Tag Archives: History

WAs the USSR a Russian Empire?

In my latest piece for RT, I discuss whether it’s correct to view the USSR as the Russian Empire 2.0. I note a common effort by pro-Western East European intellectuals to portray the Soviet Union as not ‘Soviet’ but rather an exercise in ‘Russian’ colonialism. The aim thereby is to distance their own countries from Russia and justify a pro-Western vector. However, as I point out in the article, it’s not very good history.

You can read the article here. As always, constructive feedback is welcome.

Putin’s Futile Effort to Win Back Ukraine

Russian president Vladimir Putin clearly fancies himself as a bit of a historian. A while back he wrote a piece on the origins of the Second World War for the National Interest magazine, and now he’s penned (or at least he and his helpers have penned) a great long tome discussing the historical origins of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. The purpose of it all is to prove that Russia and Ukraine are truly one, and that their current division is the product of the malicious activities of outside powers – the Poles and Austrians in olden times, the West as a whole nowadays.

I discuss the piece in an article for RT that you can read here. In this I speculate that Putin is trying to appeal to ordinary Ukrainians over the head of their government. Millions of Ukrainians think positively of Russia, he says, but they are intimidated into silence by the despotic regime in Kiev, which is trying to turn the country into an ‘anti-Russia’. It seems that Putin believes that there are large numbers of Ukrainians who share his point of view, and that this is his attempt to speak directly to them in an effort to win Ukraine back for Russia.

Personally, I think it’s a giant waste of time.

Putin may be right that a large segment of the Ukrainian population doesn’t share the anti-Russian stance of its government. One suspects that if – God forbid – Russian tanks were ever to roll into Odessa, while some would fight them, some others would crawl out of the woodwork and declare that they always loved Russia all along. But the thing is that the opinion of the ordinary Joe (or Ivan, or whatever the Ukrainian equivalent is) isn’t that important.

Ordinary Joes don’t run any country anywhere. Political elites compete for their votes, but by and large they live in a different world, with a different frame of mind, shaped far more by what the educated classes think than by the average guy on the street.

At this point, I will admit that I’m not a Ukrainian expert, so I may be entirely wrong about this, but from a distance I get a very strong sense that the Ukrainian educated classes, and with them the political elite, have swallowed the Maidan ‘anti-Russia’ stance with a vengeance. Basically speaking, there are precious few people left who are willing or able to represent the ‘pro-Russia’ point of view.

This isn’t just because it’s been repressed, though it has been – as seen by the arrest of Mr Medvedchuk. It’s more that this representation doesn’t exist in any meaningful form. And without that representation, it doesn’t really matter how many ‘pro-Russian’ people are out there. Politically speaking, their prospects are zilch.

In other words, Ukraine is a lost cause from the Russian point of view. Its upper classes have made up their minds – at least for a generation (perhaps something will change when the promised integration into the West never happens, but even then one can’t be sure). Putin can appeal over the government’s head to the Ukrainian people as much as he likes, but I don’t see it changing a thing.

Criminalizing History

This past week, historical interpretations of the Second World War have again been making headlines in Russia. Parliamentary deputy Elena Yampolskaya demanded legislation to prohibit writings which claim that Nazism and Soviet communism were morally equivalent. President Vladimir Putin agreed. Russia, he said, should have laws like those in other countries which prohibit denial of the Armenian genocide. Meanwhile, a regional Russian court declared the murder by German troops of 2,000 Russians in north-west Russia during the war to have been genocide. This was a first. The ‘g’ word had never previously been applied to Russian victims.

All this is a reaction to efforts by some in Europe and North America to paint the Soviet Union as equally guilty for the Second World War as Nazi Germany, in the hope thereby of discrediting modern Russia. I discuss all this in my latest article on RT, which you can read here. I won’t therefore repeat everything I said there, but I feel that it’s worth expanding on my conclusion, to explain my position more fully.

At the end of my RT article, I note that Russians are rightly sensitive about the memory of the Second World War, but that legal prohibition of certain historical interpretations is not the right way of dealing with the problem. Let me explain this a bit more.

A good place to start is the example Putin used – laws prohibiting genocide denial. I’m against such laws. If the law is specific – i.e. it prohibits denial of a specific genocide – then one has to ask why this particular historical event has been singled out and others have not been included. As I have argued before, the answer is inevitably political. Such legislation is often not really interested in historical truth, but in targeting a given nation whom a particular group wants targeted. When Ukrainian-Canadians, for instance, request that the Canadian parliament recognize the Soviet deportation of the Crimean Tatars as genocide, it’s obviously a political act, designed to worsen Russian-Canadian relations. It’s got nothing to do with history. I don’t see that this is productive.

The second problem is one of definition. What is genocide? And who determines whether a given case fits the definition? Many Ukrainians claim that the famine which struck Ukraine (and other parts of the Soviet Union, notably Kazakhstan) in 1932-33 was an act of genocide. Should we therefore ban Holodomor genocide denial?? I’d say not. The use of the term genocide in that instance is highly debated. Some historians agree with the label, but others insist that it is inappropriate. Do we really want to leave it to politicians to adjudicate historical disputes, determine which cases are genocide and which are not, and then punish those who disagree with them? As a historian, my answer is quite categorically ‘no’.

Do I think that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were equally guilty for the Second World War, and committed equally reprehensible crimes? As I’ve said before, no, I don’t. But does that mean that the Soviet Union was guilt free? No, also. Were Nazism and communism morally equivalent? Overall, I’d say not, but I do think that there is some value in considering similarities (as well as differences) and putting them both within some common context of a collapse of liberal institutions, an era of radical extremism, and so on. Legislation of the sort proposed by Putin and Yampolskaya would put a stop to quite legitimate historical discussion.

As usual, there is a domestic political element to all this. On Wednesday night, the Russian political talk show ‘Evening with Vladimir Solovyov’ devoted a considerable amount of time to this issue, with one of the guests being Ms Yampolskaya herself. After she had reiterated her reasons for legislation to regulate historical discussion, the political analyst Sergei Mikheev had his say. Mikheev has joined Zakhar Prilepin’s new nationalist ‘For Truth’ party, and his comments give a bit of a flavour of how the Russian right thinks.

The problem, said Mikheev, was that the people who say this stuff equating communism and Nazism have a ‘roof’ – i.e. somebody in power is protecting them and allowing them to get away with it. A certain radio station was mentioned, without being named, but it’s pretty obvious that Mikheev had in mind the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio. Something needs to be done, Mikheev implied.

Host Vladimir Solovyov then named some names – Dmitry Bykov, for instance. Bykov praised Soviet general Andrei Vlasov, who joined the Germans and raised an anti-Soviet army. Yet newspapers still publish him. Why? Who’s protecting him? Film director Karen Shakhnazarov had an idea – it was the ‘comprador intelligentsia’ who were to blame.

This is where one begins to get a little worried. For legislation liked that proposed by Yampoloskaya could end up being used to reckon with political enemies, especially among Russia’s few remaining liberals. You can see how this could play out. Somebody on Ekho Moskvy says something which somebody interprets as contrary to the new law on historical interpretation. Ekho Moskvy then gets slapped with a big fine or closed down (unless of course, its ‘roof’ somehow protects it). And so, the room for debate in Russia gets even smaller than before. And that, perhaps, is the purpose. The legislation isn’t really about history. It’s about grinding Russian liberals even further into the dust.

You might say that the liberals deserve it, for adopting an idiotic and, it must be said, incredibly unpopular position on the topic of historical memory. But I say, let them suffer for it at the ballot box, as they surely will. There’s no reason to chuck the law book at them.

Basically, when it comes down to it, as a historian I think that these matters are best left to historians and to readers of history to decide. It’s not for politicians to provide cast-iron interpretations of historical events which all must legally accept, in fear of punishment if they do not. I guess that you could accuse me of narrow professional self-interest, seeking as I do to protect my profession from state interference. Well, so be it. I don’t want the state telling me what I can and cannot write. And I don’t think anybody else should want that either.

Three conversations

Imagine that you don’t really know anything about Russia, but you keep seeing it in the news. You think you would like to learn at least the vague outlines of its history, but you also don’t have a lot of time. You’re not inclined to slog through some thick academic textbook suitable for HIS2200 Introduction to Russian History. You want something short and easy. Where do you turn? Fortunately, three brief studies of Russia have recently come my way, so I thought it would be useful to do a comparison – three conversations about Russia, as it were.

First off is Mark Galeotti’s A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin. Galeotti promises to provide not only a brief summary of Russia’s past, but also an analysis of the myths which Russian tell each other about that past. The book is very clearly written. Non-specialists looking for a short, easy read will find this very much to their tastes. In that sense, it’s a job well done.

Continue reading Three conversations

Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

For good reasons, the Second World War (or, as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War) has become an important element in the mythology of Russian national identity. The combination of enormous human suffering, a decidedly evil enemy, and final absolute victory makes for a compelling story which allows Russians to take pride in the achievements of their predecessors. At the heart of the story lies a myth of the Russian people united as one against a common enemy. But as Johannes Due Enstad shows in his book Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation, reality was a little more complicated.

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Continue reading Book Review: Soviet Russians Under Nazi Occupation

Book Review: Pillars of the Profession

Historians Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff were born within a few days of each other in 1923, Pipes in Poland, and Raeff in the Soviet Union. After they left the lands of their birth (Pipes in 1939, and Raeff, aged only 3, in 1926), they found their way to America, where in due course they enrolled as PhD students together at Harvard University. Subsequently, Pipes wrote 20 books and 85 scholarly articles and book chapters; Raeff 7 books and 86 scholarly articles and book chapters. The University of Illinois’s Jonathan Daly remarks that they ‘must be counted among the most prolific scholars in the English language ever to focus on Russian history.’ For 58 years, from 1950 to Raeff’s death in 2008, they were also regular correspondents (minus a 14 year hiatus from 1959 to 1973 following what appears to have been a serious personal rift). Now, Jonathan Daly has collected and edited the Pipes-Raeff letters in a volume entitled Pillars of the Profession: The Correspondence of Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff, which is to be published by Brill next month. Given that I was rather a fan of Pipes in my youth (especially his two volumes on the Russian revolution), and that Raeff’s book Russia Abroad is one of the key works in the history of the Russian emigration, which was also the topic of my doctoral thesis, I snapped up the opportunity to get a copy of Daly’s book. I’m glad I did.

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Richard Pipes and Marc Raeff together at a conference in Italy in the 1950s – third row from the front.

Continue reading Book Review: Pillars of the Profession

How not to write history

Timothy Snyder is at it again. In a long article published this week in The New York Review of Books, Snyder expands on the thesis he propagated in a much shorter piece for the New York Times a while ago, namely that the way to understand the policies of the Russian state is through the works of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that this is super scary because Ilyin was a fascist. Some of Snyder’s ideas are decidedly odd (e.g. that Ilyin’s influence explains the war in Ukraine!), but I don’t want to get into a huge argument with him on the details of his essay, because I’m sure that interpretations of what exactly Ilyin did or didn’t write, or did or didn’t mean, aren’t of vast interest to the general public. Suffice it to say that Snyder and I seem to be reading a completely different Ilyin, and my previous complaints on this subject (made here and here) still stand.

Instead, what I want to address is a broader issue – how should one write history? And to answer this question, I’ll use the example of Russian conservatism, both because Ilyin was a Russian conservative and because I’ve just finished writing a book on the subject.

It seems to me that when writing about a subject like Russian conservatism (as with just about anything), there are two approaches one can take. The first seeks the approval of a large audience, for which it requires a simple overarching and almost certainly exaggerated thesis. For this reason, it seeks to avoid contradictions and paradoxes, and tries to fit the past into the straightjacket of some pre-conceived narrative or ideological precept. It sees the past not as something to be studied in its own right for its own sake but as a tool for contemporary political, economic, or social struggles, and therefore imposes interpretations designed to further a specific contemporary agenda. The second approach, which as a professional historian I consider the correct way, isn’t particularly interested in attracting a mass audience. Instead, it seeks accuracy, balance, nuance; it accepts that things are complicated and that there’s no simple narrative one can transplant onto the past; it seeks truth and tries to understand the past on its own terms; while it can never achieve absolute objectivity, it tries to avoid using the past as a tool for the present.

One might consider these approaches, broadly speaking, as being ‘popular history’ and ‘academic history’. These are, of course, extremely simplified models, but as long as one takes them as types rather than as rigid descriptions of reality, they serve a useful analytical purpose. So, let us see how they might work in a given case – the history of Russian conservatism.

Imagine that you want to write a book on Russian conservatism which is going to attract attention, hopefully sell rather more copies than the average history of political philosophy, and if you’re lucky perhaps make your name by getting you space in popular, but highbrow, journals such as The New York Review of Books. How would you go about it?

First, develop a clear overall thesis which fits with the current zeitgeist. In the case of Russian conservatism, that’s easy. Tell everybody how scary it is and shape your whole book accordingly. And let’s be frank, a subject like Russian conservatism gives you lots of good material. In the first place, you have a cast of characters who can easily be manipulated to look decidedly odd. So cherry-pick the eccentricities and play them up. It will enable you to make the book entertaining as well as informative, with readers agasp at these crazy people you describe. The likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Konstantin Leontyev will give you plenty to play with. Next, focus on their more extreme and reactionary ideas – throw in some anti-Semitic comments, for instance. Play up all the really kooky stuff – there’s lots there (Lev Gumilev’s weird beliefs about cosmic rays as the source of passionarnost’, for instance). And skip over everything which complicates the simple story you are spinning. Make Russian conservatives out to be foaming in the mouth nationalists and haters of the West. Ignore all their statements about their admiration of the West. Make them out to be authoritarian and anti-liberal. Ignore all they say about the limits of authority and their repeated stress of the dignity of the person and the need for freedom. Talk about Russian messianism and imperialism. Ignore the isolationist strand in Russian conservatism entirely. You’ll be able to find lots of juicy quotes to justify your thesis. Then link it all to modern Russia and Vladimir Putin; argue that the latter has inherited all the worst attributes of Russia’s conservative heritage. And bam! You’ve got a best seller. People will love it. It will be lively, contentious, hard hitting, and allow readers to feel that they’ve found the key to understanding Russia.

It will also be total rubbish. The past isn’t that simple. This approach cherry picks the past to suit a personal and political purpose. The second approach is different. Imagine that you want to write a history of Russian conservatism which is as accurate as possible. What do you do? You look at all sides of conservative thought. You study its nuances and complexities, its contradictions and paradoxes. And in the process, you discover that there isn’t a simple narrative which encompasses it all. If there are two things in Timothy Snyder’s article with which I agree they are when he says that in Ilyin’s work, “it is easy to find tensions and contradictions,” and that, “Ilyin’s vast body of work admits multiple interpretations.” That’s true of Russian conservatism as a whole. So, a thorough study of the subject would require one to examine all the tensions and contradictions, all the multiple interpretations. That’s going to make the result somewhat complex, and perhaps rather hard to follow. It’s also going to require the historian to ditch most of the salacious material which makes the first kind of history so fun to read. The result is going to be something which is perhaps rather dry. Many might even find it boring. Academics might pick it up, but it’s unlikely to inspire a mass audience and certainly won’t get you published in The New York Review of Books.

I’m not at all averse to political polemics. Nor am I averse to writing in an entertaining way. I’ve done my fair bit of both. But there’s a difference between writing an article for the Spectator, which must be both polemical and entertaining, and writing a piece of serious academic research, which must be accurate and sober. Approach one is fine for an op-ed; it’s not for a work of scholarship. And this is why I object to Snyder. He admits that Ilyin’s work is full of tensions and contradictions and subject to multiple interpretations, but he then just ignores all of those, and instead takes a single interpretation and runs with it. Moreover, it’s a very extreme interpretation. To make it work, he picks only those bits of evidence which suit his purpose and fills out his analysis with salacious allegations (Ilyin was a fan of psychoanalysis, had peculiar ideas about sexual perversion, was rabidly anti-Semitic, etc.) Balance and complexity are entirely absent. He has a thesis, and he’s going to fit everything into it regardless. Moreover, this thesis has an overtly political purpose. Snyder isn’t writing in order to understand the past; he’s writing about the past in order to shape people’s understanding of the present (specifically, to accentuate readers’ fears and dislike of Russia). To do that he has to distort the past to make it fit his purpose. This is an abuse of history. Or more accurately, it isn’t history; it’s propaganda.

Friday book # 41: Harvest of Sorrow

This week’s book is an important one. When it was first published, Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow broke new ground in revealing details of the famine which struck parts of Kazakhstan, southern Russia, and Ukraine in 1932-33. Conquest suggests that the famine was a) a deliberate act of policy, and b) specifically targeted against Ukrainians. Conquest did not have access to archival sources. More recent archive-based research, such as that of R.W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, has come to rather more nuanced conclusions, but Conquest’s thesis still has supporters. The debate continues to this day.

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Memory wars

Following the recent kerfuffle in Russia over a statue of Ivan the Terrible, the issue of monuments continues to make headlines. Two differing approaches to historical memory are on display. Both create their own historical distortions. By eradicating monuments of an entire era, one paints that era as bad in every single way. By sanctifying an autocratic ruler, the other whitewashes the imperfections of the past.

According to the Ukrainian television station Espreso TV, the last remaining statue of Lenin in Ukraine, located in the town of Novgorod-Severskii, has been taken down. There were once more than 2,000 Lenin statues in the country. As a result of a 2015 law prohibiting communist memorials and symbols, Ukraine is now Lenin-free.

Meanwhile, a bell-tower dedicated to Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, was formally opened in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, on Tuesday. Attending the opening was Duma deputy and former chief prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaia, who has acquired something of a reputation as a monarchist, and whose idea the bell tower was. Poklonskaia told reporters that, ‘For me, my colleagues and friends, this isn’t simply a bell tower, but an entire church. And this church is not simply a building but a holy one, in which will be carried out, with full rights, all the services and liturgies as laid down in the church canons.’

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Natalia Poklonskaia pays homage to Nicholas II

The first story illustrates an approach to historical memory which is destructive and coercive; the second an approach which is constructive and voluntary. If there is one thing the participants can agree on, it is that they aren’t fans of communism. But as these examples show, the victors of today’s memory wars aren’t always the victors of tomorrow’s.

Friday book #9: An Introduction to Russian history

I am not sure how this week’s book – a 1976 introduction to Russian history, edited by Robert Auty and Dmitri Obolensky – found its way onto my shelf. I cannot recall either buying or reading it. Chapter 3 on ‘Appanage and Muscovite Russia’ is by one Nikolay Andreyev, described as ‘Emeritus Reader in Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge’. I am guessing that this is the same person as the N.E. Andreyev whom I mentioned in an earlier post as commenting on the songs of the White Army, the father of my doctoral supervisor at Oxford, Catherine Andreyev.

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