The godfather of the pastor at my church was an interpreter for the British Embassy in Moscow. He met Stalin on numerous occasions. To use the bathroom in the Kremlin from the room where diplomatic negotiations were carried out, he had to walk through Stalin's bedroom (one single iron bed sitting in the middle of the room). He heard the Soviet leaders cracking jokes which made no sense at all then but make all the sense in the world now. He heard them talking about people who had been discovered as not very "loyal" and had been "shifted" to "another department".
I think there's a danger for me, studying history, to treat it like a branch of English literature. Gathering information and sorting it into a pattern; making clever deductions, links, arguments; compartmentalizing and boxing and fitting in; writing with clarity and creativity. All of which is necessary but sometimes masks the fact that this stuff actually happened. It's REAL. It gives me a little shock to be reminded that what I'm doing is something important and something that needs to be remembered, something that really happened to real people who disappeared off the face of the earth.