Letters from the Soviet Archives. 

Dallin, Alexander, and F. I. Firsov, eds.; trans. Vadim A. Staklo

Reviewed by Dale R. Herspring, Kansas State University

Perspectives on Political Science
Summer 2000, Vol. 29 Issue 3, p181


This is the kind of book I would have given my right arm for as a student. My classmates and I read a basic text on Stalin's infamous structure to promote communism, that is, the Comintern. We read collections of documents, but they were dry and boring and we often had no idea how they fit into the main narrative. There was a certain artificiality about the whole process.

Alexander Dallin, a household name among those in the West who have studied the USSR and Russia, has teamed up with F. I. Firsov, former head of the Comintern Research Group at the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History in Moscow, to change this situation-at least with regard to the evolution of the Comintern. Seldom have I seen a collection of documents for which the editors have taken such care not only to translate accurately but to include the marginalia as well. Here, for example, Stalin's marginal comments are carefully translated. The editors not only indicate which passages were underlined by the sender but also illuminate the underlining done by the reader or by someone else who looked over the documents. This helps give life to the documents.

The collection will interest a variety of audiences. Students in upper-division or graduate courses on the Comintern or the USSR in the 1930s and early 1940s will find it indispensable. When combined with a good textbook it will help students understand their subject. Specialists primarily interested in the life of Georgi Dimitrov or Stalin will go to the original texts, but other scholars wishing to look at the period through translated documents will want to keep a copy of this book at hand.

One of the more surprising bits of information that I found in reading the book is that Stalin's and Hitler's leadership styles may have been more alike than we realized. Those who study Hitler know that he often ruled by giving ambiguous orders, open to various interpretations, and then letting his subordinates fight it out among themselves. That gave him operating room; those below him were unsure of what the boss wanted, and he always had the option of claiming to have meant something else. These letters give the impression that Stalin's behavior was very similar.

If there is any weakness in the book it is the short introductions and conclusions that the authors provide. I would have appreciated a few more pages devoted to a description of the period under study, for the sake of students.

In the end, however, I have nothing but praise for the book. It fills a gap in the literature and does so in a way that even the casual history buff will find interesting.