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Purging the Myths of the Stalin Era : Computer Biographies May Revolutionize Soviet History

August 20, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE — Death hasn't silenced all the old Russian Revolutionaries.

Some are still speaking volumes, as long as half a century after they were purged, shot, exiled--or died peacefully at their desks.

That's the case at UC Riverside, where an American computer is electronically resurrecting old Bolsheviks and bureaucrats from obscurity.

Although most never made the history books, the sketchy biographies of about 27,000 of these early Communists have been entered in a data bank in an attempt to better understand--and possibly rewrite--the early history of the Soviet Union.

Along with colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, Arch Getty, an associate professor at UC Riverside, has been developing the Soviet Data Bank for five years.

The historians have gleaned information from old Moscow city directories, about 200 other published sources and leading scholars to develop biographies on the first generation of Soviet rulers.

Portrait of Two Decades

More important, Getty said, the information about these functionaries can be used to create a broad computer portrait of the first two decades of Soviet government.

Although the project's first phase won't be completed until October, a group analysis of the lives of these old firebrands and time-servers has already revealed surprises, Getty said.

The emerging picture of the post-revolutionary years is one of "chaos and disorganization, which is kind of the opposite impression you get when you think about a totalitarian society," Getty said. "We look at this bureaucracy over 20 years and what we find out is that people are changing jobs about every year and a half on average and sometimes much faster than that. . . .

"There doesn't seem to be anything like stability or continuity, and this is aside from the whole question of political purging or ideology or anything like that. I think it's just a matter of a whole new crowd has taken over the government and they haven't figured out how to do it yet."

Among other things, the steely control of the country credited to dictator Joseph Stalin seems to be partly hype, Getty said.

"A lot of the received wisdom on the early Stalin years is, that after 1924, Stalin establishes his one-man dictatorship and he's got card files on everybody and he manipulates all the personnel and everything gets into a totalitarian lock-step," Getty said.

"What we're finding out is that it was much messier than that. Much messier than that. There doesn't seem to be any guiding hand behind it. . . . I don't think he (Stalin) was in charge. Well, he was personally the most powerful guy around. His word was law. But the bureaucracy was just too big and too far-flung and contained so many people that no matter how dictatorial he wanted to be, even he couldn't keep track of it all."

Working With the Data

While gathering the data and entering it in the computer is tedious, once the information is stored it can be manipulated almost infinitely, Getty said.

"Think of history sort of like a cable running from the past to the future," he said. "It's got lots of different strands in it for different parts of history and different social and economic events. What we're trying to do is to take a whole bunch of little cross sections of the cable--individual people's lives.

"If you have 20 years out of somebody's life--and better yet if you have 20 years out of several thousand people's lives--then you can use the computer to do statistical runs to tell you how their lives changed over time. Who got promoted with whom and who got demoted with whom and does it turn out that the sons of factory workers did better in their lives or not. . . .

Different Points

"It also lets us freeze the Soviet bureaucracy at different points in time and analyze it and then see how it might be different 10 years down the line."

Getty, whose specialty is the purges Stalin conducted against the army and bureaucracy in the late 1930s, said the computer promises to dispel myths about that era.

"We had always thought that the old Bolsheviks, the old generation of the revolution, were the ones who 'got it,' but it turns out statistically that that isn't true," he said. "If you take that group of old Bolsheviks and you look at them in the '30s, they don't get purged at a greater rate than new Bolsheviks or medium Bolsheviks or anybody else. That's one of the big surprises so far, that a good half of the old Bolsheviks survived at this position level."

In Getty's opinion, Stalin's purge was "directed against the big shots," who weren't necessarily old Bolsheviks as is popularly believed.

The computer files contain mainly the biographies of upper-ranking bureaucrats and officers of the armed forces, Getty said, noting that the majority of government workers are never mentioned in any publication. Often the information contains no more than a birth date, death date and a military or civilian rank.

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