Professor James Harris

Professor James Harris



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.

My publications include:

Chapters in Books

"The Purging of Local Cliques in the Urals Region, 1936-7" in Sheila Fitzpatrick ed., Stalinism: New Perspectives (Routledge, 1999): 262-285.

"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, 2002)

With Sarah Davies, “Joseph Stalin: Power and Ideas” in Sarah Davies and James Harris eds., Stalin: A New History (Cambridge University Press: 2005)

“Stalin as General Secretary: The Appointments Process and the Nature of Stalin’s Power” in James Harris and Sarah Davies eds., Stalin: A New History (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

“Intelligence and Threat Perception: Defending the Revolution, 1917-1937” in James Harris ed., Anatomy of Terror: Political Violence under Stalin (Oxford University Press, 2013)

“Stalin and Stalinism”, in Simon Dixon ed., Oxford Handbook for Modern Russian History (Oxford University Press, 2013)

“Stalin as Political Personality” in S. A. Smith and S. Pons eds., The Cambridge History of Communism (Cambridge University Press, 2017)


"The Growth of the Gulag: Forced Labor in the Urals Region, 1929-1931", The Russian Review, 56 (April 1997), pp. 265-280. 

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

"Was Stalin a Weak Dictator?" Journal of Modern History 75 (2) 2003 pp. 375-386.

“Encircled by Enemies: Stalin's Perceptions of the Capitalist World, 1918 – 1941” Journal of Strategic Studies, 30 (3) 2008, pp. 513 – 545.

“The Bolshevik Party Transformed: Stalin’s Rise to Power in Context, 1917-1927” Quaestio Rossica 5 (3) 2017, pp. 693-707.


  • Director of Admissions

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 currently writing a book 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.

Following my arrival at Leeds, I spent several years working 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 most recent book presents a new interpretation of the origins of Stalin’s Terror. The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s was published by Oxford UP in 2016.  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 (Oxford UP, 2013).

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>


  • PhD University of Chicago (1996)

Student education

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.

Learning and 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.

I use 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.

Research groups and institutes

  • Leeds Russian Centre

Current postgraduate researchers

<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>