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Regular version of the site

Transnational Connections in History or Why Study the USSR?

On March 11, Seth Bernstein gave a presentation — ‘Burying the Alliance: Interment, Repatriation and the Politics of the Sacred in Occupied Germany’ — at the scholarly seminar of the HSE International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences where he works as a postdoctoral research fellow.

Setting the scene, Bernstein introduced Europe in 1945 as a vast graveyard. The diaspora of the dead was perhaps most prominent in Germany, where the fallen of the four occupying forces, as well as other nationals, were spread across the country. As the allies worked through the postwar settlement with Germany and its allies, they considered another pressing question: How to treat the dead? Dr Bernstein’s presentation explored how the dead became a point of contact, conflict and contrast in Germany that provides a window into the dynamics of power sharing between the occupiers. The politics of the sacred demanded that each of the four allies enter into uneasy interactions and compromises, even as the lines in the Cold War hardened.

Seth Bernstein came to HSE in 2013 after finishing his PhD in history at the University of Toronto. He writes on the history of the Soviet Union. In an interview for HSE English News before the presentation, he explained why this is still an important period for research. ‘During the Cold War people in North America studied Soviet history to learn about the communist enemy or to learn about an important system of economic and social modernization. Right now there is some soul searching in the field. Research money has dried up in the US and there is less interest in studying the USSR as a model for non-capitalist modernization. However, there are good new reasons to study Soviet history. Obviously, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria have made Russia a topic of discussion again in the US and elsewhere. Perhaps the best reason for studying the history of the USSR, though, is the increased focus on transnational connections in the history field. The Soviet Union is an important part of this new discussion. The USSR was an epicenter of international contact in the twentieth century. If you are thinking about how people in the world connected with one another, it's difficult to understand what happened in post-colonial states, among the international left, or in Europe broadly without thinking about the role of the Soviet Union.’

Perhaps the best reason for studying the history of the USSR, though, is the increased focus on transnational connections in the history field. The Soviet Union is an important part of this new discussion 

Doctor Bernstein’s presentation addressed some of these issues of transnational history. As he explained, ‘The paper is about how the Soviet Union, United States, United Kingdom and France commemorated their dead in Occupied Germany. Germany was divided preliminarily in 1945 into occupation zones but those zones hardened into West Germany and East Germany. What I argue is that the aftermath of the wartime alliance continued to force the four allies into contact, even as the Cold War created greater and greater divisions. Each of these countries had dead buried throughout Germany and they had to negotiate with the commanders of the other zones to retrieve the dead or rebury them. In particular, the western allies had to negotiate with Soviet officials and vice versa.

These interactions surrounding the dead also show important contrasts in the priorities of the different powers. The western allies wanted to identify and rebury every person who had died in Germany to allow families to commemorate their dead relatives. Soviet authorities thought repatriating bodies hundreds or thousands of miles was crazy (it is if you think about it) and assumed the western allies were trying to spy on the zone. But Soviet officials wanted to have access to the western zones so that they could try to repatriate living people from the USSR, who ended up in Germany because they had been prisoners of war or forced laborers, and refused to return after the war. The allies made a trade--the USSR could send a few officers to speak with the people who refused to return and the western allies could send a few teams to take back the dead. Everyone got what they wanted but for both sides it highlighted the differences in their goals and values.’

Seth Bernstein became interested in Russian language and culture when he was in high school. ‘My high school had a great language teacher who knew German, Spanish and I think a couple other languages, but his favorite was Russian. In university I continued to take Russian and I went to Moscow the first time in 2004 on the American Councils study abroad programme. During that trip, I interned at the Sakharov Center retyping memoirs of Gulag survivors. I'm afraid I was not a very competent worker for them but I learned the Russian keyboard and became interested in the history of the Soviet Union under Stalin.’

These days Dr. Bernstein’s work is largely based on archival sources from the former Soviet Union. Getting access to them is a lot easier than it used to be. He explains, ‘These materials used to be classified, of course, but now they are typically not and you can use the sources with no problem. There are a few exceptions. One is that when there is personal information about people who are not public figures, I typically mask their names one way or another. For example, my first book project (now under review) is about Soviet youth in the Komsomol in the 1930s and 1940s. A lot of the materials are about young people who got in trouble with the authorities and it was necessary to hide their identities.

The other exception is that despite the massive release of documents, various materials are still classified in some places. The great thing about the Soviet bureaucracy, though, is that many documents were replicated at different levels, regions and administrations. For example, it is very difficult to work in the archive of the FSB, where materials from Soviet police administrations are held. However, when I was writing about the history of the German occupation of Ryazan province, I found a run of documents from the secret police in the Ryazan party archive. If you look hard enough, you can find materials to write about almost any topic in Soviet history.’

If you look hard enough, you can find materials to write about almost any topic in Soviet history

Seth Bernstein has spent about six years in Russia since 2004 and bears witness to Moscow becoming more ‘user-friendly’ for foreign academics and visitors, ‘The city has become a lot nicer in the last few years. There are more restaurants, public spaces and signs in English. For vegetarians like me, the city has improved as well. And the things that have always been great about Moscow have stayed the same. The transit system is excellent and affordable and there are always things to do in the cit y. As someone who studies the Soviet Union, being in Moscow puts me in one of the main centers of the field. The central Soviet archives are here and there are many specialists who either work in Moscow or visit on research trips. So I feel very plugged in. But I know colleagues in other fields who feel more isolated.’

Although it suits his own research interests to be in Russia, through teaching Seth has seen how his students struggle with the limitations of the library resources available to them. ‘I have been co-teaching a course in the School of History on how violence affected culture and society in twentieth-century Europe. The students have been intellectually curious and great about participating, much like my students from North America. The challenge with teaching (and often with research) is that HSE and Moscow do not have the same library resources as comparable institutions and cities in North America. If a student at Toronto wanted to write their final essay about German women during World War II, they would have dozens of books to use from the university library or they could even order them from another library for free. That just isn't possible in Moscow, even though HSE has reasonable electronic subscriptions. In my own research, I have found workarounds--using North American libraries on trips to conferences, buying books, asking colleagues to scan copies. For students it is a big frustration, though. They want to use English-language resources but they have deadlines so they have to turn in work they know could be better.’

But for Seth Bernstein, with his ever expanding interest in the Soviet side of the history of WW2 and its consequences, Russia is an ideal place to work. ‘I am in the middle of revising my first book. After that, I will turn my focus to my next big project, a history of the repatriation of Soviet citizens after World War II. Although Soviet prisoners had a brutal experience in Germany, it was perhaps the most intense immersion of Soviet citizens abroad ever. How the Soviet state and police reacted to their return also has major implications for how historians view the Cold War, the late Stalinist state and the post-Stalin transition. In addition to that project, I am exploring a few smaller digital humanities ideas with colleagues for showcasing research and for pedagogical purposes.’

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service


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