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.
Last month I wrote about a great new collection of posters by the Soviet artist Koretsky. The publisher, The New Press, very kindly offered a free copy to be won in a prize draw. On the blog / facebook page we had almost 30 entrants and using a random number generator we found a winner: Aisling H. Congratulations, Aisling – I’ll be in touch!
As this week closes, I wanted to highlight that seems somewhat obvious to those with even a casual interest in the history of Russian/Soviet space activities, its incredibly rich visual record. The picture that Andy posted of cosmonaut Shatalov meeting Native Americans in the U.S. in 1974 is one perfect example of that record. I’m posting here 6 images from the pre-Sputnik era which I think capture interesting moments in this long and rich history with appropriate captions. I’ll post some images from the 1960s and 1970s in a separate post.
I am not sure what provoked the outpouring of scholarship on the history of Soviet space culture over the past decade or so. Was it part of the cultural “turn” that historians of the post-Stalin decades started to take in the 1990s? Did it have something to do with what historians of American space technology were writing? Or was the inspiration more proximate – maybe Vail and Genis’ chapter on the kosmos from their book on the Soviet sixties, originally published in 1988 but not immediately well known? Whatever its origin, the abundance of riches surely is a remarkable development. It is, among other things, transnational – the 23 authors who have contributed to these four books work in nine different countries. It also varies in emphasis and focus – pioneers and projects; myth and reality; gender, regional, and international political dimensions.
I am very excited to kick off the seventh conversation on the Russian History blog on the topic of Soviet/Russian space history. Instead of the usual focus on one monograph, we are using a number of recent texts that recover, explore, and rethink the intersections between “cosmic enthusiasm” (as the title of one of the books characterizes it) and Soviet/Russian culture. These are two individually authored monographs: my own The Red Rockets’ Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Andrew Jenks’ The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), and two edited books that have some overlap: Eva Maurer, Julia Richers, Monica Ruthers, and Carmen Scheide, eds., Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies (Macmillan, 2011) and James T. Andrews and Asif Siddiqi, eds., Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).
The appearance of these texts (as well as many other books and essays on Soviet space culture in the past few years) suggests that academic interest in the topic has attained a critical mass that warrants some self-reflection. Before we launch this exchange, I wanted to introduce and frame the topic and then raise a few pertinent questions to serve as a catalyst towards more in-depth discussion.
Alright, I admit that title was a mouthful. Basically, I just wanted to alert readers who may not have heard of it that there’s a new, web-based digital authoring tool called Scalar that they may find useful. It’s an open-source application built by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC. Unlike many authoring tools, it was designed by scholars for scholars, and more particularly by new media scholars for the new media environment.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by The New Press and offered a copy of their new publication, Koretsky. The Soviet Photo Poster: 1930-1984, for a prize draw to be launched from this site. This beautiful edition includes 200 colour images as well as interesting commentaries from Erika Wolf, a visual historian based in New Zealand. If you would like to enter the draw, all you need to do is to read to the bottom and leave a post!
First, I’d like to thank Steve Barnes for organizing this book discussion of Communism on Tomorrow Street, as well as the participants for their commentary thus far. They’ve provided far more food for thought and questions than I can address in one post, so I’ll address a couple now and save more for later.
In her original post, Christine Varga-Harris discusses the emphasis that I place on egalitarianism as a central feature in Khrushchev’s mass housing campaign. As it evolved over the course of Khrushchev’s years in power, this issue led to political embarrassment for Khrushchev personally (albeit behind closed doors) when party-state elites just a rung or two down from the Presidium overcame his resistance to the cooperative, which he claimed represented inequality.
It gives me great pleasure to read the culmination of Steven E. Harris’s important work on Soviet mass housing, and to crash this Russian History blog party. Two images from this book continue to haunt me. First, dead and living bodies. Stalin-era architects foresaw a change in apartment size as a result of the law banning abortion, as if apartments functioned like honeybee cells and expanded to hold new state-mandated babies (64.) Later residents of krushchevka units complained that they could not carry a corpse out of the building except if it was standing up (272 and 296.) Second, missing dining tables. “They [state planners] have completely forgotten the dinner table,” lamented a Krushchev-era furniture maker. (232.)
These images point to the structuring principles of Soviet housing from the Bolshevik to the Krushchev era, as Harris shows us: living space and auxiliary space. As far as I know this distinction is uniquely Soviet and does not appear either in Europe or in the United States (where hygienic norms simply take the total square footage of a domicile and divide it by the number of residents.)
What does this binary between (domestic) life and extra-life, ‘living space’ and ‘auxiliary space’, mean? Harris gives us several paths to an answer. Bolshevik planners used sanitary norms as a guide for reshaping the family. Individuals, not families, would receive an allotment of ‘living space’; all social interactions would ultimately take place in public spaces, in collective dining halls, kitchens, crèches and laundries. In this Bolshevik plans echoed contemporary left-wing modernists’ visions for hotel-apartments of the future. In living space one was meant to breathe and sleep, no more.
Thanks to Karl Qualls and Mark Smith for the thought-provoking comments that each has contributed to this discussion of Steve Harris’ Communism on Tomorrow Street. Drawing on his expertise on (re)construction and urban planning, Qualls raised significant questions about the evolution of prefabricated building, as well as the ways in which the architectural profession strove to reassert its authority after Stalin.[1. Susan Reid discusses the parallel matter of the position of interior design professionals after Stalin in her article “Destalinization and Taste, 1953-1963,” Journal of Design History 10, no. 2 (1997): 177-201.] Smith, whose work I noted in my initial post, echoed my implicit interest in class. This is a subject I would like to address further – specifically in relation to the politics of complaint, another strand of scholarship that Communism on Tomorrow Street enriches, as Qualls aptly indicated.
As Smith rightly pointed out, class is a weighty category of analysis bound up in much more than “difference.” I also appreciated him reinforcing the significance of entitlement and citizenship that I have emphasized in my own study of Soviet housing. To elaborate a bit, my work has aimed to deconstruct the discourse employed in housing complaints and requests to determine what “home” meant in the aftermath of war and Stalinism, to investigate the contours of Soviet identity, and to explore popular investment in socialism in general. From these perspectives, demands for better housing certainly reveal more about a broader Soviet subjectivity than about class per se. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Harris’ attention to class for the simple reason that the intersection of (socioeconomic) class with consciousness, social identity, values and culture has not enjoyed the same degree of scrutiny in scholarship on the postwar Soviet Union that it has been afforded in studies on earlier periods of tremendous flux.[2. The following pivotal works on class during the New Economic Policy, Cultural Revolution, and collectivization and industrialization are what came to my mind: Diane P. Koenker, “Factory Tales: Narratives of Industrial Relations in the Transition to NEP,” The Russian Review 55, no. 3 (July 1996): 384-411; Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization (Berkeley, 1995); Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Ascribing Class: The Construction of Social Identity in Soviet Russia,” Journal of Modern History 65, no. 4 (December 1993): 745-770; and Hiroaki Kuromiya, “The Crisis of Proletarian Identity in the Soviet Factory, 1928-1929,” Slavic Review 44, no. 2 (Summer 1985). Where class in the postwar era is concerned, I should note that Donald Filtzer has provided an impressive portrait of the condition of the working class, and David Ruffley, of the advancement of Soviet professionals. See, respectively, Soviet Workers and Late Stalinism: Labour and the Restoration of the Stalinist System After World War II (Cambridge, 2007) and Children of Victory: Young Specialists and the Evolution of Soviet Society (Westport, 2003). Class also figured into various remarks during the fourth blog conversation on Donald Raleigh’s book, Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation (Oxford, 2011).]
I hate to interrupt the fascinating blog conversation on Communism on Tomorrow Street, but I feel it imperative to help spread this distressing news. The U.S. State Department’s Title VIII program has long supported studies of Russia and Eurasia, primarily though not exclusively by providing financial support for language studies and field research.
News today is that the budget for Title VIII has been cut in its entirety for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Carl Schreck of RIA Novosti covers the impact in some depth.
It’s really difficult to describe what a blow this is to my personal research agenda as a scholar and to the long-term state of the field. Title VIII funding via IREX supported the research trip to Russia and Kazakhstan that resulted in my own doctoral dissertation and first book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society. I spent four months last winter again in Russia and Kazakhstan with support from the Title VIII program via ACTR to complete the research for my current book project, The Wives’ Gulag: The Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. (I suppose I should count myself lucky that I managed to complete research for the second book just before the program was zeroed out.)
So, I have personally benefited from the Title VIII program, but it has been much more than that. A tremendous proportion of the books written by Americans in the field of Russian and Eurasian studies have depended on research underwritten by the Title VIII program. It would be truly frightening to go through my bookshelf and yank out all of the books supported by Title VIII and imagine the incredible loss of knowledge that the defunding of this program represents. The Russian History Blog itself is a secondary product of Title VIII, as much of the research we share, the books we discuss, the ideas we explore have resulted from the language and research training supported by Title VIII.
One can only hope that the program will be refunded in the future, but the political climate in Washington, DC, these days, so hostile to government spending in support of the production of knowledge, leaves one pessimistic.
Many thanks to Alexander Geppert, a leading figure in the history of space flight and European culture, for this review of two recent volumes on Russian space flight and culture (in which I and fellow blogger Asif Siddiqi have essays). It’s nice to see a scholar from outside our field address our scholarship.
What I find most interesting about this outsider’s perspective is that it confirms something that many of us perhaps already know – or should know: the parochial nature of our scholarship and scholarly community (as an aside, it’s great that the Russian History Blog has included scholars from outside the Russian field to comment on our scholarship in the Blog Conversations). The point was driven home to me at the April 2012 conference in Berlin put on by Alexander (http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/tagungsberichte/id=4303). I was the lone Russianist at the conference. I was struck by the marginalization of Russia in the European context (even as the papers devoted to the United States, in a conference dedicated to European visions of space and utopia, dominated parts of the agenda). I think we Russianists share some of the blame for this, precisely because of our tendency to eschew transnational or global approaches to writing the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. But what would a transnational history of space flight and culture look like? It’s a question that consumes me now as I attempt to research the space race in a transnational context — focusing on collaborative moments such as the Apollo-Solyuz Test Project, the Interkosmos flights beginning in 1979, the Association of Space Explorers in the 1980s, and the Mir and ISS space stations. If anyone feels so inspired, perhaps they could point me to interesting examples of attempts to write Cold War Russia and the Soviet Union into a more global — or at least — pan-European history.
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).
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.”
As a footnote to last month’s discussion on access, I wanted to put in a plug for our annual Summer Laboratory on Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Obviously, nothing is as cheap or convenient as reading on your own computer screen; at the other extreme, nothing says “I’m a Russian historian” like a photograph in front of the Kremlin. Yet in the end, I suppose, most scholars still want something in between. And nothing can really get a project moving—or get it finally done—as well as some concentrated time in a great research library: a place with big broad tables and collections to match, where you can find 25 rare items, spread them out on a surface all open at once, and begin to make (or finally tie up) a whole series of connections. If the library is filled with other scholars and specialists—people you’d like to meet and discuss ideas with—so much the better.
My most recent blog post (on MOOCs) dealt with digital teaching. Less than a week after it appeared, Sean Guillory wrote an important piece on Sean’s Russia Blog regarding digital scholarship, to wit, the importance of open access for Russian historians. His inspiration for the piece was the suicide of Aaron Swartz, a gifted young computer scientist indicted by the government for downloading articles en masse from JSTOR with the intent to distribute them freely on the web. I do not know enough about Professor Swartz or about the case to comment further on it, and I am wary of quick declarations of the reasons behind particular suicides, but I think the question of open access is an important one. Sean deals with it carefully and intelligently, though I disagree with him on some points. The comments section of Sean’s blog piece includes several thoughtful responses written by Russian historians familiar with the economics of journal publishing and the labor it takes to produce a high-quality journal with rigorous peer review. I highly recommend that readers take a look at both the piece and the comments. Many of the commentators are editors with the big journals in our field, and I wouldn’t presume to add anything of substance from the journal side of the question. Instead, let me offer a few thoughts as an author, a consumer, and as someone involved in faculty governance at a small school.
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.
Sergei Zhuk and I have a different take on the purpose and merits of oral history. As he put it, “I have some doubts about a reliability of the personal interviews as only one, primary source for the historical study.” Such a perspective was certainly widespread when the practice of oral history was in its infancy. Back in the 1980s, for instance, when oral history was under the influence of the social sciences, particularly sociology, its practitioners maintained that, if one could strip the interview of bias, one could get at the “objective” truth. In other words, above all the question of “reliability” concerned them, as it does Sergei. Since then, however, the discipline has fallen under the influence of the so-called European school, and of sister disciplines, resulting in a shift away from sociology toward anthropology and issues of collective-memory and subjectivity. In sum, oral testimonies became memories and increasingly became seen as interpretations of lives, not chronicles of the past.
I thank Miriam for returning to the issue of class and to my terse remark about it in my posting in response to Catriona’s comments. I apologize for not being clear: I did not intend to suggest that class is unimportant. Indeed, I make the case in Soviet Baby Boomers that the people I interviewed undoubtedly had different expectations and life experiences than less educated, less well-connected, and rural elements of Soviet society. I claimed that, as a critical component of the country’s urban professional class, the baby boomers are inseparable from the Soviet mass intelligentsia whose size grew exponentially in the decades following Stalin’s death. In that regard, I maintained, the 1967 graduates’ collective story tells us the story of the upper strata of the Cold War generation that lived through the USSR’s twilight years.
Catriona raised some interesting points that I’d like to address. As she suggests, the uniqueness of oral testimonies lies in the fact that the investigator, in collaboration with his/her subjects, creates the sources—not the memories—upon which the historian’s work is based. During my research, many of my interviewees wanted to know why I didn’t plan to interview the graduates of my secondary school, too. Doing so would have added another decade of work to the project, owing to the large size of my high school graduating class. Moreover, the schools I attended were not ones for the “children of gifted parents.” Besides that, I know little about American history; I just live through it. Yet, in the course of my work, I sometimes wondered what my informants’ lives would look like if I had placed them within larger personal networks. This is especially the case in regard to the baby boomers’ children. I found it fascinating that my interviewees harshly criticized young Russians today, but not their own children. This leitmotif runs through just about all of the life stories.