Monday, September 7, 2009

Why Now?

I don’t know why I first became obsessed with Russia. I really have no connection to the country. I’ve never visited for example; don’t have ancestors from the area, etc. I took an undergraduate class, so I think my current obsession might be a form of nostalgia. And of course there are a few things about Russia that are almost intrinsically interesting.

It’s massive, for instance, and stretches many time zones, possessing untold natural riches, and a huge citizenry. The fact that it straddles both East and West is interesting too, as is its brutal past, historic ties to Mongol invasions, and relatively unique religion, being neither Protestant nor Catholic. What is more, Russian history is the history of so many other things, since Russian history is inter-tangled with the history of Eastern European states, Baltic states, Transcaucasia, Turkish states, and China, Japan, and the general European balance of power. The supremely good literature would make it worthy of an obsession as well.

However, it’s probably communism that makes for the obsession. Real revolutions are rare. The French Revolution of 1789 would have been a good subject for a blog. And when one happens it’s worthy of prolonged study. 1917 was a fascinating year. When rich people are exiled, killed, humiliated, forced to do manual labor, forced to share homes with their servants, or excluded from political power—something unusual has happened.

There is probably a lot of unrecognized continuity between pre-and-post Revolutionary Russia. However, the economic, political, cultural, artistic differences were profound. So it’s interesting to see what happens next, especially since Russia experienced no Thermidorean reaction, and never saw the overthrow of the Revolutionary tradition until the better part of a century had passed.

Even the French had nothing similar happen: first Napoleon, then the Bourbons again—and certainly no sans-coulette government. As a true crime aficionado, I’d say that modern Russian history is without parallel too. If you study British history, you must look for grave crimes abroad for the most part, in Ireland, or in more distant colonial parts. With Russia, you’ve got czarist crimes and pogroms, 19th century terrorism, then you’ve got revolutionary violence, and Stalinist purges, the Gulag, and the world wars, which were obviously ten times more bloody than anything experienced by Britain. And obviously, Russia too had all of the violence of colonialism, even without the overseas empire.

The other factor in Russia that makes Russian history interesting is its history of serfdom, which can in some respects be compared to American slavery, both ended in the same decade. Maybe the bourgeoisie is equally interesting, but it seems more familiar and therefore less interesting than Russian aristocracy and Russian serfdom.

There was a time when I was bored by the Cold War, bored by the decaying bureaucratic structures of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, for example. I’ve moved away from this because I’m now interested in the question of how something as evil and dysfunctional as the Soviet regime could transform itself into something so banal (if still evil). But I understand people who are bored of the Cold War. I myself sometimes think of Cold War history as something akin to 1970s music or episodes of some no-longer-relevant sitcom like Welcome Back Kotter. Still, this is a good time to study the Soviet Union. With capitalism experiencing another wave of severe setbacks, it’s important to look back at the only other distinct option that modernity apparently produced.

Gabe Kaplan In 'Welcome Back Kotter'

1 comment:

  1. Or maybe they weren't as distinct as they seem... Not sure if you're into environmental history, but you might be intrigued by Kate Brown's "Gridded Lives: Why Kazakhstan and Montana are Nearly the Same Place," _AHR_ 105:5 (December 2000):17-48.