This book gives a rather conservative answer to the question of how to write the history of the USSR for the period comprised between the aftermath of WWII and the eve of Perestroika. In his famous book L’histoire sous surveillance: science et conscience de l’histoire (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1985), French historian Marc Ferro had warned us against the fact that in the USSR contemporary history was too serious a matter for being entrusted to historians. Under guidance of the CPSU, the historian’s task was long limited to the enumeration of the congresses of the Party, and to the evocation of the necessarily continuous progress of the campaigns’ electrification. Interestingly, the main innovations of the past two decades in history writing, as far as the Volga region is concerned, have come less from historians by education than from sociologists, as we shall see, and from philologists ― whose direct access to primary sources in languages other than Russian has permitted them to open the score of research avenues (in particular to explore the region’s religious and cultural history, to say nothing of their contribution to the unprecedented development of local history of districts, cities, neighbourhoods, and villages).
In a spirit still very close to that of Soviet-made history of the twentieth century, the author of the present book develops a narrative of the Republic of Tatarstan centred on the “accomplishments and contradictions of the economic, social and spiritual history of the TASSR,” in the framework of an exceptionally intense modernisation process. If social “contradictions” or even collisions are evoked, yet it is only those of the late 1980s and early 1990s ― a period alluded to as an era of chaos. Based for the most part on (often unpublished and unstudied) primary materials from the National Archive of the Republic of Tatarstan in Kazan and of diverse archive collections in Moscow, the book deals first with a selection of major objects of the autonomous republic’s industrial development (oil extraction in the south-east, the Kama industrial complex, the production of consumer goods, the long underdeveloped sphere of city services). More innovative under a discouraging title, the second half of the book is devoted to “ideology and culture” in different periods of time: Stalin’s reign (through totalitarianism in arts and science, the restoration of terror in the late 1940s), Khrushchev’s Thaw (through the rehabilitations of the mid-1950s, the timid revival of public life, and the quick return of restrictions), Brezhnev’s period (with an unexpected, original, and innovative sub-chapter on “Tatar dissidence,” pp. 190-9, built on private and public archive materials, unfortunately through the struggle of Tatar intellectuals against the growing limitations imposed on Tatar education and culture).
In all, the application of this scheme allows A. G. Galliamova to conclude on the specificity of the TASSR as an embodiment par excellence of Soviet modernisation and extremely quick transition from a traditional society to a massively industrialised one. At the same time, the over-centralisation of economic initiative in the Soviet period drives her to interpret the republic’s pioneer role in the ‘parade of sovereignties’ from 1990 onwards as a reaction against this long disregard of the centre for her own interests. A. G. Galliamova’s examination of the Soviet agrarian policy in the Middle-Volga region also drives her to insist on the capability shown by the region’s peasantry to permanently adjust to new mobilisations and to the new slogans of a modernisation imposed “from the outside.” In parallel, she also evokes the economic, social as well as ecological destructions entailed by the agricultural development of the 1950s to 1980s. From the viewpoint of industrialisation and urbanisation, the extension of these processes to the whole territory of the TASSR is evoked through its impact on the republic’s very rapid demographic evolution, especially in the southern districts beforehand peopled by Tatar cultivators, henceforth handed over to a multiethnic, predominantly Russian-speaking population of migrant workers and engineers. According to A. G. Galliamova’s interpretation, the priority given to technical development completely deprived the republic, its capital Kazan, and its new industrial cities like Naberezhnye Chelny and Al’metevsk of an elementary expansion of the service sector.
From these viewpoints, however, it is sometimes difficult for the reader to really assess the historical specificity of the TASSR if compared with a wide majority of the regions of the RSFSR. The republic’s particularity, however, better appears in the author’s reconstruction of the social and cultural marginalisation of Tatar-speaking populations, either rural dwellers or city migrants, and the growing predominance of Russian-speaking urban and migrant population (a retrospective vision largely developed, during the last fifteen years, by the Kazan school of sociology: see notably Iag’far Garipov, “Molodye goroda: formirovanie naseleniia, mezhnatsional’nye i mezhkonfessional’nye otnosheniia [Young Cities: The Formation of Their Population, the Interethnic and Inter-Confessional Relations],” in S. A. Dudoignon, D. Iskhakov, R. Mukhametshin, eds., Islam v tatarskom mire: istoriia i sovremennost’, Kazan: Panorama, 1997: 266-77). The considerations allow the author to give to Tatarstan under Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin credit for the better social integration of the Tatar-speaking population through the valuation of Tatar language in education and culture ― one of the rare fields of regional initiative in the 1990s. Despite its submission to traditional Soviet models of history writing, reversed nowadays in a nationalist spirit, this long awaited monograph by a pioneer specialist of the short twentieth century in the Middle Volga region must be welcomed as a useful landmark for a historiography of the Soviet period that is still largely in the making.