Stalin's Usable Past
A Critical Edition of the 1937 Short History of the USSR
Edited by David Brandenberger



At the height of the Great Terror in July 1937, Joseph Stalin took a break from the purges to edit a new history textbook. Published that September, this SHORT HISTORY OF THE USSR finalized a major turnabout in Soviet mobilizational propaganda.1 Breaking with two decades of Bolshevik sloganeering that styled the October Revolution of 1917 as the beginning of a new era, Stalin’s new catechism established a thousand-year pedigree for the Soviet state that stretched back through the Russian empire and Muscovy to the very dawn of Slavic society.

Officially credited to Andrei Shestakov and an “All-Union Government Editing Commission,” Stalin’s textbook was designed to supply the Soviet Union with what historians refer to today as a “usable past”—a mobilizational narrative designed to unite society around a common set of political beliefs.2 What is more, by connecting the Soviet present to the epic trials and tribulations of the past, the book resolved the party’s long-standing dilemma over how to rally together a population that was too poorly educated to be inspired by Marxism-Leninism alone. Appearing in million-copy print runs through 1955, this new narrative governed how Soviets were to understand the past not only in public schools and adult indoctrinational courses but also on the printed page, the theatrical stage, and the silver screen.

Despite its Stalin-era fame, the SHORT HISTORY faded from popular memory after it was withdrawn from circulation in 1956. This historical amnesia was compounded by the fact that archival documentation associated with the textbook was classified as a state secret until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. While working at the former Central Party Archive in Moscow during the mid-1990s, I investigated the origins of this textbook, taking note of the outsized role that party leaders like Stalin and Andrei Zhdanov played in its development.3 A few years later, after my resulting book appeared in print, a new tranche of documents from Stalin’s personal archive was declassified that allowed scholars to appreciate for the first time the general secretary’s centrality to the shaping of this history. Most valuable among these materials turned out to be several sets of publisher’s galleys that Stalin personally edited during the summer of 1937—archival documents that lie at the core of this critical edition.4

The importance of Stalin’s intervention into the writing of this official history is hard to exaggerate. It was Stalin who identified the priorities that shaped the early stages of the narrative’s development. It was Stalin who sanctioned his court historians’ departure from earlier, more materialist approaches to the subject. It was Stalin who consistently demanded a more and more etatist, russocentric logic to prerevolutionary history. It was Stalin who insisted on an ultravanguardist theme within the text’s discussion of the formation of the Bolshevik movement, its struggle for power, and its subsequent building of a socialist society. And it was Stalin who enforced the priority of that agenda during his own meticulous editing of the text, frequently expanding upon others’ work with lengthy textual interpolations of his own.

As important as the SHORT HISTORY was for Soviet society under Stalin, surprisingly little until now has been written about it.5 Filling a major gap in the scholarly literature, STALIN’S USABLE PAST both analyzes the text and places it within its proper historical context. In so doing, this critical edition pursues three key objectives: it identifies the ideological origins of this new historical line, it defines the nature and scope of Stalin’s personal involvement in the narrative’s construction, and it documents in unprecedented detail the dictator’s plans for the transformation of the Soviet historical imagination.


1. KRATKII KURS ISTORII SSSR, ed. A. V. Shestakov (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe uchebno-pedagogicheskoe izd-vo, 1937).

2. Van Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” DIAL 64 (1918): 337–341; Henry Steele Commager, THE SEARCH FOR A USABLE PAST AND OTHER ESSAYS IN HISTORIOGRAPHY (New York: Knopf, 1967), 3–27. This approach to mobilizational propaganda distinguishes between traditionalism (the rehabilitation of older political and social practices in order to support traditional political and social norms) and neotraditionalism (the co-opting of older political and social practices to advance new, modern objectives). Compare Nicholas Timasheff, THE GREAT RETREAT: THE GROWTH AND DECLINE OF COMMUNISM IN RUSSIA (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1946) and David L. Hoffmann, “Was There a Great Retreat from Soviet Socialism?” KRITIKA 5, no. 4 (2004): 651–674.

3. A. A. Zhdanov’s most important copy of the Shestakov galleys is at Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii (hereafter RGASPI), fond (hereafter f.) 77, opis (hereafter op.) 1, delo (hereafter d.) 854, list (hereafter l.) 1–118. On Zhdanov’s outsized role, see David Brandenberger, NATIONAL BOLSHEVISM: STALINIST MASS CULTURE AND THE FORMATION OF MODERN RUSSIAN NATIONAL IDENTITY, 1931–1956 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 50–53, 258–259; Russia’s leading specialist on the text reached similar conclusions about Zhdanov’s role in the editing of the text. See A. M. Dubrovskii, “‘Veskii uchebnik’ i arkhivnye materialy,” in ARKHEOGRAFICHESKII EZHEGODNIK ZA 1996 (Moscow: Izd-vo Akademii nauk, 1998), 181–195; A. M. Dubrovskii, “A. A. Zhdanov v rabote nad shkol’nym uchebnikom istorii,” in OTECHESTVENNAIA KUL’TURA I ISTORICHESKAIA NAUKA XVIII–XX VEKOV: SBORNIK STATEI (Briansk: BGU, 1996), 128–143.

4. See RGASPI, 558, op. 11, d. 1584; op. 3, dd. 374, 375.