New Arrival

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.

"Coachman, Leaning on a Whip-Handle" by Vasilii Tropinin (1820s)

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.


Digital Russian History Gulag Soviet Era 1917-1991

Interview on Death and Redemption

Princeton University Press published my book, Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society in May. I had the great pleasure to talk about the book with Sean Guillory (of Sean’s Russia Blog) at New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Listen to the interview here.

Films Russian History in Popular Culture Teaching Russian History


Just a quick update to my last post on “Ivan the Terrible and the American adolescent.” The show in which I appeared ( declared Hernan Cortes the victor over Ivan the Terrible. Ivan’s weapons were superior but psychological factors, once entered into the “Simulator,” did him in.

Films Russian History in Popular Culture

Ivan the Terrible and the American adolescent

I got involved in the TV show described below to see first hand the process whereby expertise gets turned into entertainment. The show is called Deadliest Warrior. It’s on Spike TV and seems to be for the 12-18 year-old male demographic. When I was asked to appear on the show, I’d never heard of it and asked my 13-year-old boy Alex: he, of course, knew all about it. My character plays an Ivan the Terrible expert. In the favored sporting metaphor of American culture, I’m Ivan’s coach (the “brain”), along with another actor who plays the role of Ivan’s warrior, an ex-Russian special forces guy and stuntman trained in shooting, horseback, and swordplay known as “the brawn.” He bears a remarkable resemblance to Vladimir Putin.

Digital Russian History Nostalgia and Memory World War II

TASS Posters

On a recent trip to Chicago, I spent several hours wandering around a current exhibit at the Art Institute: “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad.”

It was, in a word, fascinating.

The story behind the collection is that during the Second World War, TASS had a group of artists, both visual artists and writers, who produced nearly daily monumental posters.  If you think you know Soviet poster art from the war, these will still surprise you.  The images were put up in the windows of the TASS building, and some were used more widely.  In 1997, the Art Institute discovered a bunch of these posters hidden in a closet, and this exhibit grew out of it.

There are far too many images to talk about in a quick blog post–but you can look through them all at the museum’s website.  As the resident historian of things before the twentieth century, I’ll just post one image.

Fritz meets his ancestors
Radlov and Mikhailkov, "Meeting with an Ancestor," from

It’s a variation on the conflation of historical battles with the Second World War. Here, though, “Fritz” (the Nazi everyman who’s featured in a lot of the posters) is meeting one of the knights–his Germanic ancestor!–defeated by Alexander Nevsky at the Battle on the Ice.  I’ve always loved the ways that history gets used in Soviet posters, and this is really one of the more unusual ones, in part because it’s tied in with comedy, particularly in the verse that goes along with it (which you can see at the site in the caption, above).

Actually, that’s one of the most interesting things about this exhibit.  While certainly many of the posters have that high emotional content–we will avenge!–of many of the more famous posters, there’s also a LOT of comic art and writing–and a lot of making fun of Hitler and the Nazis. It puts a very different spin (to me, at least) on the Soviet reaction to and interpretation of the war.

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

The Russian Concept?

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

Films Russian Literature World War II

The Woman with the Five Elephants

This blog is about an excellent 2010 documentary by Vadim Jendreyko entitled “The Woman with the Five Elephants.” (For a trailer see:

The five elephants referred to in the title are classic novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Svetlana Geier, the central subject of the film, coined the phrase when she translated them from Russian into German.

The documentary dispenses Geier’s wisdom and wit, following her into the kitchen as she chops onions, cooks meat patties, and contemplates the meaning of life. She connects the feel of fresh linens with a passage from Moby Dick. Examining the intricate stitching of her white table cloth, she remarks that the details mean nothing outside of the context of the whole cloth. The remark concisely conveys her approach to translation: to see the work as a whole – and to eschew literal word-for-word translations that invariably distort the meaning of the text in its original language. Her translation of Dostoevsky’s classic work, Crime and Punishment, gave to German audiences the name by which it is known to English-speakers. It had previously been known in German, thanks to a far too literal translation, as “Guilt and Atonement.”


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.

Digital Russian History Gulag

ASEEES NewsNet Article on Russian History Blog

If you haven’t seen it yet, please do visit the first all-digital edition of the ASEEES NewsNet, where you will find an article by yours truly that discusses the origins and the goals of Russian History Blog along with a few thoughts about the digital dissemination of our research in Russian history.

If you’re new to the blog, please have a look around. We’re on a bit of a hiatus for the summer, but we will have occasional posts and look for more regular updates in the fall.

Imperial Russia

Radicals or graft, revisited

So, the Senate returned to this question of what was going on in the Archive of Old Business (and elsewhere) a year and a half later (PSZ I, vol. 31, no. 24258 (June 13, 1810)).

The initial investigation called for in the fallout of the decision I last posted about showed that A LOT of soul-tax-payers were being brought into the bureaucracy illegally; it was a particular problem in the Archive, but also in Kiev province (the decree just mentions the province, not any one particular office there, so it was perhaps rampant?).

As far as the Senate was concerned, this was a problem for two reasons.  First, “the greater part of these people chose this kind of civil service only in order to be taken out of the class of tax payers,” which meant losses to state coffers.  And second, the discoveries of these practices had made every bureaucracy’s complaint that it needed to hire more people “doubtful.”

The answer was more fact-finding. The decree included two draft forms to be filled out, giving counts of state servitors, their social origin, and their current occupation (or absence).

(For the non-Russian readers, a rough translation.  The first few lines ask for the numbers of nobles and officer’s children; bureaucrats and “other free people, not among the tax-payers”; townspeople, artisans, state peasants, and freed serfs, “confirmed by the Senate”; and the same “not yet confirmed.”  The second set of lines ask for those currently actually working, those who have been on leave for more than a month; those under 15 years of age; and the number of those from the tax-paying population who have been let go in the past three years.)

So, when I go to RGIA next month, if I manage to order everything I need to order on my actual research project (ha), perhaps I’ll look to see if these forms actually got filled out and sent in.

Cold War Films Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Soviet Science

On Monkies and Lost Colonies

Having just finished my last classes for my modern Russia survey, I wanted to share some thoughts on a documentary that I used to discuss Post-Soviet Russia. The 2008 documentary is entitled The Lost Colony. For a clip, see:

The action takes place in the tiny sub-tropical region of Abkhazia on the coast of the Black Sea. While Abkhazia is ostensibly a part of the post-Soviet nation of Georgia, it has been a de facto protectorate of Russia since the early 1990s.

Imperial Russia

Radicals in the archives? (Or probably just graft.)

When you start reading through the Polnoe sobranie zakonov (Complete Collection of the Laws) on various subjects, you see ukase after ukase saying virtually the same thing (and often quoting the earlier laws). This is, it seems, necessary for making the autocratic project (if that’s not too grand a term for it) work, particularly before the PSZ and, even more, the Svod zakonov (Digest of the Laws) put the various laws out there into a coherent form. It’s even remarked on by rulers themselves in some of their ukases.  Richard Wortman, in his Development of a Russian Legal Consciousness, quotes Empress Elizabeth on this subject.  She tasked her Senate to pay more attention to the institutions of law in the Empire because her word was not getting out to most people (and blamed “widespread internal enemies” for corrupting her message).

I recently came across one of these repetitive laws. It (PSZ I, vol. 30, no. 23,381 (December 3, 1808)) draws on another ukase from several years earlier, and states that merchants, meshchane (petty townspeople), and others from the soul-tax-paying population (basically, peasants, freed serfs, and artisans) were not allowed to enter state service (i.e., the state bureaucracy, which could lead to place on the Table of Ranks, and eventually noble status) without permission from the Senate.

That’s already interesting, not just because of the law and the limits it placed on the ideal of mobility through the Table of Ranks, but also because the earlier ukase, apparently from July 30, 1798, isn’t in the PSZ.

Even more interesting, though, is why the law had to be restated.

Apparently, the Moscow State Archive of Old Business (Государственный в Москве старых дел Архив, in this version, though I’ve also seen it as Московский Государственный Архив Старых Дел) , which was part of the bureaucracy, had been ignoring the earlier ukase and allowing members of the soul-tax-paying population to enter its service.

Even more, they were letting  A LOT of people do this.  According to the text of the 1808 ukase, in the last four years the Archive had hired 273 people from this restricted group. That’s a huge number; according to an archival guide from later in the nineteenth century, the Archive by (somewhat later) law only had the following staff: a Counselor, two Assessors, a Secretary, an Archivist, and 11 chancellery servitors.

The 1808 ukase goes on to describe just what was going on with all these new hires:

“and this quantity of people, without any need to accept them, were then let go by that same Archive, to move on to other jobs or to retirement in a very short time, such that the greater part of them, having not served even two months, let alone a year, received the lowest chancellery rank.”

In other words, the archive was serving as a conduit, letting these men get their foot in the door to future upward mobility through state service.

The archive’s administration tried to say they had the right to do this according to a Manifesto from 1775 and the Charter to the Towns, but the Senate, in this 1808 decision, strongly disagreed. The Archival workers suspected of flouting the law faced criminal prosecution, and were furthermore to be interrogated in the hopes of finding other administrative offices that freely disregarded the law. Furthermore, any of those 273 illegally hired bureaucrats who had not yet received a rank on the Table of Ranks were to be sent back to their status of origin (those who had rank could stay, but had to be sure to pay the soul tax in their old status until the next revision of the tax rolls).

And here’s where we come to the problem.  I’ve looked around to see if I can find out much more about this archive.  There are bits and pieces, like the archival guide on google books, or a description of it at the Mosarkhiv site (since part of its contents ended up in the Central Historical Archive of Moscow–TsIAM), but nothing that I can at this point find about its personnel. So the question is, what was going on here?  Was this a case of radicals in the archives, people who wanted to give, say, freed household serfs a leg up in the world? Or was it just graft, and this archive became known as a place one could negotiate for a position? Or was it something totally different that I haven’t thought up?

Perhaps, to be continued, if I can find more information…



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.

Digital Russian History Teaching Russian History YouTube in Russian History Classes

Call for Web-based Teaching Resources

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.

Digital Russian History Nostalgia and Memory Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Cartier-Bresson in Moscow

Guardian piece on Cartier-Bresson's Moscow imagesOver 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.

Digital Russian History Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory

Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1909

Although I’d hoped to post something more substantive for my second post, instead, here’s a drive-by link to two photo albums that include some amazing images of Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1909.

To me, they bring home how much some of the streetscapes of these cities haven’t really changed in a century–and then how much some of them have.

My favorite image is this one, showing an early public health measure: free boiling water to fight the spread of cholera. The cucumber seller is a close second.

(Incidentally, I first saw these at, an interesting blog that often links to wonderful image sources–including, today, images from the blockade of Leningrad.)

Digital Russian History Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History World War II YouTube in Russian History Classes

Rapping about the Divided Memory of Victory

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.


Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Soviet and Russian Space Flight

A Provincial Talisman

The view from the "Vostok" hotel in downtown Gagarin (Smolensk Oblast')

The heartland of the Russian nation, as seen through the Gagarin cult, was not in Moscow but in Gagarin’s hometown of Gzhatsk. Renamed “Gagarin” after the cosmonaut’s death in 1968, the town is a typical Russian provincial backwater. In the words of one ode to Gagarin entitled, “The Native Side of Things,” the cosmonaut grew up among vast “expanses of flax and thick meadows of clover,” surrounded by honeybees and butterflies, yet at the center of the country. Rivers and rivulets flowed northward to Leningrad and southward “to the Mother Volga, and then meandered their way to the little father (batiushka) Dnieper.”[1]

Chernobyl Digital Russian History Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History

Chernobyl at 25

The recent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi brought the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown back into an often forgetful public consciousness. Although we will no doubt soon forget these events again, especially amidst the insane amount of coverage focused on royal nuptials, the world press is taking some note of Chernobyl today–the 25th anniversary of the disaster. A search on Google news shows over 9,400 articles referencing Chernobyl in the last 24 hours. The articles run the gamut: human interest stories (see also here), reminiscences from those who lived near Chernobyl and from the leaders who had to deal with the disaster, and a panoply of stories on how Chernobyl affected this or that locality. Although the Washington Post presented Chernobyl as the key to Ukrainian independence, coverage of the 25th anniversary differs significantly from the 20th in 2006. Then, many articles stressed Chernobyl’s role in the Soviet collapse. Although such stories are not entirely absent this year, ties to Fukushima Daiichi and anti-nuclear protests dominate the headlines (along with Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev’s trip to Chernobyl to mark the anniversary.) Nature magazine, I should add, has some important extensive coverage of the event.

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.


Thanks to the Davis Center at Harvard for pointing out After Chernobyl, an amazing resource on life around Chernobyl since the accident.