Friday, March 1, 2013


I made a number of mistakes in graduate school.  Among these mistakes, I assumed that one didn't need to think about the nature of history to become an historian.  I used to assume the practice of history was not particularly influenced by one's philosophy of historical knowledge.  I enjoyed taking classes in historiography and social theory, and of course tried to map out specific historiographical debates while writing graduate papers about various subjects, but I didn't really come up with my own perspective on how the present relates to the past and vice versa.  This was a serious flaw.  Just as historical facts must be embedded in historical interpretation, historical interpretation must be grounded in an overall thesis about the structure and dynamics of time.  Probably my youth, experience, and relative immaturity hindered me from recognizing how the past operates in the present.  I think poetry works like that.  I know that young people (Pushkin and Ahkmatova for example) can write brilliant poetry, just as young historians can write brilliant history.  But poetry is essentially a commentary about time, and understanding time is made easier by gaining greater experience with it.

At any rate, writing this blog has helped me to develop a personal approach to the past.  I've learned a great deal about Russian history, but more about how that history is shaped by my present.  One thing I've learned has something to do with the Russian thinker Bakhtin's theory of the "dialogic imagination."  The past isn't a monologue.  It's an open, moving, unending conversation, constantly being shaped and reshaped by input from varied sources. 

Another thing I've learned is that, like this blog, the past is uneven, chaotic, unstable, promiscuous, and recursive--above all, recursive.  I've think about how we see the recursive nature of time in our own biographical trajectories.  Sometimes decades after we believe we've made a decisive change, we return to something that has bubbled up from the past.  I've recently written about my attempt to return to a graduate program in history I left over a decade ago.  This of course is both a concrete and metaphorical example of how we can't exactly flee the past, even if we want to.  The present is the past, and the reverse is equally true.  

In a camp memoir I recently finished, Dancing Under the Red Star, Martha Werner grows up in America speaking German, then moves to the Soviet Union as a part of Ford's efforts to profit from the relative backwardness of the Soviet economy.  But Werner isn't done with German.  She speaks it when she visits Central Europe, uses it occasionally in the gulag, and then eventually falls in love with a Volga German.   Perhaps the story of Werner's childhood language isn't even finished here.  Perhaps she mumbled German words on her deathbed.  Perhaps her American-born children or grandchildren thought of her and enrolled in the language themselves.   

If the past is dialogic and recursive, it's also fragile.  The past invades the presents, and the present collapses into the past.  If I am re-admitted into UIUC's graduate program, I'll be happy, but the experience will be akin to standing on the second floor of a home in a moment of collapse. Soon, if I am lucky enough to survive the floor, I'll be desperately trying to remember the floor plan of the first floor.  

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