October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
In early 1954, the subscribers to the Large Soviet Encyclopedia received a letter from its publishers, which ‘“recommended” that certain pages in Volume II be removed, “with scissors or razor blade,” and that in their place “the enclosed pages containing a new text” be inserted. The pages to be removed contained a biography of “the great son of the Georgian people,” Lavrentii P. Beria (who in July, 1953, had turned from a “son” into an “enemy”), and the new pages featured an article on the Bering Strait.
This rather drastic example of fact-juggling is not unique in the annals of Soviet historiography, as can be seen from the two biographical sketches of Franklin D. Roosevelt printed above. Both are taken from one and the same source—the Small Soviet Encyclopedia , Vol. IX, published in Moscow in 1941; yet some copies of this volume contain the first entry, while others contain the second. How come? The answer is disarmingly simple: Volume IX (a note on the inside cover informs us) “went to press on March 28, 1941”; quite obviously, the printers had not managed to turn out all of the projected 90,000 copies before June 22, 1941, when Hitler’s armies suddenly invaded the U.S.S.R. As of that day, World War II became a “people’s war against fascism”; Russia became an ally of Great Britain and France, and the United States, which only a day earlier had been a “hotbed of imperialism,” was now a gallant friend and bulwark against aggression. Ergo , Roosevelt could no longer be a “spokesman of the American bourgeoisie ,” but, quite to the contrary, “an outstanding American statesman,” a man of whom Comrade Stalin himself had once spoken in the most praiseworthy terms. No “scissors or razor blade” this time; the old pages were merely scrapped, and new ones (of a considerably more brownish hue than the original ones), with a new “correct” biography, were inserted by the Moscow binders.
To those who are even cursorily acquainted with the history of the Roosevelt Administration, the absurd generalizations and falsifications abounding in both versions are readily apparent. One is tempted to speculate, however, on how the Soviet citizens resolved the contradictions between the two biographies. Was Roosevelt ( circa 1938) a warmonger or an upstanding opponent of “Hitlerite Germany”? Was the “New Deal” merely a “concession” to the masses, or a policy enacted against the “reactionary circles of financial capital”? Was or was not the New Deal wiped out by the Supreme Court? But no matter. The early Soviet historian, M. N. Pokrovsky, once said that “history is politics projected into the past.” Pokrovsky was posthumously (in 1934) purged by Stalin, on grounds of his ostensible “anti-patriotic” and “anti-national” views, but his main principle survived him. As in 1941, so today the intelligent Soviet citizen realizes that history, as taught in the Soviet Union, is not an objective record of the past, but a mirror of the current party line. Accordingly, as the line changes, so does the past. Perhaps this is why so many talented Soviet students decide to become geographers, and study the Bering Strait, rather than historians, and study Lavrentii Pavlovich Beria.