'Just because a Document Is in the Archives, One Should not Assume that It Contains the Truth'

Higher School of Economics hosted the conference Looking Back, Looking Forward: New Directions in World War II Research to mark the fifth anniversary of the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences.

‘People tend to paint World War II in very black and white terms, but the reality is far richer and more complex. For example, very little is known about what was going on in the Soviet territories left by the Soviet troops before the Nazi regime was established; most of us are only aware of the “façade” of women's service in the Red Army, but there is much, much more,’ notes the Centre's director Oleg Budnitskii. “This type of social history long remained obscure, particularly in this country, but today it is being actively studied. Thus, we decided to bring together friends and colleagues from Russian and foreign universities whose research focus is similar to ours to learn about their findings and share what we have been doing in the past five years by giving a voice to every generation of researchers working with us."

Nazi Killing Children

The youngest conference participant Elena Krivtsova, Research Assistant at the Centre, presented her findings from a review of reports filed by the Extraordinary State Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes (ESC) describing the killing of children during World War II. According to 'eyewitnesses', children were often killed by poisoning after killers smeared their lips with poison or fed them poisoned biscuits. The author asked herself whether ithis method of killing was actually used and found that the the ESC materials were not based on direct evidence such as forensic medical reports, but on stories published in newspapers or magazines by people who had not witnessed the events and referred to someone else's testimony. According to Krivtsova, such testomonies may have been attempts to explain the absence of gunshot wounds on children's bodies; people simply could not believe that Nazi had buried children alive to avoid wasting bullets, and instead conceived a more 'humane' theory.

Soviet Nomenclature

Leading Research Fellow Oleg Khlevniuk, the author of a recently published biography of Stalin, examined the evolution of Communist Party nomenclature, a key segment of Soviet society. He analysed some of the major developments affecting Soviet regional nomenclature between the 1930s and 1950s and found those three decades were characterised by trends such as the elimination of the older generation of Communist functionaries and promotion of younger ones experienced in wartime mobilization; Khlevniuk also reports an overall stagnation in the nomenclature system of the time.

World War II: Encounters and Memories

Liudmila Novikova, Deputy Director of the Centre, made an early first report on her project about Arkhangelsk during World War II. Receiving lend-lease shipments from the U.S. and U.K., the port of Arkhangelsk served as a meeting point of two cultures, Western and Soviet. According to the NKVD data, some 15,000 foreigners visited Arkhangelsk during the war, many of whom left letters and records, which are now stored in various American archives, including the National Archives, and in the British War Museum. They describe military operations, as well as the city of Arkhangelsk and its inhabitants.

Women's War

Director of the Centre, Oleg Budnitskii, presented his research on women in the Red Army and reviewed some of the academic papers and sources of information on this newly popular subject. Women were drafted into the military in the U.K. and U.S., but only in the USSR were they sent to serve in combat units. Above all, the attention of researchers, writers and film directors was drawn to the heroic stories of women snipers and pilots, although they accounted for a very small portion of some half a million Soviet women who served in the army and whose history remains to be written.

Budnitskii pointed out a major challenge faced by researchers of this topic, specifically whether or not they can trust the available sources, knowing how much the image of Soviet women in wartime was exploited by Stalinist propaganda. Can historians use memoirs written by shadow writers rather than the women themselves? Can such memoirs serve as legitimate sources? Is it possible, in working with personal notes and diaries, to distinguish genuine recollections from those meant to distract the censors? All of these questions contain important issues for World War II researchers to address.

‘Documents are written by people for certain purposes, and just because a document is in the archives, one should not assume that it contains the truth,’ stressed Budnitskii. ‘Rather, it contains some information, but first we need to understand who wrote it and why. By comparing evidence from official documents and personal stories, diaries and contemporary interviews, one can gain an insight into what was going on and write a close-to-reality version of the history of women in World War II.’

Memory Politics

Yulia Kantor, Head of the Hermitage Museum History and Information Service, spoke about 'memory politics' as a particularly Soviet approach to building museum collections and arranging memorial displays under the government’s supervision while deliberately avoiding certain parts of World War II history, and also described the specific nature of museum and memorial work targeting foreign audiences. Kantor devoted a part of her talk to a subject rarely addressed by either Soviet or post-Soviet historiography – namely the efforts to create World War II museum and memorials while the war was still going on; she discussed the stories behind the collections used for temporary exhibitions and permanent V-Day memorials opened in May and September 1945, including their ideological aspects.


A joint report by Olga Porshneva, professor of the Urals Federal University, and Alexander Golubev, director of the Centre for Culture Studies of the Institute of Russian History, presented a comparative analysis detailing the emergence and evolution of Russians’ perceptions regarding the Allies before, during and between the two world wars. Porshneva and Golubev described how the Allies were seen by Russia's 'educated classes', political elites and the general public immediately before and during World War I, in particular how the image held in mass consciousness changed over time from 'altruistic' to 'self-interested'. While distrust towards the Allies was common in Russian (Soviet) society during both World Wars, overall attitudes evolved from hope to disappointment between 1914 and 1918, and in the opposite direction between 1941 and 1945.


Bruce Menning, professor at the University of Kansas and renowned American military historian, compared the performance of the Imperial Russian and Soviet armies during World Wars I and II. Of particular interest were his remarks concerning logistics, specifically the role of transport in the army's success or failure. Transport was known to be the Russian Army's Achilles heel during World War I and was not much better for the Soviet Army during World War II due to the strategically inconvenient location of railroads in the west of the country. Ironically, the deeper the Wehrmacht pushed into the Soviet territory, the worse off they were in terms of transportation, while the situation was the opposite for the Red Army. Once the Red Army launched a counteroffensive, more than 400,000 vehicles supplied from the U.S. helped solve the transportation problems and substantially improved the Soviet forces’ maneuverability and resourcing.

The People's War

The Centre's Academic Supervisor, Professor Michael David-Fox of Georgetown University, spoke about recent trends in the World War II historiography; in particular, he discussed the 'people's war' concept and researchers' increasing focus on the lives of ordinary people – both military and civilian – during the war in the Soviet rear areas and territories occupied by the Nazi. According to Professor David-Fox, by combining a study of the Soviet government's policies with an examination of ordinary people's responses and attempts to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, one can gain a better understanding of the events of World War II and their effects on different groups of Soviet society.