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Regular version of the site

‘The Past Is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past’

Red Square, May 1, 1970

Red Square, May 1, 1970
@ Vitaly Gumenyuk / Photochronograph.ru

This summer, the HSE Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences was reorganized to become the HSE Institute for Advanced Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies. Oleg Budnitskii, Doctor of Historical Sciences, head of the Centre and director of the Institute, talked to the HSE News Service about the new division.

Dr. Budnitskii, when was the Centre created? Which of its projects would you like to highlight?

— The Centre officially started its work in January 2011. In 2014, it won a competition aimed at founding international research laboratories. Our key outputs—which are of interest both to the university and to ourselves—are publications in highly ranked journals.

Over the decade of the Centre’s operations, its staff members have published about 170 papers and chapters in journals, collections and collective monographs; 90 of these were published in journals listed on Web of Science and Scopus

I say ‘about’ 170 because new papers keep coming out and the figures keep changing. Monographs have traditionally been considered the main academic product in the humanities. Our staff members have published about twenty of them over the years. In particular, I would like to mention Oleg Khlevniuk’s Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator (2015), which was translated into more than a dozen languages and received several prestigious awards. Liudmila Novikova’s monograph about the Civil War in the North of Russia, An Anti-Bolshevik Alternative: The White Movement and the Civil War in the Russian North (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), was translated into English. Last year, Yale University Press published a book co-authored by Oleg Khlevniuk and Yoram Gorlizki, a professor at the University of Manchester, called Substate Dictatorship: Networks, Loyalty, and Institutional Change in the Soviet Union. It is a book about ‘little Stalins’, local Soviet leaders in the 1940s–1970s. And New Literary Observer published a Russian translation of a number of monographs by Michael David-Fox, Academic Supervisor of our Centre and Georgetown University professor: Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union (2014, Russian translation 2015), and Crossing Borders: Modernity, Ideology, and Culture in Russia and the Soviet Union (2015, Russian translation 2020).

Oleg Budnitskii
© HSE University

This year, a two-volume monograph on international relations during the First World War and the Russian Revolution was released: Russian International Relations in War and Revolution, 1914–22. It was edited by yours truly and our colleagues from Canada, the US and the UK. This is an example of international academic cooperation, part of a 20-volume series about Russia in that period called Russia’s Great War and Revolution. Specific chapters were written by researchers from different countries, from Australia to Japan, including (of course) authors from Russia.

Our Centre regularly publishes collections of documents from both Russian and foreign archives. Comparatively recent ones include Garvardsky Proekt: Rassekrechenniye Svidetelstva o Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voine (The Harvard Project: Declassified Evidence of the Great Patriotic War), 2018, and V Dvizhenii. Russkiye Evrei-Emigranti Nakanune i v Nachale Vtoroi Mirovoi Voini, 1938–1941 (In Motion: Russian Jewish Emigrants on the Eve and the Beginning of WWII), 2020. The latter book includes emigrant correspondence stored at the Bakhmeteff Archive at Columbia University. I would also like to highlight a four-volume book published last year, on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War (Russia’s involvement in WWII), dedicated to the history of the People’s Commissariat of Finance during the war, its operations, and the war record of the volunteer division consisting of Commissariat staff. We prepared this book together with the Federal Treasury. It includes documents from various Russian state archives, including ones specially declassified for this publication. The Centre’s research assistants—doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s students—actively participated in the preparation of this book.

— What does international laboratory status mean?

— Leading international scholars work under a distance contract at the Centre (now the Institute). The Centre’s academic supervisor is Michael David-Fox, an outstanding and passionate researcher and author of books on various aspects of Soviet history. He is currently working on a monograph about Smolensk during the Great Patriotic War. Our international staff includes Lynne Viola, a University of Toronto professor and expert in the history of the Russian peasantry and Stalinism, and Gennady Estraikh, a New York University professor whose key works are on the history and culture of Russian Jews. We have recently been joined by Marc Elie, senior researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and deputy director of the Centre for the Studies of Russia, the Caucasus and Central Europe (CNRS-EHESS). Marc’s research interests are late Soviet history and environmental history.

People marching from the Kremlin to the White House, Moscow, August 19, 1991
© Ivan Simochkin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Associated international researchers of the Centre/Institute include such renowned historians as Professor Stephen Kotkin, Princeton University, and Professor David Brandenberger, as well as our first postdoc, Seth Bernstein, who taught at HSE University for several years. Seth is now a University of Florida professor.

We enrol postdocs in our Centre/Institute annually on competitive basis. They are young researchers who have recently graduated from international universities, usually leading ones. They spend a year or two at the Centre. We focus on candidates’ personal research achievements regardless of where they graduated from, but it is often the case that they come from prestigious schools.

In the period of 2013–2020, our school welcomed 19 postdocs with PhD degrees from Princeton, Oxford, the University of Toronto, Georgetown, and others. Most of them went on to work at other good universities, while some started teaching at HSE University

The Centre is also involved in organizing major international research conferences. Before the pandemic, we used to hold them annually and with a competitive selection of speakers. We always had a lot more applications than places. We have also launched an international young researcher forum on Russian history and culture, to which we welcome doctoral students and early career scholars.

— How do you train your researchers?

— The Centre has always had an internship system. At first, the places were for bachelor’s students. Today, we have a ‘full house’ of doctoral, bachelor’s and master’s students. Sometimes, an internship is for a semester, but more often, interns stay until graduation and eventually become research fellows. We don’t sit on our hands—we ‘grow’ our own researchers from interns.

Interns participate in the Centre’s projects in different ways. An important part of young researchers’ training is going to external schools organized by the Centre, both abroad and as part of the Rediscovering Russia programme. Before the pandemic, we sent two interns a year on a six-week internship as assistant researchers at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The Museum’s Centre for Advanced Holocaust Studies has a unique archive and a specialized library, and renowned scholars work there. We organized a seminar for interns together with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and ran continuing education courses at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris for our staff and ‘advanced’ interns. We organized trips to Krakow, Warsaw, and Germany, where we studied museums and memorials dedicated to the victims of Nazi terror and genocide, and visited the Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald concentration camps.

In our trips across Russia, we combine visits to memorial sites with work in archives. We conducted summer schools in Rostov-on-Don and Novocherkassk on ‘The Don Land During Wars and Revolutions’, as well as in Arkhangelsk. The expedition to St. Petersburg and its neighbouring towns called ‘On Both Sides of the Siege Ring’ was, in my opinion, particularly successful.

— How intensive is the work of your interns and early career researchers?

— Some interns start publishing papers while they are still students, which is also the norm for doctoral students. Regarding thesis defence, our former interns and current researchers Yanina Karpenkina and Irina Makhalova defended their theses brilliantly. Irina graduated summa cum laude. They defended their theses at HSE University under the new rules, where papers are evaluated only by experts in the field who, by giving positive feedback, vouch for the quality of the work with their reputation. The texts of theses and reviews are available online. The dissertation committee consists of five individuals, including at least one scholar from another Russian university or research institute and at least one scholar from a foreign institution.

‘Detskiy Mir’ sales floor, Moscow, 1970
© Alexander Nevezhin / Commons: RIA Novosti

Irina Makhalova became the first of our students (in the first enrolment in the Faculty of History in 2010) to defend a Candidate of Sciences’ thesis. For her, the ‘full cycle’ took ten years. Irina graduated from a Humboldt University of Berlin master’s programme. I would like to draw attention to our young researchers’ language skills: Yanina Karpenkina speaks English, Polish, Belarussian and Ukrainian, and Irina Makhalova speaks German, English and French.

The Centre continues to grow not only thanks to our ‘home-schooled’ researchers—newer additions include Artyom Latyshev from MSU and Kristina Tanis from the European University in St. Petersburg. They initially came as interns, then became research fellows after defending their theses (which Kristina did last year). Recently, MSU graduate Alexander Golovlev returned to the Centre. He got his PhD at the European University Institute in Florence. Initially, he spent a year as our Russian postdoc and then carried out research in France and Austria. His topic is cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. It sounds exotic, but it was a trait of the era. Again, I would like to mention Alexander’s language skills: he speaks German, English, French, and Italian.

Our young researchers Yanina Karpenkina and Artyom Latyshev received grants from the Russian Science Foundation.

— The Centre has dealt with problems and periods of Russian history that are still highly controversial. Have you managed to avoid politicization of your research and attacks from activists?

— It would hardly make sense to tackle topics in which everything is clear and all the answers are already known.

History, of course, is its own kind of subject, and one that is sometimes used for political purposes

As Mikhail Pokrovsky, the Marxist historian, said, ‘History is politics spilled into the past’. But that has nothing to do with academic research or, accordingly, our Institute’s operations.

— Is it important for you to build awareness, to create a reasonably accurate image of the past in the public perception?

— I believe it is important for researchers in any area. For example, the situation with anti-vaxxers has clearly demonstrated the level of education in our society. The only ‘comforting’ fact is that this problem exists not only in our country. We do not set ourselves any special mission to enlighten everyone, and it would be impossible with our workload: all of the Institute’s researchers also teach.

However, noblesse oblige. The advantage of history over, for example, organic chemistry (I don’t mean to offend the chemists, so I’m sorry if I don’t understand it!) is that much more people are interested in it. But that is also its problem: everyone seems to know everything about history (as well as football or medicine). Researchers from our Institute are sought after in the media as commentators, consultants and sometimes experts on complex historical problems and periods. They regularly speak on the radio, TV, in printed and online media. The Institute’s website has an audio and video archive of our researchers’ media appearances.

In 2015, Oleg Khlevniuk received a Prosvetitel (enlightener) prize for the biography of Stalin mentioned before. Recent public education projects include last year’s work with Arzamas online media. One of the projects, supported by Russian Railways, was about railroads during the war, which I took part in. Another was Galina Orlova’s project ‘How the Atom Changed Our Lives’, which was one of the winners in the field of Cultural Studies of HSE’s first contest for popular science work. One of the winners in History and Art History was my book Terrorism v Rossiiskoi Imperii. Kratkii Kurs (Terrorism in the Russian Empire: A Brief Course) published by Eksmo. In spring, I published another popular science book, Lyudi na Voine (People in the War). It was published by New Literary Observer.

Railroads during the Great Patriotic War

— When did the idea to transform the Centre into an Institute come about?

— Initially, it was Yaroslav Kuzminov who came up with the idea to reorganize the Centre, to expand it by attracting students and young researchers. But then the pandemic broke out, and the process was delayed for over a year. There has also been a long-standing need to bring the Centre’s name in line with the contents of our work. We have long exceeded the scope of WWII/Great Patriotic War history, and such explanations as ‘everything that happened after the war can be seen as a consequence of it, and everything that happened before was a prelude to it’ are no longer adequate. For example, we had a big project on 1990s’ social history, which was supported by Yeltsin Centre, and it was a bit odd that it was run by the Centre of WWII History. Among other things, the work on this project demonstrated the high potential of our young researchers. They wrote some interesting papers on the perception of TV advertising, letters on war history to Radio Rossii, the development of domestic tourism and other topics.

The number of staff has grown considerably. The Centre started with three people: a director, a researcher, and a secretary. Today, we employ over 30 people, including interns, postdocs and associated researchers. Our growth has been ‘organic’: we have attracted people whose research interests were in line with the Centre’s research areas.

Initially, I started the Centre as an interdisciplinary one. Once it received international laboratory status, we employed Ilya Kukulin, a remarkable philologist and cultural scientist. Later, we also employed Galina Orlova, a researcher with a degree in psychology who investigates all sorts of things, and Kristina Tanis, a cinema researcher. As a consequence, we face the need for more specialization and the founding of separate departments.

— What departments will make up the Institute?

— Today, the Institute includes the HSE Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II, and the Centre of Socio-Political History. In the future, we are also going to create a Centre of Cultural History.

— What topics will be your priorities?

— The Institute’s key project is ‘Soviet Political, Social and Cultural Practices in the 1930s–1980s’, in which our researchers examine different problems. They study issues such as the evolution of governance practices (particularly in the wartime period), demographics and trends in the Red Army, the history of Soviet justice, and the history of Soviet cinema (including the role of trophy films in the post-war Soviet Union). This list, of course, is not complete.

Leonid Brezhnev after his speech at Plenary Session of the Komsomol Central Committee, Moscow, 1968
© Yury Ivanov / Commons: RIA Novosti

Another project implemented by the Centre/Institute is ‘The Soviet Model of Military Mobilization’. The Institute’s researchers also participate in the ‘Social Anthropology of Late Soviet Institutions’ project, which is co-chaired by Galina Orlova. She is also head of the RFBR project ‘The Energy of Socialism: Three Sources and Three Parts of the Soviet Sociotechnical Ideality’. These studies may appear to be unrelated to each other, but together, they recreate an image of the Soviet era—or, to put it more cautiously, part of it.

— What about the events of the war?

— Of course, the study of war history remains one of the mainstream areas of the Institute’s research. Importantly, we do not look at war history in a narrow sense—as a history of military operations, etc—but rather look at social history, the ‘human dimension’ of war, the history of institutions, governance practices during the war, and so on. For example, Oleg Klevniuk, head of the Centre of Socio-Political History, writes about the evolution of the military-political power system, about the correlation between centralization and decentralization under crisis governance.

My doctoral students, Vladislav Rybakov and Arseny Starkov, study Soviet justice in wartime. Vladislav is writing a thesis about the RSFSR Ministry of Justice, and Arseny is finishing his thesis on justice in the Urals during the wartime period. It was an important region, since dozens of enterprises and many thousands of employees were evacuated there. Doctoral student Timofey Medvedev is writing a thesis about NKVD destruction battalions, which were formed immediately after the war began, and which have not received proper attention from researchers, unlike the volunteer corps.

The doctoral students’ works are based on extensive archive materials made available as a result of the ‘archive revolution’. Liudmila Novikova, Deputy Director of the Institute, is studying the ‘meeting of two worlds’: communication between Soviet people and foreigners in Arkhangelsk during the war. She looks at informal contact between foreigners and Soviet citizens, particularly women. Liudmila has worked in Russian archives—including those in Arkhangelsk—and foreign ones, such as the US National Archives and the Imperial War Museums’ foundations in London, which contain the letters and journals of British soldiers who visited the Soviet Union as part of the Northern Convoys—routes that supplied lend-lease weapons and various materials. I am currently working on a history of volunteer corps. Last week, I published a paper about the ‘writer’s company’—the Krasnopresnenskaya intellectuals division of the volunteer corps.

— Why did you decide to include new periods in your studies?

— It is a natural process. Obviously, there is plenty left to study about the Soviet period. In many respects, it is not really in the past. One of my favourite quotes about history belongs to William Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead. It's not even past.’

The ‘archive revolution’ regarding the Soviet period is far from being complete. We have learned a lot about Soviet history thanks to the documents that are now available, as well as the ‘revolution of memory’: the publishing of a vast array of journals and memoirs written without any hope of publication. But we haven’t learnt everything

We understand that the ultimate aim of historical writing, once defined by Leopold von Ranke as ‘to bring before us the whole truth’, is an unachievable dream. However, to aspire to this dream based on the contemporary understanding of the tasks and capabilities of historical science is, dramatically speaking, the professional duty of every historian.

— Are you going to invite any new researchers?

— That depends on two things: being able to find people capable of writing research papers to international standards, and the budget. And we all know that budgets are always tough.

— Are you going to study the issues of historical memory, and the formation and evolution of mass perceptions of war?

— Yes, probably, although we don’t have any specific plans in this field yet. There are a lot of people in Russia and around the world who write about historical memory and mass perceptions. It feels like there are even more of them than there are people who work with archival sources. We base our writing on sources, we publish them and hope to continue this work.

— How harmful is the politicization of history to academic study? Is it an obstacle to archive work and contemplation of the past?

— Politicization is harmful to any academic field, not only history. However, there is a silver lining: sometimes, when politicians believe a certain historical period to be important, historians benefit from it. For example, when the history of the Great Patriotic War became the cornerstone of the ‘politics of memory’, it promoted the opening of military archives. Undoubtedly, the digitalization of the ‘Memorial’ database and its publication on the Ministry of Defence website was an important achievement: it contains information on the war dead, those who went missing and burial sites. The ‘Podvig Naroda’ (people’s heroism) and ‘Pamyat Naroda’ (people’s memory) databases, which contain scanned copies of millions of documents about war records, maps and commendations, have also been published. That said, archive declassification is happening at a much slower pace than we would like.

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