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Juniata Historian Teaches Course on Differing Views of Stalin and Mao

(Posted September 21, 2009)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- According to most western histories, a course based solely on the history of Communist dictators Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong would include an unrelenting list of atrocities and purges, but Juniata College historian Doug Stiffler wants to use the lives of the notorious rulers to make a different point, can students believe everything they read?

"I remember my first year of college and being amazed that one of my professors told me that something I had read in a history text was wrong," explains Stiffler, associate professor of history at Juniata. "I couldn't believe it. I had read it in a book! I thought all books must be right."

"I couldn't believe it. I had read it in a book! I thought all books must be right."
Douglas Stiffler, associate professor of history

Stiffler, who recently spent a year in China researching the cold-war relationship between China and the Soviet Union, decided to base his entire course on reading differing accounts of Josef Stalin who ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953, and Mao Zedong, who led Communist China from 1949 to 1976.

"Stalin was considered a taboo topic in Russia, up until a few years ago, you weren't supposed to discuss him," Stiffler says. "He's enjoying sort of a renaissance of popularity in Russia right now because he's associated with the Soviet victory in World War II. The Russian intelligentsia knows that he was a ruthless dictator, but everyone else blocks that out."

Stiffler points out that in China, Mao Zedong is still revered as a great leader, explaining that Mao's portrait graces many denominations of paper money in China and that his portrait is placed above the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. "The party in power, for the sake of legitimacy, needs Mao to be a Founding Father," he says. "But even ordinary Chinese in the rural areas know that Mao did a lot of nasty things, but they seem to rationalize Mao as 70 percent good and 30 percent bad."

Stiffler will use these disparate images of the communist dictators to help students learn that history can differ depending on the perspective of those writing it.

The course breaks down into two sections: Stalin and the Russian Revolution, and Mao and the Chinese Revolution. During each section the students will read memoirs and excerpts from papers, as well as journalism from the era, and then tackle separate biographies of the two despots.

"I want the students to decide if the biographies are fair and balanced and see if they can arrive at what is the truth by examining historical sources," Stiffler explains.

The students will read, among other sources, "This I Cannot Forget," a memoir by the widow of former Bolshevik revolutionary Nikolai Buhkarin, and a memoir written by Li Zhisui, Mao's personal physician.

Stiffler says historians must read nearly everything they can get their hands on to see how events play out as seen through the experiences of different writers. "I think of this as following footnote trails to see where history comes from," he says with a smile. "You have to look at everything -- even the writings of the 'obsessed amateur.' Historians thought the idea of Vikings exploring North America was totally wrong before evidence proved (the obsessed amateurs) right."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.