Blog Conversations Common Good

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.

Imperial Apocalypse World War I

How strong was the Russian state in 1914?

OK, after a couple of rambles, this one will be a shorter post, and I’ll frame it around a question for all the panelists and for the readers of this blog. David McDonald remarks in his final point: Finally, in Sanborn’s telling, the forces unleashed by the war and autocracy’s gathering failures took shape relatively quickly during the war itself. Does taking this view unduly underestimate the extent of social, political and ethnic fissures that had become so dramatically apparent in 1905 and that underlay imperial politics even amid the patriotic celebrations in July 1914? Had the empire—not least the “state”—fully recovered by 1914?”

My view, which I treat probably too briefly in my book, is that the Russian state was quite strong at the start of 1914, strong enough that independence-minded Polish and Finnish nationalists were rightly pessimistic about their future prospects and dynamic enough that Russia’s enemies (Germany in particular) feared for the future. This was not just the result of the post-1905 military reforms (and increasingly robust military budgets) but the result of a whole series of what we might call the “little reforms” on and around 1910, many of them spearheaded by Stolypin with the express purpose of bolstering state power. To be sure, the autocracy had its share of weaknesses, a whole Achilles flank rather than just a heel, and these would prove fatal in the war, but I don’t believe it was on the verge of collapse. Collapse, I argue came during the war, not as the amorphous outcome of “war” or “defeat,” but as the result of a series of self-destructive decisions made by political leaders: the imposition of martial law, the refusal to impose “discipline” on army and front commanders, the resolve to fight inflation through a scapegoating anti-speculation campaign and price controls, and the impetuous move to conduct a scorched earth campaign on their own territory in 1915, to name just a few.

I’d like to hear from others, though, who may see the Russian state as weaker in the months leading up to the war than I do. And how would this thesis of a weak state affect the interpretation of the war as a whole? Feel free to leave comments in the thread below. I and/or other members of the blog will “approve” them when we see them, as unfortunately the volume of spam prevents us from having instant commenting on these posts. If time passes and your comment isn’t posted, feel free to email me or another member of the blog so we can check the spam folder in the system too!

Imperial Apocalypse World War I

Mobilization, Motivation, and the Staatsidee

One of the pleasures of a forum like this is that an author can see how his or her work is read and used by colleagues in “real time.” John Paul Newman’s comments about mobilization and ideas, more specifically the “limits of the Russian imperial idea to mobilize its peoples,” are particularly interesting for me in this regard. I had not expected this line of analysis, as I have actually long seen this project as a departure from my first book, Drafting the Russian Nation, which was very consciously about the relationship between ideologies and mobilization. Nevertheless, John Paul is right. Ideas – including ideas about empire – were certainly important to the war and to my book.

Imperial Apocalypse World War I

Imperial Apocalypse – Response regarding “decolonization”

I too want to begin with more than formulaic thanks to Alison, John Paul, David, and Willard. Alison did a wonderful job of soliciting commentators for this conversation, and (shameless plug #1!) readers should keep an eye out later this summer for a conversation on her own excellent new book, For the Common Good and Their Own Well Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia. John Paul, David, and Willard were not only kind in their comments but also unusually reflective and probing. Thanks!

Those who have read the previous three posts know that there is a lot of terrific food for thought there. This is the stage in a blog conversation where it would be terrific to get lots of back and forth going, not only among the “panelists,” but the “audience” as well. Readers should feel free to use the comments section to question or hold forth on points briefly or at length. I will be responding to these comments in a series of posts over the next few days rather than writing one long response, as that seems to fit the idea of “conversation” a bit better. Plus, I need time to chew on this “food for thought!”

In this first response, though, I’d like to address some of the questions related to the concept of decolonization, as the use of this term has been one of the most controversial aspects of this project as I have presented parts of it in various venues over the years. Criticisms along this line are certainly valid. As Willard notes, the term is both central to my monograph and yet not fully explored in a theoretical or comparative way. This is an issue, naturally, that I have long been aware of. At a certain point in this project, I had to decide what the fundamental nature of my book was. If my core concern was to make a point about decolonization in its global context, with the Russian war experience as a particularly important case study, then I would need to write a comparative and theoretical text that left out much of the various aspects of the Russian war experience that interested (and still interest) me. If my core project was to describe and interpret the apocalypse of the war years, then I felt I had to have a somewhat lighter comparative and theoretical touch. In the end, I chose the latter, largely for reasons having to do with audience.


ASEEES reverses course on Cohen-Tucker Fellowship

I blogged a couple of months ago about the controversy regarding the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship. After hearing from a large number of ASEEES members, the board held a special meeting and reversed its earlier decision. It has also changed its procedures to allow for more transparency in the future.

Full statement here:

Hopefully, Prof. Cohen and Ms. van den Heuvel will now renew their offer to support the work of graduate students in our field!

Post-Soviet Russia Ukraine Uncategorized

Dear Stephen Cohen: I Love You; I’m Sorry; You’re Wrong

Steve, I hope you don’t mind an expression of affection from an admirer of a certain age. We’ve never met, but I’ve known you my entire professional life. I came into the field as a Stanford undergraduate in 1987, scared to death of nuclear war and hoping to do whatever little I could to prevent it. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, taking a course in arms control from David Holloway and sitting in the back of Alexander Dallin’s huge Soviet history class as he filled the board with notes and encouraged students like me to enter graduate school because looming retirements promised to make Soviet studies a growth field (ah, the perils of prognostication). It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that my first contact with you was in that liminal zone between political science and history that you and Dallin and Holloway occupied so forcefully. I eventually trimmed my sails more clearly in the direction of history under the tutelage of Nancy Shields Kollmann and Terence Emmons, but you remained a presence.

And there you were again in graduate school! Sheila Fitzpatrick assigned Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution in her demanding seminar and assigned me the task of reading and reporting on the recently published stenographic reports of Stalin’s attack on Bukharin at the February 1937 plenum of the Central Committee. I’m still standing, so I suppose I passed that test, but only with an assist from you. In short, you were a central intellectual figure of my youth, and those people always hold a special place in one’s heart. Thank you.

I found out only last week that you have been subjected to humiliation by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), an organization that I belong to. As a voting member, I bear some responsibility for the actions of the board I helped elect, and so please let me say, from the bottom of my heart: I’m Sorry. I know that others in our organization feel the same way. I’ve read a copy of your January 13 letter to “The ASEEES President, Executive Committee, Board of Directors and All Interested Members of the Association,” which is circulating in samizdat form and will link to it here (or upload it in full if you wish) if and when you want it to be published. It is a painful piece. More than a hundred of us have joined together to append our signatures to a letter written by David Ransel that expresses the shock and outrage felt by those not only in our cozy area studies community but more broadly across academia. We do not understand how the academics on our board could turn up their noses at the generous grants to graduate students proposed by the KAT Foundation simply because your name (and that of your mentor Robert Tucker) was attached to the prize.

Reviews World War I

Article Review: William G. Rosenberg, “Reading Soldiers’ Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I,” American Historical Review 119, no. 3 (June 2014): 714-740.

In this post, I’m hoping to use the Russian History Blog platform to explore a different form of scholarly communication – the article review. Articles are of course reviewed all the time, but normally anonymously and with the aim of assessing their suitability for publication. After publication, however, authors are lucky to get more than a few lines of comment in a fellow scholar’s work or glancing attention in a footnote. A happy conjunction of forces – finishing my own large project and then opening my latest issue of the American Historical Review to see an article by Bill Rosenberg on a topic I’ve thought a bit about – allows me to do one now.

Blog Conversations Russian Citizenship

Russian Citizenship – A Reaction

Our panel of distinguished commentators have raised a number of very interesting points related to Eric’s book. Alison wonders whether the emotional aspect of citizenship and the decision where to live might well be worth additional consideration. Her post and Eric’s response highlight some methodological issues that confront researchers addressing these themes, but I think there is more to say on this issue. Students of nationalism and national identity have long tried to come to terms with the affective aspects of the phenomenon. I find myself wondering now more acutely how questions of citizenship intersected with nationalism on the “emotional plane.” This is a question not only for Eric, but for all of our blog readers.

Similarly, I am thinking much more about the question of economic autarky and physical borders as a result of the posts of Ari, Golfo, and Andrey. Ari suggests that the intensifying global restrictions on migration and citizenship in the interwar period might have played a role in Soviet practices of autarky. Golfo was struck, as I was, by Eric’s tale of the victorious police lobby in the early Soviet period and by the link between ascendant police forces and tighter border controls. Andrey, on the other hand, issued a thoughtful challenge to the very premise that the Soviets wanted to pursue autarky. He aligns himself with Michael Dohan’s argument that the decline in foreign trade was the result not of a Soviet intent to isolate their own economy, but from a collapse in exportable goods (such as grain) and the isolationism of Depression-era capitalist states. At the same time, Andrey warns us not to think of the increasingly militarized Soviet border as a means to enforce blanket restrictions on emigration but as a result of particular campaigns related to specific security concerns. He expresses doubts about consistent anti-foreign sentiments during terror campaigns as well and suggests that, much like Eric’s description of the imperial situation, these police-state measures were often “separate deals” as well.

We have a number of concepts floating around in time-sensitive relationships with each other: citizenship, nationalism, protectionism, autarky, capitalism, globalization, migration, and border, to name a few. Again, I would like to know if blog readers have thoughts on these issues, even if they have not yet had the opportunity to read Lohr’s book.

Russian Citizenship

Russian Citizenship – Introduction


Welcome to the Russian History Blog’s fifth “blog conversation.”  The text that has inspired this conversation is Eric Lohr’s excellent book, Russian Citizenship: From Empire to Soviet Union (Harvard UP, 2012). This is Lohr’s second monograph, following his well-received Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War I (Harvard, 2003). The connection between the two projects is easy enough to see. His first book dealt with a particularly striking moment in Russian history, when the state and the engaged Russian public launched a furious campaign against alien subjects within the empire. They deported, denounced, expropriated, harassed, and otherwise persecuted a wide variety of merchants, businessmen, and farmers throughout the country in a very short period of time.

The obvious question was: how did it come to be the case that so many foreigners occupied important economic positions in a land infamous for its purported insularity and xenophobia? Answering this question led Lohr to investigate the history of immigration and emigration in imperial Russia, and this, in turn, led to ruminations on the very nature of Russian citizenship itself. Importantly, Lohr then continues this story beyond the caesura of rapid nationalization in the Great War to the policies adopted by the young Soviet state in the 1920s.


Open Access: A Response to Sean Guillory

My most recent blog post (on MOOCs) dealt with digital teaching. Less than a week after it appeared, Sean Guillory wrote an important piece on Sean’s Russia Blog regarding digital scholarship, to wit, the importance of open access for Russian historians. His inspiration for the piece was the suicide of Aaron Swartz, a gifted young computer scientist indicted by the government for downloading articles en masse from JSTOR with the intent to distribute them freely on the web. I do not know enough about Professor Swartz or about the case to comment further on it, and I am wary of quick declarations of the reasons behind particular suicides, but I think the question of open access is an important one. Sean deals with it carefully and intelligently, though I disagree with him on some points. The comments section of Sean’s blog piece includes several thoughtful responses written by Russian historians familiar with the economics of journal publishing and the labor it takes to produce a high-quality journal with rigorous peer review. I highly recommend that readers take a look at both the piece and the comments. Many of the commentators are editors with the big journals in our field, and I wouldn’t presume to add anything of substance from the journal side of the question. Instead, let me offer a few thoughts as an author, a consumer, and as someone involved in faculty governance at a small school.

Digital Russian History Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

MOOCs and the Future of Russian History in America

At the most recent Slavic Studies convention, I was talking with an old friend about the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). We teach similar courses at different institutions – he teaches at a university with global name recognition, while I teach at a small liberal arts college.  Even the “college” part of the name can be a problem in those many locations where the liberal arts college model is not well known. More than a few archivists and scholars have crinkled their eyebrows when examining my credentials, trying to make sense of what “Лафает Колледж” could possibly mean. My friend described to me some of the issues faculty members at his university were grappling with – when, how, and to what extent they should join the MOOC bandwagon.  It is already clear that at big-time universities folks are beginning to be concerned that a failure to develop MOOCs could bring real harm to their profile and reputation at home and abroad.

Historiography World War I

The Invention of Tradition, or How Military History Was NOT Written

Every few years, military historians in the United States engage in a bout of handwringing about the state of the field. Practitioners argue about whether military history in the academy is threatened, who or what is doing the threatening, and what to do about it.  Whatever else one can say about this debate, I think we can safely say that part of the issue has been that for decades now, folks in other historical subfields have claimed to be doing something different than the “traditional” fields of diplomatic, political, or military history.  Some of those bewailing the current state of historical scholarship agree with this assessment, seeing a decline or “undermining” of military history in recent years. In Victor David Hanson’s words, “military history took a beating in the 1960s and 1970s.” A certain number from each party agree that at one time, many historians did military history, and that now far fewer do.


Joe Paterno and the Cossacks: Thoughts on Atrocity and Honor

One of the areas that I study is why soldiers behave the way that they do, especially in the period of World War I and the Russian Civil War.  This has led me repeatedly to the question of atrocity.  Why do atrocities occur? How do witnesses respond? How do outsiders react?

Americans have been thinking about this same set of questions over the past week.  Pennsylvania State University, the flagship public university of my home state, was rocked by the arrest of a former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, on multiple counts of sexually abusing children.  It soon developed that several of these assaults had taken place in the expansive football facilities of the school.  On one occasion, in 2002, a graduate assistant named Mike McQueary had walked in on Sandusky raping a ten year old boy.  McQueary, a former quarterback on Penn State’s team, fled the scene without stopping the felony or calling the police.  The following day, he told head coach Joe Paterno, who in turn reported the offense up the Penn State chain of command.  No one ever called the authorities, and no one thought to ask why not.  For nine more years, Sandusky continued to abuse children.

Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

From the Classroom: Teaching Russian Texts in European History Courses

This semester I’m teaching a new course entitled “Sex in Modern Europe,” which I developed on the basis of some research I did a few years ago when co-authoring a book with Annette Timm. The course has seven two-week units: 1) Sex, History, and Theory, 2) Sex, Enlightenment, and Revolution, 3) Sex, Cities, and the Industrial Revolution, 4) Sex and Empire, 5) Sex and Total War, 6) The Long Sexual Revolution, and 7) Sex in Contemporary Europe.

Imperial Russia Uncategorized World War I

Russians in East Prussia, 1914, pt. 2

I’ve gotten several interesting responses to the first post on atrocities: on this site, in private communication, and on the listserve of the International Society for First World War Studies.  Many of those comments have related to the issue of rape in wartime.  One knowledgeable respondent offered the suggestion that the officers (esp. Gen. Gurko) would not have known that the straggling soldiers had been raping the locals.  Rape, he argues, was a capital crime in the Russian army and was “unlikely to be shrugged off at this early stage.” Another respondent found this interesting and asked whether the Russian army was unusual in its attention to crimes against women and whether anyone was ever punished for it.  A response, with a couple more translations, may help to develop this question further.

World War I

Atrocities in East Prussia, 1914

When Steve Barnes invited me to join this project, I hadn’t given much thought to blogging as a scholarly enterprise.  I have read academic blogs from time to time and I usually enjoy them. Sometimes helpful, sometimes self-indulgent, often stimulating, frequently ranting, I’ve put them on the list of things I’ll browse for intellectual pleasure in odd moments in the day, say the ten minutes I have between lunch and my one-fifteen class. But I didn’t plan to write them myself. Steve convinced me, however, that the blog as a genre held real possibilities for scholars. I won’t go into all of those possibilities in this first post, but I will point out a couple of obvious facts about the current limitations of scholarly publication: we only review new books, we review articles anonymously or in the safety of our classroom, and we comment very infrequently upon the strengths of particular works for teaching.  And, of course, the publishing process takes a long time.  At one time, listserves promised to break down some of these barriers, but few of them really do.  So this group blog, from my perspective at least, is a chance to experiment with short-form publishing in which the peer review comes after publication (in the form of responses to the posts, which are always welcome) rather than before.  It’s an exciting opportunity.

My first post is a short translation I’d like to share and briefly comment upon.  Aleksandr Subbotin was a cavalryman from the village of Kolkovo in Tver’ province who served in Rennenkampf’s First Army at the start of World War I.  Bright and literate enough to keep a diary, but occasionally clueless enough to be confused about the actual army he was in (he wrote that he was serving in the Fourth Army), he left behind a diary of the war and several photographs.  These remnants were preserved by local historians and ended up in a special room of the House of Trades in the town of Goritsy. They were read there by Vladimir Burdin, who thought the story of the local boy off at the Great War merited publication.  His edited volume of the diary was published in 2008 in the small burg of Kimry (pop. 50,000). As far as I can tell, only one library in the United States owns the book, and only the magic of WorldCat and interlibrary loan brought it to me.