Categories
Nationalism and National Identity Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Letters to Max

Letters-to-Max

This intriguing 2014 documentary takes place in an obscure part of the former Soviet Union called Abkhazia – a tiny sub-tropical mountainous region on the coast of the Black Sea (“Letters to Max,” https://vimeo.com/89560258). This country of 242,000 residents, most of them ethnic Abkhazians who practice Eastern Orthodoxy and who speak Russian, is ostensibly a part of the post-Soviet nation of Georgia. But like many former Soviet territories, simmering ethnic tensions exploded as the Soviet Union disintegrated, turning into a brutal civil war in 1992 and 1993. The Georgian forces were defeated, leading to the expulsion of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia and a ceasefire in 1994 enforced by a combination of United Nations and Russian peacekeepers. Abkhazia’s independence, however, has only been recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru. The forces of Abkhazia periodically clash with the Georgian army as the nation-in-formation, with Russia’s help and in opposition to the United States, seeks international recognition.

abhazia map

Abkhazia’s fate provides a window into two processes. The longer-term process is the formation of modern nation-states, which invariably involves competing forces who claim to represent the “real nation” and who seek backing for their claims. The second is the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s attempts to build national communities within the confines of its vast borders. It was a project that simultaneously promoted and suppressed a bewildering array of national identities and various levels of cultural and political autonomy for hundreds of ethnic groups. The tensions and conflicts created by Soviet policies were contained only by Soviet authoritarianism and by the communist party of the Soviet Union. When both the party and the Soviet Union collapsed, unresolved national tensions, exacerbated by various land grabs by newly independent and former Soviet national republics, produced a number of frozen conflicts along the Russian Federation’s borders – in Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, just to name a few.

abkhazia_old_gagra_lrg

The documentary tells the story of Abkhazia’s search for legitimacy through a diplomat named Maxim Gvinjia, whose mission since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been to establish Abkhazia’s place in the community of recognized nation-states. During the course of filming “Max” occupied various positions inside and outside Abkhazia’s Foreign Ministry, eventually becoming Foreign Minister in 2013 for a brief period. The filmmaker (“Eric”) uses the narrative device of the letter to tell his story, filming Max as he opens letters from “Eric” in Paris in which Eric asks Max a question regarding his job and life. The film consists of Max’s responses to those questions, set against the backdrop of Abkhazia and Max’s daily routines.

Photo 2 Passport

Max is an amiable and interesting narrator, with the detached and wry sense of humor of a person (and people) whose experiences defy clichéd conceptions of liberation, democracy, national sovereignty, and progress. The film opens with Max wondering about Eric’s question of where exactly he is. His philosophical answer touches on one of the central dilemmas of the modern nation-state, namely, that most people’s identities and sense of self do not match the ideas about identity projected by the state that purports to embody their “will.” Max points out that there are many recognized countries, such as Somalia, Afghanistan or Yemen, which make little sense as nation-states. The way various peoples within those states self-identify rarely match state conceptions and often are violently at odds with official political visions. Max claims that Abkhazia, in contrast, is unique in the relative perception by its citizens and state leaders of a united community of interests and identity.

sukhum

Abkhazia is a beautiful country, situated in a mountainous region that hugs the Black Sea Coast. The spectacular coastline views combine with a human-built world which, like much of the former Soviet Union, is in a state of exquisite decay and dilapidation – a place frozen in a Soviet past, similar to the frozen political conflicts that provide the political and social equivalent of a landscape. For Max, the state of decay is a starting point for his own discourse on nostalgia for the Soviet period, when the Abkhazian sea city of Sukhum (known in Soviet times by the Georgian Sukhumi) was a meeting point of cultures and peoples, and also a resort town for Soviet citizens. With its harbor, Sukhum in the Soviet era was far more open to the world and various peoples than other parts of the Soviet Union. That openness contrasts with the city’s current isolation in the post-Soviet world – yet another one of the many ironies highlighted by Max in his letters and discourses on camera.

photo-6

The director is careful to ask tough questions of Max, especially regarding the fate of Georgian refugees, who are unable to return to the Abkhazia that their families for centuries called home before the war of 1992-1993. Does creating a new Abkhazia mean erasing their memory? Is the coherence of Abkhazia as a nation-state, in which the identity of its citizens seems to match ideas about identity projected by the state, a result of ethnic cleansing? Max’s very surprisingly honest and apolitical answer — perhaps one reason for his being sacked as Abkhazia’s foreign minister — is both yes but also that the fate of Georgians is part of the tragedy and irreversible change in Abkhazia as a result of the Civil War. There can be no return to the Soviet period, though Max admits he would love to do so, when ethnic harmony was supposedly far more the norm than the exception. With regard to a question regarding whether Abkhazia has escaped from Georgia only to be eaten up by Russia and become a playground for Russian Oligarchs, Max is unequivocal. Russians, says Max, are the ones willing to buy Abkhazian products, spend tourist dollars in Abkhazia, and support Abkhazian independence. Given the limited range of options for Akbhazians, and the reality of Russia’s presence, Abkhazia has no choice but to align itself closely with Putin and the Russian Federation. The Mexicans say, “It’s the same hell only with a different devil.” For the Abkhazians, aligning with Russia is not quite the same hell, and perhaps preferable to Georgia, but few Abkhazians would mistake Russian leaders and oligarchs for saviors.

Categories
Imperial Russia Medieval Russia Nostalgia and Memory Russian Orthodoxy

Travel tales and unreliable informants

While I was moving some stuff around my office, I rediscovered my copy of Kazan’s Mother of God icon.  I haven’t really thought about it since I wrote my first book, but I had recently come across some interesting pieces of misinformation about the icon that cropped up in eighteenth century sources.  Before I can relate the later stories, here’s a brief summary of what I know about the icon.

Copy of Kazan's Mother of God Icon
Copy of Kazan’s Mother of God Icon

According to a manuscript version of the miracle tale from the beginning of the seventeenth century, during a fire in Kazan’ on June 23 June, 1579, the icon appeared in a vision of a young girl, instructing her to take shelter in Church of Nikolai Tulskii the Miracle-worker. The tale informs the reader that the appearance of the icon during the fire was a reward from God for the Orthodox faithful in Kazan’ for their ongoing battle against “non-believers” (inovernye).  Following the first appearance, the icon performed a number of miracles – about ten, the number varies slightly in different versions of the tale. Its miracle-working powers were sufficiently well known that a copy of the icon was carried into battle against the Poles in 1612, where it was recorded as having performed new miracles which, in turn, were recorded in the edifying tale, “About the Advance of the Kazan’ Icon of the Mother of God toward Moscow.” With a proven reputation, Kazan’s Mother of God icon acquired a national festival on July 8, 1633.

Categories
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.

Categories
Cold War Crimea Current events in the Putin Era Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russia in World History Russian History in Popular Culture Teaching Russian History Transnational History Ukraine Uncategorized World War II

History in the Crimea & Ukraine Today

Protest in Kiev, December 2013

History is being blithely tossed about these days by everyone from Vladimir Putin himself to Sarah Palin and John McCain. What is the real story? Is there a real story?

To answer that question, I invited two eminent historians – well, one historian and one historically minded political scientist, Serhii Plokhii and Mark Kramer, both of Harvard, to speak at MIT on this exact situation. They spoke on Monday (3/17), the day after the Crimean Referendum and the day before the Russian President’s speech.

Categories
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.)

Categories
Current events in the Putin Era Films Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russia in World History Russian History in Popular Culture Russian Orthodoxy Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Mikhalkov as monarchist and Slavophile – his 2010 Manifesto “Right and Truth” (Право и Правда)

In October 2010 influential filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov published an extensive “Manifesto of Enlightened Conservatism” which was published as “Right and Truth” in polit.ru. (Read in Russian here.)

The defense of serfdom attributed to Mikhalkov, which I posted yesterday, may well be a fake, but his conservative views are well-known and worth reading. A shorter overview (and critique) of his Manifesto was published in Vedomosti and translated in The Moscow Times. I am taking the liberty of copying that article in full (below) as it might be interesting for our students in Russian history classes. Lest they (students) think the debates and views of Russian conservatism are archaic, they can see them returning in the extremely conservative new laws on homosexuality, on diversity within the Russian Orthodox Church (the rules on “insulting believers” are very broadly construed), and in the takeover of the Russian Academy of Sciences (long a bastion of independent thinking).

Categories
Current events in the Putin Era Films Historiography Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russian History in Popular Culture Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov Praises the “Wisdom of Serfdom”

According to a website called “Tsenzor.Net” filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov told a group of journalists that he is preparing to make a film praising serfdom as “the wisdom of the nation.” His comments show a romanticization of history that is pretty hard to believe:

After all, what was serfdom? [he told the journalists]. Serfdom was patriotism, secured on paper. A person was tied to his mother-earth not only by a feeling of duty, but also on paper [in documents]. Serfdom is the wisdom of the people. It is 400 years of our history. And now, when people suggest we should erase 400 years of our history, I say to them, “Brothers, do you think our ancestors were idiots?”

“I am very happy that Putin is now reviving our historical memory,” said the director. “The law on registration [propiska] is exactly what our people are missing, what was torn out by the roots.”

Categories
Films Gender and Sexuality Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia

Miss Gulag

Our university is holding a Russian documentary film series. We showed one of the films that I reviewed here earlier (http://russianhistoryblog.org/author/andy/page/2/). Our next film is called Miss Gulag, produced in 2007 and directed by Maria Yatskova (for an interview with the director see Sean Guillory’s http://newbooksinrussianstudies.com/2011/06/03/maria-yatskova-miss-gulag-nienhause-yatskova-vodar-films-2007/).

This fascinating documentary tells the improbable tale of a beauty pageant set in a modern-day Russian prison, one of 35 women’s prisons across the Russian Federation. The story of this documentary is simple enough. A group of young women in a Siberian prison – all of whom have come of age in post-Soviet Russia – stage a beauty pageant.

Categories
Cold War Nostalgia and Memory Soviet Baby Boomers Soviet Era 1917-1991 Uncategorized

Soviet Baby Boomers- What’s a generation?

I know I won’t shock anyone by admitting that I often ask myself “why?” when reading an academic monograph: why this topic, why this approach and yes, why this book? Reading Don Raleigh’s Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation was, for me, the very opposite of that experience. In fact, the book got me right from the cover, with its charming, evocative photograph of two Soviet teenagers in a phone booth circa 1966. Something about the expression of the girl in the photo—I suppose it’s the way her mouth is half-opened, and the knowingness in her eyes—tells us she has something to say; the crisscrossed metal bars of the phone booth (and, in another way, the impinging presence of the boy beside her) suggest her limits.

In Soviet Baby Boomers, Raleigh has given her the opportunity to speak, forty plus years on and better late than never. There is no question that documenting the life story of this Soviet girl and of her cohort is a worthwhile project, intellectually and ethically. Raleigh’s book is both a goldmine of information on everyday life in the final decades of the Soviet Union and a powerful gesture of respect for the people who lived those lives. It is also immensely interesting. I would, nonetheless, like to raise a few questions about some of its key categories of analysis: generation, baby boomers, and history.

Categories
Cold War Nostalgia and Memory oral history Soviet Baby Boomers Soviet Era 1917-1991

Soviet Baby Boomers – preliminary thoughts

I am happy to launch the fourth “blog conversation” which will be about Donald Raleigh’s recent Soviet Baby Boomers. His excavation of late Soviet society through the medium of oral history is highly readable and I will be recommending it strongly to my students next year.  The work draws on interviews with men and women born in 1949/50 who attended two schools: one in the closed city of Saratov and the other in Moscow. Both were prestigious schools and most graduates went on to college and interesting careers: they make lucid and articulate companions to travel through the Soviet Union of the post-Stalin era. Raleigh’s monograph takes us through the different chapters of their lives – childhood, school, college, adult family life, work – and in doing so traces their attitudes towards Soviet power and the wider world.

Categories
Archives Films Nostalgia and Memory oral history Russian History in Popular Culture Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History World War II

900 Days

The Nazi siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941. It ended 874 days later, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history. The Soviets won at the cost of more than 1 million soldiers killed, captured, or missing and more than 640,000 civilian dead. Nearly a third of the city perished — from disease, bombings, and starvation.  Soviet propagandists — during the siege and afterwards — constructed a heroic story of perseverance and courage as part of a broader mythologizing of the war. That tale has served various social, political, and cultural purposes ever since. In the process, however, the real story was sanitized and simplified, hidden and censored — to the point that even participants often preferred the mythological version (which at any rate was more ennobling than the real story). This fine documentary (900 Days, 2011) uses interviews with survivors and archival sources to help peel back the layers of myth and to reveal the historical siege that few survivors had ever discussed publicly.

Categories
Cold War Films Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History

Three Songs About Motherland

My university (California State University, Long Beach) is screening a number of documentary films about Russia this semester, including three films from the esteemed documentary film maker Marina Goldovskaya: A Taste of Freedom (1991, 46 min.), A Bitter Taste of Freedom (2011, 88 min.), and Three Songs About Motherland (2009, 39 min.)  Goldovskaya will be attending the event on this March 18 — and I will be participating in a panel discussion along with a number of other professors. So if you are in the LA area please do attend. Venue and details about this and other events can be found here: http://bwordproject.org/

Here is my review of one of the films, Three songs About Motherland. I have found it especially valuable for the classroom because of its brevity and neat division into three compelling stories.

Categories
Current events in the Putin Era Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russian Orthodoxy Teaching Russian History

Pussy Riot Arrest and Byzantine Church-State Relations Today

[http://www.1tvnet.ru/images/news_pic_Krasotin%2520sam%2520skoro%2520nauchitsya/735776%20(1).gif]

Five members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot have been arrested for a “punk prayer” at the Church of the Savior in Moscow. Two are being held until late April with threats of sentences up to seven years. The civilian authorities and Putin in particular have declared that their actions are “disgusting.” But some in the church are arguing that this is a church matter and all should be welcome in the church. For a Russian historian the arrest of these women on church property looks like a return to the Byzantine era when church and state were not separated. The civilian authorities make noises about the offenses to the church, but their real concern – and fear – is political protest. Will freedom of speech now be completely eroded?


Father Iakov Krotov from the linked article at http://svobodanews.ru

Categories
Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Russia in World History Uncategorized

How “Russian” is Kauai’s Fort Elizabeth?

In the early years of the Russian American Company, there was an odd incident that led to establishment of three “Russian” forts on the island of Kauai.  The reasons for that are somewhat complicated (and the study of several interesting books [1. Most recently, Peter R. Mills, Hawai’i’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History, (Honolulu, 2002)]), but the physical evidence of the venture is the Hawaiian state park at the site of the “Russian” Fort Elizabeth.  When I first arrived at the site as a tourist, my first thought was that this was not “Russian” at all.

Russian American Company flag
Categories
Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Soviet and Russian Space Flight

Gagarin Coin

My man Yuri Gagarin gets another Russian coin from the Russian Central Bank in honor of the flight’s 50th anniversary last April. He remains one of the few official Soviet heroes to merit being put on a post-Soviet piece of Russian currency. As I tell my students, if you want to know what people consider important, look at what they put on their money.

http://vz.ru/photoreport/542796/

 

Categories
Digital Russian History Nostalgia and Memory World War II

TASS Posters

On a recent trip to Chicago, I spent several hours wandering around a current exhibit at the Art Institute: “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad.”

It was, in a word, fascinating.

The story behind the collection is that during the Second World War, TASS had a group of artists, both visual artists and writers, who produced nearly daily monumental posters.  If you think you know Soviet poster art from the war, these will still surprise you.  The images were put up in the windows of the TASS building, and some were used more widely.  In 1997, the Art Institute discovered a bunch of these posters hidden in a closet, and this exhibit grew out of it.

There are far too many images to talk about in a quick blog post–but you can look through them all at the museum’s website.  As the resident historian of things before the twentieth century, I’ll just post one image.

Fritz meets his ancestors
Radlov and Mikhailkov, "Meeting with an Ancestor," from http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/TASS/artwork/203965

It’s a variation on the conflation of historical battles with the Second World War. Here, though, “Fritz” (the Nazi everyman who’s featured in a lot of the posters) is meeting one of the knights–his Germanic ancestor!–defeated by Alexander Nevsky at the Battle on the Ice.  I’ve always loved the ways that history gets used in Soviet posters, and this is really one of the more unusual ones, in part because it’s tied in with comedy, particularly in the verse that goes along with it (which you can see at the site in the caption, above).

Actually, that’s one of the most interesting things about this exhibit.  While certainly many of the posters have that high emotional content–we will avenge!–of many of the more famous posters, there’s also a LOT of comic art and writing–and a lot of making fun of Hitler and the Nazis. It puts a very different spin (to me, at least) on the Soviet reaction to and interpretation of the war.

Categories
Cold War Films Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Soviet Science

On Monkies and Lost Colonies

Having just finished my last classes for my modern Russia survey, I wanted to share some thoughts on a documentary that I used to discuss Post-Soviet Russia. The 2008 documentary is entitled The Lost Colony. For a clip, see: http://hotdocsaudience.bside.com/2008/films/thelostcolony_hotdocs2008.

The action takes place in the tiny sub-tropical region of Abkhazia on the coast of the Black Sea. While Abkhazia is ostensibly a part of the post-Soviet nation of Georgia, it has been a de facto protectorate of Russia since the early 1990s.

Categories
Digital Russian History Nostalgia and Memory Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Cartier-Bresson in Moscow

Guardian piece on Cartier-Bresson's Moscow imagesOver the Easter weekend, I was reading The Guardian and came across a full-page photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1954. This stunning photograph was used the following year as the front cover of Life magazine. 

To me the image is of a balmy Moscow day. Two pretty young girls are being eyed up by soldiers. People are waiting for a trolley-bus to take them home. A man is selling ice-cream, or maybe kvass, in the background.

Categories
Digital Russian History Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory

Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1909

Although I’d hoped to post something more substantive for my second post, instead, here’s a drive-by link to two photo albums that include some amazing images of Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1909.

To me, they bring home how much some of the streetscapes of these cities haven’t really changed in a century–and then how much some of them have.

My favorite image is this one, showing an early public health measure: free boiling water to fight the spread of cholera. The cucumber seller is a close second.

(Incidentally, I first saw these at metkere.com, an interesting blog that often links to wonderful image sources–including, today, images from the blockade of Leningrad.)

Categories
Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Soviet and Russian Space Flight

A Provincial Talisman

The view from the "Vostok" hotel in downtown Gagarin (Smolensk Oblast')

The heartland of the Russian nation, as seen through the Gagarin cult, was not in Moscow but in Gagarin’s hometown of Gzhatsk. Renamed “Gagarin” after the cosmonaut’s death in 1968, the town is a typical Russian provincial backwater. In the words of one ode to Gagarin entitled, “The Native Side of Things,” the cosmonaut grew up among vast “expanses of flax and thick meadows of clover,” surrounded by honeybees and butterflies, yet at the center of the country. Rivers and rivulets flowed northward to Leningrad and southward “to the Mother Volga, and then meandered their way to the little father (batiushka) Dnieper.”[1]