Dr James Harris

Senior Lecturer in Modern European History

+44 (0)113 34 33591

Summary: Modern Russian History; The Stalinist political system; Interwar Europe; Anti-liberal ideas

Biography

I completed my MA at the University of Toronto in 1990 and my PhD at the University of Chicago in 1996. After graduation, I had a post-doctoral fellowship at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington DC, after which I taught at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Calgary and the University of Teesside before coming to Leeds in 1999. My interest in Russian history owes a lot to the excellent lecturers I had in my undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. But my interest was also driven by the opening of the archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  There are millions of files waiting to be explored and a lifetime of discoveries waiting to be made.

Research interests

My research focuses on dictatorship and anti-liberal ideas in 20th century Europe, particularly the Soviet Union under Stalin:

  • The political, economic, social and cultural history of the Soviet Union esp. under Stalin
  • Regionalism and regional history in the Soviet Union
  • The Stalinist political system
  • The political values of Joseph Stalin
  • Dictatorship and democracy in inter-war Europe
  • Stalin and the Soviet intelligence apparatus
  • Anti-liberal ideas and ideologies

Current Research Project

I am finishing a general history of Soviet political violence, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s.  The book explores how Stalin and the Soviet leadership came to convince themselves in the mid-1930s that Soviet power was under threat.  It's based on ten years of research in Soviet archives, much of which focused on the systems of intelligence gathering, and Stalin's interpretations of the intelligence he received.  In connection with that project, I organised an international conference at Leeds that resulted in the publication of J. Harris ed., The Anatomy of Terror: Political Violence under Stalin (OUP, 2013).

I am in the early stages of developing a new project on Stalin’s rise to power. The book seeks to explain how a revolution that promised human liberation and democracy delivered a violent and repressive dictatorship. Stalin’s personal role looms large, but it is explained against the backdrop of war and revolutionary violence, class war, and the transformation of the Party from a small underground of revolutionaries to a mass party. The story is much more interesting than that of one man’s political ambition.

Past Research

My first book, The Great Urals: Regionalism and the Evolution of the Soviet System (Cornell UP, 1999), explored the relationship between the seat of Soviet power in Moscow and the regional party elites in the course of the first two decades of Soviet power.  It observed that the regions had strong identities and interests and that they cumulatively exerted a significant influence on Soviet policy-making, and on the evolution of the Soviet system.  The research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).  The same body then funded a further project which allowed me to explore the archives of the Central Committee Secretariat.  All analyses of Stalin's rise to power have asserted that Stalin's control over the process of political appointments as General Secretary played a substantial role in his rise to power.  My research generated some surprising results which overturned many existing assumptions.

Since arriving at Leeds, I have been conducting the lion's share of my research in the so-called "Stalin Archive" (RGASPI 558/11, released to researchers in 2000).  The AHRC generously funded a project that allowed me and my co-investigator Sarah Davies (University of Durham) to explore Stalin's unpublished writings and analyse the differences between what he said and wrote for public consumption, and what he said and wrote privately. The resulting book was published in 2014 by Yale University Press under the title Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order. In connection with the project, we held an international conference (2003) at the University of Durham which formed the basis of an edited volume, Sarah Davies and James Harris ed., Stalin: A New History (Cambridge UP, 2005).

My other publications include:

"The Regions and the Rise of the Gulag: Forced Labour in the Urals Oblast', 1929-1931," The Russian Review, (April, 1997).

“The Purging of Local Cliques in the Urals Region, 1936-7” in Sheila Fitzpatrick ed., Stalinism: New Directions, (Routledge, London, 1999), pp. 262-285.

"Dual Subordination? The Political Police and the Party in the Urals Region, 1918-1953" in Cahiers du Monde Russe 42 (2-4) 2001, pp. 423-446.

"Resisting the Plan in the Urals, 1928-1956, Or Why Regional Officials Needed 'Wreckers' and 'Saboteurs'" in Lynne Viola ed., Contending with Stalinism: Soviet Power and Popular Resistance in the 1930s (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.: 2002): 201-227.

“Was Stalin a Weak Dictator” Journal of Modern History (June 2003).

I am on the editorial board of the Stalin Digital Archive Project (Yale University). I regularly referee articles and manuscripts for a variety of journals and academic publishers, and write reviews of recent books in the field of 20th century Russian history.

Postgraduate Supervision

I am especially interested in supervising research on the political, economic and diplomatic history of the Stalin period; the evolution of the Soviet political system; the rise of Stalin; political policing in the late 19th and 20th centuries; totalitarianism.

Teaching

Undergraduate Modules

  • The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union (HIST 2301)
  • Stalin and Stalinism (HIST 3650)
  • The Breakdown of Liberal Democracy, 1890-1945 (HIST 3709)
  • Nazism, Stalinism and the Rise of the Total State (HIST 3710)

The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union and Stalin and Stalinism are substantially informed by the research I have done since postgraduate days.  I have published articles and book chapters on many of the themes we cover, including Stalin's rise to power, collectivisation, the Five Year Plans, the growth of the Gulag, and the Great Terror. The Breakdown of Liberal Democracy and Nazism, Stalinism and the Rise of the Total State are informed by my efforts to understand the Soviet regime in its broader European context.

Postgraduate Module

Stalinist Terror (HIST 5830). This module covers many of the themes in the book I am currently writing. It focuses particularly on the issues that historians have not yet addressed, and uses archival and other primary sources to explore approaches to key unanswered questions. I teach this module on the MA in Modern History.

Learning & Teaching Innovations

I won a Faculty teaching prize in 2006 for my innovative work with the University's Virtual Learning Environment.  After I took responsibility of the School's VLE presence, we became the University's leading users of the VLE as measured by student participation.  My own students write short essays in advance of tutorials. The tutorials have been much more productive for it, because the essays help them focus their ideas.  They participate more actively, and see what ideas their peers have had.  As the tutor, I see what they have understood well and perhaps not so well, and can tailor my teaching strategy accordingly.  In the end, students get written and oral feedback in each seminar. They know how well they are doing as the module progresses, and they accumulate a bank of essays that is extremely useful for exam preparation.

More recently, I have been developing a series of audio podcasts for my Special Subject.  These are essentially mini-lectures that discuss the readings for the coming week.  The podcasts help the learning process not only by helping the students read more efficiently, but they also free up more time in the seminar that can be devoted to discussion and debate.  And the podcasts are a useful source for revision.

Outreach / Wider Community

Since January 2008, I have been developing a joint venture between the School of History and Pearsongraphics (County Durham) called http://www.thehistoryfaculty.org/. The History Faculty is building a library of video and audio podcasts targeted primarily at A-level history students and teachers. All the podcasts are lectures by UK academics who are experts in the subjects they present. I also regularly give lectures on 20th century Russian history at A-level study days and workshops for secondary school teachers on behalf of organisations like the Prince’s Teaching Institute and Sovereign Education.