The Left Side of History: The Embattled Pasts of Communism in the Twentieth Century
by Ronald Grigor Suny, University of Chicago
When as a graduate student embarking on dissertation research I arrived in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, what struck me was that the mundane but exhilarating reality of the place resembled neither the grim vision of Western theorists of totalitarianism nor the vaunted image of Communist self-congratulators. The schematic, theoretically-informed but empirically-flimsy accounts that passed for science in the Cold War fog—consider anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Gorer’s explanation of Soviet authoritarianism as a product of the swaddling of infants, or the intricate, Talmudic inferences of political scientists that Stalinism was prefigured in the works of Marx or Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?—had prepared neither me nor my cohort of budding scholars for the texture and variety of what was before us. Honest observation was difficult under the circumstances, in part because of the obstacles placed in our way by the Soviet authorities but in even greater part by the hegemony of negative preconceptions that most exchange students brought with them. Confirmation and attribution biases, along with cognitive dissonance, worked their magic on the perception of what we experienced. Only prolonged exposure and recognition of the distance between the everyday and the preconceived began to break through the limits of the prejudgments we had brought with us.