some readers might be interested especially since totalitarianism has recently appeared on this blog in conjunction with Khrushchev’s speech.

As a member of the so-called “post-revisionist” generation, I lament the passing relevance of this debate in Russian historical studies. When reading over that work one gets the sense that ideas mattered. The polemics that fueled it made the scholarship people were producing exciting. I can’t say the same for now. I just don’t see the debates over modernity, periodization, the (in)applicability of Foucault, the linguistic turn, etc as having as much punch as the totalitarian/revisionist debate. The creation of schools like the so-called “Soviet subjectivity school” out of the work of really two scholars seems manufactured and forced, if not down right lame. As does claims about the emergence of a “neo-totalitarian” school. They just leave me limp.

The only light I see at the end of this tunnel of boredom is perhaps some of the interesting scholarship being done of nationality and ethnicity. But until we see whether that scholarship will make an impact on the field, I will have to sit around and lose myself in nostalgia for more political charged times.

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