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Analysing History through Ego-documents

International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences, Higher School of Economics and The Friedrich Ebert Foundation held an international conference 'A Memory Revolution’: Soviet History Through the Lens of Personal Documents' in Moscow on 7-8 June, 2017. The conference brought together distinguished historians and sociologists from across the globe. Michael David-Fox, Professor of History at Georgetown University and Academic Advisor of HSE International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences shares his reflections and considerations on the main topic and discussions at the conference and his own research.

— It's an intriguing name for the conference as 'A "Memory Revolution". What was 'revolutionary' in your discussions and papers presented?

— Partly, we simply could not resist putting the word revolution into the title for a conference on the Soviet history being held in 2017, the centennial of the Russian Revolution. This year, centennial conferences are being held around the world on 1917 and the revolution’s ramifications for the twentieth century. I myself have attended at least four such conferences so far, and the year is only half over. But our conference is unique among them in that it focused specifically on how the flood of new sources of personal origin, or ego-documents, prompt us to rethink how to approach the era ushered in by the Russian Revolution. There has been a true outpouring of previously unavailable ego-documents relating to the Soviet period in the last decade or so, and they have appeared at the same time that historians have become increasingly interested in putting biographical trajectories and lived experience at or closer to the center of their scholarship. Our premise in this conference’s title was that this marks a sea change in the way history is written. In fact, the call for papers for this conference received a tremendous response from scholars around the world.

— Participants of the conference are dealing with personal documents, such as letters, photos, memoirs from a great variety of social groups and nationalities. There are papers on German soldiers, Jewish families and others. What do they all have in common? 

— The gathering was the latest in a series of major international conferences put together annually over the last half-decade by HSE’s International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences. The war on the Eastern front, including the German occupation and the Holocaust, was therefore one major focus in the conference’s investigation of ego-documents. However, this year’s event was notable for also including many papers on both the prewar and postwar decades of Soviet history. One of the major results of the conference was precisely to show the great diversity of materials that are now available, both in terms of genres of sources and their origins. This breadth was reflected in the variety of panels on a wide range of topics and in terms of the kinds of ego-documents discussed. These included what one might expect, newly discovered diaries and newly available archival collections; but they also included considerations of family archives from the Stalin-era elite during the Great Terror, postwar graduate student love letters, courtship poetry written by Uzbek soldiers at the front, and the drawings and postcards sent by Soviet hippies. A similar range and diversity was also reflected in our conference’s geographical coverage of the multi-national Soviet state and panels dealing with personal sources relating to foreigners living in or observing the USSR.

The scale of the major international conferences we have been able to host at HSE in Moscow brings people together who otherwise would not know that they are working on similar topics or sources, and the word about them has spread in the academic community

But all this breadth does not detract from questions that are common denominators of the whole enterprise: what are the methods historians need to use to critically assess these sources, and how can we integrate them into broader historical narratives?

— Have you got your favourite story of discoveries made while going though archival materials? 

— I have found many stories in the archives over the years that are sad, funny, tragic, and sometimes uplifting. But I’ll give you an example of one that was perhaps not the most incredible or extraordinary, but was nonetheless important because it made me reflect about my own assumptions. I wrote a book on the reception of foreign visitors in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s entitled Showcasing the Great Experiment (it was translated into Russian in 2014). I worked a lot for that study on the guides and translators who presented and propagandized what I called the “sites of communism” to foreign visitors. One of those guides, Natal’ia Semper, learned English in Moscow in the 1920s from an American woman named Elsie Millman—a writer and ethnographer who had previously worked and traveled in central Africa, China, and Malaysia. Millman was one of those bohemian adventurers who often found their way to the USSR in those years, and talked frankly to Semper about such topics as Western sociology and Soviet problems. This unusual foreigner—independent, physically active, and unafraid—exerted a life-altering influence on the young Semper. She recalled decades later how Millman was the very model of the “new woman” for her and, in fact, that was the reason why the Soviet guide decided to devote her career to working with foreign visitors in the first place. The story of these two women made me think about how beneath the official constraints, the propaganda, and the international antagonisms that surrounded the guides there were often hidden or unofficial motivations, meaningful cross-cultural encounters, and personal sympathies that challenge the stereotypes historians might have.

Having the lives of individuals, sometimes “ordinary” people from various walks of life, move to the center of our historical accounts really changes the texture of how we can write history. For example, we can try to explain how individuals experienced history as it was unfolding. We can analyze how they explained major historical upheavals to themselves, as it were, as they were happening

— How would you describe the main impressions and output of the conference?

— I heard very positive comments from participants about how it came together in interesting ways. One thing a number of people noted was that this topic attracted excellent researchers from an unusually broad array of places, not just the traditional centers of Russian studies: we had a wonderful paper from an Icelandic scholar teaching in Denmark about pro-Soviet intellectuals in Iceland, to give just one example. We also had unusually good representation from regional Russian universities. The scale of the major international conferences we have been able to host at HSE in Moscow brings people together who otherwise would not know that they are working on similar topics or sources, and the word about them has spread in the academic community. I think many participants came away with an impression of just how intensively scholars from several disciplines, not just historians, are working with a vast array of ego-documents from previously unknown collections, and that they are using them in imaginative ways.

— What are your research plans?

— It is 2017, and right now I am finalizing an article on—you guessed it—the Russian Revolution. I thought about what I wanted to say for about five years, but it wrote itself very quickly, which is fortunate since it needs to be published before the end of this centennial year. The article suggests what historians of the Russian Revolution can learn from the field of comparative revolutions. In particular, it compares the “life cycles” of the contemporaneous but very different Russian and Mexican revolutions.

My broader, ongoing research project is for a book I am writing about Smolensk oblast in the 1930s and 1940s. Next month I’ll be working more with the archival collection that I spoke about in my own paper on at the conference: the archive of the Commission on the History of the Great Patriotic War, or the so-called Mints Commission (named after academician I. I. Mints). This was a massive interview project launched by historians from the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The Mints Commission recorded thousands of long and very valuable interviews between 1942 and 1945, that is in the very midst of the war. This is a good example of what I have been talking about: the Mints Commission archive only became accessible relatively recently, and the first wave of books and articles using its material has only appeared in the last two years or so. Having the lives of individuals, sometimes “ordinary” people from various walks of life, move to the center of our historical accounts really changes the texture of how we can write history. For example, we can try to explain how individuals experienced history as it was unfolding. We can analyze how they explained major historical upheavals to themselves, as it were, as they were happening.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

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