Archives Digital Russian History Islam and Russian/Soviet History

Russian/Soviet Perspectives on Islam Launches

A few years back, Vadim Staklo came to George Mason University from Yale University Press. At YUP, in addition to wide editorial direction of publications on Russian and Soviet history, Vadim had worked on the launch of the Stalin Digital Archive, digitizing the Stalin Collection at the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History. [If you don’t know the Stalin Digital Archive, check out this interview with Vadim.] Vadim came to George Mason in hopes of collaborating with the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media on further projects aimed at digitizing and translating materials from the archives of the former Soviet Union, but now rather than expensive subscriptions that limit the availability of the digitized projects, he would seek outside funding to make documents available via open access to everyone.

I share below his announcement of the beta launch of the first project, a collection of transcribed and translated documents devoted to the history of Islam in Russia and the Soviet Union. In addition, I will join him on a roundtable at the upcoming conference of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, where we will talk more about the online archive. We are anxious for your feedback as we continue to develop the project. Without further ado, here’s Vadim.


George Mason University is launching a major new international multidisciplinary scholarly program, the Russian/Soviet Perspectives on Islam Project (RPI). The project, with primary support from the Luce Foundation and the NEH, documents the encounter and evolving relationship between the Orthodox/secular state and the Islamic regions, groups, individuals, and ideologies on the territory of the former Soviet Union and neighboring countries. This set of unique materials illuminates the strategies implemented by the Soviet and Russian state to establish authority and legitimacy among predominantly Muslim populations in Central Asia, the Northern Caucasus and Siberia and to enhance Moscow’s influence internationally with nearby Muslim countries, including Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. The digital archive is designed to disseminate these documents to the widest possible scholarly community and general readership.

Please join us for the launch and presentation of the RPI
at the ASEEES Congress on Saturday, 19 November at 3:45 PM.

Gender and Sexuality Gulag Kazakhstan Soviet Era 1917-1991

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. These memoirs, including Tamara Tanina’s, are discussed in Nanci Adler’s Keeping Faith With the Party: Communist Believers Return from the Gulag.]

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. [1. 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.] 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. [1. 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.] 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.[1. Although she continually professes her love for her executed husband in the memoir, it is also clear that he was abusive toward her.]

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?

Blog Conversations Gulag Gulag Town Company Town Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism

Gulag Town, Company Town: A Blog Conversation

We are excited to be trying something new with the latest in our series of blog conversations. We are co-hosting this blog conversation in conjunction with the Second World Urbanity Project blog. You can follow part of the conversation here at Russian History Blog, but should see the rest of the conversation (and check out the project!) over at Second World Urbanity. (And don’t forget to follow Russian History Blog on Twitter (@RussHistBlog) or on Facebook.) Now on to our book:

Alan Barenberg, a past blog conversation participant here at RHB, has published a magnificent new work on the history of the Gulag and its legacy. Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labor and Its Legacy in Vorkuta (Yale University Press, 2014) takes us north of the Arctic Circle to one of the Soviet forced labor camp system’s most notorious locations. Through an in-depth study based on archival research in Moscow, Vorkuta, and Syktyvkar, Gulag Town shows that the Gulag was thoroughly enmeshed in the Soviet system. It is a meticulous ground-level study of Soviet life–the history of the coal-producing city of Vorkuta from its foundation as a Gulag town in the 1930s to its transition from Gulag town to company town after Stalin’s death. Alan shows the deep integration of the Gulag into the local community spatially, economically, and through its personnel, an integration that left lasting traces well into the post-Stalin era. As such, he has provided a concrete picture of the legacies of the Gulag in post-Stalinist and ultimately even post-Soviet history.

I am looking forward to this conversation and will add many of my other thoughts about the book as we go. For now, jump below the fold to see Russian History Blog’s participants in the conversation and don’t forget to check out what’s happening with the conversation over at Second World Urbanity. My thanks to Steve Harris for his willingness to consider this kind of joint venture.

Blog Conversations Historiography Myth, Memory, Trauma Nostalgia and Memory Russian Literature Soviet Era 1917-1991 Soviet Intelligentsia Stalinism

Myth, Memory, Trauma: A Blog Conversation

For this edition of Russian History Blog’s “Blog Conversations,” we have gathered a distinguished group of scholars to discuss Polly Jones’s new book, Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-1970 (Yale University Press, 2013). Having devoted our blog to a discussion of The Stalin Cult two years ago, it seems only fitting that we discuss Soviet attempts to cope with that cult and other difficult aspects of the Stalinist past in the first two decades after the dictator’s death.

Generally, we have thought of this “thaw” primarily through through the lenses of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, the removal of Stalin’s body from the mausoleum after 1961’s 22nd Party Congress, the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and a few other notable works in the journal Novyi mir, only to have the “thaw” undone by Khrushchev’s ouster in favor of Leonid Brezhnev in 1964. Jones draws on a wide array of sources and intellectual approaches to paint a more complex and more interesting picture of Soviet approaches to the Stalinist past during and even after the Khrushchev years.

Archives Crimea Soviet Era 1917-1991 Ukraine

Whither Crimea? Vignettes from the Archives of Kyiv and Moscow

[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Jeff Hardy of Brigham Young University. Jeff has previously been a guest of Russian History Blog in our Gulag-related blog conversations. See his previous posts at Russian History Blog here.]

Let me preface this post by disclaiming that I am not an expert on Ukraine, let alone Crimea.  I have lived in and done archival research in Kyiv, and I teach the history of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, which includes plenty of material on Ukraine.  But my specialty is the Soviet Gulag in the Khrushchev era, not anything having to do with Ukraine per se.  My hope with this post, therefore, is only to offer a few personal anecdotes of how Crimea was viewed in the late 1940s and 1950s.

So why was I in Kyiv doing research?  Quite simply, because it’s virtually impossible to access Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) records from 1960 onward, and I wanted to tell the story of the Gulag up to 1964, when Khrushchev was deposed.  That led me to do research in Tallinn, in Vilnius, and in Kyiv.  Tallinn and Vilnius, of course, were beautiful cities with remarkably open-access secret archives.  Kyiv, while also beautiful, presented some more interesting archival experiences, a few of which touched (barely and briefly) on Crimea. 

Gulag Kazakhstan Nostalgia and Memory Soviet Era 1917-1991

A Night in Karlag

Karlag Museum
Museum of Memory of the Victims of Repression in the Dolinka Settlement (Karlag Museum). Photo by Steven A Barnes

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a paper at a conference entitled “Legacies of the Gulag and the Memory of Stalinism” at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. My paper focused on public memory of the Gulag in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani experience differs significantly from that in Russia, a topic discussed at the conference by Arsenii Roginskii, Nanci Adler, Alexander Etkind, Nikita Petrov, Andrei Sorokin, and others.

While the paper is perhaps too long for this forum, I wanted to share the portion of it discussing the “Night in Karlag,” a fascinating (and disturbing) recent moment in Kazakhstani public memory of the Gulag. The event raises interesting questions about the appropriateness of the experiential museum and historical reenactment for the portrayal of atrocity.

(Given recent news, it is certainly worth highlighting that this paper was made possible through in-country research supported by the U.S. Department of State’s now defunded Title VIII program via the American Councils for International Education.)


Federal Defunding of Russian and Eurasian Studies

I hate to interrupt the fascinating blog conversation on Communism on Tomorrow Street, but I feel it imperative to help spread this distressing news. The U.S. State Department’s Title VIII program has long supported studies of Russia and Eurasia, primarily though not exclusively by providing financial support for language studies and field research.

News today is that the budget for Title VIII has been cut in its entirety for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Carl Schreck of RIA Novosti covers the impact in some depth.

It’s really difficult to describe what a blow this is to my personal research agenda as a scholar and to the long-term state of the field. Title VIII funding via IREX supported the research trip to Russia and Kazakhstan that resulted in my own doctoral dissertation and first book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society. I spent four months last winter again in Russia and Kazakhstan with support from the Title VIII program via ACTR to complete the research for my current book project, The Wives’ Gulag: The Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. (I suppose I should count myself lucky that I managed to complete research for the second book just before the program was zeroed out.)

So, I have personally benefited from the Title VIII program, but it has been much more than that. A tremendous proportion of the books written by Americans in the field of Russian and Eurasian studies have depended on research underwritten by the Title VIII program. It would be truly frightening to go through my bookshelf and yank out all of the books supported by Title VIII and imagine the incredible loss of knowledge that the defunding of this program represents. The Russian History Blog itself is a secondary product of Title VIII, as much of the research we share, the books we discuss, the ideas we explore have resulted from the language and research training supported by Title VIII.

One can only hope that the program will be refunded in the future, but the political climate in Washington, DC, these days, so hostile to government spending in support of the production of knowledge, leaves one pessimistic.

Blog Conversations Communism on Tomorrow Street Soviet Era 1917-1991

Communism on Tomorrow Street – A Blog Conversation

Communism on Tomorrow StreetIrony of Fate, or “Enjoy Your Bath!” has always been among my favorite Soviet films, and my students have always so loved it. (Click on the title for an English-subtitled version of the film freely available on the Mosfilm Channel of YouTube, an absolutely incredible source for Soviet films.) The premise of this romantic comedy, if you are not familiar, is that a newly-engaged doctor named Zhenya goes off to a Moscow banya on New Year’s Eve to drink with friends. Intoxicated in the extreme, Zhenya is mistakenly sent on a plane to Leningrad in place of one of his buddies. Passing in and out of consciousness on the plane and after arrival in the Leningrad airport, he does not even realize he is no longer in Moscow. Zhenya hails a cab, gives his address, and emerges in front of a Leningrad apartment building with the same street address as his Moscow flat. Still inebriated, he enters the building, rides the elevator to his usual floor, and to the door of his usual apartment number. The building is so similar to his own that he still does not realize he is in Leningrad rather than Moscow. His key even works in the door. Zhenya flops into the bed in the darkened apartment, only to be awakened when the beautiful Nadya returns home to find this stranger in her bed. Over a night of hilarity and misunderstandings that destroys each of their relationships with significant others, Nadya and Zhenya fall in love. It’s a wonderful film and well worth watching if you’ve never seen it.

Of course, the entire premise of the film works because of the mass, uniform construction of Soviet apartment blocks. These buildings, the product of enormous state-led housing construction projects, still hover over the urban cityscape all around the former Soviet Union. These mass housing construction campaigns and the subsequent changes in the lives of their new residents are the subjects of our sixth blog conversation here at Russian History Blog, as we will discuss Steven E. Harris’s beautifully written new book, Communism on Tomorrow Street: Mass Housing and Everyday Life after Stalin (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Organizing these blog conversations is perhaps the most fun I have as a blogger, and I am very excited about the group of scholars gathered for this conversation. In this case, I have asked one of the conversation participants, Christine Varga-Harris, to serve as something of a “guest-host” for the conversation. Check below the fold for introductions of the participants in this conversation, and I invite you all to join the conversation by commenting on the various posts.

Digital Russian History

Open Access – Change Is Inevitable

The tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz has brought a new round of discussion around the issues of open access academic publishing. Even the field of Russian history has gotten involved in the discussion, driven by Sean Guillory’s thoughtful blog post. The post has drawn comments from editors of Kritika, Russian Review, and Slavic Review, who have chimed in with their take on the economic difficulties of open access for the peer-review journal. My co-blogger Joshua Sanborn has already written about the issue at some length here at Russian History Blog.

Teaching Russian History

Video Conference Class with HSE

Irina Filatova

In an interesting interview, Irina Filatova, a professor of African history at the National Research University-Higher School of Economics (HSE), offers her thoughts about the continued importance of de-Stalinization for Russia and discusses a new course she and I will be teaching together. The course focuses on how states and societies deal with the aftermath of mass state violence and injustice. Encompassing what is usually called “transitional justice,” the topic of the course is not all that unusual, but the way we are teaching it together is. We are using video conference technology to combine our respective HSE and George Mason University (Mason) classes into a single international classroom.

A series of case studies (post-Apartheid South Africa, post-Holocaust Europe, post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, post-Stalinist Russia, and post-lynching U.S. South) will allow our students to explore a wide variety of difficult issues like revenge, punishment, reconciliation, forgiveness, reparations, memory, and forgetting. Perhaps as importantly, the course provides an opportunity for our students to explore their preconceptions and misconceptions of themselves and each other.

The course emerged as part of a the COIL Institute for Globally Networked Learning in the Humanities, a project of the Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) at the SUNY Global Center. COIL’s mission includes the development at and beyond SUNY of international courses as “experiential cross-cultural learning, thereby sensitizing participating students to the larger world by deepening their understanding of themselves, their culture, how they are perceived and how they perceive others.” This quite nicely captures a number of our goals for this course. While we have chosen less of an online format than is traditional of COIL courses (opting instead to experiment with video conference as a way of bringing our own face-to-face classes together–neither Professor Filatova nor I had experience teaching online courses, and we could not quite bring ourselves to a level of comfort with the idea of a totally online experience), the impetus provided by COIL was key to launching the course.

The Mason-HSE Course Development Team at the COIL Institute Workshop in October 2011. Left to Right: Rick Reo, Instructional Designer (Mason); Steve Barnes, Associate Professor of History (Mason); Anne Schiller, VIce President of Global and International Strategies (Mason); and on-screen attending via video, Irina Filatova, Professor of History (HSE)

We begin our work together on Wednesday of this week, and I am excited and nervous in a way I have not been about teaching for a while. Teaching a traditional format course can be difficult enough–trying to engage students in discussion and critical thinking about complex and contentious issues. Here, the technology and an international student body with different native languages creates an additional set of challenges. The course will be taught in English. (Unsurprisingly it would be difficult to fill an American university classroom with students conversant in Russian, while it is much easier to fill a Russian classroom with English speakers). In the first two weeks of class prior to our HSE colleagues joining us, I have tried to make my students understand and appreciate how much more effort will be required of their Russian counterparts who must not only learn the subject matter but operate in their second language.

Despite the nervousness, I find myself quite excited. I suspect it will be quite the learning experience for me, and hopefully for my students as well. If I am lucky, the course will provide experiences worth sharing on the blog.

Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Death and Redemption – Responses, but not answers

Thanks to Golfo Alexopoulos and Dan Healey for joining the conversation. It is pleasing to see that not only are new young scholars writing about the Gulag, but some of the best established scholars like Golfo and Dan have turned to the subject as well. We still have so much to learn about the operation of this system, and over time all of these scholarly efforts will coalesce into a truly new understanding of the Gulag that will far surpass my own efforts in Death and Redemption. Although I toyed with moving on from studying the Gulag, this plethora of unanswered questions has pulled me back into the subject.

In general, I find the critical responses here as with many earlier responses to emerge to a significant degree from the boldness with which I lay out my argument. In laying out the argument, I will admit to giving up some valuable nuance in favor of an attempt to steer our conversation about the Gulag in new directions. Often, as these respondents repeatedly show, the nuance appears in the heart of the book and at times seems to contradict, or at the very least complicate the bold central argument. At the same time, the respondents seem to value the change in direction of our Gulag conversation above all else.

Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Death and Redemption – Reforging, Reeducation, Redemption

So many interesting posts in this discussion, I feel like I could write an entire article responding to all  of it. Here, I want to try to address some issues brought up initially by Jeff Hardy and in the comments of Wilson Bell (two of the best and brightest among the young Gulag historians) and then expanded on by others. (I must say, also, that Jeff often explains my book’s argument better than I do.) Each writing independent of the other, they raised similar questions about the book’s argument focused on whether and to what extent the “redemption” of the book’s title really matters in practice at the local level. I believe Jeff’s and Wilson’s comments, amplified by others, represent the most spot-on critiques of my book I have ever read and represent what I hope the next generation of Gulag histories will help us better understand.

What I hoped to do with the book, and what I think I have accomplished judging from the collected comments here, was to change the conversation about the Gulag and the role that it played in the Soviet Union. I wanted us to understand the Gulag was much more complex than Anne Applebaum would have it. I wanted us to think about more than the merely repressive or merely economic elements of the Gulag, while never forgetting the repressive and the economic in our analysis. I wanted us to start thinking about the Gulag as a penal system both similar to other modern detention institutions but with its own Soviet particularities.[1. In this, I stand on the shoulders of giants, following a raft of scholarship from the last twenty years that pushed us to see late imperial Russia and the Soviet Union as part of the broader Euro-American development of a modern political system rather than something sui generis, while maintaining sensitivity to the particularities of the Russian/Soviet version of this modernity.] When we learned in the late 1980s and early 1990s that a huge percentage of the Gulag population was released every year and that a minority of Gulag prisoners were politicals, previous explanations for the Gulag’s role in the Soviet Union seemed, if not wrong, certainly incomplete. Understanding what these new facts meant for our understanding of the Gulag has driven my research for more than a decade. Who was released, and when, and why? Who was not released? Did Soviet authorities care what became of the millions who would spend time in the camps but then return to Soviet society?

Death and Redemption Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism Teaching Russian History

Death and Redemption – On Images

First, I must thank my colleague and co-blogger Andrew Jenks for setting up this blog conversation here at Russian History Blog. As an academic author, I have found the wait for journal reviews of my book to be excruciating. The book came out almost exactly one year ago, and the first two reviews of the book appeared only in the last month. (Only this French review is available on the free web.) Immediacy is definitely something the blog conversation can uniquely provide.

It is a great honor to have this stellar cast gathered for this conversation. I find the praise overwhelming and flattering (“dean of Gulag studies“? wow!) and the critiques painful but also exhilarating and thought-provoking. Most of all, I am excited to see that the argument I tried to make in the book (warts and all) actually came through to the readers.

In an effort to facilitate this as “conversation”, I’ll respond intermittently to the readers’ comments rather than waiting for all to chime in. Here, I want to address the issue of images raised both by Deborah Kaple and Cynthia Ruder. Obviously, I can change nothing about the book now and I acknowledge that the book would have been improved with more images, but I can point now to some visual (and textual) evidence that might be useful to readers and to all of our students. I like Cynthia’s idea of creating auxiliary web material for the book, and it’s something I’ll think about doing. However, I would point out the availability of some freely available auxiliary material that may not be known to all. (For an extended discussion of materials available for teaching the Gulag, look at the posts by Wilson Bell and me at Teach History, Karl Qualls’ blog on teaching Russian history.)

I would point readers and students to the Gulag website created with my colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media here at George Mason University. In addition to a virtual exhibit, complete with visually-based original mini-documentaries, the site, especially in its archive, contains a wealth of visual evidence.The text search and the “browse by tag” function allows one to find materials by location, subject matter, person, etc.

In particular and in relation to Death and Redemption, I would like to point colleagues, readers, and students with Russian language skills to a selection of documents from the local Karlag archive in Karaganda.

As for a map of Karlag, it is easier said than done. Karlag, like most Gulag camps, did not occupy a single defined (let alone enclosed) space. It was diffuse with many different sub-camps located around the steppe of central Kazakhstan (not to mention the many “de-convoyed” prisoners who were herding animals around the steppe without residing in a particular camp zone and sometime even without the presence of an armed guard.) I try to describe the extent of the camp in the text by pointing out its outermost sub-camps, and I provided a map that located the most important geographic locales in Kazakhstan discussed in the book. To draw lines around the camp would be misleading as to how the camp was actually organized. (Here is a rather poor-quality version with credit to the cartographer Stephanie Hurter Williams.)




Blog Conversations Soviet Era 1917-1991 Stalinism The Stalin Cult

The Stalin Cult – A Blog Conversation

Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-Il, Joseph Stalin. The mere sound of these names conjures up mental images of the personality cult–films, monuments, renamed cities, prose, poetry, and, perhaps most of all, portraiture all designed to raise a dictatorial leader to mythic, super-human status. All Russian history professors teach about the Stalin cult, and students find it endlessly fascinating, yet surprisingly little serious academic research has been devoted to the topic–until now. Yale University Press has just published Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, and we have brought in a terrific group of experts to discuss what is, in my estimation, an instant classic in the field of Russian history.

Since we held our first blog conversation on Gulag Boss in the fall, we have received a lot of positive feedback on the format and hope to make this a regular feature here at Russian History Blog. (You can read my initial thoughts on the form of the blog conversation.) Periodically, either my co-bloggers or I will pick a book (new or old) or a topic, bring in guest bloggers with appropriate expertise, and invite our readers to participate via commenting on the individual posts. From time to time, we hope to coordinate our efforts with the New Books Network, as we have done for this conversation. Sean Guillory, host of New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies interviewed Plamper about the book and I urge you to listen to the podcast and join us for the conversation here at the blog. I also hope you will become a regular at New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies where many an author, myself included, are given the opportunity to talk about our works.

Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

New Teaching Russian History Blog

Karl Qualls Associate Professor of Russian History at Dickinson College and author of From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol after World War II (Cornell, 2009) has just launched Teaching History, a new blog that will focus heavily on teaching Russian history among other topics. Karl plans to invite guest posts from specialists to discuss their approaches to teaching particular topics in Russian history.

The first topic discussion is devoted to teaching the Gulag. The two invited specialists are myself and Wilson Bell, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Dickinson and a participant in our blog conversation on Gulag Boss here at Russian History Blog. Wilson and I will be sharing our thoughts on teaching the Gulag to undergraduate survey courses, topical seminars, and junior high/high school courses. Our first posts are now up. I have shared some of my goals when teaching the Gulag and will follow that up with posts that share audio-visual and print resources that I find particularly useful. (Obviously, my Gulag history website, Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, will be prominently featured.) I hope you’ll join this particular conversation and follow Karl’s new blog on a regular basis. I also hope you’ll consider how you too might contribute to the open access conversation on Russian history.

Post-Soviet Russia

Putin, the Russian Protests, and Historical Parallels

My thanks to Elizabeth Wood, who follows up on her blog essay for the Boston Globe, which I referenced in an earlier post, with a pointer to some other interesting articles on the web. So, the remainder of this post is from her:


For Russian history buffs, the Internet is full of relevant articles right now.   Three that I would particularly recommend are:

a)       Andreas Umland, “How to make Russia democratic?” 

In this article Umland reminds readers of the perils of Russian intelligentsia commitment to moral purity at the expense of political pragmatism and urges today’s liberals to unite and form a single party.

Digital Russian History Uncategorized

Open-Access and the General Public

I have written here and elsewhere on the reasons I decided to launch the Russian History Blog. One reason is a commitment to open access scholarship–to make the products of our scholarly research freely available to the general public. Most academic journals sit behind the pay walls of JSTOR, Project Muse, and the myriad other non-profit and for profit academic databases. As such, they are virtually invisible in the internet age, when not only students and the general public but also policy and opinion makers rarely venture beyond what is quickly and freely available online. I was shocked to read recently that JSTOR turns away 150 million attempts to access articles each year. Clearly, our scholarship would have a reading audience if only we would make it available!

Post-Soviet Russia Russian History in Popular Culture

On the (Mis)application of Russian History to an Analysis of the Protests

Many of you no doubt know of the work of MIT’s Elizabeth Wood. She has turned her attention in recent years from Russian revolutionary gender politics and early Soviet propaganda trials to the cult of Putin in contemporary Russia. Wood brings the trained eye of the historian and gender studies scholar to the image of Putin created and propagated over the last dozen years.

Wood has just published a fascinating blog piece for The Boston Globe tying together her studies of Putin with an astute analysis of the protests in Russia. She also (rightly) takes issue with an ill-informed analysis of the protests by Paul Starobin that dredges up old literature and old stereotypes to dismiss the protests:

[A] longer view of Russian history suggests that what looks like a harbinger of democratic change can be better understood as something else: a familiar drama pitting the father of the nation against a flock of discontented children.

Digital Russian History

Why Russian Historians Should Blog

Next Saturday morning, at the annual ASEEES convention in Washington, DC, I will join fellow Russian History Blog-ger Andrew Jenks, New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies and Sean’s Russia Blog‘s Sean Guillory, and Harvard University’s Kelly O’Neill in a discussion of digital resources for Russian historians. I thought I would offer a very brief preview of my comments here, as I plan to encourage other Russian historians to start blogs.

At last year’s ASEEES in Los Angeles, in a conversation with Andrew Jenks, I speculated that launching a group Russian history blog could make a substantive contribution to the academic field of Russian history while also bringing academic voices beyond the confines of journals that for the broader public are digitally invisible behind pay walls. I have discussed my thinking about starting the blog here and here.

Nine months after launch, I find myself pleased with our progress and yearning for more–yearning for a community of Russian history bloggers. As is evident in many blogs from fields beyond Russian history and as I think we have demonstrated at Russian History Blog, blogs can be serious scholarly endeavors, enhancing rather than replacing more traditional types of publication.

I really cannot express the reasons why academics should blog any better than the 2006 piece, “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” written by my colleague Dan Cohen, the director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He counters the many qualms academics had at that time about blogging as a scholarly genre and shows some of the tremendous advantages presented by blogging. Dan’s influence was critical to my own decision to launch Russian History Blog. Now, I hope to convince others not only to value reading blogs but also to begin blogging themselves.

As Cohen noted, bloggers need not write frequently to produce value. He hopes for a proliferation of blogs in his own field:

I would love to see a hundred historians of Victorian science have blogs to which they post quarterly. That would mean an average of one thoughtful post a day on a subject in which I’m greatly interested.

Furthermore, as I can personally attest, the skills and resources required to start a blog are minimal. Although I am surrounded by digital historians at George Mason, I’m not a specialist in digital history. I did none of the technical work on the Gulag history website, drawing on a team of CHNM specialists to bring my subject matter expertise to life. Yet setting up and running a blog does not take the type of technical skills required by that web exhibit. My technological skills are rudimentary at best, yet with minimal assistance I was able to set up and maintain Russian History Blog using WordPress, one of the many available blogging platforms.

So think about it. If you need technical assistance, let me know and maybe I can help. Check out Larry Cebula’s advice for starting an academic blog. And join a new community.

Gulag Boss Uncategorized

Gulag Boss – Final Thoughts

Thanks to everyone for their participation in this first Russian History Blog conversation. I think we are finding some new ways to talk about books, and I hope to do more of this in the future. All of the commentary taken together has, I hope, led us to a deeper engagement with the meaning and importance of Gulag Boss. I will be interested to see if any of our discussion makes its way into our more traditional scholarship in the future.

I do want to take a minute to respond to some of the terrific thoughts about my post: Gulag Boss: On Truths and Silences. It has forced me to rethink my response to the memoir and perhaps to come to grips with my emotional, as opposed to my scholarly, response to the book.