Cold War Soviet Era 1917-1991

Creating Cover Stories: A National Pastime

This coming April 12 marks the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight into space. In honor of that jubilee, and also because I’m finishing a biography on the world’s first cosmonaut, I’ll be blogging on and off about various aspects of Gagarin’s life and legend.

More than just a delivery vehicle, Gagarin’s ship, the “Vostok,” was a special kind of space portal: it connected the super-secret world of national defense to the Soviet public realm. In passing through that portal, Gagarin had done something totally unprecedented — as shocking, perhaps, as the actual technical feat of the flight. He had revealed his secret identity and life. This act of revelation, in a system that constructed elaborate barriers to protect closed worlds from public view, created an initial sense of panic as well as joy among Gagarin’s handlers and commanders, many of whom worked in the ranks of the KGB. They were overjoyed that he had survived his ordeal, his trial by technological terror. They were eager to trumpet the flight as proof for the whole world to see that the Soviet Union had a superior way of organizing its political and technological affairs. They wanted to brag. But they were terrified that in the process of talking about themselves they might compromise national security.  One eyewitness account remembered the alarm of KGB officers who arrived at the landing site of Gagarin’s charred capsule, which alit about 2 kilometers away from Gagarin. People were climbing all over it, snapping pictures (photography of military objects was strictly forbidden!), and stripping off pieces as personal souvenirs. One souvenir seeker managed to “privatize,” in his words, a few tubes of space food. Within hours, before a security cordon could be reestablished and a black tarp placed over the capsule, the details of a top-secret enterprise had been dangerously exposed to the public.[1]

Films Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

The Way Back: Cold War Emotions Revived?


Just before Christmas I saw the newly released The Way Back, in many ways a typical escape story. Directed by Peter Weir, the film tells the incredible story of how a young Polish officer, arrested in 1939 and sent to the Siberian Gulag, plots his escape – and with a small band of fellow inmates – manages not only to make it out of the camp, but also through Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas to India. Along the way they face many of the knotty moral issues characteristic of the genre: Should they wait for weakened members of the group? When must they rest, and when battle on? And can they risk letting a newcomer – in this case, a young girl Polish also on the run – join them? There are some nice touches: I particularly like the way the girl acts as a go-between, passing on information about the men which they are too buttoned-up to share amongst themselves. 

Digital Russian History

An Academic Russian History Blog?

Welcome to the Russian history blog.  For my first post, I thought I’d start to lay out a little bit of what I was thinking when I asked this great collection of colleagues to join me in this new venture.  I am sure this is something that I will return to from time to time, but it seemed an appropriate way to begin the discussion.

I am very fortunate to be a member of George Mason University’s Department of History and Art History, because I am in a department and at a university that takes digital scholarship seriously.  Our department is probably most known for its Center for History and New Media, an organization at the forefront of using digital technology in history since the days of the CD-ROM.  Drawing upon research for my book coming out this May, I worked with CHNM to build an internet exhibit on the history of the Gulag, confident in the notion that my university would consider such work as serious scholarship when the tenure decision was being made.  (And it did, as I received tenure last year.)

Lately, prompted by a presentation of CHNM’s director Dan Cohen to a departmental faculty seminar, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the future dissemination of historical research, which according to many experts will undergo significant shifts in the near future (not unlike what has been happening in the newspaper industry in recent years). The economics of publishing, reductions in library budgets, and the altered digital environment likely make these changes inevitable.  We, as scholars, can either sit by and watch the changes happen, or we can become actively involved in changing the nature of the scholarly publishing enterprise.  Numerous fields other than history have already been moving in new directions–notably law, economics and some of the physical sciences.  Whether in blogs or uploading papers to the Social Science Research Network or Arxiv , scholars are increasingly either cutting out the traditional publishing network or doing something that expands on traditional scholarly publishing.  Scholars are increasingly recognizing that peer review as currently constructed has not only benefits but significant costs.  (See, for example, the “Scholars Test Web Alternative To Peer Review” in the New York Times along with the links at the end of this post.)

There are many possible directions we can go as scholars to help shape this future.  One of these is the blog. In many other fields, blogs have become a way for scholars to expand their influence in a field.  (Economist Tyler Cowen, here at George Mason, has been particularly successful in this regard with his blog Marginal Revolution.  The same can be said of many other economists, law professors, etc.)  This is an area that has only barely been broached in the field of Russian history.  (The most successful similar digital projects in Russian history, in my mind, are the PERSA working papers series and Sean Guillory’s Sean’s Russia Blog. Hopefully, the short-lived E-Kritika will make a comeback.) There are other group blogs in history and in the humanities including: Crooked Timber, Frogs in a Well and Whewell’s Ghost among others, and we will no doubt draw inspiration from them.

So, at the 2010 ASEEES convention, after presenting on a roundtable about digital resources for Russian history, I began a conversation with long-time colleague and friend Andrew Jenks and we decided to launch the Russian History Blog as a group blog.  We start here with five contributors, though we may well add more in the coming months.

Our only guiding principle as we start this blog is to focus on history and only to focus on contemporary events when they have clear historical content.  We hope the blog will be seriously but informally academic.  Our posts will be varied–reviews of films and publications, discussions of materials and questions in our own research, descriptions of how we use digital resources in our teaching or research. Some posts will be quite short, others quite long.

The audience for the blog, we imagine, will be small to start, and the initial audience will likely be our fellow scholars, but we hope also to contribute to a larger conversation on Russia and Russian history.  Most academic publication on Russian history currently exists either in book form or in peer-reviewed journals that, of necessity, lie behind a pay wall.  On the internet, material behind a pay wall may as well not exist.  We hope the blog will enhance traditional scholarly publication (and we are most certainly not advocating its elimination, as all of us have published in traditional genres and venues) and put some of the results of our best scholarship in front of a wider audience.

So, that is my initial thinking as we start this project.  No doubt my thinking and the project itself will change considerably over time.  I hope you will join our conversation in the comments section and that, perhaps, you will consider a digital project of your own.  In that vein, I am appending here just a small selection of writings that have influenced my thinking about this blog.  I hope you will find them as influential as I have.

Dan Cohen: Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values

Michael O’Malley, Googling Peer Review part 1 and part 2

The Scholar Communication Institute at UVA on “Emerging Genres in Scholarly Communication