Russian and Soviet Armed Forces

David R. Stone

in Military History

ISBN: 9780199791279
Published online February 2012 | | DOI:
Russian and Soviet Armed Forces

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The literature on Russian and Soviet military history is dominated by one question: the availability of sources. More than other fields of Russian-Soviet history, the scholarly study of military questions has depended on the vicissitudes of Russian politics, and the limitations they place on historical research. Intellectual and cultural history, for example, can rely on public productions of culture, whether in the upper or lower levels of society, and so are somewhat less dependent on archival access. Even in the higher levels of Soviet politics, often conducted behind closed doors, traces were left in the records of the rise and fall of individual figures. Soviet political culture, with its emphasis on public rituals declaring orthodox belief and denouncing those who deviated from it, also provided valuable material for scholars. Well before Mikhail Gorbachev instituted his policy of glasnost (which allowed open discussion of political and social issues and led to the democratization of the Soviet Union), Western scholars of social or economic history enjoyed limited access to Soviet historical documents. Military questions were different. The Soviet Union’s military archives were off-limits to Western scholars, forcing those interested in the place of the military in Soviet society to rely on memoirs, official publications, and careful reading of Soviet secondary literature. Even with these limitations, work of high quality and lasting significance could still be produced. The overall picture, though, was decidedly mixed. Lack of archival access justified a substantial number of ostensibly scholarly works by authors who did not know Russian. In the early years of the Cold War, much of the Western literature on the Soviets was based on the work of former Wehrmacht generals, who came to the subject with their own axes to grind. When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary in 1985, this changed dramatically. Although his policy of glasnost took several years to reach full fruition, archival access to all subjects improved. Military history, because of its previously taboo status, changed most dramatically. Millions upon millions of documents from the pre-1917 Russian empire’s military and the post-1917 Red Army were thrown open to scholars. Access remains incomplete. Military records from before 1941 are largely in the hands of Russia’s civilian archivists, who have a mandate to make materials available to researchers. Military documents from 1941 on, though, are still overwhelmingly in military possession. The Russian Ministry of Defense, for better or worse, does not have a particular interest in easing the work of Western historians. Even Russian historians have difficulties in covering that period, because military history in Russia remains largely the preserve of the military itself. Military intelligence, in addition, is still a closed subject except to those employed in the Russian security services.

Article.  10281 words. 

Subjects: Military History ; Pre-20th Century Warfare ; First World War ; Second World War ; Post-WW2 Military History

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