Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Russian Imperialism

Depending on your perspective, Soviet Roulette is either a history of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 or a series of detours, digressions, withdrawals, and flights from that great event.  Whether these retreats are strategic feints or cowardly retreats isn't for me to say.  But thus far these movements away from ground zero--what Victor Serge called Year One of the Revolution--haven't strayed all that far from Russian history and literature as a whole. In recent weeks I've considered the possibility of making more extended forays away from Russia.  This thought fills me with some sadness, for Russia has become my touchstone over the past six or seven years.  I've changed jobs, homes, cities, families, and marriages, but read Russian history through it all.

In the past couple of weeks I've been reading about new approaches to the British empire, and empires in general.  The experience is vertiginous insofar as I've left Russia behind (though re-reading Anna Karenina is a comfort).  The overall lessons of this new approach to history are varied, but I'll try to sum up a few, mostly gleaned from essays in a couple of Antoinette Burton's books.

The first point of this new imperial history is that the nation-state isn't necessarily the best framework for conceptualizing the past.  In the first place, it's an artificial construct.  Indeed, anybody who has ever prepared for a preliminary examination in European history understand this, even without reference to imperial or global perspectives.  When you take a preliminary examination, or the coursework leading up to that examination, you are invariably asked to write extensively about only three or four countries, namely France and Germany, with occasional references to Great Britain, Russia, and Italy.  As you prepare for the exams, you can't help but wonder why it is that you don't really need to know what was going on in Belgium, Holland, or Portugal, to say nothing of Eastern European states or stateless peoples.

But it's not only that French and German people aren't representative of the whole of European experience.  The problem is that emphasizing the history of nation-states isn't an ideologically neutral enterprise.  Nation-states are even now manifestly interested in ensuring that historians don't "jump" over the fences that divide people, past and present.  The American nation-state, for instance, is supremely interested in reminding its citizens of a myth of origins, and similar myths of separation.  The American government, like many other governments, doesn't just leave history to its own devices.  It would more than anything like to see that its citizens continue to conceptualize their past as unique and distinct from that of all other peoples, although it sometimes likes to see affinities with the history of other nation-states and even empires, as Burton reminds us whenever she discusses America's so-called "special relationship" with Great Britain.

The interesting thing about the new histories of imperialism is their dual and somewhat paradoxical approach to empire.  On the one hand, postcolonial perspectives on empire ask us to take a truly global view of how empires operated.  See, for example, Antoinette Burton's After the Imperial Turn:  Thinking with and through the Nation. In previous accounts of the British Empire, everything seemed to center around the metropole.  Ideas and people flowed out from the center of power and influenced the peripheries of empire. In the new view, London can only be understood as a piece of a larger circuitry.  If ideas and people and goods flowed out from London, they also flowed into London.  More than that, various parts of the empire communicated with one another, so that what was happening in Ireland influenced what was happening in India, and what was happening in India was influencing what was happening in New Zealand.  And here again, the truly global perspective allows us to note that what was happening in South Africa might well relate to what was happening in French Africa, or indeed in French Indochina.

So empire is a more global phenomenon than we previously believed it to be.  The concept of empire transcends the historical category of the nation-state in important ways.  But a postcolonial perspective on empire also asks us to treat individuals and their bodies more seriously than we did previously. See for example Antoinette Burton and Tony Ballanytine's Moving Subject:  Gender, Mobility, and Intimacy in an Age of Global Empire in which a variety of authors follow Foucault and feminist writers in demonstrating how empire operated on individual lives and even inscribed itself on individual bodies.

Burton, Ballanytine, and other postcolonial and feminist scholars argue that empires don't just operate on the macro level, pushing armies and navies across the globe like so many Risk pieces. Instead, empires manifest their power in the most startlingly intimate ways imaginable.  The power of empires flows everywhere, including medical practices, cultural traditions, and marriage patterns.  If this sounds a little too cutely theoretical, consider my wife's experience just yesterday.  As an immigrant seeking American citizenship, she was asked to submit to a comprehensive physical examination.  Why did the state require a thorough investigation of her vagina?  Without the benefit of either Foucault or Burton, this Tunisian realized that entering into America meant that America would  soon need to enter her.  This theory of power operating on bodies isn't therefore all that theoretical.  It's something that really happens.  Yes, if a Tunisian is wealthy, healthy, educated, and married to an American, she might be offered shelter in the United States of America.  But the state gives nothing for free:  with citizenship comes discipline, surveillance, and just a dash of humiliation.  So in some ways the story of one lone immigrant's body can reflect the everyday dynamics of empire as accurately as any map of American armies in Afghanistan can do.

What does any of this have to do with Russia?  Very little, I'm sorry to say.  I can only say for now that I am wondering how and why I neglected to think seriously about Russian imperialism when the phrase is almost redundant.  Maybe the issue is that Soviet power was never discrete, seldom insidious.   Soviet power was brutally manifest in almost every facet of Soviet life.  At any rate, if this blog post disappoints, remember:  not every post can be a B minus.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Diplomacy at Pushkin House

The other day I met a friend I had not seen in over twenty years.  Insofar as this blog is centered on history and nostalgia, I don’t mind dwelling upon such encounters, even when they aren’t ostensibly related to Russian history.  However, this friend, a pleasant reminder of the distant past, reminded me that I have been enthralled with Russia for longer than I care to admit.  Talking with my friend, I am reminded that Russia has been with me for since early adulthood, if not before. A single dinnertime conversation reminded me of the complex circuitry of obsession.  Long, long ago, this friend had given me a copy of my first Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Possessed.  That book was of course a revelation to me.  At the time, I was stunned that anybody had been able to publish a book like that—full of fire, sexual depravity, and dark nihilism.  The fact that tsarist Russian censors had let the book pass seemed even more incomprehensible, but I suppose conservative aristocrats and radical intellectuals each have different takes on Dostoevsky’s treatment of conspiratorial murder in the service of atheism, nihilism, and revolution.

The evening’s Russian leitmotif doesn’t end there.  This friend had introduced me to Ayn Rand, although she currently denies any affiliation for the Russian objectivist.  At the very least, this friend taught me how to pronounce the thinker’s name, a unique talent in my shady corner of a small Chicago suburb.  Unconvinced that I can stretch my theme even further?  My friend had a brilliant father who invented a popular board game called Diplomacy, a game in which the Russian Empire loomed large.  The game is set in Europe on the eve of the First World War.  In this game, up to seven players attempt to manipulate others into helping to upset the balance of power.  The game depends on the near-equality of all seven Great Powers, which included Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Italy, Turkey, and of course Russia.

As always, Russia was unique.  While all other countries began the game with three armies (or navies as the case may be), Russia alone was granted the privilege or responsibility of fielding four military units.  Looking back, this anomaly seems fitting.  When you played Russia, you were inevitably forced to think in multi-dimensional ways.  Specifically, you became involved in the Balkans and, at the same time, you moved again foes in the Baltic and Northern Europe.  The strategic and symbolic effect of Russia’s position in the game mirrored that of historic Russia, which often balanced forces in these two areas, or balanced forces on its eastern and western flanks.  

The game was always a memorable if exhausting experience.  One played for hours upon hours and often gave up short of a decisive conclusion.  The classical principle of balance of power almost always prevented the game from moving quickly to an end.  If England grew stronger, France and German inevitably combined to overcome the threat before turning against one another.  The Russian position resembled that of all the other powers, except for straddling two fronts.  But its other unique characteristic was its location at the edge of the world.  Although vulnerable on each of its two fronts to potentially superior forces, it faced no enemies to its back and therefore never quite collapsed altogether.  

Thinking about the way Russia was represented on this board game reminds me of the extent to which we think about nations symbolically.  What is Russia?  Russians have of course wrestled with this question for several hundred years.  But even ordinary, armchair gamers are confronted with constructed notions of the Russia nation-state.  In Diplomacy, Russia is a big country,  a threatening country:  by virtue of its four military units, potentially more powerful than any other single country.  In Diplomacy, Russia has a split personality:  its armies and navies are powerful, but hopelessly separated from one another by strategically unfavorable terrain.  Russia is an oriental power, heavily engaged with the other European powers but ultimately unique, situated at the edge of the ideologically constructed zone called Europe.

This notion of a constructed country comes in part from Antoinette Burton, who in turn relies on Benedict Anderson and a host of postcolonial theorists and practitioners.   Burton spends a lot of her time diagnosing Britain.  Who came up with this idea of what Britain means?  Who benefits from this idea?  Who reproduces this idea?  Thinking back on my evening with an old friend, I can’t help but reflect on what Burton might call the contingent or even artificial nature of history.  On a personal level, my idea of Russia, even my love of Russia, was influenced by a hundred different but related circumstances, including a board game, a Russian novel, and the public person of one of Communist Russia’s most famous critics.  If my own definition of Russia has been manufactured in chaotic but not entirely random ways, how should we think about America’s overall perception of Russia and the Russian past?  And why stop there?  Who has gained, and who gains today, by a European or even global thesis that Russia is backward, violent, bipolar, or even soulful?  I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Russia, but much less time thinking about how and why I’ve encountered the texts that I’ve read about Russia. 

I’ll conclude by mentioning one of Antoinette Burton’s books, Archive Stories:  Factions, Fictions, and the Writing of History, a collection of essays by various authors about the strange career of specific historical archives.  Burton’s introductory message reminds us that archives are not themselves ahistorical.  Each archive has a history.  How and why archives were produced and maintained over time, and how they get to us matters a great deal.  If we don’t have Foucault’s understanding of power, which is always already local, and always already contested, we may easily misread the sources, “missing the forest for the trees” as it were. 

Take John Randolph’s essay in Archive Stories, entitled “On the biography of the Bakunin Family Archive.” In Randolph’s essay, we see how Bakunin’s papers have “lived” a long, complicated, and deeply politicized life.  Over time, they have reflected a Romantic cult of sentimentality, supported the Bakunin’s sisters’ intervention in the public sphere, and undergirded Liberal, Bolshevik, and even Thaw political positions.  Looking at the archive as a contested site of evolving political and cultural discursive positions is one way to ensure that the Bakunin papers don’t end up propping up an ahistorical or unexamined myth of Russia as a whole. 

It’s interesting to hear Randolph mix his own personal observations about life in the archive with his broader treatment of the Bakunin papers. For when Randolph reminds us that the women who guard the papers at Pushkin House today are underpaid, we note that the archives not only have a history, but they may have a gender.  At any rate, I remember my own awkward excursion to Pushkin House two years ago.  Not knowing the language, nor even the history of the place, I ventured there as a tourist to the shrine of Russian literary culture.  The goal was mystical, to soak up the religious afterglow of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Bulgakov.

I guess this is the point of Archive Stories, to remind us that such pilgrimages come at a price if they reinforce or reproduce distorted or ultimately harmful views of a people.  For my part, I’ll confess a moment of supreme awkwardness in Pushkin House, a moment that certainly reflects Burton’s concerns about ethnocentric and quasi-imperial attitudes toward the Other.  In the archive, I spoke my own language.  Worse still, I assumed that Russia was in economic free fall, and at one point offered a generous archivist a “tip” for spending so much time walking me through the exhibits.  She refused, of course, but the audacity of my own condescension left me feeling ridiculous.  I too am a part of the history of the Russia “idea.”

This post is dedicated to Alan Calhamer,  inventor of Diplomacy and one of LaGrange Park's finest minds.

Monday, March 4, 2013

General Strike

Somewhere around 1999 I recognized that my career in graduate school was quickly coming to an end.  After six years of intense reading, I didn't know what I wanted from my studies.  I remember sitting at a local cafe with fellow graduate students and voicing a depressive's belief that I had only about a twenty percent chance of finishing my doctorate.  Is it unusual, I thought to myself, for somebody in my situation to be so disinterested in my own academic prospects?   Down and out in Urbana, I felt poor, lonely, isolated, and infantilized by the whole graduate school experience.  In the words voiced by Mikhail Gorbachev about a decade previously:  I couldn't "go on like this."  Notwithstanding my gathering depression,  I made one last effort to get excited about graduate school.  I sought out one of the most dynamic history professors at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and asked to do  a research seminar with him.  My topic was the British General Strike of 1926, a national work stoppage that brought Britain closer to revolution that any other event since Chartism in in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Although struggling with failing motivation, I spent a good deal of time in the library gathering the necessary sources.  Sadly, my best efforts were undermined by sadness and anxiety, what my therapist called "unresolved grief" from the death of my mother many years previously.

Sitting at my computer, I found it difficult to churn out the necessary paragraphs.  My thinking was clouded.  Worse still, I felt too prickly to respond appropriately to the professor's criticisms of my effort to date.  The problem lay entirely with me:  I was working slowly, thinking muddily, and communicating poorly.  With an odd mixture of embarrassment and anger, I finally accepted a B plus on the paper (the graduate school equivalent of near-failure) rather than embrace the professor's reasonable suggestions for improvement.  After that, all that remained for me to do was take my preliminary exams and take a less-than--structurally sound doctoral proposal to a committee of skeptical but friendly professors who undoubtedly hoped for the best from a hard-working if misguided student.  After that, I knew that I would leave Urbana, and doctoral study in general.  And this is in fact what I did.  Over the next several years, I taught history (American, European, and world) at a variety of college and universities, and eventually launched into a career in academic administration.  I also edited children's history books and completed my second and third master's degrees, this time in nonprofit management and human resources management.

Although the future without a doctorate in history turned out to be relatively bright, and I never really doubted that my decision to leave graduate work in history had been a good one at the time, the General Strike paper always symbolized something deeply troubling about my past life.  This being the case, it's ironic that when I called a professor at my old graduate program to talk about potentially returning to graduate study after an absence of many years, I thought again about the strike, and not without a tinge of pleasure.  The work had ended badly, but I hadn't chosen it by accident.  The fact is that I was truly fascinated by this break in the ordinary life of a mature,  reasonable, and putatively evolutionary-minded people.  If the British could consider Revolution, didn't that mean that Revolution was always a possibility, a perpetual alternative which structured how and why people did what they did in politics and culture?

After explaining my previous interest in the General Strike, I was asked to read a pamphlet on the subject by an Indian living in Great Britain in the 1920s, R. Palme Dutt.  Without the easy ability to access arcane sources, I went ahead and purchased a copy of the pamphlet.  The cost was high, about $30 dollars for a treatise of no more than 36 pages.  I knew the cost was high, but I now wanted to make the purchase for two diametrically opposed reasons: first, if getting a copy of this piece of Communist propaganda allowed me to respond more quickly to this professor's questions about my proposed path of study, then $30 dollars would be a small price to pay;  and second, if my dream of returning to graduate study was about to meet up with a brick wall of graduate school policies and procedures, then perhaps this booklet could now be seen as something quasi-mystical, the physical embodiment of one of my life's leitmotifs.

When the package arrived, I found this booklet to be old, yellow, dirty, and fragile.  A true primary source, the document practically smelled of the Urbana "stacks" (main library shelves) I had lived among so long ago. Without a doubt, I will frame this document, for it represents two halves of my adult life, the tragedy of my late twenties, and the triumph of my early forties.  Surprisingly, I'm in love with Dutt's "The Meaning of the General Strike."  At this moment in time, it's a testimony to my own survival, my lucky escape from graduate school at a difficult time in my life, and the promise of graduate school on very different terms in the year 2013.  In the coming weeks, my life as a history graduate student may be reanimated or terminated, but in either event this document (soon to be framed of course) will be special to me.

Ah, but what of the document itself?  It's the standard communist take on modern British history.  There's criticism of liberalism, parliamentary democracy, reformism, and even soft-headed trade unionism.  There's a belief that British capitalism--symbolic home to global capitalism--was on the brink of collapse.  There's the argument that the British state was now directly invested in a class war with the rising tide of the proletarian dissatisfaction.  There's a paradoxical attempt to contextualize British labor unrest in the context of global revolution, while at the same time isolating the economic tension in Britain from the political tension that was gradually undermining the very fabric of Britain's global empire.  The paradox of Marxism is that on the one hand it's a profoundly historical as well as global doctrine.  But on the other hand it attempts to tell a mythological story (i.e., a story takes place in what Mircea Elida would call sacred or ahistorical time) that is rooted in a smaller corner of Europe.  Dutt's story references the age of Marx when he alludes to Chartism.  His story is also set against the very specific background of the Great War (the October Revolution, the Russian Civil War and Europe in 1919 more generally, being a subset of this cataclysmic event).  But even so, Dutt wants his readers to know that local events are leading inexorably to a preordained event.

Reading Dutt, and thinking back to my own attempt to link aesthetic and political varieties of modernism in my analysis of the General Strike, I think of Katerina Clark's book, Petersburg:  Crucible of Cultural Revolution.  For Clark, Marx,  Lenin, and even Stalin, are offering Europe a political solution that resembles the broader aesthetic formulation of modernism.  Clark focuses her attention on the "myth" of Petersburg, but her essential point is that the Bolsheviks were relying heavily on tropes they inherited for aesthetic innovators.  This makes a certain about of sense.  Reading Dutt today, or any Marxist, one is struck by how little relationship there is between events on the ground and the essential, unvarying, and quasi-religious revolutionary worldview.  Clark analyzes these similarities in more detail.  She talks about the faith of many or even most modern aesthetes and intellectuals who believed that the world had been thoroughly corrupted by capitalism.  She explores the extent to which these thinkers celebrated revolutionary reversals in which the "outside" suddenly becomes the "inside" or the "low" suddenly becomes the "high."  She discusses the way artists and poets called for radical innovation and purification.

 All of these aesthetic schemas resemble the political propaganda offered by Dutt and other political revolutionaries.  What's Dutt's prescription for Britain if not the iconoclastic reversal of society in which the "low" will finally become the "high"?  What does Dutt offer the British if not radical experimentation, a vague but exciting Utopia, and above all purity?  Dutt's purity entails a complete lack of compromise with modern capitalism.  If you accept the Communist viewpoint, you need not engaged with anything--not the parliament, not the governing political parties, not the bourgeois and aristocratic classes, not the military, not the empire, and certainly not capitalism.  There's a beauty about this prescription:  like any great modern writer or painter, the Communists were offering contemporaries the opportunity to escape everyday reality.  The key to political utopia was that the proletarian political "artist" needed only to exert his willpower by avoiding all forms of compromise in the search for a better future.  Clark suggests that there's not such a world of difference between Marx and Nietzsche.  The revolution would come about when at least a few fully conscious intellectuals or workers broke every tie they encountered, whether it be the British past, the empire, religion, the upper classes, the political parties, or even the false laborite labors.


Antoinette Burton's book, A Primer for Teaching World History, makes various suggestions about we should approach world history.  Wanting to test out these categories of analysis, I applied them to this blog as well as to book I happen to be reading right now, Diane Koenker's Republic of Labor.  Koenker's book held up well under fire, but Soviet Roulette faired less well.

One of Burton's principles is that global history should incorporate gender in organic, integrative ways.  It's not enough, she argues, to merely discuss women as some kind of epiphenomenon of fundamental historical change.  How does Koenker's book do when it comes to gender?  Diane Koenker's book certainly doesn't neglect gender.  In fact, when analyzing the history of the printers in the interwar period, Koenker spends quite a bit of time explaining the ways in which Soviet political, economic, and cultural discourse privileged masculinity.  To begin with, the heroes of the Russian Civil War were masculine ones, warriors by and large.  Moreover, the hero of Soviet labor was almost always depicted in male form.  

The result of this idealization of masculinity in the printing industry, and in the Soviet economy more generally, disadvantaged women in concrete ways.  For instance, Soviet labor laws--which sometimes allowed only one member of any given family to be employed in a factory--often led to the dismissal of wives from the workforce.  The more significant fact about gender and the working class in early Soviet Russia is that the very notion of skill was firmly attached to masculinity.  And although Soviet citizens were still debating the extent to which people should be paid unevenly for different levels of skills, "unskilled" female labor was likely to be poorly paid.  

And what of Soviet Roulette?  How far has this blog gone to analyze gender as a category of analysis?  Sadly, not very far at all.  I can see the problem in graphic terms every time I look at my bookshelves.  I have a women's section of the bookshelves, but this shelf of books is small relative to other sections, and wouldn't even be full if it hadn't been for Catherine the Great.  And of course my shelf of women--something akin to Mitt Romney's "binder of women" candidates for high office--doesn't offer too many examples of modern, integrative gender history.  Looking over my overall collection of Russian history and literature books, I note how hard I will need to work to correct the gender imbalance of Soviet Roulette.  The old books often don't deal with gender at all, and many of the new ones only touch on in tangentially.  

Another of Burton's suggestions for doing world history right is to approach history "from the bottom up."  Here again, Diane Koenker is on solid ground.  Focusing on a union, even one that had pretentions to be part of what Lenin derisively called "worker aristocracy," in an excellent way to avoid the pitfalls of focusing narrowly on Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, and a small band of influential men.  And of course working from the ground up inherently helps historians to move toward a more gender-balanced approach to the story of humankind.  On this score,Soviet Roulette, is a flawed but not quite failed state.  Soviet Roulette often deals with the idea of revolution, which is of course closely associated with proletarian actors, but this blog certainly privileges the stories of educated, literate--and even highly literate--revolutionaries.  Reading Diane Koenker's book I'm actually saddened to think that I've read so much without even delving into serious study of the very workers in whose name the Revolution was formulated.  

A third argument Burton makes is that global history should contextualize an event by placing it into its global context.  Thus Diane Koenker explains the Soviet experiment in socialist economics by showing that many of its putatively original approaches to labor relations had their counterparts in Britain, America, and elsewhere.  While acknowledging Communist coercion, Koenker also demonstrates that Soviet workers actually won some concessions that their counterparts in Britain and America did not, including worker participation in many "management" decisions.  While Koenker clearly grasps the international dimensions of Soviet labor history, Soviet Roulette has been somewhat more parochial.  In part, this has been due to the author's ignorance of Chinese, Turkish, Egyptian, Hungarian and other revolutionary traditions.  But why Soviet Roulette hasn't spent more time on events in the Soviet Union's Turkic regions is more difficult to explain.  (Note to self:  Next time your brother lives in Kyrgyzstan, visit him!).  Of course, even Burton acknowledges the difficulty of coming to terms with the world in all its complexity.  However, Burton would no doubt argue that ignoring global comparisons and treating the Russian Revolution as a strictly national event isn't ultimately tenable.  Without analogies, historians are likely to fetishize national events, creating Sonderweg stories or myths of exceptionalism. 

Burton's next contention--she uses the phrase, design principle--is that historians (or pedagogues) should discuss how archives work, transparently acknowledging how and why sources come into our hands. Another Burton book, Archive Stories:  Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, goes into more depth here.  But the main point is that good history reveals its subjectivity.  The explanatory power of history works best when its operations are exposed to the light of day.  Koenker, to her credit, does exactly this.  She tells her readers which assumptions are linked to which specific pieces of evidence, and talks at length about why certain sources are more or less credible than others. In fact, she is careful to discuss the unique nature of the printers' union, a union that represented a unique subpopulation of the working class--urban, skilled, literate men and women.  Moreover, Koenker spends some time analyzing the extent to which the printers were unique in the country as a whole, exploring demographic trends and rural and urban statistics.   

How well does Soviet Roulette meet Burton's call for a self-revelatory attitude toward history?  Although I haven't used many primary sources, I can say that my attempt to persistently link the personal to the historical seems useful to Burton's project.  If I’m honest about my points of reference, the reader has a better chance of adjusting for my biases to come up with reasonable conclusions about the relative value of my various arguments.  On the other hand, Burton’s main point seems to be that the work of identifying the historicity of archival material is never done.  Reading her second book, Archive Stories, shows just how much work an historian can do to let readers know how and why sources come into our hands.  The process of knowing history is an inherently ideological one, suffused with power, as Michelle Foucault would argue.

Burton’s next piece of advice for doing global history right is related to periodization.  Although every historian uses dates to establish a framework for analysis, it’s amazing how often we forget that we are doing that.  It’s as if we got dressed up for Halloween but soon came to think that we had really turned into ghosts and goblins.  The simple fact is that dates are an artificial construction, at least when we use them to shed light on a particular event or historical process.  The October Revolution happened in 1917, but what other dates should frame it?  Diane Koenker seems to have a good approach.  While she freely ranges around the Western World (she seems less comfortable in the non-Western World) in order to offer context to Russian events, she also explores pre-revolutionary artisanal and labor traditions to make sense of the interwar period. 

For its part Soviet Roulette is almost completely free of a temporal framework.  This is perhaps more a matter of the author’s haphazard reading habits.  Be that as it may, Russian Roulette is firmly committed to the idea that pre-revolutionary history, Soviet post-war history, and even the Russian present, all offer new perspectives on the historical drama of 1917.  In terms of time, “I cover the waterfront,” as Fran Leibowitz tells us Tennessee Williams once said about his sexuality.  I will say, however, that I’m intrigued by Burton’s suggestion that we may even “work backwards” from the present to arrive at an understanding of the past. 

This post has already gone on too long, but Burton offers us one other useful idea about global history, and that is related to theorizing empire.  This is something Diane Koenker doesn’t do at length.  Her book talks about a Soviet economy transitioning from one cataclysm to the next, from war to revolution to civil war to five-year plans and back to war again.  And in a sense this is a story of empire, the rise of a socialist economy that would someday undergird one of the world’s two superpowers.

Koenker isn’t particularly focused on tracing the global dimensions of her subject matter.  She needed be, and certainly Burton never asks all history to be global history.  But when analyzing Soviet Roulette for its approach to empire, I recognize that the Soviet story is above all a story of empire.  For this reason, why not compare the Soviet version of empire to its rivals, both vanished and contemporaneous?  Why not ask what characteristics socialist empire had in common with pre-modern or colonial versions?  Just as Soviet labor history is most revealing when compared with Western or non-Western versions of the same essential subject matter, the Soviet Empire can be best understood when its set against the backdrop of other global political entities. 

If Burton offers us an overarching theme on global history, it’s “connectivity.”  Essentially, she asks us to make linkages between local events and international movements. If we stand in the middle of the Illinois cornfields, we might well be tempted to believe that we are isolated from the world, cut off from history itself.  But this would be a myth.  We see evidence of global economics and global culture all around us, if we’re careful enough to look.  One need only locate a Walmart, with all of its international merchandise, with all of its ties to diverse global communities of interest, to know this to be the case.  The irony of the Revolution is that the event has long been held to be the quintessence of globalism, the epitome of a world-historical process. Probably historians will continue to accept this claim, but on other grounds.

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.