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.”
At the most recent Slavic Studies convention, I was talking with an old friend about the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). We teach similar courses at different institutions – he teaches at a university with global name recognition, while I teach at a small liberal arts college. Even the “college” part of the name can be a problem in those many locations where the liberal arts college model is not well known. More than a few archivists and scholars have crinkled their eyebrows when examining my credentials, trying to make sense of what “Лафает Колледж” could possibly mean. My friend described to me some of the issues faculty members at his university were grappling with – when, how, and to what extent they should join the MOOC bandwagon. It is already clear that at big-time universities folks are beginning to be concerned that a failure to develop MOOCs could bring real harm to their profile and reputation at home and abroad.
I have an uneasy relationship with using films in my classroom. Since I most often teach early modern history, I tend to avoid the whole genre because I’d prefer to avoid ahistorical images in my classroom. When I teach modern history, however, and particularly Soviet history, I feel film is an important part of its history. I’ve shown various recent films toward the end of class, but I always show something from Eisenstein for the 20s or 30s. I’ve found that students have an easier time understanding Battleship Potemkin, but, for whatever reason, I continue to plod on with October, which is so wondrously problematic for a class of students.
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.
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.
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.
The trial and conviction of Pussy Riot has sparked a number of historical analogies. Never wanting for hyperbole, the Washington Post, among others in the West and Russia, argued that the trial echoed “Stalinism” (an analogy nicely rebutted by Mark Adomanis). The Pussy Riot case has also been likened to the 1964 trial of the Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, not to mention harking back to the trials of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965. But historical analogies did not end with the Soviet period. Another common refrain was that the accusations and trial of Pussy Riot reflected medieval Russia. This comparison wasn’t hard given that Artem Ranchenkov, one of the case investigators, cited Orthodox canonical rules of proper church dress from the 4th century Council of Laodicea and the 7th century Quinisext Council. Nor was it difficult to call the affair “medieval” since the trial proceedings were often more like an ecclesiastical than a civilian court. The coup de grace for which was when Yelena Pavlova, a lawyer representing nine of Pussy Riot’s “victims,” called feminism a “mortal sin.”
Another common historical analogy making the rounds were excerpts from Article 231 of the Imperial Russian Criminal Code of 1845, which stated that “improper loud cries, laughter, or any other noise or unseemly conduct that causes temptation, averts attention of worshipers from their duty to God” carried a fine of 50 kopeks to a ruble or detention from three to seven days. If the disturbance occurred during church service, the sentence was prison for a period of three weeks to three months. The irony here was that under the “well-ordered police state” of Nicholas I, Pussy Riot’s sentence would have been far lighter. Yet, others listed other possible laws applicable to Pussy Riot from the 1845 code. One blog post listed 24 satutes, Articles 182-205, concerning blasphemy, sacrilege, and other violations of faith. The sentences varied from corporal punishment, forced labor in factories and mines, jail time and exile to Siberia. The only problem is that blasphemy and sacrilege are not in the Russian Criminal Code of 2012. That is unless it’s disguised as “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”
But the historical semblances didn’t stop with references to bygone eras or now defunct imperial codes. Some of the more interesting ones were those that placed Pussy Riot within a broader historical tradition of Russian minstrelsy, where hooliganism, art, and protest collided into a staple of Russian medieval culture.
I spent some time this past week preparing for my fall class on the Soviet Union. Each time I’ve taught it here at Hawai’i, I’ve made use of an unique resource at our Library, the “Social Movements Collection,” which is a large group of pamphlets and books that had been collected by Eugene Bechtold, a bookseller and former instructor at the Chicago Workers’ School. While much of the collection relates to American Communism, anarchism, and peace movements, it also contains a rich source of material on the Soviet Union.
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.)
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.)
The Center for Medieval Studies has a very visible presence at Fordham University where I teach. In the history department alone, medievalist faculty and graduate students maintain a healthy and vibrant intellectual life. Although I am a historian of modern Russia—most of my work has focused on the 19th and 20th centuries—I have found myself drawn into broader historical debates relevant to Medievalists that may be unfamiliar to modernists. Recently I’ve been preparing a lecture for a pedagogical series run by the Medieval Studies Program on “Teaching Medieval Russia.” I was motivated to do this partly out of curiosity to excavate some of my training in graduate school (where one of my fields was medieval Russia) but also to prepare myself to teach such a course next year. As I got deeper into preparing for both the lecture and the course, I found myself faced with two pedagogical challenges. First, what strategies can historians of modern Russia who are less comfortable with premodern times use to effectively cover medieval Russia? And second, how can teaching about medieval Russia benefit from the concerns of medievalists writ large? There’s no way to do justice to both of these topics in a short blog post, but I thought I would look at one particular facet of social history that may serve to highlight some of the challenges—gender and sexuality.
Early on I realized that there was a seeming disconnect between the concerns of the majority of Medievalists (loosely defined as those who focus on the remnants of the Roman Empire in the West) and those who study the vibrant Greek and Slavic cultures connected to the eastern Byzantine Empire. At the same time, historians who tend to look at social issues (such as gender and sexuality) ask similar questions and draw upon analogous records, especially those pertaining to canon law (patristics, legislation from ecumenical councils, penitentials, etc.). As a starting point, there was no better source to highlight both these contrasts and commonalities than Eve Levin’s classic 1989 tome Sex and Society in the World of Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700. Levin’s work is ambitious in scope and scale, deploying types of sources that most medieval historian of gender or of (Western) canon law would find familiar, even though the specific contexts of such sources may be entirely foreign.
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.
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?
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 Bosshere 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.
The death of Svetlana Alliluyeva in a nursing home in Wisconsin brings to a close a fascinating and tragic life. The documentary film maker Lana Parshina in 2007 had the good luck of landing one of the few extensive interviews with Stalin’s daughter, who had taken on the new name of Lana Peters. Here are my thoughts on the film.
In 2007, the producer and director, a young Russian émigré named Svetlana Parshina, learned to her great amazement that Stalin’s 82-year-old daughter Svetlana was not only alive—but living in a retirement community in Wisconsin under the name “Lana Peters” (Peters is the name of her last husband, an American architect whom she divorced in the 1970s). Fiercely protective of her privacy, Stalin’s daughter had famously refused for decades to entertain requests for interviews, for they invariably turned toward the deeds and misdeeds of her infamous father.
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.
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.
Over the Easter weekend, I was reading The Guardianand 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.
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.
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.
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.