In the hopes of generating some more discussion, I thought I’d interject briefly as the facilitator of this conversation to follow up on a thread raised by Marko and our panelists in the hopes that they (and any of our readers) may want to respond.
Amidst all the craziness of this past … forever … I’m pleased to say that the Summer Research Laboratory at Illinois continues strong. We have a great program this coming summer, and excellent fellowship support available for scholars. (In addition to housing and travel grants for up to two weeks work in our fabulous library collections, we are able to offer $1000 grants in support of other expenses.)
So if you have a work you’ve been dying to finish, or are mulling over a new project but haven’t quite been able to lay out a plan, consider joining us! We have everything you need to get things done. The deadline for full consideration is March 15. I’m always happy to answer questions about the program.
Among our featured workshops this summer:
- The Eurasian Migration System: A Sponsored Summer Workshop for Researchers (June 11-15, 2018), led by Cynthia Buckley (University of Illinois), Andrei Korobkov (Middle Tennessee State University), and Laura Dean (Milikin University)
- Association for Women in Slavic Studies (AWSS) Workshop on Gender and Women in Russia’s Great War and Revolution, 1914-1922 (June 21-24, 2018), led by Adele Lindenmeyr (Villanova University) and Melissa Stockdale (Oklahoma University)
- Ralph T. Fisher Workshop: The Caucasus and Central Asia in Conversation: The Importance of Stories and Archives from the Soviet and Post-Soviet Periphery (June 15-16, 2018), led by Eva Rogaar (Illinois) and Ben Bamberger (Illinois)
In my first blog about the oral history interviews conducted as part of my study of Protestant life in the USSR I wrote about the life of Z. who was born in 1925 on the outskirts of Moscow. She came from a poor background but as a young woman managed to establish a stable life for herself: a good job in a factory, marriage to a foreman. Her religious beliefs – as a young woman in the late 1940s, she was baptised – represented a threat to this steady Soviet life, and were the source of conflict with her husband. The protagonist of this second blog is rather different. In the late 1940s, O. was still a child but she had already been separated from her parents and sent, alone, into exile.
The final exam serves many functions. It’s a moment of assessment, of course, a relatively important one in this class at 40% of the total grade. A student writes for two hours, and you read it for fifteen minutes. If you do it right, that exchange allows you to determine whether a student has done “satsifactory” (C), “good” (B), or “excellent” (A) work. But what does it mean to “do it right?” I’m pretty sure there’s not a single perfect way to construct a final. In any case, I have experimented with different models over the years: take-home finals, oral finals, and in many courses no final at all. In recent years, however, I’ve adopted a hybrid model that I like for my intermediate “lecture” classes. I give students the long essay questions ahead of time but also have a set of shorter questions that they see for the first time during the exam itself. Here’s the final exam I gave this year:
How should a college professor teach? Pick up a guide for new instructors (or attend a workshop aimed at the same), and you may well be advised to train yourself to be a “guide on the side” rather than a fusty old “sage on the stage.” Don’t worry, this post won’t be a rehashing of the debate between pro-lecture and anti-lecture partisans. No, my point today is that posing the question in the way it has traditionally been posed impoverishes the debate by giving only two options and by presenting those options as mutually exclusive. This is a shame, because none of the many great teachers I have seen in action were either a “sage on the stage” or a “guide on the side.” There are lots of ways to be effective in the classroom, but the folks I’ve seen with the most success have both made their teaching persona an outgrowth of their personalities and have shown flexibility in teaching methods depending on the class they’re teaching. Rendered as pithy advice, this would boil down to “Be yourself” (or, maybe, “Be your best self”) and “Pay close attention to the students in front of you.”
Some people crank out books rapidly, one quickly after the last. Others take longer to accomplish the task. Based as it is on a dissertation defended at Columbia University back in 1999, Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire has been a long time in coming. My guess is that this was a source of frustration for the author himself, but for our field there is real and tangible profit. This book clearly benefitted handsomely from the long time that it took to complete. The bibliography is extensive, and the author has taken careful stock of major developments in the historiography over the last two decades or so. A glance at the endnotes reveals that ideal balance of archival, published primary, and secondary sources, woven together seamlessly and all placed in intimate conversation with one another. That very configuration is evidence of a tremendous process of synthesis and integration—one that really could unfold only over the long haul. This depth—a function of the long time the author spent carefully contemplating the key issues at stake—is the first of four major attributes that I ascribe to this book.
A second—and related—attribute is the book’s chronological scope. While the authors of The History Manifesto (whether rightly or wrongly—probably the latter) fret about the narrowing chronological scope of much contemporary historical research, here we have a work that is bold in its willingness to take on the challenge of covering some 350 years of history. That my colleague and specialist on the early-modern era, Matthew Romaniello, finds the book compelling and indeed “excellent” on the more than two centuries before the 19th century says a great deal about the skill with which Steinwedel, whose work has focused mostly on late imperial Russia, successfully ventured into those earlier eras. This after all requires great sensitivity to the peculiarities of earlier ages, something that requires deep immersion. My colleague Ilya Gerasimov notes the “inner research logic” behind this broad chronological scope, and I agree. Indeed, though my mind is admittedly crippled by the intellectually stultifying task of chairing a modern academic department, I strain to identify more than a handful of books, aside from works of broad synthesis, that tackle such an extended period of time: Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors (which nonetheless focuses principally on the Soviet era); John LeDonne’s works on Russia’s “grand strategy” over 2-3 centuries; and Michael Khodarkovsky’s Making of a Colonial Empire (which however does not extend into the modern period). The fact is that we simply do not have very many books that probe deeply into a particular problem while also tackling the long haul. This is obviously in part because those two tasks are so fundamentally at odds with one another. To reconcile them is no mean feat. Steinwedel has managed this, and indeed the twin problems of loyalty and authority (encompassed in the metaphor of “threads”) are sharply revealed in the process, as is their evolution over time.
“Every extremely shameful, immeasurably humiliating, mean, and, above all, ridiculous position I have happened to get into in my life has always aroused in me, along with boundless wrath, an unbelievable pleasure.” – Nikolai Stavrogin, in Demons (692)
I gave precisely zero thought to the presidential election when creating the syllabus for my course on Imperial Russia this year. Instead, knowing that I would be teaching an overload in addition to a heavy administrative burden this fall, I kept my course structured mostly the same way. That placed my unit on “Modernity, Terrorism, and Revolution” not in a sunny, hopeful, pre-graduation April but in the darkening days of November. Students spend three of the four weeks of this unit doing one thing: reading Dostoevskii’s brilliant and frightening novel Demons.
I’m in St. Petersburg right now, enjoying my research leave and finding all sorts of lovely bits and pieces in the archives. I’ve been pleased to find some connections I hoped to find and frustrated by hints of larger stories I can’t follow. I’ve grinned, I’ve teared up, I’ve gasped out loud at a surprising turn a document took. (It’s possible I’m too emotionally engaged, but I don’t really think so.) I even have more of the dead cheese master’s story to tell, at least a bit.
That’s going to wait for a while, though, because yesterday I got a file that weirdly echoed the news of the day. On July 10, 1812, the St. Petersburg Civil Governor wrote to the Gatchina town authorities to pass on an order from on high: as part of a general survey of foreigners living in the Empire, the town administration was to send in a list of all foreigners currently living in the town. It came with a handy model form that gave all the information they wanted: name, what the foreigner was doing, whether they owned a home, when they had come to Russia, whether they had taken an oath of loyalty (that is, taken Russian subjecthood/citizenship), the name of someone with oversight over them, and then any plans they had to leave the country or even just move within Russia. The governor also confirmed that although the form only mentioned inostrantsy, male foreigners, they also wanted information about inostranki, female foreigners, as well: “although on the form there is nothing noted about women, but they too—that is widows with their children if there are any, and unmarried women too—should be included.”
Just this week a new online journal for Russian Studies arrived, The Journal of Frontier Studies/Zhurnal frontirnykh issledovanii. It is being edited by a group of scholars at Astrakhan State University, and aspires to put Russian and Western scholars into conversation. They are planning on publishing articles in English down the line.
By way of disclaimer, I’m on the editorial board, but if there’s a new forum to publish articles on the relationship between Russia and Iran in the imperial era (as an article by V. O. Kulakov does in the first issue), then I really am on board with the journal!
Historians often say that at least twenty years must pass before people can begin to grasp the true significance of an event. The passage of time dampens the passions, permits a more objective view, reveals new documents, and provides some sense of the long-term impact of the event. Yet the passing of more than a quarter century since communism’s demise in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has produced more light than heat. The documentary entitled simply “1989” provides a valuable eyewitness perspective on the collapse of communism.(http://www.budapesttelegraph.com/news/788/1989:_new_documentary_features_miklos_nemeth’s_help_bring_down_berlin_wall) It suggests the vital role of one small communist nation, Hungary, in setting into motion a chain of events that led, willy-nilly, to the dismantling of the Iron Curtain. At the center of this story – known previously but not so clearly and compellingly conveyed as it is here in this hour-long documentary — is Miklos Nemeth, the last prime minister of the communist government of Hungary. Forty years old at the time, Nemeth seemed like the perfect party scapegoat for an intractable economic crisis brought about by a severe financial crisis. Hungary had been unable to pay back Western banks for millions of dollars of loans that had replaced Soviet subsidies through the 1980s.
As with many dramatic political upheavals – including the French Revolution of 1989 — a budget crisis precipitated the chain of events that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its system in Eastern Europe. As a professional economist, the technocrat Nemeth seemed a logical choice to handle Hungary’s economic crisis – or at least to find a way to service that debt and avoid larger political repercussions. Western banks in the early 1980s had financed consumerism in Eastern Europe. They believed that communist governments in Eastern Europe provided an ideal customer for their loans, as the communist governments, immune to democratic political pressures, seemed likely to service the debt. The Soviets, for their part, were happy to allow Western banks to subsidize Eastern European consumerism, thereby shifting the burden of empire maintenance to the capitalist enemy (echoes here of Lenin’s dictum that the capitalists would give the Bolsheviks the rope with which they would hang the fat cats in top hats). But as with Germans banks and Greece more recently, the Western banks began demanding payment on their loans which the Eastern European nations simply could not provide; and as with Greece in 2010 the burden of servicing massive debt triggered an existential political crisis that went far beyond the economic and political fate of Hungary itself. Combined with Soviet-driven reform efforts under Gorbachev, and the ensuing political instability, the economic crisis created a perfect storm that resulted, contrary to anyone’s expectations, in the dramatic end of communism in Europe – the reverse domino effect.
In Hungary, the panicked party leadership handed the mess over to the unknown Nemeth as the new Prime Minister in November 1988 – just one year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which it is safe to say no one, and certainly not the CIA or secret services of the Communist states, would have predicted. Few believed Nemeth could survive – the proverbial lamb fed to the lions. Desperate to trim state expenses, one of the first things that he did was to scour the budget line items for areas where he might save money. He noticed a large, mysterious and recurring expenditure. It was labeled with a secret code that he did not understand, which turned out to be for maintaining the electrical fence that kept Hungarians behind the Iron Curtain. It was badly in need of repair, as he discovered when he inquired about this line item with party bosses, and the Soviets, facing their own budget crisis, had recently refused to provide spare parts and money to maintain it. So the Hungarians had been turning to France, spending what little money the government had, which was also borrowed from Western banks, to maintain a critical part of the Iron Curtain that even the Soviets had little desire to maintain. It is a curious footnote to the history of the late Cold War: the role of Western banks in first propping up communist states in Eastern and Central Europe and then in prompting the political crisis that brought them down when the bill for loans came due.
As a budget saving measure, Nemeth decided to curtail this expenditure in December 1988, though actually tearing down the fence proved more problematic. Understandably, he encountered stiff resistance from the party leadership and then discovered another surprising fact that turned him against the system he was appointed to serve: the news that Hungary since the 1970s – contrary to official claims that denied nuclear bombs on its soil — had housed nuclear bombs pointed at Italy.
Nemeth, meanwhile, traveled in March 1989 to Moscow with grave doubts and fears, given his own family experiences and trauma associated with the brutal suppression of the 1956 attempt by Hungarian reformers to gain some independence from Soviet control. His father, a farmer, had been an advocate of the revolution of 1956 crushed by the Soviets. Nemeth claims he joined the communist party in the early 1960s to try and change it from within. His father did not speak to him for six months but eventually reconciled himself to his son’s decision, telling him only that he must tell the truth to his people and to the world if he were to attain a position of power. He took that advice when he traveled to Moscow to meet Gorbachev, nervous but determined to discuss his reform plans, including holding free elections that would almost certainly result in the victory of non-communists and to remove the fence that the Hungarian treasury could no longer maintain. To his great surprise, Gorbachev greeted him with a firm handshake rather than the sloppy kiss and warm embrace typical of Brezhnev’s encounters with Eastern European counterparts. Gorbachev, incidentally, preserved the practice of the lip kiss and warm embrace for more reactionary communist party bosses in Eastern Europe, suggesting that the wet kiss, in semiotic terms, signified a certain unequal power relationship between Moscow and Eastern European leaders, whereas a firm handshake, absent the kiss and hug, indicated a new kind of political relationship. At any rate, Gorbachev assuaged Nemeth’s fears, promising not to send troops and also endorsing Nemeth’s plans to take down the fence (telling Helmut Kohl later that Nemeth was a “good guy — khoroshii chelovek“). Nemeth then grasped an important dynamic of the developing political situation: he would have to rely on Moscow for support and face his stiffest resistance from old line Stalinists and Brezhnev cronies back in Prague, East Berlin, and his own capital of Budapest.
Nemeth’s decision to open the border with Austria in May of 1989, by tearing down a 40-year old electric fence that guarded the border with Austria, soon triggered an exodus of Eastern Europeans and a refugee crisis, especially from East Germany, which was still under the control of the hardliner Erich Honecker. That refugee crisis spilled into Western Europe when the Hungarian government decided in September 1989 to allow all East German refugees to pass across the border and into Austria. How much Nemeth understood the momentous political impact of that decision remains unclear, though the East German communist party boss Erich Honecker seems to have been acutely aware of its potential effect on his own power. The West German government had promised housing and support to all East Germans. Tens of thousands accepted that offer, travelling through Hungary in their Trabants and the now open border and then making their way to West Germany to collect their Deutschemarks and free housing. The exodus, involving many of East Germany’s most highly qualified professionals, who believed they had good prospects in West Germany, enraged the East German leader Honecker, as well as the remaining hard liners still in power in Bucharest, Prague, and Sofia. As in 1960, when there was a mass exodus of East Germans to West Germany in Berlin, the East German government demanded that the Soviet Union plug the hole in the Iron Curtain that was allowing the best and brightest in East Germany to leave. But unlike Khrushchev, who responded by building the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev refused to stop the mass emigration, consistent with his promise to Nemeth earlier that he would not interfere in plans to remove the electric fence between Hungary and Austria whose absence now provided an exit path for East Germans. That refusal set into motion the dramatic events that led first to Honecker’s ouster in October 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the disintegration of communist control in Eastern Europe shortly thereafter.
Among the other dramatic moves made by Nemeth was to exhume the body of the executed leader of the 1956 Hungarian reforms, Imre Nagy, who had been buried secretly after his execution by the Soviets. His body was exhumed and given a public ceremonial burial in Bucharest in June 1989, against the wishes and thinly veiled threats of the old party diehards. Nearly 200,000 attended the event, which Nemeth’s security people thought might result in an assignation attempt on his life (they instructed him to keep moving his head to avoid having a sniper blow a hole in his brains). The re-burial catalyzed opposition to the communist party and helped to mobilize the movement that resulted in the electoral dismantling of the communist one-party system in Hungary and eventually throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. It turned out in some ways to be the burial of the Soviet system.
The story is narrated by Nemeth and the point of view is almost his exclusively, though he comes across as honest and reflective, especially regarding his own inability at the time to understand the larger implications of his decisions. Would communism have collapsed without the specific decisions of Gorbachev and Nemeth? History is not written in the conditional tense, as they say, so it is impossible to answer that question. But the evidence from the documentary certainly suggests the critical role of individual leaders and decisions in determining the specific timing and outcome of events leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Those dramatic events almost always unfolded in unintended ways and to the astonishment of those, like myself as a student in Moscow in 1989, who believed that the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, whatever its clear weaknesses and problems, would last for a very, very long time.
As a prologue to this story, Hungary in 2015 began constructing a fence along its border with Croatia and Serbia to handle another refugee crisis — this time one involving Syrians trying to get into the EU.
The documentary’s celebration of barrier demolitions should be placed into the context of this new border fence. Fence and wall builders once again have seized power — in Hungary as in Israel and all along the US-Mexico border. Perhaps some may say it is inappropriate to make such connections between Cold War walls and present ones erected by the supposed winners in the Cold War, but one thing is clear: the era of fence and wall demolition seems to have been very brief, a mere quarter of a century. The brevity of the fence-dismantling era reinforces the point made in the beginning of this post — that the true significance of an event only becomes apparent with deep hindsight.
Many thanks to Josh for getting back with such wide-ranging elaborations on my, David’s, and John Paul’s original posts. In the interest of keeping things going, let me take up just one of Josh’s points here, hoping to chime in on others as the discussion continues.
On decolonization as a useful frame for understanding of Russia’s Great War: I agree with Josh’s sensible defense of the term in his post on the topic. For all of the unavoidable shapelessness of the concept, “decolonization” as a way of understanding the formal end of empire shouldn’t be thrown out. In fact, if anything, Josh should be credited for bringing this conceptual terminology into our vocabulary on the Russian side.
The great benefit of Josh’s decolonization framework, as David suggested in his post, is that it places the messy, even torturous social politics of empire at the very center of the analysis. We’re used to thinking of the conflict as a contest of imperial alliances and have no trouble citing “nationalism” and “imperialism” among the various “-isms” on our list of the war’s causes. But we’ve done far less to explore the way that Russia’s “empire-ness” – that is, its possibilities and limitations as a sprawling multiethnic society and polity – affected all the dynamics of the time, high and low, including how the country experienced the momentous and ultimately uncontainable upheaval of 1917. Josh gives us a new way to perceive the relationship between empire and the Great War in the Russian context, all of which is a good thing, in my view.
But can one have too much of a good thing? One of the unavoidable perils of a singular provocative thesis is that it overshadows other dynamics and, perhaps unavoidably, takes on its own seemingly unassailable logic. Decolonization – yes, but did the tensions of empire drive everything? The war tested the form of empire that characterized the Russian state at that particular moment, and the white heat of the conflict ultimately proved too much. There is no denying that much — the empire, indeed, cracked apart, not least because Petrograd lost control of huge swaths of the country as the war progressed, including parts of its Central Asian hinterland.
But did “empire” make this so? If Russia hadn’t been the kind of empire it was at the time, couldn’t one argue that the grinding pressures of the conflict, especially when we add the leadership’s clear missteps to the mix, would have been enough to do in the government anyway? That is, “empire” is surely critical. It affects so much on the Russian side, even developments that we might not assume it would. But, for all that, states that are not empires can collapse, too. Perhaps “empire” in regards to the particular question of regime failure, then, is more a question of context than of cause?
On a related note: In his most recent post, Josh suggests – and I agree with him – that the Russian state was stronger than we might think at the start of the war. I’d only add here, amplifying Josh’s view, that it’s helpful to see the imperial state as both strong _and_ weak as the war begins. Obviously, some of the state’s limitations at the time proved to be terribly dangerous ones to expose to what eventually became the first truly “total war” in the country’s history, and these weaknesses took their toll. But I’m not convinced that they were inherent weaknesses of “empire,” even weaknesses of the particular sort of empire that Russia was at the time.
Alongside terrific tensions and seemingly unresolvable “imperial challenges,” Russia’s “empire-ness” also provided the country with abiding solidarities and much-needed resources during the conflict. Perhaps most of all, “empire” was simply the way one did things within Russia’s historical space. As William Appleman Williams might have put it, at the time at least, empire amounted to “a way of life.”  And indeed Josh seems to suggest as much himself by reminding us in Imperial Apocalypse of the final stage of decolonization – phase four – the “state-building” phase that actually witnesses the “rebuilding [of] the empire” (258-62), albeit in changed form, under the Bolsheviks.
 William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America’s Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts about an Alternative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
I blogged a couple of months ago about the controversy regarding the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship. After hearing from a large number of ASEEES members, the board held a special meeting and reversed its earlier decision. It has also changed its procedures to allow for more transparency in the future.
Full statement here: http://www.aseees.org/news-events/aseees-news-feed/board-statement-special-meeting
Hopefully, Prof. Cohen and Ms. van den Heuvel will now renew their offer to support the work of graduate students in our field!
I’m a week late in posting this installment of the cheese master’s story because I spent all of last week at Disneyworld on a family trip, and that wasn’t conducive to posting (though I did finish a conference paper!). This wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that there’s an odd way in which the experience of being there gave me some insight to these blog posts, and to my larger project on Gatchina: it takes so many people to keep a concern of this size running smoothly. The number of employees there (oh, wait, excuse me, Disney, “cast members”) is astonishing, and it made me think that Disneyworld is probably the thing in the modern world that’s closest to working on the scale of one of the imperial palaces, with all its buildings and grounds to care for. And in the case of Gatchina, when the the town was part of the palace administration too, that was even more pronounced.
In the cheese master’s story, many of the people who worked in and around Gatchina appear, at times interacting with him during his life, at times overseeing the process of dealing with his estate. There’ve been a number of them already in these episodes, from the peasant hundreder Pavel Spiridonov who found the body and the regional officials who helped to identify it and to compile lists of his property, to Unge, the ober-amtman who oversaw one of Gatchina’s districts, and who helped deal with Tinguely’s possessions, to Buksgevden and Ramburg, the nobles on whose properties the body was found or who had agreements with the dead man.
There are others who play important roles in the story of Tinguely’s life and death—or at least in the archival file. The highest ranking are the St. Petersburg civil governor, Dmitrii Fedorovich Glinka, who received reports from district officials and who sent them on to Gatchina authorities, and Petr Khrisanforovich Obolianinov, then the head administrator of the town of Gatchina (and also General and Cavalier). Those titles, though, are a bit misleading. One might expect the governor to be the person with greater authority and rank, but in the files Glinka sounds slightly defensive in his letter to Obolianinov. Obolianinov had evidently written to Glinka chastising him for taking too long to tell the Gatchina authorities about Tinguely’s death, and Glinka responded with a list of the reasons it had been impossible for him to write earlier. He is clearly trying to say that he was not guilty, that the man had been unknown, and that identifying him had simply taken time (ll. 31-31ob, August 23, 1799).
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.
So the NY Times is proclaiming that Obama is thinking about creating an ‘Ebola Czar‘. One of the oddities of the modern American world, indeed, is a love of the idea of a “czar”: almost any time a major public issue arises (war, drugs, health care, urban policy, Katrina, Ferguson) there are calls, often completely unironic and bi-partisan in nature, to create a ‘czar’ to govern that issue.
Why does a putatively democratic, constitutional, secular order–which generally celebrates itself as the republican Rechtsstaat incarnate–feel the need to constantly call for the invention of a figure who by definition rises above all representative institutions and laws, and does so by “God’s grace”? I have always found this odd but insistent echo of Russian history in U.S. life to be baffling.
How do Americans understand the concept “czar”? Does it match what we, as historians, think about the meaning of the concept? (And here I recognize that not everyone may agree with what I just said about tsars, to use the more standard scholarly spelling.) What explains the particular hold the image of “the czar” has on the modern American political imaginary?
I thought I would open a thread here on this question. Any thoughts and discussion?
There may be a few teachers out there working on syllabi, as well as students and other researchers considering topics in Russian history. For decades, the great Anthony Cross has helped scholars discover the corpus of English-language testimonies about Russia and the Soviet Union. I’m pleased to note that his latest, comprehensive bibliography has just appeared, under the title In the Land of the Romanovs: An Annotated Bibliography of First-hand English-language Accounts of the Russian Empire (1613-1917), from Open Book Publishers in Cambridge. The entire text is freely available on-line, in a Wiki edition. Paper copies can also be purchased on demand.
Authoritative and well-annotated, it provides a huge body of accessible sources for teachers and students to mine. Thank you, and congratulations, Professor Cross!
Having re-read the various posts on Polly’s book, including her latest entry – which assembles comparative cases in order to highlight what was and wasn’t distinctive about Soviet memory of the Stalin era – I think it might be useful to point out a number of issues that have gone unremarked or unresolved in the discussion so far. While I don’t expect all questions or areas of disagreement among us to be resolved, I do want to push back a bit against the current tendency in the humanities to generate a multitude of individual theses and anti-theses, but to leave unfinished the work of debate and synthesis, which requires discriminating between stronger and weaker arguments. Or, to put it another way, we often seem to conclude our group discussions with questions, ambiguities, and divergences at the expense of answers, testable hypotheses, and syntheses. Of course posing a good question is the indispensable first step in any intellectual endeavor. One of the hallmarks of a good question, however, is its ability to facilitate a good answer.
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.
Just a quick follow-up to my earlier post about Scalar, an open source web authoring tool produced by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, of which the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities is a member.
We’re trying out teaching with it this term in the History Department, and are creating a tutorial–“Scalar for Historians”–to aid with these efforts. Feel free to use it, and I’d love to hear any suggestions or about other experiments with Scalar.
Are we hosting the Summer Research Lab this year at Illinois? You bet! As in each of the previous forty years, we look forward to seeing researchers of all disciplines and career stages here in Champaign-Urbana, to participate in workshops, consult with our famed Slavic Reference Service, and work in our fantastic library collections. Have a project you want to start (or finish), but don’t have the money to go to Russia, East Europe, or the FSU? Or have the money to go to abroad, but actually want to get some work done? Join us! Here’s the CFP: more info below the jump.