‘In America I Was Attacked for Being a Marxist and Here I Was Attacked as a Bourgeois Falsifier of History’
In 2014 the working group of the Department of History of Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg won the university competition and received institutional support for the international research project ‘Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism’. The project is dedicated to critically rethinking concepts of ethnicity, nationalism, nation-state, and empire in the region of Eastern Europe and Eurasia and exploring in comparative dimension the break-up of historic empires and imperial legacy as constitutive for the formation of post-imperial political order, including nationalization and federalization of political space.Ronald Grigor Suny is Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at the University of Michigan, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago and Senior Research Fellow at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg. He talks his research interests in history and the International Research Project ‘Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism’.
— What is your area of research in history and what were the factors that shaped your career as a historian?
— Actually I have several different, but related research topics. I began as a historian of the Soviet Union, but I was interested in non-Russian peoples, particularly in the Caucasus and other regions of the Soviet Union. I myself was born in America and I’m Armenian in my background and my parents are both Armenian, so I was interested in this topic. My father came from Tbilisi; they left after the revolution and all of my childhood he was telling me stories about Georgia, the revolution. It was extremely interesting. My first book was on Baku, the Baku Commune in the revolution, and there I was exploring class and nationality. I was interested in social cleavages and ethnic cleavage and how one turn into the other. In 1917 in Baku it was mostly social class struggles, but this then changed in 1918 with the collapse of the Russian Empire and takeover of most of it, into an international struggle. And that was interesting to me. I was not particularly interested in nationalism at the time. I came from the left and I was interested in Marxism, socialism, the working class, and the revolutionary movement. It was the 1960-70s, we all were interested in this type of social history. And then I decided to learn Georgian. Earlier I studied Armenian and Russian, and now I learned Georgian. And I started The Making of the Georgian Nation, and there I develop in my own thinking on a constructivist approach - that is how nations are made in modern times. That book was published during the Soviet period, in 1988 for the first time, and it was attacked, of course. The Baku Commune by the way was attacked as ‘a bourgeois falsification’ of the history of Azerbaijan. So in America I was attacked for being a Marxist and here I was attacked as a bourgeois falsifier of history. It was an interesting position to me. Then I wrote a book on Georgia and Georgians criticized me, not impressed, of course, they couldn’t do that, as an Armenian nationalist who’s writing about Georgia, because I was writing about all the peoples of Georgia, of the country within the empire, not just a national history of one ethnicity. And that was not popular. By the way, now this book is very well received in Georgia. There are piles of them in book stores on Rustaveli avenue, you can buy it. But in that time it was attacked because of the increased nationalism in Georgia.
Then I went to the University of Michigan and I became a professor of Armenian history and wrote a book Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History. That book was attacked by Armenians because it was not nationalist enough . So they never liked this book at all. Again it was a constructivist account of making a national identity. It was an account of how the Armenians became a nation in modern times, how they turned from an ethno-religious community based in a church to the more secular idea of a nation first in the Russian Empire in the Caucasus and then also in the Ottoman Empire.
So, you don’t write a history that has a political purpose. I believe, along with many other historians that truth is revolutionary.
Then I thought I want to move more into Soviet history. So I began to do research on Stalin. I think Stalin is an interesting connector, an underexplored link between the local history of the Caucasus, Georgia, and Russian history and Soviet history. I began to work on a biography of young Stalin, Stalin in Georgia. But at that time, in the late 1980s – early 1990s the Soviet Union was falling apart and archives were closed. So even though I had written 200 pages I decided to put this book aside and to wait till archives open. So I didn’t continue that book. I went on to write a history of the Soviet Union. It is called The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States, and I developed an account of the whole history of the Soviet Union. That is now the best selling text-book of Soviet history in the United States and maybe in all of the west, I don’t know.
In the meantime while the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1990-1991 I gave lectures at Stanford University on how nations are made in modern times through the lens of the constructivist approach. I called it The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. That book is kind of radical contribution, which in some ways, I’ll be proud to say, changed the dominant paradigm of the way people understand nation-making in the Soviet Union. So before this book most of the writing about non-Russian peoples in the Soviet Union was based on primordial understanding of nationalities (nationalities, because I never use the word minorities, because they are not minorities in their own countries). I showed how the Soviet Union took ethnic, religious, and linguistic communities and turned each of them into a modern nation with territories, with opera houses, with film studios, and the whole range of attributes of modern nations.
A year after I wrote that book and month after I published it the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 different independent countries. Only then I became interested in the ideas of empire and nationalism. I was interested in seeing the way in which empire helps to manufacture nations within its composite space. So the dominant paradigm about empires held that they were enemies of nations, nations grew up and destroyed empires. And I was trying to show how positive the construction of a nation was within the Soviet Empire and even, by the way, within the tsar’s empire. This is where the non-Russian intelligentsia was trained. Most of the Georgian intelligentsia in the first generation were trained in Saint-Petersburg, this is where Chavchavadze and Tsereteli and others came. So that was really interesting.
And then I would say because of my interest in Armenia in the last couple years I’ve turned to writing about the Armenian genocide of 1915. So I’ve made the effort in my advanced age to learn modern Turkish, and did a lot of research. The book will come out next year – 2015 is the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The book’s title is They Can Live in a Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide. And that phrase comes from the speech by Talaat Pasha, the Young Turkish architect of the genocide.
So now I’ve got these books coming out – Young Stalin will come out and Armenian genocide will come out – and with my wonderful colleague Valerie Kivelson who does early modern Russian history, at University of Michigan, we’re writing a book together called Russia’s Empires, which tells the whole history of Russia and the Soviet Union and Russia again.
— So you were attacked each time a new book came out. Is it good or bad for a historian to be in the spotlight? Should historians think about public relevance of their work?
— Oh absolutely, I hope so! I think historians, whatever your politics are (and I feel very strongly about politics) you must try to get as close as possible to producing real objective scientific empirically based theoretically informed history. So, you don’t write a history that has a political purpose. I believe, along with many other historians that truth is revolutionary . If you tell the truth it will subvert, it will undermine the common understanding and assumptions that people propagate and that governments propagate. The vocation of historians is to be critical intellectuals, not organic intellectuals agent of the state, Undermining common understanding – that’s our job.
As a matter of fact, in the book about the Armenian genocide I do not say: “It’s a terrible Turk, and it’s Turks, their culture, they’ve murdered Armenians, it’s in their blood.” Instead I tried to explain why in 1915 in a certain historical situation a government with a certain affective disposition, that is a mental and emotional state, decided to carry out the most cruel crime in human history that is the mass murder of a designated people.
What we’re trying to do is develop a new generation of historians who are working at what we can call the world level. Not the western level, not the Russian level, but the world level.
In Armenia the whole generation doesn’t like that, they call me a traitor. Because I’m not writing a national history and I’m not anti-Turkish. I’m trying to explain that Turks are not monsters, they are human beings that could do monsterous things – that’s my view.
— What are your plans for the project at the Higher School of Economics at St. Petersburg?
— What we’re trying to do is develop a new generation of historians who are working at what we can call the world level. Not the western level, not the Russian level, but the world level . That is the highest possible scientific standard of writing good history. And learning from the latest methodology. An example: when we were studying Russian history in the West, Russian history was not as highly developed as a historiography of let’s say the United States, France (the studies of the French revolution) or Britain. So we ‘Russianists’ in the West were forced to read British history, French history, American history in order to learn how one does history. And then we can bring it to the field of Russian history. So a good student at the place likethe Higher School of Economics will read this world historiography and add to it the Russian historiography, add to it the latest methodology and develop a high level of understanding of Russian history in the global context.
— Please describe the plans of the research project ‘Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism.’
— Here at the Higher School of Economics we have a plan for the next 3 years. We’re planning to convene workshops and conferences on themes of dynamics of modernizing imperial regimes, the causes and consequences of the collapse of historic empires, and imagination of post-imperial political order, emphasizing federalism and regionalism - alternatives to the centralization of the imperial space and uniformity of the nation-state. And that seems to me is not only a historical topic but the topic that is relevant to the present. In the former soviet space you have situations like Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Eastern Ukraine, Crimea etc. which cry out for other ways of thinking about the modern nation state and the possibilities of degrees of shared sovereignty. We also think of doing something about the cities, exploring especially the history of political capitals in the context of transition from cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic urban centers of empire to national capitals and symbols of homogenous nations. We even have made plans for a summer school, in which we will bring young faculty and researchers from the broad region to discuss new methodologies and approaches to the comparative history of empire and nationalism.
— Do you have personal connection to St. Petersburg?
— I actually do. My father’s father Grigor Mirzoyan Suni was born in Kadebek outside Karabakh, that is now Azerbaijan, in an Armenian village. And later he became a composer. He eventually was sent – he had no money, he was poor Armenian boy, the community paid for him – to St. Petersburg, to the conservatory of music and studied here under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. The archival files of the conservatory contain records about my grand father.
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