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
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.

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
Current events in the Putin Era Historiography Imperial Russia Post-Soviet Russia Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

The Amnesties of Tsar Vladimir

It seems obvious that President Vladimir Putin has chosen to issue the recent amnesties of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Maria Alokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and probably the Greenpeace 30 as a way to generate good will on the eve of his great personal project, the Sochi Olympics, into which he has invested enormous amounts of money and effort. With the amnesties (and his successful intervention in the Syrian civil war on 9/11 of this year), Mr. Putin is almost certainly hoping to create good will to offset the harsh criticism and threats of boycott he has received in conjunction with the Olympics. Yet this amnesty has a long history in Imperial Russia, one well worth examining.

Categories
Current events in the Putin Era Post-Soviet Russia

Russia and ‘Homosexual Propaganda’

Over the past couple of months, I have been following with increasing apprehension the news from Russia about its treatment of its gay population. Yesterday, a blogger at Gawker summarized the recent events in a good (but disturbing) entry.  I won’t rehash the information since the links are all embedded there, but it’s been hard to see the escalating violence documented.  It’s going to be interesting to see if this starts to affect the upcoming Olympics.  How long will the world be willing to ignore the human rights’ violations (much less the arrests of gay foreigners)?

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
Chernobyl Cold War Films Post-Soviet Russia Russia in World History Russian Orthodoxy

The Nuclear Age: A New Documentary

People often say we live in the “nuclear age,” but what that means is never entirely clear. A new documentary produced by a former ABC newsman captures the spirit, or rather spirits, of that era – from its beginnings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and up to the present.

Inspired by the late Cold War, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan initiated a process of disarmament in Iceland in 1986, the producer hopes to make viewers believe that eliminating nuclear weapons can happen – despite the growing fatalism and relative inattention to the problem in the post-Cold War era.

Categories
Films Perestroika Post-Soviet Russia

Marina Goldovskaya: Chronicler of the Post-Brezhnev Era

My post is about a film festival that was held on my campus on March 18. We screened three documentary films by documentary filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya. I emerged from the event, and also after reading her autobiography, convinced of the importance of the documentary in understanding recent Russian history.

Goldovskaya — who was at the event and commented on the creation of her films — has a unique talent for finding subjects. Her subjects are ideal microcosms that provide a window into larger issues and themes. She adds to that talent an uncanny ability to draw her interviewees out on camera. She rejects the term “interview”and refers to her subjects as “characters.” She calls her interactions with the protagonists of her film “conversations.” Goldovskaya somehow manages to maintain an unobtrusive presence in her films. The setting for her conversations is often the apartment kitchen. She films her subjects as they chop onions, slice bread, and open their souls, as Russian so often do, around the cramped but cozy kitchen table. Her 1993 film (The House with Knights, 58 minutes) explored a famous house on the Moscow Arbat. It was so named because of the distinctive statues of knights in niches outside the grand structure. Built in the early 1900s as an apartment building for the rich and privileged, it was parceled into communal apartments after 1917.

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
Post-Soviet Russia Uncategorized

Parodies of the Putin Spectacle

On Friday, I gave a talk called “Putin: Spectacle and Anti-Spectacle” with several clips from some amazing videos.    Here’s a really funny one that RH readers might enjoy:  “I work in United Russia”    

It is clearly a spoof on the Russian leader learning that he is being called a thief and immediately blaming his subordinate.   The video then goes on to show scenes from United Russia juxtaposed against scenes from Soviet life.

Categories
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.

Categories
Post-Soviet Russia YouTube in Russian History Classes

Russian Airborne veterans against Vladimir Putin

Here is a great item related to the Russian protests making the you tube rounds (I picked this up via facebook from Peter Holquist).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE4q__wNNw0

Below is a very rough translation provided on the youtube site. For a better translation, see this link: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/paratroopers-anti-putin-song-stirs-the-opposition/#more-156849

UPDATE (the battle of the bands): Check out this pro-Putin video that has just hit the youtubeosphere: video:http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/pro-putin-paean-dominates-blogosphere/452551.html

Categories
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.

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
Post-Soviet Russia Teaching Russian History Terrorism

The Summer of Terror

I just showed a documentary for a group of students here at Long Beach State by Julia Ivanova entitled “Moscow Freestyle.” Completed in 2006, it provides an interesting perspective on the terrifying summer of 2004 in Moscow — and one that many students, who had recently taken a trip to Moscow, found fascinating.

In search of romance and adventure, young Westerners from Canada, the United States, and Great Britain packed up their suitcases in the early part of the 21st century and signed on to teach English in Russia. Armed with little more than expensive liberal arts degrees, the students embarked on an adventure they hoped would build a lifetime’s worth of stories to impress friends back home.

Categories
Post-Soviet Russia Russian Orthodoxy Soviet and Russian Space Flight

Gagarin as Christ

Adding to the previous thread of comments about Gagarin and religion, perhaps the most striking amendment to the Gagarin legend since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been his re-imagination as a devout Russian Orthodox Christian. I often heard from Gagarin’s acquaintances and Gagarin museum officials that Gagarin was secretly a believer.

New legends also emerged about Gagarin’s efforts to save local churches from being blown up during Soviet anti-religious campaigns. “He did not reject God!” proclaimed a local poet in a poem entitled “Faith.” If Gagarin was a kind of Jesus, his mysterious death in a 1968 plane crash (at the age of 34, just like Jesus) was a test of faith, an act of sacrifice that challenged Russians to consider their sinful nature and united them in grief. Said another poet from his hometown: “He gave his life for us/So that people would remember and value him…Oh, how my dove of peace circles overheard!/Over Gzhatsk he will fly for all eternity.” (Gzhatsk-Gagarin. 300 Let: Stikhi, poemy, pesni [Moscow: Veche, 2007], 83-84.)

Categories
Films Post-Soviet Russia Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991

The Russian Concept?

I’ve just seen an engaging 2010 documentary entitled the “Russian Concept” (for a trailer see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-l66s2Fglk). Based on interviews with artists, art collectors and esteemed art historians, the documentary provides a short and entertaining survey of art little known to Western college students. Its subject matter is primarily unofficial – and sometimes persecuted – art from the Soviet era, much of it purchased by the art collector Norton Dodge (who smuggled 10,000 art works out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, earning him the nickname the “Lorenzo de Medici” of Russian art). But it also examines the fate of art in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.