Sunday, June 14, 2015

Two Historians Talking


The two 1855 photographs by Crimean War photographer Roger Fenton of the battlefield that inspired Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" poem, one showing cannonballs strewn across the road and one without, have provoked discussion about how history is recorded. 

I once came across the podcast New Books In Russian Studies so I tried a few. The host was Marshall Poe, a college professor who teaches and writes book about Russian history -- a Russian historian, in other words -- based most recently at the University of Iowa who interviewed other professors about books in Russian history they'd recently written. Sometimes it was a book about the gulag under Stalin, sometimes about the administration of the Russian government under the czars, then maybe a book about how Neoliberal privatization has been difficult to implement in Russia in the post Soviet era because of things like the fact that entire cities were built during the Soviet era without electricity meters.

The time frame of the books jumped around. Poe interviewed the authors after he'd read the books, but how he chose them I didn't know. But I became a big fan. I of course have an interest in Soviet Socialism but also in Russian history itself after having read or listened to many of the classics by the famous Russian novelists.

Poe would always get the author to give us a good synopsis of the book, and also ask how they'd become interested in the topic and researched the book. They'd sometimes trade stories about navigating what are apparently vast Russian archives flung across that huge country and are often housed in the dusty basements of provincial office buildings, and of dealing with notoriously cranky Russian archivists, and of sometimes being pointed toward fascinating stories by those same archivists. Poe, who is of course an expert in the Russian history field, would often zero in on something in the book and they'd discuss it at length. Aware of controversies surrounding certain things Poe would sometimes make the author defend conclusions they'd come to.

The podcast delighted me not only for what I learned about Russia and the USSR but about how "scholarship" is done. How is research done, what the author's interests and biases have to do with the picture that evolves from their research. Historic research is a "scientific" process but it has that personal element, that must be taken into account whenever you're reading anything anyone has written, or says. Like all of those things, research in history is also part of a larger process, an argument among historians and the broader public over what specific events mean and about what larger concepts mean, and of our own inquest into the meaning of life.

You might be aware, for instance, of an ongoing debate among historians over what role the German people actually played in the Holocaust. How active were they? How anti semitic was the general German public? Were they willing participants? Or victims themselves of Nazi propaganda and terror tactics? This debate is ongoing via books and articles being published by historians, and in news media coverage of the books and articles. The implications of an argument like that should be obvious to us, as we debate how our government uses the ongoing "war on terror" for various means; to promote certain policies or increase domestic surveillance or to militarize local police forces, and ongoing debate about whether there even is a terrorist threat to the "US Homeland" and if not, what that means.

Likewise there's a debate ongoing about what the USSR actually was and it affects the ongoing debate about the merits of Capitalism and "the American way." in the USA our picture of the USSR and, by design, of Socialism, is shaped primarily by Cold War propaganda put out by the US government and politicians and by Capitalism and the Capitalist media, which of course all were deathly afraid of what the USSR represented -- namely the potential for the people here, us, to take control of the economy and of the reigns of power.

In the years since the Soviet Union dissolved the Russian archives have again become open to western scholars and a different picture is gradually emerging of the USSR. Of, for example, the Stalin era. Claims we've always heard of millions being murdered or left to starve in the gulags have some basis in fact but are also being shown to have been wild exaggerations and even fabrications, kindling of course renewed debate over what many had hoped were settled conclusions about the supposed horrors of Soviet Socialism.

But also, the belief long held by Leftists that Lenin was the good guy but Stalin came along and messed things up is being challenged, as historians are arguing that Lenin also had an authoritarian style and actually originated the dictatorial nature of Russian Communist Party rule.

New Books About All Kinds Of Things

As it happens New Books In Russian Studies (now New Books In Russian and Eurasian Studies) is one many New Books podcasts called collectively the New Books Network, which his Wikipedia article credits Poe with founding and which, since I've become aware of it, has expanded from a few areas to include many, and even has interviews with authors of books outside the traditional range of historiography. For instance I noticed an interview with Rory Carroll about his book about Hugo Chavez. I've written about Carrol, formerly Latin American correspondent for The Guardian, who covered Venezuela from the Caracas Country Club and never met a Socialist or socialist policy he couldn't hate without having to look into it and still makes his living trashing Venezuela's socialist government.

The New Books interviews, though, are a delight, especially, for me, those still done by Poe who administers the entire network but still does some interviews. I don't always agree with Poe, who is a former Leftist who has become somewhat conservative, but he's a very good interviewer and has an appealing often self effacing sense of humor. It's interesting to hear a former Leftist who's trending conservative explain himself. It's in some ways a self critique, a means of examining ones own assumptions and convictions and especially the basis of one's own idealism. As an example, Poe sees the failures of the Soviet Union and its leaders that are being discovered or verified by new research as proof that that system failed and not so much as a way to understand why it failed, to put it in general terms.

I've grown to especially enjoy the interviews where he takes other veterans in the field of Russian studies, or German studies, where Poe is also an expert, off into discussions about the various debates going on among historians, such as his interview with Robert Gellately of Florida State or with Mark Mazower of Columbia, both accessible here, which ended up having not a lot to do with the books but more about what they say about the eras they covered and about the nature and politics of historiography.

If you have iTunes on a computer or a cell phone the New Books podcasts are easy to find in that format, and also are at the New Books Network web site.

From the New Books Network web site:

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