Links of interest

Two links of interest to researchers!

First, the Summer Research Laboratory (SRL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has announced its call for applications for summer 2016 work.

Second, the Russian State Library (aka Leninka) has just announced that as of today library users may freely photograph most materials. Check out the announcement for the limitations, but this is remarkable news!

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On Hungary, Gorbachev, Fence Demolitions, Wet Kisses, and Collapsing Empires

nemethyounger

Miklós Németh

Historians often say that at least twenty years must pass before people can begin to grasp the true significance of an event. The passage of time dampens the passions, permits a more objective view, reveals new documents, and provides some sense of the long-term impact of the event. Yet the passing of more than a quarter century since communism’s demise in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has produced more light than heat. The documentary entitled simply “1989” provides a valuable eyewitness perspective on the collapse of communism.(http://www.budapesttelegraph.com/news/788/1989:_new_documentary_features_miklos_nemeth’s_help_bring_down_berlin_wall) It suggests the vital role of one small communist nation, Hungary, in setting into motion a chain of events that led, willy-nilly, to the dismantling of the Iron Curtain. At the center of this story – known previously but not so clearly and compellingly conveyed as it is here in this hour-long documentary — is Miklos Nemeth, the last prime minister of the communist government of Hungary. Forty years old at the time, Nemeth seemed like the perfect party scapegoat for an intractable economic crisis brought about by a severe financial crisis. Hungary had been unable to pay back Western banks for millions of dollars of loans that had replaced Soviet subsidies through the 1980s.

As with many dramatic political upheavals – including the French Revolution of 1989 — a budget crisis precipitated the chain of events that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its system in Eastern Europe. As a professional economist, the technocrat Nemeth seemed a logical choice to handle Hungary’s economic crisis – or at least to find a way to service that debt and avoid larger political repercussions. Western banks in the early 1980s had financed consumerism in Eastern Europe. They believed that communist governments in Eastern Europe provided an ideal customer for their loans, as the communist governments, immune to democratic political pressures, seemed likely to service the debt. The Soviets, for their part, were happy to allow Western banks to subsidize Eastern European consumerism, thereby shifting the burden of empire maintenance to the capitalist enemy (echoes here of Lenin’s dictum that the capitalists would give the Bolsheviks the rope with which they would hang the fat cats in top hats). But as with Germans banks and Greece more recently, the Western banks began demanding payment on their loans which the Eastern European nations simply could not provide; and as with Greece in 2010 the burden of servicing massive debt triggered an existential political crisis that went far beyond the economic and political fate of Hungary itself. greeceCombined with Soviet-driven reform efforts under Gorbachev, and the ensuing political instability, the economic crisis created a perfect storm that resulted, contrary to anyone’s expectations, in the dramatic end of communism in Europe – the reverse domino effect.glasnost

In Hungary, the panicked party leadership handed the mess over to the unknown Nemeth as the new Prime Minister in November 1988 – just one year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which it is safe to say no one, and certainly not the CIA or secret services of the Communist states, would have predicted. Few believed Nemeth could survive – the proverbial lamb fed to the lions. Desperate to trim state expenses, one of the first things that he did was to scour the budget line items for areas where he might save money. He noticed a large, mysterious and recurring expenditure. It was labeled with a secret code that he did not understand, which turned out to be for maintaining the electrical fence that kept Hungarians behind the Iron Curtain. It was badly in need of repair, as he discovered when he inquired about this line item with party bosses, and the Soviets, facing their own budget crisis, had recently refused to provide spare parts and money to maintain it. So the Hungarians had been turning to France, spending what little money the government had, which was also borrowed from Western banks, to maintain a critical part of the Iron Curtain that even the Soviets had little desire to maintain. It is a curious footnote to the history of the late Cold War: the role of Western banks in first propping up communist states in Eastern and Central Europe and then in prompting the political crisis that brought them down when the bill for loans came due.

This is a late Cold War propaganda cartoon from East Germany that mocks West German consumerism. It is unintentionally ironic at two levels. First, East Germans and other Eastern Europeans had a clear hunger for this kind of consumer society. Second, the Eastern European communist governments were accumulating massive debt from Western banks to fund an increase in the purchase of consumer goods from the West.

This is a late Cold War propaganda cartoon from East Germany that mocks West German consumerism. It is unintentionally ironic at two levels. First, East Germans and other Eastern Europeans had a clear hunger for this kind of consumer society. Second, the Eastern European communist governments were accumulating massive debt from Western banks to fund an increase in the purchase of consumer goods from the West.

As a budget saving measure, Nemeth decided to curtail this expenditure in December 1988, though actually tearing down the fence proved more problematic. Understandably, he encountered stiff resistance from the party leadership and then discovered another surprising fact that turned him against the system he was appointed to serve: the news that Hungary since the 1970s – contrary to official claims that denied nuclear bombs on its soil — had housed nuclear bombs pointed at Italy.

Little Moscow -- the secret Soviet nuclear bomb site in Hungary

Little Moscow — the secret Soviet nuclear bomb site in Hungary

Nemeth, meanwhile, traveled in March 1989 to Moscow with grave doubts and fears, given his own family experiences and trauma associated with the brutal suppression of the 1956 attempt by Hungarian reformers to gain some independence from Soviet control. His father, a farmer, had been an advocate of the revolution of 1956 crushed by the Soviets. Hungary1956-LgNemeth claims he joined the communist party in the early 1960s to try and change it from within. His father did not speak to him for six months but eventually reconciled himself to his son’s decision, telling him only that he must tell the truth to his people and to the world if he were to attain a position of power. He took that advice when he traveled to Moscow to meet Gorbachev, nervous but determined to discuss his reform plans, including holding free elections that would almost certainly result in the victory of non-communists and to remove the fence that the Hungarian treasury could no longer maintain. To his great surprise, Gorbachev greeted him with a firm handshake rather than the sloppy kiss and warm embrace typical of Brezhnev’s encounters with Eastern European counterparts. Gorbachev-shaking-hands-with-Miklós-Németh-Archive-21st-CenturyGorbachev, incidentally, preserved the practice of the lip kiss and warm embrace for more reactionary communist party bosses in Eastern Europe, suggesting that the wet kiss, in semiotic terms, signified a certain unequal power relationship between Moscow and Eastern European leaders, whereas a firm handshake, absent the kiss and hug, indicated a new kind of political relationship. the kissAt any rate, Gorbachev assuaged Nemeth’s fears, promising not to send troops and also endorsing Nemeth’s plans to take down the fence (telling Helmut Kohl later that Nemeth was a “good guy — khoroshii chelovek“). Nemeth then grasped an important dynamic of the developing political situation: he would have to rely on Moscow for support and face his stiffest resistance from old line Stalinists and Brezhnev cronies back in Prague, East Berlin, and his own capital of Budapest.

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The Austrian and Hungarian foreign ministers dismantle the border fence between their countries in the summer of 1989, thus creating the first breach in the Iron Curtain

Nemeth’s decision to open the border with Austria in May of 1989, by tearing down a 40-year old electric fence that guarded the border with Austria, soon triggered an exodus of Eastern Europeans and a refugee crisis, especially from East Germany, which was still under the control of the hardliner Erich Honecker. That refugee crisis spilled into Western Europe when the Hungarian government decided in September 1989 to allow all East German refugees to pass across the border and into Austria. How much Nemeth understood the momentous political impact of that decision remains unclear, though the East German communist party boss Erich Honecker seems to have been acutely aware of its potential effect on his own power. The West German government had promised housing and support to all East Germans. Tens of thousands accepted that offer, travelling through Hungary in their Trabants and the now open border and then making their way to West Germany to collect their Deutschemarks and free housing. trabant exodusThe exodus, involving many of East Germany’s most highly qualified professionals, who believed they had good prospects in West Germany, enraged the East German leader Honecker, as well as the remaining hard liners still in power in Bucharest, Prague, and Sofia. As in 1960, when there was a mass exodus of East Germans to West Germany in Berlin, the East German government demanded that the Soviet Union plug the hole in the Iron Curtain that was allowing the best and brightest in East Germany to leave. But unlike Khrushchev, who responded by building the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev refused to stop the mass emigration, consistent with his promise to Nemeth earlier that he would not interfere in plans to remove the electric fence between Hungary and Austria whose absence now provided an exit path for East Germans. That refusal set into motion the dramatic events that led first to Honecker’s ouster in October 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the disintegration of communist control in Eastern Europe shortly thereafter.

nagy's burial

The reburial of Imre Nagy

Among the other dramatic moves made by Nemeth was to exhume the body of the executed leader of the 1956 Hungarian reforms, Imre Nagy, who had been buried secretly after his execution by the Soviets. His body was exhumed and given a public ceremonial burial in Bucharest in June 1989, against the wishes and thinly veiled threats of the old party diehards. Nearly 200,000 attended the event, which Nemeth’s security people thought might result in an assignation attempt on his life (they instructed him to keep moving his head to avoid having a sniper blow a hole in his brains). The re-burial catalyzed opposition to the communist party and helped to mobilize the movement that resulted in the electoral dismantling of the communist one-party system in Hungary and eventually throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. It turned out in some ways to be the burial of the Soviet system.

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Nemeth in the documentary “1989”

The story is narrated by Nemeth and the point of view is almost his exclusively, though he comes across as honest and reflective, especially regarding his own inability at the time to understand the larger implications of his decisions. Would communism have collapsed without the specific decisions of Gorbachev and Nemeth? History is not written in the conditional tense, as they say, so it is impossible to answer that question. But the evidence from the documentary certainly suggests the critical role of individual leaders and decisions in determining the specific timing and outcome of events leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. berlin_wallThose dramatic events almost always unfolded in unintended ways and to the astonishment of those, like myself as a student in Moscow in 1989, who believed that the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, whatever its clear weaknesses and problems, would last for a very, very long time.

As a prologue to this story, Hungary in 2015 began constructing a fence along its border with Croatia and Serbia to handle another refugee crisis — this time one involving Syrians trying to get into the EU.

The 2015 Hungarian fence on the border with Croatia and Serbia. Fences, apparently, make the best neighbors

The 2015 Hungarian fence on the border with Croatia and Serbia. Fences, apparently, make the best neighbors

The documentary’s celebration of barrier demolitions should be placed into the context of this new border fence. Fence and wall builders once again have seized power — in Hungary as in Israel and all along the US-Mexico border. Perhaps some may say it is inappropriate to make such connections between Cold War walls and present ones erected by the supposed winners in the Cold War, but one thing is clear: the era of fence and wall demolition seems to have been very brief, a mere quarter of a century. The brevity of the fence-dismantling era reinforces the point made in the beginning of this post — that the true significance of an event only becomes apparent with deep hindsight.

The Israeli West Bank Border Fence

The Israeli West Bank Border Fence

The US-Mexico border near Tijuana

The US-Mexico border near Tijuana

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Ivanovo: A Modest Proposal

The fire in 1839 was hugely destructive, and after it the peasants and industrialists of Ivanovo were faced with a major task of rebuilding. One group, the industrialists, also saw this fire and the task of rebuilding as a possible chance to alter their current economic position by changing their relationship with the owner of Ivanovo, Count Dmitri Nikolaevich Sheremetev.

Portrait of Dmitry Nikolaevich Sheremetev

Dmitri Nikolaevich Sheremetev (1803-1871), 1824. From kuskovo.ru, the website of one of his major estates.

Most of the industrialists in Ivanovo—that is, most of those who ran factories there—had themselves been serfs of the village. Around 1830, Sheremetev freed twenty serfs along with their families. They all took on merchant status in a town (most in nearby Shuia or Iurevets, a few as far away as Moscow) but continued to live in or near Ivanovo, running various sorts of businesses. Most were manufacturers, and a few engaged in trade, bringing the raw materials Ivanovo needed to the village for future processing. All of those who were still running factories in the village did so based on lease arrangements with Sheremetev. They owned and were responsible for the buildings they had built, but Sheremetev owned the land.

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Ivanovo: Fire

Oil painting of peasants fleeing a burning village

N. D. Dmitriev-Orenburgskii, Fire in the Village, 1885, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

One of the first things I did when I started archival research back in the mid 1990s was look at the annual reports sent to the Ministry of Internal Affairs by provincial governors in the 1830s and 1840s. I was reading them looking for anything about food, but I remember being struck by the fact that they always included reports on local fire preparedness. I apparently didn’t take any notes about them, but I distinctly remember things like a report of the fire department of some district town being armed with two buckets and an axe, or something incredibly modest like that.

It made me think about fire and its possible destructive role in a new way. In fact, at one point I thought I might do a whole research project on fire, and then Cathy Frierson’s All Russia Is Burning! came out. So that was out (even if the pre-reform period could still use some (any) work). But fire appears in so many different places in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that it’s hard not to notice it.

Looking at reports and files on Ivanovo, the role of fire is thrown into even greater prominence, in ways both specific and general. On the specific side, there are accounts like those that the Vladimir Provincial News at times included as part of its regular column “news from the province.” I suspect these were only the most dire cases, and so when Ivanovo appears in the newspaper in 1855, it is for a rather terrible reason: Continue reading

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Ivanovo: Vagrants and beggars

Vagrancy was a nearly constant background issue throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It shows up all over, in legislation about internal passports, in newspaper notices announcing arrested vagrants, in state concerns about what people are doing. I particularly like Simon Franklin’s description of why vagrancy was seen as such a problem: in his words, “vagrancy was abhorrent, dangerous, and wasteful,” as vagrants were at best lazy, and at worst were criminals.

Postcard of four woman beggars

From http://www.rusfond.ru/encyclopedia/2860

In 1842, there was a crackdown on vagrancy. According to one account, in September of that year Nicholas I was traveling in Tver’ Province and “happened to notice, that on the main road many mendicants (nishchie) were wandering” despite the fact that laws strictly forbid vagrancy. As a result, he ordered the Minister of Internal Affairs to see to this problem, the Minister wrote to provincial governors telling them to take steps against vagrancy, the provincial governors wrote to town and district police agencies, and those agencies wrote to large settlements. And so by November, the order to crack down on vagrancy had made its way to Ivanovo. The Ivanovo Estate Administration received a notice from the Provincial Chief ordering them to pay attention to vagrancy. The Ivanovo Estate Administration then wrote to the sotskie (the peasant hundredmen, a kind of village policeman) of Ivanovo (the village was so large it had eight of them) to bring in anyone they found begging in the village. A second notice asked all villagers to turn in beggars, as well. Over the next year, several more calls repeated the call to crack down on vagrancy and begging.

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What’s in a Strikethrough?

Can a simple manuscript strikethrough be a sign of deep affection?

I’m currently writing a book on Alzhir, a special Gulag camp division designed to hold women arrested during the so-called Great Terror of 1937-1938 as “family members of traitors to the motherland.” These women largely came from families of the political and cultural elite of Soviet society and were arrested for no crime other than being the spouses of men arrested and usually executed during the terror.

My book will be based in part on careful readings of a sizable corpus of Alzhir survivor memoirs. Mostly unpublished, the memoir typescripts often contain handwritten additions, deletions, and corrections. Mostly, the edits are minor, focused on typos and other proofreading minutia. At times, though, they ooze potential, if not easily discernible, meaning.

First, a little background. Tamara Tanina was married to one of Nikita Khrushchev’s assistants in 1937. (Khrushchev was then Party boss in Moscow.) Her husband was arrested and executed in mid-1937, and she was arrested in early 1938 as a “family member of a traitor to the motherland.” Initially sent to Alzhir, Tamara survived her Gulag experience and in the early 1960s wrote In Those Years, a memoir that like many others was sent to the Communist Party’s Central Committee during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. 1

The two-volume unpublished typescript memoir found in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History tells an engaging, often moving story about her experience in the camps, personal relationships, conditions, work, etc. 2 Of particular interest given the widespread taboos of Russian Gulag memoirs, Tamara describes what she calls her “unusual friendship” in Alzhir with Pavla (Pavlusha) Eletskaia. Tamara is at times reticent to describe this relationship as romantic, and at other times easily recalls how Pavlusha “tenderly kissed me.” (148) Same-sex relationships in the Gulag are uncommonly discussed in Gulag memoirs, and when they are it is particularly rare that they are first-person told with a tone of tender remembrance rather than third-person accounts told with a tone of moral revulsion. 3 Tamara’s recollections of Pavlusha are decidedly in the tender mode, at times moving in their description of brief, warm, summer moments when they could “luxuriate…hugging each other…under the low Kazakhstani skies full of especially bright and large stars.” (152) It is clear that Tamara really loved Pavlusha. Although they were soon separated to different camp divisions, they stayed friends even in the years after they were released from the camps. (Nothing indicates that their post-Gulag relationship was still of a romantic nature.)

It is at the moment of their separation that the fascinating strikethrough appears in the manuscript. Tamara writes that she was suddenly transferred from the Alzhir subdivision of the Karlag labor camp to the Dolinka division. She had been diagnosed with an unspecified gynecological medical condition and was presumably shipped to Dolinka to see a gynecologist there for emergency surgery. When she arrived in Dolinka, the doctor told her that she had no problem requiring surgery. This led Tamara to suspect there might have been other motives for her transfer. She wrote:

Was it possible that the camp leadership perceived something unnatural in the type of friendship that I had with Pavlusha? And perhaps they were right. Later, recalling our affection for one another, I felt that my feelings for her bore the seeds of an unhealthy attraction. (155)

Had Tamara Tanina’s memoir been published, the latter two sentences may have been left on the cutting room floor, and we would not even know about them. In the typescript, the sentences absent presence is fascinating.

Page from Tamara Tanina's Typescript Memoir with Strikethrough

Page from Tamara Tanina’s Typescript Memoir with Strikethrough

In fact, it is tempting as a historian to read a great deal into the strikethrough, but what exactly? The romantic in me wants to tell the story that Tamara wrote the lines with an eye toward the Party’s expectations at a moment when she was trying to get her life back in the midst of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization. Then, when rereading the typed manuscript, the passionate memory of her tenderest and most affectionate relationship drove her to strike the offending sentences with gusto and submit the memoir to the Central Committee without remorse.4

Of course, this may not at all be the proper reading of something so inscrutable as a strikethrough. If Tamara wrote these lines just for Party consumption–just to express her condemnation of a taboo relationship–why did she write at such length about her relationship with Pavlusha in the first place? How do we even know it was even Tamara who crossed out the sentences?

  1. These memoirs, including Tamara Tanina’s, are discussed in Nanci Adler’s Keeping Faith With the Party: Communist Believers Return from the Gulag.
  2.  Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), fond 560, opis 1, delo 37. The memoir consists of two volumes. All parenthetical citations here refer to the handwritten archival page number in the first volume.
  3. Adi Kuntsman describes memoirists’ “lack of sympathy for–and often an active disgust and scorn towards–same sex relations in the camps.” Figurations of Violence and Belonging: Queerness, Migranthood, and Nationalism in Cyberspace and Beyond, Peter Lang, 2009, p. 54.
  4. Although she continually professes her love for her executed husband in the memoir, it is also clear that he was abusive toward her.
Posted in Gender and Sexuality, Gulag, Kazakhstan, Soviet Era 1917-1991 | 1 Comment

1979, the End of the Cold War, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

_images_afghan-rugs-5Nineteen seventy nine was a pivotal year in twentieth-century history – as momentous, perhaps, as 1945 and the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan; Iranian revolutionaries seized American hostages in Tehran and overthrew the Shah; Islamic fundamentalists attempted to seize Mecca; and enraged crowds of Pakistanis, goaded on by Islamic extremists, attacked the US embassy in Pakistan. With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that these events signaled a radical break from the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The world had changed, and a new kind of war had emerged; yet the United States and the Soviet Union continued to fight proxy wars against each other, blinded by their own ideological obsessions and incapable of discerning the new common enemy of Islamic fundamentalism.

Fyodor2650

A captivating and timely film tells the story of the ten-year Soviet war against Afghanistan (Afghanistan 1979: The War that Changed the World: http://icarusfilms.com/new2015/afg.html). The war triggered an ever-increasing cycle of violence. Fueled by American and Soviet weaponry – which armed future enemies of both the United States and Russia – Afghanistan became a failed state, creating a power vacuum filled by terrorist movements of various sorts and spreading like a cancer throughout the region. Over a decade more than one million Afghanis died – mostly civilians – and millions more became refugees. At least 15,000 Soviet soldiers fell in battle, and the aura of the Red Army’s invincibility, which had been so crucial to Soviet power and prestige around the world, was shattered.

graveyard

Curiously, despite its enduring and tragic significance, few historians or political scientists have studied the war in depth: the reasons for the Soviet invasion, the conduct of the war, the relationship of the failed war to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and the role of the war in creating the world in which we now live. The primary piece of documentary evidence for the decision to invade comes from a single hand-written page from the Soviet Politburo leadership. The document does not even mention Afghanistan, referring to it as simply country “A,” and it provides little insight into the Soviet decision to send in troops. It is as if Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at the time, was a kind of Mafia Don, and his fellow Politburo members and generals his mob family bosses. Through various winks and nods – but with nothing concrete or coherent presented as an explanation – Brezhnev let it be known that it was time to do a “hit” on the increasingly annoying and irksome Soviet clients. By comparison there has been far more research and analysis of the war with which the Soviet invasion is often compared –the American Vietnam War – though arguably the Afghan war has had a much greater impact on the course of world history.

stinger

Whatever the exact reasons for the invasion, Afghanistan was certainly considered a strategic prize, both for the Soviet Union and earlier for the Russian Empire, when the region became a pawn in the “Great Game” for control between the British and Russian Empires. The Soviets were the first to recognize the new state of Afghanistan in 1919. Relations remained close, as the Soviets attempted to use Afghanistan as a buffer zone between itself and Pakistan and Iran. Only an attempt at radical communist revolution – generated not by the Soviets but independently by more extremist communists within Afghanistan in April 1978 – destabilized the situation. The revolutionaries’ agenda of social, agrarian and economic reform immediately created stiff resistance and polarized the country, radicalizing the political environment and opening the way to more extreme forms of political expression from all sides. Afghani communist officials persecuted religious leaders, causing blowback that drew inspiration from the Iranian Revolution in February 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeni. As resistance to the new communist Afghani President Nur Mohammad Taraki grew, so too did Afghani appeals for Soviet aid. Meanwhile, the country continued to splinter, as warlords and tribal leaders began to fill the vacuum of power created, unintentionally, by the revolutionary upsurge.

Afghan 1 F

One of the more intriguing claims in the documentary is that Brezhnev’s advancing dementia and lack of stamina played a central role in the invasion. Manipulated by alarmist memoranda from the KGB head Yuri Andropov, and their suggestion that immediate action needed to be taken, Brezhnev assented to intervention – though just what kind and why was unclear, and perhaps will never be known if in fact Brezhnev was not entirely lucid, as seems to have been the case. The seeming success of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which Andropov believed produced a more docile and controllable client state to its west, perhaps fed the delusional notion in the Kremlin leadership that Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, could be just as easily invaded, and with just as few military and political consequences. Eurocentric views of the Afghanis as inferior, similar to US views of the Viet Cong, also seemed to have made the Soviets underestimate their foe.

withdrawal

There are many compelling stories and revelations in the film. The Soviets, for example, early on trained Soviet Central Asians to form a special battalion that would wear Afghan uniforms – so that Soviet military intervention could be disguised in May 1979, before the actual invasion in December of that year. The CIA countered, on the borders of Pakistan, with support for anti-communist insurgents. A state of civil war, with various war lords in control of the provinces, emerged by December 1979, when another fateful event occurred. President Taraki’s erstwhile ally and Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin overthrew his revolutionary comrade, commanding his secret police to strangle him.

460px-Afghan-war

The documentary claims, though it is not clear based on what evidence, that the Soviets believed Amin was an American pawn. In his brief time in power Amin waged a campaign of terror and purges against the dead former President’s real and suspected allies. At one point the Soviet officials in Kabul charged with protecting Amin from a counter-revolution were now ordered by the Soviet secret police to assassinate him and his entourage. They tried to poison the President’s drink at a dinner in the palace – by slipping poison into his Coca Cola, with which the Soviet agents were not yet familiar. Coke, however, was not “it.” It apparently neutralized the poison and the dining party survived! So the Soviets instead bombed the presidential palace to smithereens, sure that they would find evidence that Amin was a CIA pawn (just as, perhaps, the US was sure in its invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction). There was no such evidence; Amin was simply a loose cannon — and not even a Chinese spy, as other KGB agents thought might be the case.

Gorbachev_1747829c

By the mid-1980s it had become clear to Mikhail Gorbachev that the war was a strategic, political, and military disaster. The architect of Perestroika and new political thinking makes a fascinating and typically self-serving appearance in the film. As a young Politburo member, he claims that most of the political leadership was excluded from the initial decision to invade, and that the invasion was a kind of coup orchestrated by Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, General Dmitrii Ustinov, and Brezhnev. Of course, this position perhaps too conveniently absolves Gorbachev of complicity in the invasion on December 28, 1979. The absence of documented records makes it impossible to say. When Gorbachev in the film proclaims fatefully, “you can’t rewrite history,” it is entirely possible that he is the one doing the rewriting.

a974_carter_zia_brzezinski_2050081722-20904

Among other things, the Afghan war derailed the politics of Détente, which Jimmy Carter and his hawkish National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski decisively ended. Providing lethal aid to the Mujahideen, they intended to make Afghanistan the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, payback for the American nightmare that had only ended five years previously. A boycott of the Moscow Olympics soon followed, as well as termination of broad-ranging intellectual and cultural exchanges — as well as collaboration in space exploration — between the United States and the Soviet Union, all initiated by Nixon and Kissinger.

Reagan with Afghan Mujahideen 1985

Especially blameworthy in this story, as recounted in the documentary, is the role of the ideological Cold Warriors of the Reagan Administration, who were determined to defeat the Soviet Union at all costs, even as Gorbachev attempted to rely on the most moderate forces in Afghanistan, in order to achieve a national reconciliation and remove Soviet troops. Reagan’s advisors, gleeful at the humiliations suffered by their ideological foe, armed the most radical Jihadists they could find with billions of dollars of sophisticated weaponry and training, thus creating a kind of hothouse for growing future terrorism. Stinger missiles — handheld anti-aircraft weapons — were given to the Mujahideen, taking down hundreds of Soviet attack helicopters. Sly Stallone exploited the triumphal embrace of the Islamic Jihadists in 1988, producing Rambo III, in which Rambo heads a CIA operation to help Mujahideen blow away Soviet soldiers. Reagan greeted Mujahideen in the White House as partners in defense of religious faith and freedom against Godless commies.

2260151-rambo_iii

karmal

If Brezhnev’s dotage played a role in the initial Soviet invasion, goaded on by hawks within the Soviet military industrial complex, Reagan’s own advancing senility in the mid-1980s allowed Cold Warriors like Richard Pearle, blind to the dangerous implications of their Afghanistan gambit, to enact a fatally-flawed policy in the Middle East.

pearle

This is a well told story that clearly outlines the series of blunders and missteps that led to the overthrow of Amin, the invasion, the installation of the new Soviet-chosen leader Babrak Karmal and to the many unintended and tragic consequences that resulted – especially for the United States and the Soviet Union, who armed their current and future enemies in waging a proxy war against each other. It contains excellent archival footage as well interviews with important historical figures on all sides of the conflict at the time. This documentary, in short, is a must see for anyone interested in the blunders and miscalculations of both Soviet and American leaders that produced the terror-infested world in which we now live.

REAGAN-US

Posted in Soviet Afghanistan War, Soviet Era 1917-1991, Terrorism, Transnational History | 3 Comments

Ivanovo: Surprise

Unexpected stories emerge when you poke around in archives. The best laid plans often lead away from where you originally thought they’d go. Sometimes it’s because a letter that is mostly about one thing veers away to discuss a totally different issue (something that is all too familiar when I look at my own email inbox and try to find important materials by looking only at subject lines). Sometimes it’s because files themselves are opaque in their names—the document I’m going to talk about today is from a file simply labeled “current correspondence for 1843.” And of course it’s almost always because people, historical and otherwise, are themselves surprising.

That’s how I felt about a petition that showed up in the Ivanovo estate records. I started reading it and then found it turned into a place I did not at all expect. At the start, I thought it was one version of a mother/daughter story, and then quickly realized it was not.

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Ivanovo: Property

When Kirill Ermolaevich Gandurin died in May 1820, he left behind a wife, a daughter, and a long list of property. A one-story stone house, a list of sixty four icons, a second list of twenty seven additional icons, two clocks, silver, jewelry, seven books, all on religious topics. And, of course, extensive lists of clothing and cloth. The last is the least surprising, because Gandurin was not a nobleman, nor was he a merchant. He was wealthy—no one looking at the long list of property could doubt that—but he was wealthy in a most unusual context. He was one of the wealthy serf industrialists of the village of Ivanovo, the major textile center of early-nineteenth-century Russia.

Because Gandurin was a serf, the settlement of his property was overseen by the Ivanovo estate administration, which represented the interests of the village’s owner, Count Dmitrii Nikolaevich Sheremetev. It operated according to strict regulation—a set of domovye postanovleniia that had established regular practices regarding serf property. As a result of that regulation, “Ivanovo represented its own little self-contained state [gosudarstvo] within Russia” as the former serf Ia. P. Garelin put it in his history of the village (and eventually town). Continue reading

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Ivanovo: Energy Crisis

Firewood showed up in my last post in what was for me a rather unexpected way, as the source of artistic inspiration. It also showed up in other accounts of Ivanovo in the 1830s-1860s in a very different way: as fuel for industry. More than that, though, its absence showed up as an industrial energy crisis.

A path through the forest near Abramtsevo. Photo from July 4, 2015.

A path through the forest near Abramtsevo. Photo from July 4, 2015.

By most accounts of Ivanovo, the textile industry was already of long standing by the early 1800s, but growth really took off around 1820. One story claimed that refugees from the Napoleonic burning of Moscow settled in or near the village and helped drive a new round of growth. A second story claimed that the greatest period of growth occurred between 1825 and 1840—this vision was presented without explanation, but it may well be that it reflected a surge of manumission at the end of the 1820s (the village owner, Count Sheremetev, freed twenty households between 1828 and 1831, most headed by local manufacturers who then continued to run factories in the village). Or it reflected the fact that at nearly the same time, something else happened—machines came into the village.  The first machines appeared in Ivanovo factories in 1832, causing worry for the local peasants, and also introducing a new problem: finding fuel to keep them running. Continue reading

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Ivanovo: Patterns (literally)

Ivanovo textiles, from Ивановские ситцы

Ivanovo textiles, from Ивановские ситцы

One of the things that’s a bit tricky about working primarily with written texts about old Ivanovo is that the major work of the village/town is obscured. Ivanovo was not just a center of textiles in the sense that it was a place in which linen or cotton fabric was produced. Although linen or cotton manufacture was at times a major part of the industrial world of Ivanovo, the village and then the town was particularly known for one particular kind of textile production: printed calico. That meant that it produced colors and patterns. (It also means that it came to be home to some chemical works that produced dyes and maybe caused some other problems, but that’s another story.) Continue reading

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The Russian Manchester

I’ve been following a thread from my work on soslovie that has led me to do some reading on the then village of Ivanovo in the early parts of the nineteenth century. I came across references to a number of serfs freed by Count D. N. Sheremetev who became merchants of Moscow in the 1820s, and they led me back to Ivanovo, where a number of them continued to live as factory owners in the area. I’ve been trying to trace out some issues with the social world of the village, where former serfs turned merchant factory masters lived in very close contact with their workers—who were of course mostly still serfs—and what that meant for life in the “Russian Manchester.”

On the side, though, I’ve also come across a whole slew of interesting little stories about other aspects of life in the region, and so I’m going to do a mini-series of posts about Ivanovo, mostly from the time of serfdom, but a few moving later into the nineteenth century.

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Common Good: Collectives

I intended to post a second response in the conversation a while ago, but thoughts about cheese and then a trip intervened. I’ve been thinking about the commentary here a lot, though, and in particular about another aspect of the shift from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. I got distracted by thinking about the process of writing and revising last time, so this is in some ways a more serious response to the questions about the eighteenth century and the ways it is distinct from the nineteenth century.

First, I think Lindsay is right, that the Catherinian charters are meant in part to give incentives to take up a formal status that more or less accurately reflected socio-economic activity rather than live in a murky in-between. Now that I think about it, the fact that the charters to the nobility and to the towns (and the one for the state peasants that was never enacted) are so very similar in format plays into this more than I perhaps originally thought. Comparing the two charters really brings out their essential similarity—the nobility is comprised of six different parts (“true nobility,” military nobility, eighth-rank nobility, foreign nobles, those with distinguished titles, those of “ancient high-born noble lines”) and the townspeople are also divided into six parts (those who owned real estate in the town; merchants, artisans, foreign or out-of-town guests, notable citizens, meshchane). They both get record books (rodoslovnye knigi or obyvatelskie knigi) with similar lists of documents that can be presented in order to get listed in those books. The charter to the state peasants would have been very similar. In a way, it’s like a version of universal rule of law—everyone (except, of course, serfs) governed by essentially the same kinds of laws of status, even if the specifics of what applied to any one person might be different. Continue reading

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On cheese

Who knew, when I started writing about the Swiss cheese master Tinguely last November, that cheese would become the star of its own foreign policy drama? And yet, here we are. Type “cheese” and “Russia” into twitter’s search field and find a slew of half serious, half ironic stories about Russia’s turn against the evils of Parmesan. Type “сыр” in and find a slew of often pretty funny memes about it (my favorite? Melisandre hovering over Putin’s shoulder, urging him to burn the cheese).

Certainly when I was in Moscow earlier this summer, cheese was a big topic of conversation already, even before the burnings began. (Another sentence I never dreamed I’d write.) My first day in Moscow, at the prompting of a Russian friend, I spent some time looking at the cheese section at a new grocery store, raising my eyebrows at the labels indicating that some cheeses had been imported from Belarus, wondering at the labeling on the “No. 1 in Italy!” mozzarella that had apparently been produced in a nearby province. Later, I heard the saga of the palm oil rumors—the idea that Russia had begun importing huge quantities of palm oil, which was being used to increase the production of processed cheese. Rumors of its dire effects on health ensued, and labels began to appear on cheese, announcing its purity. When I went off to Berlin for a weekend, someone told me to “bring back cheese!” (I didn’t.)

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Common Good: The Eighteenth Century

First, let me thank Josh for organizing this conversation, and Alex, Lindsey, Charles, and John for taking time at summer’s end to take part in it. You are all very kind, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to think about what’s in my book by seeing it interpreted from your various points of view. I have a number of things I’d like to develop more out of this set of comments, and rather than put them all in one long post, I’ll spread them out a bit.

I’ll start by thinking about chronology, or rather, of the problem of the eighteenth century. Alex and Lindsey are both totally right when they note that I cover the eighteenth century differently than the nineteenth century—that, for example, the first and particularly the last chapters, the chapters in which I try to think more broadly about the meaning of soslovie, are very much weighted toward the nineteenth century (and the last chapter toward the last half of the nineteenth century). They’re also very nice in putting this off on a problem of the sources, rather than on how I wrote the book. Continue reading

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Sosloviia in Individual and Collective Lives

Before reading Alison K. Smith’s new book, I had two broad visions of sosloviia in Imperial Russian life, one a dream, the other a nightmare. Both centered on its meaning for collective, rather than individual, life.

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The Uses of Soslovie in Imperial Russia

It is a pleasure to comment on Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being. Her careful examination of the mechanics of changing estates through painstaking research on individual cases demonstrates her central point—that estate mattered. It mattered enough to many Russians that they were willing to endure lengthy engagement with local estate administrations and at times costly bribes to move from one category to another. Alison combines archival work on particular people with memoir literature to show how changing estate status made possible ways of imagining themselves and their futures. Beyond Alison’s work in the capitals, she has worked in a half dozen regional archives to show that estate status had a powerful geographical/spatial dimension as well as a social hierarchical one. The chronological sweep of her study matches its geographical breadth. Her work addresses urban estate institutions from the eighteenth century to their demise after 1917, which makes her argument about the larger importance of estate all the more sweeping.

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Soslovie and the City in the Eighteenth Century

Many thanks to Josh for organizing such great panel and inviting me to participate, and also to Alison for writing such an insightful and engaging book. Her study of soslovie provides much food for thought, and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s comments over the coming days.

It would take far too much space to enumerate all the things I liked about Alison’s approach to soslovie, and thankfully Alexander Martin has helped me by so concisely summarizing the book and its many merits. In particular, I’d also like to add that I am grateful for the reassurance that “confusion” really is the right response to the mess of laws and practices related to soslovie and cities in the eighteenth century. During the early stages of my dissertation research, I spent a great deal of effort trying to make sense of the conflicting regulations surrounding the phenomenon of trading peasants. I can now definitively put to rest any lingering worries that I had overlooked the magical law (if only!) that would have reconciled the contradictory strains of legislation and made everything clear on the matter.

Along those lines, while reading the chapters on the eighteenth century I found myself pondering the challenges historians face when undertaking a study that spans the entire imperial period. As Alex noted in his post, source limitations inevitably shape the narrative one can construct for this century. Alison skillfully handles this challenge by focusing on legislative developments related to soslovie and the complexities of how magistrates interpreted these laws in practice. But laconic sources mean that these chapters lack the rich insight into how individuals and communities negotiated the various meanings of soslovie that appear in subsequent chapters on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The source limitations are unfortunate, because it seems to me that a fundamental question underpinning this study is not just the evolving meaning of soslovie in the eighteenth century, but also how soslovie came to have any meaning at all. As Alison reminds us at various points throughout the text, the eighteenth century was a period when new social categories emerged yet older, pre-Petrine ones persisted. How and why did soslovie come to subsume these other categories, and what compelled individuals to opt in and choose to “fit” themselves within this new system?

This may be a relatively moot point for groups like the nobility or serfs whose status coincided more neatly with soslovie prescriptions, but it’s quite a different story for the jumble of urban residents that legislation struggled to corral and categorize throughout the eighteenth century. My experience digging through the Moscow Police Chancellery archives for this period made it clear to me just how easily individuals could—and did—lead prosperous lives that openly defied soslovie regulations, and also the tangible benefits one gained by transgressing category boundaries and opting not to fit within the system. These benefits ranged from the financial, such as avoiding taxes and other fees registered merchants had to pay, to the social. Serfs in Moscow could turn to an owner or, in the case of non-serf peasants, a chancellery to advocate on their behalf in moments of conflict, and very often with successful results. From this perspective, it always struck me as remarkable, not inevitable, that so many individuals opted to forsake these advantages by joining the merchant or townsmen ranks by the end of the eighteenth century.

Following this train of thought, I wonder what insights might be gained by considering how the eighteenth century may have been a period where rulers aimed not simply to categorize, but to co-opt subjects so they would adopt this new social framework. For example, I think Catherine’s legislation can be seen not simply as an effort to organize and reshape urban society, but also to raise the status of merchants and townsmen in order to entice her errant urban subjects to register in categories that better corresponded to their socioeconomic status.

Similarly, this perspective might allow for a study of how broader social changes throughout the eighteenth century connect to the evolution of soslovie. For example, land disputes adjudicated by the Moscow Police in the 1770s and 1780s show that individuals who engaged in commercial activity, including peasants, were more likely to view the Moscow Police or documents produced by the General Survey as a source of authority in times of conflict. In contrast, other segments of society like the city’s iamshchiki (which John knows more about than I do!) continued to articulate an older conception of the city where neighborhood elders served as the primary source of authority and where communal precedent, not state records or regulations, provided the ultimate standard for right and wrong. Perhaps viewing the decision to change soslovie as part of a larger process whereby urban residents came to increasingly accept the conception of authority, society, and the city Catherine promoted could shed new light on what compelled individuals to change their official status.

These are complicated questions, but I’ve always enjoyed the space this blog provides for more informal and forthright conversations about history, exemplified by Alison’s recent posts on the dead cheese master. I’d love to invite Alison and others to wade into the waters of speculation with me and hear their thoughts on the eighteenth century and the murky beginnings of soslovie.

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Common Good

I’m honored to have been invited to contribute to this conversation about Alison Smith’s new book For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being. This is, unless I’m forgetting something, my first-ever blog post, which makes the occasion doubly exciting!

If you have followed Alison’s posts on this blog about the dead cheese master of Gatchina, you have an idea of how she approaches history. Her overarching project is to understand how social identity worked in Russia, especially before the Great Reforms. Social identities, she argues, were constructed through a process of negotiation that included individuals, their local communities, and the state. She looks for evidence of this process primarily in the intermediate, mostly urban layers of society, because here (a) people moved actively between social statuses and (b) extensive documentation survives in the form of administrative records and ego-documents. Alison draws on massive archival research for her evidence, and as with the cheese master, she has an eye for the intriguing individual story that sheds light on wider social processes.

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For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being – Introduction

I’m very pleased to launch the eleventh “issue” of this blog’s book conversation series. Today we begin discussing Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014). Alison is well known to regular readers of this blog, not least for her fascinating multi-part series of posts on the “dead cheese master” over the past year. One can only admire her ability to write engagingly for the blog, compellingly for articles in the most prominent journals in the field (among them the American Historical Review and the Journal of Modern History), and in an equally attractive way in her most recent book.

The University of Toronto’s historian of the imperial era, Alison has always been interested in looking across long periods of time in her work. Her first book, Recipes for Russia: Food and Nationhood under the Tsars (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), ranged from the eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. In this book, Alison covers the period from Peter the Great through 1917 and proves able to make many interesting arguments on the basis of a longitudinal study of practices surrounding soslovie membership. I will leave the substantive comments to our panelists, all of whom are more expert on this topic than I am, but I will say that I was particularly interested in the way that Alison describes not only the multiple ways that soslovie functioned in the early imperial period but also the implications of this complexity in the post-reform period. Most notably, an institution that had been (from the perspective of the central state especially) primarily about defining specific tax and military obligations came to carry increasingly important entitlement implications as the rudimentary welfare state developed in the last decades of tsarist rule. Alison proves able to show not just how soslovie persisted after emancipation, but why. Continue reading

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