Renounce Fear: Memoirs of a Historian (Otreshis ot Straha)
by Aleksandr Nekrich
Overseas Publications Interchange (London), 414 pp., $13.50
When Aleksandr Nekrich arrived in the West in 1976, he was known as one of the most distinguished Soviet historians, a respected Party member whose career had some years before been destroyed by the authorities. He was expelled from the Party in 1967, after his first book, June 22, 1941, showed that the USSR had been unprepared for the Nazi invasion largely because of Stalin’s errors. Nekrich remained in the Soviet Union during the late Sixties and early Seventies, writing his memoirs and quietly working on a second book, The Punished Peoples, on an even more dangerous topic: Stalin’s brutal deportation of some one million people from the Caucasus and Crimea during the Second World War. Forbidden to teach and greatly restricted in his research, he continued to study official documents and the unpublished work of other scholars who had investigated the deportations that Soviet authorities are still reluctant to acknowledge took place. The opening passage of his memoir, not yet published in English, conveys something of his mood during this period between his expulsion from the Party and his decision to emigrate to the West:
The time for memoirs has come. I am fifty-two years old. I already feel the incessant movement of time. I can measure it in increasingly smaller segments. At the beginning of my life eternity lay before me. Then I got the taste of decades passing by: later on I could feel the passage of a single year. Now I have developed a feeling for months, weeks, days before eternity will engulf everything once more.
Renounce Fear is a quiet and detached account of the difficulties Nekrich encountered in pursuing historical research inside the Soviet Union—of his determination to investigate topics that the authorities decided were not to be discussed, as well as of the compromises that he had to make in order to continue working at all. At the beginning of his career, in the late 1940s, he wrote a dissertation on British foreign policy on the eve of World War II, defying his professor’s warning against studying such recent history. Nekrich’s paper discussed the efforts that the Soviet diplomats Maxim Litvinov and Ivan Maisky made in the early Thirties to establish relations with Western leaders and to encourage opposition to the growing strength of Germany. By the late Forties, Nekrich recalls, both men were “in disgrace…and the very mention of these names provoked great irritation.” But in his dissertation it was also necessary to pay what he calls in his memoir “adulatory tribute to the wisdom of J.V. Stalin” and of the pact he signed with Hitler on August 23, 1939. Nekrich could not even mention this pact in the essay, How the Second World War Broke Out, written in 1958 in collaboration with Vladimir Khvostov, the director of the Institute of History. “This question was and would remain too sensitive for Soviet historiography,” Nekrich comments. “No Soviet historian, including myself, dared at the time to …