The latest author to answer our Q&A call is Michael David-Fox, author of the new book Crossing Borders: Modernity, Ideology, and Culture in Russia and the Soviet Union.
UPP: You’ve spent nearly two decades studying various aspects of Russian history. What intrigues you most about the region?
MDF: When I first got into Russian Studies I was captivated by the nineteenth-century intelligentsia and its classic thinkers, from Herzen to Lenin. I was drawn in by the “cursed questions” about Russia and the West and the role of the revolutionary movement. The Possessed is still my favorite Dostoevsky novel. There was something about the psychological intensity of these people, their commitment to transform themselves and to change Russia, which demanded an attempt to understand it. I’m hardly the only one to have caught the Russia bug that way. But when I look back, I realize that until very recently, when I started my latest book project on Smolensk province under Stalinist and Nazi rule, virtually all my scholarly works dealt with or in some way touched on that peculiar Russian-Soviet formation, the intelligentsia. It also plays a starring role in Crossing Borders, where I develop the concept of “intelligentsia-statist modernity” as a prism for understanding the Russian historical trajectory.
I started out in the field in the heady years of perestroika. Soviet reform and collapse led to what is known among historians in Russia as the “archival revolution,” the opening of formerly restricted or completely inaccessible archives. I ended up in the right place at the right time. In the fall of 1990, for example, as a PhD student researching my dissertation, I was one of the first foreigners ever admitted to the sanctum sanctorum of the communist archival system, the former Central Party Archive of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism. At the time, the Soviet period had never been studied by Western historians on the basis of large quantities of archival documents. There was a huge amount that we simply did not know, and it seemed like the area where I could make the greatest contribution. I was also fascinated by the inner-party struggles of 1920s, when it seemed like the future of the Bolshevik Revolution hung in the balance. That’s when I first became a serious student of the complex and byzantine Soviet political system, the party-state. In part, this required a lot of archival detective work. I fell in love with the thrill of the archival chase, the aspect of the research that is something like putting together a jigsaw puzzle—you gather a piece that only fits in with others much later, when you match it to the adjacent pieces.
Soon thereafter, my interests in politics, culture, and ideology led to a long-term engagement with trying to understand Stalinism, which over time has commanded much of my attention. It is not just that the political violence and despotic catastrophes of the Stalin period form an important part of the twentieth century. It is also one of the most puzzling and complex historical phenomena. Stalinism was so constant and even linear in the development of its dictatorial political methods, but it changed drastically in social, cultural, and ideological terms, lurching from crisis to unintended crisis. The statist-revolutionary class warfare of the early Stalin years was radically different from the nationalistic-patriotic, hierarchical, and bureaucratic system of the late 1940s, but both are component parts of Stalinism.
I have to say, though, that much of what interests me about Russian history concerns topics that illuminate other countries as well. For example, if you spend a lot of time trying to understand the forces shaping the Russian Revolution, you can learn a lot about revolutions in general, you have an entrée into fields of study such as comparative revolutions, and you can apply what you learn about the historical dynamics of a complex upheaval. I have moved away from “only” being a historian of Russia, or at least of Russia in isolation. I wrote a book about Western visitors to the Soviet Union that involved looking at transnational history and both the European/American and Russian/Soviet sides of the equation. I have a special interest in Russian-German relations, broadly conceived, and the entangled history of fascism and communism. I also spend a lot of time in Russia and can’t help but follow the direction of Putin’s Russia. I think immersion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gives perspectives not only on what remains the same in Russia, but what is different today.
UPP: What do you think would surprise the average American about Russia, in relation to the theme of your new book?
MDF: Well, to pick up right where I left off in the last question, much of the press coverage of Russia in the U.S. and the conventional picture of it has to do with how Russia is perpetuating archaic holdovers from the past, with how backwards Russia is, and with how everything in Russia is, once you scratch the surface, eternally the same. My book lays out a different, historical understanding, one rooted in the notion that Russia was not at all uniformly “backward” and that the Soviet Union was in fundamental ways modern. Being modern doesn’t always mean being more advanced than the leading great powers, and Russia and the USSR did struggle to keep up in the international system in all sorts of ways. There were also two major state breakdowns in the twentieth century, in 1917 and 1991, and this testifies to the failures of first the tsarist and then the communist systems. That said, I approach the question of continuities—and now we have to grapple with continuities across tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia— as a complicated issue for analysis. I don’t see Russian history as a story of endless repetition. So this book is about the emergence of a particular form of modernity, one that for a time commanded the attention of the entire world, but one that simply could not sustain itself over time.
By the same token, I see in Putin’s Russia today certain emulations of the Soviet tradition and evidence of how much the world-views of some political actors were shaped by Soviet legacies, but also differences with the past. For example, the Soviet Union made major investments into controlling and supporting culture and science; the intelligentsia, however repressed, formed part of a highly privileged elite. The intelligentsia-statist modernity I describe in the book, in this sense, did not survive 1991. The statist part has grown stronger, but the intelligentsia component is largely confined to the dustbin of history. The old intelligentsia drive to transform and edify oneself and others, as it was launched in the nineteenth century, does not really square with the cynicism, corruption, and “postmodern” relativism of today’s Russia. Moscow today is developing a very different kind of ideology, much of it cobbled from the nationalist tradition, although it is still nascent, highly instrumental, and rather incoherent. But whatever you call it, it has a number of different implications from the guiding political orientations and mobilizing strategies of the past. As I say somewhere in the book, the more things change in Russian history, the more they do not always remain the same.
UPP: Why do you think one of the advance reviewers of the book described you as “conceptually daring and an innovative thinker?”
MDF: That is more for the readers and reviewers than for me to judge, I would think. But I will say something about the genre of this book, which actually differs quite a bit from a conventional historical study. Not that there is anything wrong with convention; there is a reason historians prize detailed, empirical work, and a reason historians tend to start their academic careers by publishing on focused topics (which can, however, can still have large conceptual payoffs). I’ve done a lot of that kind of work myself. But it often happens that when historians broaden out, they turn either to textbooks or big, synthetic histories, which can get a lot of public attention but sometimes are fairly unadventurous in terms of the material they present. In this book I set out to try to do something different and, I think, more unusual. I wrote a book of essays that are interpretive and conceptual, and more than a few of them cover a lot of ground, chronologically and otherwise. I would hesitate to call them “theoretical,” since the kind of people who write theory often operate on levels of abstraction and a density of presentation that are not present here. These interpretive essays are historically grounded, and frequently present original evidence along the way. I write as a practicing historian stepping back and trying, more systematically than is normally possible, to interpret the big issues that I have been grappling with for a long time. I would add, finally, that those areas I am investigating—modernity, ideology, and culture, to use the book’s subtitle—speak to people working in many different areas, not only historians, and to people interested in many parts of the world, not only Russia.
UPP: What does your honorary professorship at Samara State University in Russia entail?
MDF: Actually, that is a purely honorific title. It is the Russian equivalent of an honorary degree, which is, literally translated, an “honorary title of professor.” So all it entails is placing a handsome leather booklet embossed with this title on my shelf at home. But there is a story behind it. Back in the 1990s, when I was at the University of Maryland, my colleague George Majeska and I ran an academic exchange with Samara for several years. A number of graduate students and young university teachers from the mid-Volga region in Russia sat in on my classes, and we visited them. This was when I was recently out of grad school myself. I am still in touch with a couple of them who have gone on to do interesting work. At the time, in the years following the fall of communism, a lot of foundations became fashionably interested in Russia and the former Soviet space and funded a lot of projects that (we thought at the time) involved little more than “academic tourism.” We wanted to do something more lasting. Working closely with colleagues in Samara, we introduced and translated what amounted to three substantial volumes of classic short historical works called “American Russian Studies” (Amerikanskaia rusistika). With help from former US ambassador to Russia James Collins, these volumes were distributed to libraries all across Russia. The translations were widely cited by Russian historians, and I hear the books are still used in classrooms in Russia.
I should mention as a postscript, perhaps, that I now have what is very much a non-honorific position as a “scholarly advisor” and visiting professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, one of Russia’s best and most international universities, where I spend at least 60 days a year teaching and conducting my current research on World War II. In virtually every project that I have ever done, I’ve gotten advice, tips, archival leads and invaluable information from my Russian colleagues. That continues really without break today despite the wave of xenophobia and anti-Americanism that have been getting play among nationalists and in the official media. Whatever happens politically, however, I believe academic, scientific, and cultural exchanges with Russia will be more important than ever.
UPP: Among the courses you’ve taught is one called “Russia in the Age of Dr. Zhivago.” Can you tell us some of the highlights of that course?
MDF: This course is an attempt to show how history illuminates literature, but also how a great work of literature can illuminate history. It also comes out of my obsession with the Russian intelligentsia that I talked about before. Students read Pasternak’s entire novel, which is long, over 500 pages. In conjunction with that, there are three other components to the course. First, with each section of the novel, students read scholarly works about the historical context needed to understand it—not just, for example, the Eastern Front in World War I, the Revolution of 1917, or the Russian Civil War, but more specific topics connected to the material in the novel, such as the medical profession in late imperial Russia or the “green” movement between the Whites and the Reds. The second part of the course is an examination of Pasternak’s biography and his complicated existence in the Soviet period from the 1920s to the 1950s. This also illuminates major features of the novel, which is more than a little autobiographical. This section of the course involves looking at not only how much Pasternak differed from so many Socialist Realist writers and poets in the Soviet period, but also how he was shaped by all his years in the Soviet literary field. Finally, the third component has to do with cultural politics and the circumstances in which the novel was published during Khrushchev’s Thaw, when it was smuggled out to Italy, Pasternak had to renounce his Nobel Prize, and he was subject to a vicious cultural campaign.
But that’s all about how history illuminates literature. How can literature illuminate history? Doctor Zhivago is not only about one individual but was intended by Pasternak to present the story of a generation of the intelligentsia, how it came of age after the turn of the century and lived through total war, revolution, civil war, and the new Soviet regime. Zhivago himself represents Pasternak’s idea of the old Russian intelligentsia. As such, the novel is a primary source. It conveys Pasternak’s retrospective, Soviet-era look at the old Russian intelligentsia, one that could have only been formed by someone who experienced Stalinism. But it was also written by someone who had taken part in the events of the novel himself.
In part because the novel was banned in the Soviet period, in part because of its strong religious imagery, the work has enjoyed a great revival in contemporary Russia. My students even read some of the Pasternak commentary by the writer and critic Dmitry Bykov—whom we would call a public intellectual, but is also, I would say, one of the most talented representatives of the Russian intelligentsia tradition left today. The Russian state today is not enmeshed with the ethos of the intelligentsia, as I claim it was in the early Soviet period, and due to both economic and political reasons it has adopted an overtly anti-intellectual cast. But it is not impossible that the Russian intelligentsia will gain strength again in different incarnations, perhaps even sooner than one might expect. One of the liveliest conversations I had with my students in this course was about the subtitle of the historian Vladislav Zubok’s marvelous book on the civic revival that Pasternak helped spark during the Thaw. That book is entitled Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia. Was it really the last? But the future is a topic for a different conversation and another time.