Where did you first hear Putin’s party, United Russia, called the “party of swindlers and thieves” (partiia zhulikov i vorov)? On a blog? On TV? Here, just now? Here’s an example (see image below). One of the things historians of the future will have to work out, when thinking about politics today, is how various media forms and forces combined to propagate such important political memes. The immediate instinct is to credit everything to new and social media; but having just spent a lot of the past month watching very official television, I’m not sure.
Here’s an animated short that takes as its subject the so-called ‘legend of the Valdai bells.’ Variously told, the legend goes something like this. In the 1470s, Prince Ivan III of Moscow ordered the great bell of Novgorod—used to summon the city assembly, or veche—pulled down and brought to Moscow, to hang there among the bells of the other Russian lands, brought under Ivan’s authority. But the Novgorod bell did not survive the journey. Instead, it fell and broke, near a town called Valdai; and from the pieces that were left behind the local people began to make sleigh bells, for which Valdai became famous.
Valdai Bells / Валдайские колокольчики from Zoya Kharakoz on Vimeo.
I rediscovered it recently while researching sleigh bells (more about that later). It occurs to me it might make for a good classroom discussion, on the interplay between legend and history (and between multiple legends and multiple histories) in contemporary Russian life. Anyway, long story short: I like it. What do you think?
One of the areas that I study is why soldiers behave the way that they do, especially in the period of World War I and the Russian Civil War. This has led me repeatedly to the question of atrocity. Why do atrocities occur? How do witnesses respond? How do outsiders react?
Americans have been thinking about this same set of questions over the past week. Pennsylvania State University, the flagship public university of my home state, was rocked by the arrest of a former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, on multiple counts of sexually abusing children. It soon developed that several of these assaults had taken place in the expansive football facilities of the school. On one occasion, in 2002, a graduate assistant named Mike McQueary had walked in on Sandusky raping a ten year old boy. McQueary, a former quarterback on Penn State’s team, fled the scene without stopping the felony or calling the police. The following day, he told head coach Joe Paterno, who in turn reported the offense up the Penn State chain of command. No one ever called the authorities, and no one thought to ask why not. For nine more years, Sandusky continued to abuse children.
Gulag Boss – Final Thoughts
Thanks to everyone for their participation in this first Russian History Blog conversation. I think we are finding some new ways to talk about books, and I hope to do more of this in the future. All of the commentary taken together has, I hope, led us to a deeper engagement with the meaning and importance of Gulag Boss. I will be interested to see if any of our discussion makes its way into our more traditional scholarship in the future.
I do want to take a minute to respond to some of the terrific thoughts about my post: Gulag Boss: On Truths and Silences. It has forced me to rethink my response to the memoir and perhaps to come to grips with my emotional, as opposed to my scholarly, response to the book.
The Full Weight of the Law
The Imperial Russian government produced an immense volume of paperwork. In a recent article on the Russian “Graphosphere” (that is to say, the world of writing) in the early 19th century, Simon Franklin notes that as many as 30 million documents were being generated, per year, by the Ministry of Internal Affairs alone.
Welcome to the first Russian History Blog conversation. If you have not, do take a quick look at my introduction to these Blog Conversations. In this post, I want to introduce briefly the subject of our discussion and provide a biographical sketch for each of the Gulag specialists who will lead the conversation. I hope the readers of Russian History Blog will participate in the conversation by commenting on our authors’ posts.
Deborah Kaple met Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky in 1992, while conducting interviews with Soviet specialists sent as advisors to Communist China in the 1950s. He had advised the Chinese for many years on ideological and Communist Party matters. Kaple and Mochulsky developed a friendship over the course of many interviews. Shortly before her research trip in Russia came to a close, Mochulsky revealed that he had once worked for the Gulag and gave her the typescript memoir he had written about his experience in the late 1980s. Kaple has translated and published the memoir as Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir (Oxford, 2011). To see the Gulag through the eyes of one of its non-prisoner employees is quite unusual.
Article about my Gagarin book
Just a brief post on an article from my university about my forthcoming Gagarin book. My reference in the interview to the International Astronomical Society should be the International Aeronautical Federation.
I’m thrilled to see John’s post, because he brings up a point that I’ve been thinking about a lot, too–the incompleteness of the supposedly complete.
I also came to think about it through the 18th century, and through RGADA (the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts). In my case, I was looking at files about people changing their legal social status (their soslovie, to use a word that was not then quite regularly in use), which meant presenting their cases to local Magistracies located in various provincial towns. The Magistracies examined the documents presented by individuals, looked through the various ukazes they found relevant, and came to a decision.
And a bunch of those ukazes the Magistracies treated as laws did not end up in the Complete Collection.
My Favorite Laws
In my first post, I promised to blog about life on Russia’s roads in the eighteenth-century, and also about the “after-life” of the Russian Empire, as it is finding expression in the digital realm. Here’s something that combines a little of both. Let me preface it by saying that this hasn’t been peer-reviewed, it’s based on what I understand as of now, and as such I look forward to your thoughts and corrections.
Hello, everyone! My name is John Randolph, I’ll be blogging here for the coming year (at least), and I’m grateful to Steven Barnes and colleagues for getting this blog rolling. I’m an Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois, and specialize in the intellectual and cultural history of the early Russian Empire, roughly 1650-1850.
My first book, published in 2007, was a biography of the Bakunin family. In it, I tried to rethink the making of a few Imperial Russian intellectual traditions through the prism of family life. Right now, I’m studying the history of the Imperial Russian post-horse relay system. This was a giant network of obligated communities, whose residents ferried officials, things, and information (up to and including letter post) from place to place to place across most of Russian Eurasia. I’ll have a lot more to say about this practice—known in Russian as ямская гоньба (iamskaia gon’ba)—in the future.
How an article came to be
At the risk of seeming shamelessly self-promoting, here I am blogging about the article that I just had published in the Journal of Modern History, in part because I think the story of how I came to the topic and how I carried out research on it might be worthy of discussion.
I started doing archival work on my current larger project—which looks at how individual Russians changed their official social status, their soslovie, in the eighteenth and nineteenth (and, actually, early twentieth) centuries—in 2007. Because at that time the Russian State Historical Archive (RGIA) was still closed due to its move, I started out in Moscow, working with eighteenth-century legal documents at the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts (RGADA), and with documents of local soslovie societies at the Central Historical Archive of Moscow (TsIAM).
I found vast amounts of material. The records of the Moscow Magistracy alone (TsIAM f. 32), which was for much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the local administrative office that finalized decisions about soslovie registration, for example, contain thousands of files of individuals petitioning to enter the ranks of the Moscow meshchanstvo (the lower town status), particularly in the 1810s. Most of them were freed serfs, which I totally expected. More than half of them were women, which I totally did not expect. And some of them were a category I’d never heard of: in Russian, выходцы из заграницы, which translates roughly to immigrants from abroad.
Forgive me, Natasha and Sergei!
In my first blog I wrote about the film The Way Back and the question of authenticity in memoirs. In the one of the responses which followed, I was directed towards Forgive Me, Natasha by Sergei Kourdakov. At first glance, one of the most incredible elements of this memoir is the fact that a Soviet naval officer managed to jump ship off the coast of Canada and swim ashore to start a new life. As the cleverly titled 2004 documentary Forgive me, Sergei shows, however, other parts of the story turn out to be more questionable.
Webcast Book Talk
Just a quick heads up that I will be speaking about my new book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, (now available in Kindle and Nook editions) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The talk will be webcast live at 4pm eastern time.
The discussant will be Karel Berkhoff, Maurice C. Shapiro Senior Scholar-in-Residence at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), associate professor at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and author of Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule.
Over the Easter weekend, I was reading The Guardian and came across a full-page photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1954. This stunning photograph was used the following year as the front cover of Life magazine.
To me the image is of a balmy Moscow day. Two pretty young girls are being eyed up by soldiers. People are waiting for a trolley-bus to take them home. A man is selling ice-cream, or maybe kvass, in the background.
There is a new biography of Gagarin out in Russian. I’m trying to get a hold of it (by Lev Danilkin, a prominent literary critic in Russia, titled Iurii Gagarin). I’ve read excerpts posted on line at the Molodaya Gvardiya publishers in Moscow:
They have a series of biographies on prominent people in Russian and world history. What I’ve read is really good. This could be the first attempt to sort out the Gagarin phenomenon in Russian. The author has cast a wide net in interviews with acquaintances, colleagues, etc. And he covers some terrain that I cover regarding Gagarin’s education which I had hoped I would be the first to discuss! Oh well. I hear it will be translated into English. It’s interesting that it has taken so long for anyone in Russia to attempt to write a biography of the real and profane Gagarin — as opposed to the sacred one of Soviet hagiography. At any rate, I suspect this book will be a must read for historians of 20th century Russia — and one that I will have to cite in my own Gagarin work.
This semester I’m teaching a new course entitled “Sex in Modern Europe,” which I developed on the basis of some research I did a few years ago when co-authoring a book with Annette Timm. The course has seven two-week units: 1) Sex, History, and Theory, 2) Sex, Enlightenment, and Revolution, 3) Sex, Cities, and the Industrial Revolution, 4) Sex and Empire, 5) Sex and Total War, 6) The Long Sexual Revolution, and 7) Sex in Contemporary Europe.
This is just a short blog to point any interested readers to the interview I recorded with Sean Guillory for his recently launched New Books in Russian Studies. I was pleased that my Khrushchev’s Cold Summer could still count as a new book, even though it was published in 2009. After a break of more than two years since I dispatched the final proofs back to the publisher, it was strange, but enjoyable, to find myself talking in depth about issues which had been the focus of so much attention for so many years.
I’ve gotten several interesting responses to the first post on atrocities: on this site, in private communication, and on the listserve of the International Society for First World War Studies. Many of those comments have related to the issue of rape in wartime. One knowledgeable respondent offered the suggestion that the officers (esp. Gen. Gurko) would not have known that the straggling soldiers had been raping the locals. Rape, he argues, was a capital crime in the Russian army and was “unlikely to be shrugged off at this early stage.” Another respondent found this interesting and asked whether the Russian army was unusual in its attention to crimes against women and whether anyone was ever punished for it. A response, with a couple more translations, may help to develop this question further.
Launching February 15!
The Russian History Blog will officially launch on February 15. We are under construction, but please do check out who will be blogging here. Hope to see you then!
Welcome to the Russian History Blog–a group of historians of Russia who will be sharing their research, reflections on the research and publications of others, movie reviews, etc. Join us in early 2011 when we will officially launch the blog. Learn about our contributors by clicking the links above.