Donation to digitize Stalin’s personal archives

History scholars have long sought to understand the logic — or lack thereof — behind the notorious purges of Joseph Stalin’s regime. Now scholars can plumb the depths of Stalin’s own mind.

Last week the Yale University Press received a $1.3 million donation from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create a digital edition of Stalin’s personal, and rare, archives. The files contain not only new materials about Stalin’s political life, communications with the secret police and directives to the Politburo, but also handwritten notes in the margins.

And the academics longing for top-notch primary-source material will no longer have to travel to Russia, or even enter the dusty aisles of a rare-books library, to view the archives; everything will be accessible via the Internet.

Jonathan Brent, the editorial director of the Press, described a unique online platform it is using to display the pages: in one screen, researchers will see PDF images of the documents in their archival form, and in another screen they will see transcriptions and translations. The technology will also include scholarly annotations and options for chat rooms.

“We hope this publishing platform will create a virtual classroom for the study of Soviet history,” Brent said.

Although the Press intends to employ this digitization procedure in other disciplines with similarly raw material, building the platform is a time-intensive undertaking and will likely not be done until 2012.

The manager of digital publishing, Daniel Lee, who will be designing the platform, or what he calls “the form that won’t be bound by books anymore,” sees the digitization as a revolutionary task.

“We are envisioning [the archives] as true publications that will be born digital,” he said. “They need to go through the same rigorous vetting that we put all our scholarly books through. It will enable us to take control over content and rethink and re-purpose scholarly publications and scholarly monographs.”

The challenge for now, however, is setting up the infrastructure.

After 100 years in the business of print media, this effort marks the Yale University Press’s first foray into the virtual world.

“What excites me about the project is that it positions the Press in a leadership position to publish documentary editions electronically while continuing to develop discrete books within the series,” John Donatich, the director of the Press, wrote in an e-mail. “Contrary to so much of the whining about the digital end of the book, we believe that digital publishing reaffirms what we do best: sponsoring, selecting, developing and disseminating scholarly content.”

But the digital aspect of it aside, this is not a new endeavor for the Press. The Annals of Communism Series, which the Stalin archives will complement, founded by the Press in 1992, now contains over 20 titles that span the history of the Soviet Union and international communism.

The newly-acquired materials, Brent said, have enormous significance in helping scholars understand how the Terror was initiated, administered and rationalized.

“Many of the manifestations of the Soviet period present [the Terror] as the result of pure irrationality and evil,” Brent explained. “Stalin has in many books been characterized as a gangster. These documents will show and have already shown it is rather the rational growth of what became viewed as an irrational system.”

For this reason, the texts will make important contributions to the analysis of what Brent calls the “totalitarian system that engulfed the history of the world for 75 years.”History professor Jay Winter anticipates digital editions because of the “range of sources” they will provide to undergraduates for senior essays. But he does not think all archives should be digitized, he said.

Although Winter, like others, may fear the obsolescence of monographs and journals — the old-fashioned kind checked out from a library — the Press does not want to replace print versions and would rather provide a complement to them, Lee said.

Whereas many documents in isolation are static, the compilation of the Stalin archives will revolutionize the digital efforts, as well as the academic. Vadim Staklo, a who works on the editorial-acquisition side of the Press, said documents do not speak for themselves — but with annotations they take on new meanings.

“You need someone to tell the story,” said. “Someone needs to grab the reader by the hand and walk them through. Then they become fascinating artifacts from the era.”

Still classified as a “work in process,” the composition of the editorial team has not yet been decided, but it will include historians from Russia and around the world.

“It could bring scholarship to life,” Lee said.

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