Gulag Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss: On Truths and Silences

First, thanks to all the contributors to this discussion. Honestly, it has to this point exceeded my expectations. The intellectual content has been high, the questions thought-provoking, and the traffic heavy.

For a moment, I want to dwell on the level of “truthfulness” in Gulag Boss and question how looking at the memoir with an assumption that it represents falsehood rather than truth might change our analysis of the questions around the tricky issue of complicity. Here I am largely not questioning whether the particular events described in the memoir are “true.” Rather, I think the contributors to this conversation are united in the belief that the memoir is filled with silences, especially in relation to prisoners’ Gulag experiences. If this is the case, then the memoir is at best “partial truth.” What does that mean for our evaluation of Mochulsky?

Blog Conversations Gulag Gulag Boss Uncategorized

Gulag Boss – A Blog Conversation

Welcome to the first Russian History Blog conversation. If you have not, do take a quick look at my introduction to these Blog Conversations. In this post, I want to introduce briefly the subject of our discussion and provide a biographical sketch for each of the Gulag specialists who will lead the conversation. I hope the readers of Russian History Blog will participate in the conversation by commenting on our authors’ posts.

Deborah Kaple met Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky in 1992, while conducting interviews with Soviet specialists sent as advisors to Communist China in the 1950s. He had advised the Chinese for many years on ideological and Communist Party matters. Kaple and Mochulsky developed a friendship over the course of many interviews. Shortly before her research trip in Russia came to a close, Mochulsky revealed that he had once worked for the Gulag and gave her the typescript memoir he had written about his experience in the late 1980s. Kaple has translated and published the memoir as Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir (Oxford, 2011). To see the Gulag through the eyes of one of its non-prisoner employees is quite unusual.

Blog Conversations Digital Russian History Gulag Gulag Boss

Blog Conversations

Starting Wednesday, Russian History Blog will host what hopefully will be the first in a series of blog conversations. On Wednesday, I will provide a more formal introduction to this particular blog conversation (on the new memoir Gulag Boss), but for now I wanted to talk a bit about the format and goals of these conversations.

Digital Russian History Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Interview on Death and Redemption

Princeton University Press published my book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society in May. I had the great pleasure to talk about the book with Sean Guillory (of Sean’s Russia Blog) at New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Listen to the interview here.

Digital Russian History Gulag

ASEEES NewsNet Article on Russian History Blog

If you haven’t seen it yet, please do visit the first all-digital edition of the ASEEES NewsNet, where you will find an article by yours truly that discusses the origins and the goals of Russian History Blog along with a few thoughts about the digital dissemination of our research in Russian history.

If you’re new to the blog, please have a look around. We’re on a bit of a hiatus for the summer, but we will have occasional posts and look for more regular updates in the fall.


Webcast Book Talk

Just a quick heads up that I will be speaking about my new book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, (now available in Kindle and Nook editions) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The talk will be webcast live at 4pm eastern time.

The discussant will be Karel Berkhoff, Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), associate professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and author of Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule.

Digital Russian History Teaching Russian History YouTube in Russian History Classes

Call for Web-based Teaching Resources

Given my own penchant for sharing YouTube videos here at Russian History Blog and the recent posts from Miriam Dobson and Alison Smith sharing some phenomenal historical photographs, it seems appropriate to start gathering a list of everyone’s favorite online resources for teaching Russian history. Add your favorites to the comments, and I’ll start compiling them and create a separate page on the blog with a list of these materials. I would bet that a lot of us will find a great many useful resources for our classes.

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Rapping about the Divided Memory of Victory

Today marks the 66th anniversary of Victory Day. As Sean Guillory notes in a must-read post, victory, like so many other aspects of 20th century east European history, is remembered quite differently in many post-Soviet and post-Communist states. He writes:

Russia, with much justification, views this transformation of the memory of liberation into the memory of conquer as deeply insulting.  Yet the whether one thinks about the legitimacy of these moves, they nevertheless raise some quite uncomfortable questions about the basis for history, memory and identity. How to reconcile all these memories of victimhood into a general narrative, where the field of victims in the war can be objectively be dispersed between the war’s winners and losers?  Can it be done?  Should it? Or is the European memory of the war, as Tony Judt suggests, ever to remain “deeply asymmetrical”?

Of course, it is not only in Russia where the war is fondly remembered and revered as unsullied victory. In addition to the beautiful sand art animation from Ukraine’s Got Talent that I shared previously, I can’t help but think of this video, which I frequently show to my post-1945 Soviet/post-Soviet history students. It was made for the 60th anniversary of Victory Day in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. It is another great way to get my students to think about the different degree to which World War II continues to matter in the United States versus the former Soviet Union (obviously, as Sean highlights for us, this memory is not always positive). All you have to do is pick the latest favorite hip hop artist and ask the students if they could imagine them rapping about World War II.


Chernobyl Digital Russian History Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History

Chernobyl at 25

The recent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi brought the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown back into an often forgetful public consciousness. Although we will no doubt soon forget these events again, especially amidst the insane amount of coverage focused on royal nuptials, the world press is taking some note of Chernobyl today–the 25th anniversary of the disaster. A search on Google news shows over 9,400 articles referencing Chernobyl in the last 24 hours. The articles run the gamut: human interest stories (see also here), reminiscences from those who lived near Chernobyl and from the leaders who had to deal with the disaster, and a panoply of stories on how Chernobyl affected this or that locality. Although the Washington Post presented Chernobyl as the key to Ukrainian independence, coverage of the 25th anniversary differs significantly from the 20th in 2006. Then, many articles stressed Chernobyl’s role in the Soviet collapse. Although such stories are not entirely absent this year, ties to Fukushima Daiichi and anti-nuclear protests dominate the headlines (along with Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev’s trip to Chernobyl to mark the anniversary.) Nature magazine, I should add, has some important extensive coverage of the event.

Most of us, no doubt, teach about Chernobyl in our Soviet history courses. I wanted also to share two phenomenal resources for helping our students understand that horrible event. First, thanks to a number of colleagues for pointing out these chilling photographs taken at the time of the event. Second, I wanted to share a video that always helps students understand the magnitude of the tragedy. The French organization IRSN which focuses on nuclear safety issues provides this frightening video showing the spread of radioactive contamination during the two weeks immediately following the accident.


Thanks to the Davis Center at Harvard for pointing out After Chernobyl, an amazing resource on life around Chernobyl since the accident.

Cold War Digital Russian History Soviet Era 1917-1991 YouTube in Russian History Classes

YouTube of the Week – Khrushchev’s Visit to Iowa

So, this week’s YouTube of the Week is perhaps of more interest to researchers than it is to students. This is just part one of a series of videos uploaded by the Iowa State University Library’s Special Collections. They include raw news footage of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to Iowa. I have not yet watched all of the footage, but in the midst of a lot of dullness, many great moments and images often tell you more about American history than Soviet. Of particular interest are the Iowans lining the roads for Khrushchev’s motorcade and holding up signs, including slogans like “The Only Good Communist is a Dead Communist.”

Unfortunately, it seems the ISU Library has disabled the capacity to embed the video in a blog post, so you’ll have to go here.  Khrushchev in Iowa

Digital Russian History Post-Soviet Russia Teaching Russian History YouTube in Russian History Classes

YouTube of the Week – Putin Rules

So, my YouTube of the Week feature would be better if it was actually a weekly feature. Unfortunately, a bit of illness has kept me offline for much of the last few weeks. So, when the YouTube of the Week last appeared, I shared one of my students’ favorites–I Want a Man Like Putin. I find when it comes to Putin’s “cult of personality,” that I have to stop myself from taking up an entire class period with all the great video footage. This was a new one for me last fall, though, that I just can’t help but share. As in many videos that I show in class, the students need no translation.

Post-Soviet Russia Teaching Russian History YouTube in Russian History Classes

YouTube of the Week – A Man Like Putin with English Subtitles

Students absolutely adore all of the fun you can have talking about the cult of Putin.  Perhaps none are as fun as this well-known video of “I Want a Man Like Putin.”  This particular version includes English subtitles.

I use the video every semester that I teach post-1945 Russian/Soviet history as it follows a few classes after other videos of Boris Yeltsin’s drunken and seemingly senile escapades.  This video then encapsulates a part of why Putin and the sober, stable 2000s are so much more popular than Yeltsin and the drunken, chaotic 1990s.

Digital Russian History Teaching Russian History

New Series – New Books in Russia and Eurasia

For some time now, I’ve followed and listened with great interest to Marshall Poe‘s terrific series of podcast interviews at New Books in History.  Poe, a historian of early modern Russia, interviews a wide variety of historians including many in Russian history.  Poe is in the process of launching the New Books Network including a variety of more specialized interview channels with their own hosts.  I could not be more pleased to see that Sean Guillory of Sean’s Russia Blog has launched the New Books in Russia and Eurasia channel.

Guillory’s first interview is with J. Arch Getty.  They discuss Getty’s 2008 book Ezhov: The Rise of Stalin’s “Iron Fist” (Yale UP, 2008).  This series will be an excellent resource for scholars and students alike.  Hopefully it will also bring some of the best scholarship in our field to a wider audience.

Teaching Russian History YouTube in Russian History Classes

YouTube of the Week – Sand Animation of WWII

One of the features I plan for the blog will be my “YouTube of the Week.”  I will share many of the videos that I use in my course on the history of the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet world from 1945-present with just a few comments on how I use them.  Teaching such recent history allows me to take full advantage of the multi-media available on the web.  I use the videos for two reasons.  First, I find their entertainment value helps refocus students in the middle of a long class session.  Second, though, I use them for their ability to make a point about the history that I am teaching in a way that I cannot through words alone.

This week’s video is one many of you probably have seen, and it is the runaway favorite of my students each semester.  It is a sand animation artist on one of those metastasizing reality shows–“Ukraine’s Got Talent”–creating a moving piece of performance art with themes around World War II.  No video, no words, no images make clearer the continued importance of that war in the former Soviet Union than this one.  The students will (or should) take particular notice of the emotional reactions of audience members.  It’s a much longer video than I usually use, but it is worth every second.

Digital Russian History Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Graves of the “Lazy”

From time to time, I want to share some of the remarkable photographs, paintings, drawings, artifacts and documents available to the public in the Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives archive.  Here we see one of my favorite images–one I write about briefly in my forthcoming book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, and that I use as a key illustration in virtually every public lecture I give on the subject.

The main sign reads “Graves of the Lazy” (Могила Филонов – with the latter term a Gulag acronym for the “False Invalids of the Camps of Special Designation”).  The burial markers in this “propaganda graveyard” read names and percentages like “Gaziev – 30%” or “Mavlanov – 22%.” The meaning would have been quite clear to prisoners. As a fellow prisoner and brigade leader told Janusz Bardach, “You work, you eat. You stop working, you die. I take care of my people if they produce, but loafers don’t stand a chance.”[1. Janusz Bardach and Kathleen Gleeson, Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 204]

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


Launching February 15!

The Russian History Blog will officially launch on February 15.  We are under construction, but please do check out who will be blogging here.  Hope to see you then!


Welcome to the Russian History Blog!

Welcome to the Russian History Blog–a group of historians of Russia who will be sharing their research, reflections on the research and publications of others, movie reviews, etc.  Join us in early 2011 when we will officially launch the blog.  Learn about our contributors by clicking the links above.