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‘The Death of Others': the myth and reality of suicide in the German Democratic Republic

By Blog Admin, on 27 November 2014

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison, by Denis Apel (cc-by)

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison,
by Denis Apel (cc-by)

An award-winning film reinforces the gap between perceptions of the GDR and its more complex reality, finds Udo Grashoff.

I was about to leave my flat as the phone rang… I picked up; a woman, who introduced herself as the assistant of a West German filmmaker, required my urgent assistance. It was about a funeral oration in a film set in the GDR in the 1980s. In the film, a Stasi officer was assigned to spy on a playwright, Georg Dreyman.  At the funeral oration for a colleague who has committed suicide, Dreyman accuses the GDR authorities of coldheartedly ignoring people who commit suicide. He claims that the state stopped compiling suicide statistics in 1977.

I was consulted on the dates and facts, which made sense as I wrote my doctoral thesis on suicide in the GDR. What I had to explain to the filmmaker’s assistant was rather complicated. Except for the period between 1956 and 1962 suicide statistics were not published in the statistical yearbooks. However, the ‘State Central Bureau for Statistics’ recorded suicides with Prussian accuracy, but kept them a state secret. Besides, in 1968 the GDR Ministry of Health launched a strategy for the prevention of suicide. Two suicide prevention centres were founded. Although there was no public discussion of suicide, there was a limited, if diminishing, coverage of the issue in professional journals. From 1977, even specialists could not access data.

This is not the same as to suggest, as Dreyman does in the film, that statistics on suicide were no longer being kept, but given the context – in 1986, a GDR citizen simply could not know what could only be researched after the Wall came down – I advised leaving the eulogy as it was.

This was in around 2005, and only much later did I realise that I had taken part in the making of ‘The Lives of Others’. To my surprise, the film became a worldwide hit. ‘The Lives of Others’ has shaped the image of the East German dictatorship much more than any scholarly book on the GDR history. The film was praised as highly authentic and historically accurate. Locations like the Stasi prison in Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen were used; details of everyday life in the GDR and especially in the art scene were meticulously reconstructed.

Of course, not everyone bought the story. Slavoj Žižek said that the film failed to show the ‘true horror’ of the dictatorial system. Mary Fulbrook complained that the story did not ‘present the GDR in all its complexities’. Anna Funder doubted that a Stasi officer would have been able to log in false information into Stasi files in order to protect a victim. Read the rest of this entry »

Bulgaria’s new coalition: A rainbow without colours

By Blog Admin, on 16 November 2014

Bulgaria’s newly formed coalition government seems to span left and right. However, in practice it offers a familiar mix of nationalism and neo-liberalism, argues James Dawson.

Bulgaria’s newly-formed coalition, comprised of the pro-European rightists of GERB and the Reformist Bloc, ex-President Parvanov’s ‘leftist’ ABV and the ultranationalist Patriotic Front might look like an unlikely alliance of ideologically incompatible parties – an apparent case of what the political scientist Thomas Carothers once termed ‘feckless pluralism’.

Certainly, this has been the angle taken by many commentators inside the country who puzzle at the ability of political actors routinely labelled ‘pro-European’, ‘right-wing’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘nationalist’ to work together. Yet such analyses rest on the flawed assumption that these labels reflect clearly articulated, meaningfully differentiated policy platforms helping citizens to identify with specific ideas.

In practice, this is a perfectly dull coalition consisting only of parties that are functionally both neo-liberal and nationalist, along with the now customary support of some shouting-at-the-TV-type xenophobes (though the role played by Ataka in the previous two governments will now be filled by the Patriotic Front).

If it is now difficult to discern one political platform from another, then it follows that many, probably most, votes are cast on the basis of non-programmatic appeals. Charismatic and clientelistic dynamics almost certainly explain why voter turnout remains quasi-respectable (over 50%) in a context of mass protest and disillusionment. Yet though ideas and policies may not decide the outcome of Bulgarian elections, they still matter: politicians must do something when given control of the state. The path of least resistance in Bulgaria has usually been to combine neo-liberalism and nationalism. It is unlikely that this government will buck the trend.

Neo-liberal ideas have never become a popular narrative across the country – most Bulgarians remain preoccupied with getting by and are not identifiable in terms of economic policy orientations. However, the arguments of the right have gradually assumed the position of a shared ‘common sense’ among influential urban demographics. In part, this can be explained by the preferences of the oligarchic networks that dominate media ownership.

However, the victory of neo-liberalism owes just as much to the actions of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has for over two decades used leftist rhetoric to mask its collusion in the enrichment of these same oligarchs, both through business-friendly policies (such as the famous 10% flat corporation tax) and old-style corruption. Read the rest of this entry »

Ukraine: Why Russian perspectives should be heard

By Blog Admin, on 14 November 2014

Throughout the Ukraine crisis there has been persistent criticism from the West that the Russian media have intentionally presented misleading information on the conflict.

However, Joanna Szostek argues while there are legitimate concerns about the reporting of organisations such as the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT, banning or excluding Russian perspectives from the Western media would be counter-productive.

On 31 October a conference took place at the University of Cambridge to discuss ‘Ukraine and the Global Information War’. The event brought journalists, activists and academics together to reflect on media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, with the problem of propaganda a particular concern. Several speakers represented organisations that have been working to expose disinformation in the Russian media and counter the Russian narrative of events in Ukraine more generally.

Russia’s international propaganda machine is so powerful, insidious and dangerous, argued some of these speakers, that much tougher measures are needed to block its effects. Calls were voiced for RT, Russia’s state-funded broadcaster aimed at international audiences, to be outlawed. Other participants suggested that Western news outlets should be freed from the usual requirement to ‘report both sides’ on the basis that the Russian ‘side’ is largely derived from falsehoods, so repeating it merely serves the Kremlin’s aim of muddying the waters. One eminent historian complained that the BBC’s Ukraine coverage had been ‘particularly irritating’ with its rigid commitment to ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism.

Some of the untrue stories disseminated by Russian television during the conflict in Ukraine have certainly been outrageous and the activists who volunteer their time and energy debunking fabrications deserve respect and support. Incessant Russian talk of the ‘fascist coup’ in Kyiv must infuriate the millions who joined Euromaidan out of a genuine desire to make their country less corrupt and more democratic.

Nevertheless, to ban RT or exclude the ‘Russian perspective’ from news reports would be counterproductive: it would serve only to reinforce impressions of Western hostility and ‘double standards’ in the eyes of the Russian public. Read the rest of this entry »

Ukraine’s ambivalent future

By Blog Admin, on 4 November 2014

Events in Ukraine have polarised opinion, but the country’s present and future are best understood as  permeated by ambivalence, argues Alena Ledeneva.

The situation in Ukraine might grasped best by a specialist on geopolitics, a scholar of the (il)legitimacy of power, an ethnographer of insurgencies, an analyst of media propaganda wars, a trauma therapist, or by a psychologist of phobias and love-hate relationships. I have none of these specialisms, but I share their intellectual challenge: the theme of ambivalence.

As ‘East’ and ‘West’ embark on another cycle of ideological confrontation and political standoff, there is little room left for marginal positions or ambivalent attitudes. As the outside world lashes out at Putin over the Crimea and East Ukraine, Russians turn wartime patriotic. Yet paradoxically, exactly because it is impossible to achieve a consensus – and because the black-and-white positions over the Crimea and east Ukraine split families, friendships, and international clubs – it is the understanding of grey areas and backgrounds that may help define the way forward for Ukraine.

One legacy shared by most survivors of oppressive political regimes is what George Orwell called ‘‘doublethink’’ – which Yury Levada and Alexander Zinoviev branded as being the key feature of Homo sovieticus. Under late socialism, when present-day elites in Russia and Ukraine were growing up, it was irrelevant whether people believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to officialdom became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on ‘nonofficial’ practices.

Individual doublethink developed into collective double standards that implied the ability to hold contradictory views in private and in public and the capacity to switch between them smoothly, when applied to ‘us’ and ‘them,’ to ‘ordinary citizens’ and to the Party leaders, and to one’s personal circle and to society as a whole.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, as defined by Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded. The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours.

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defined ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category. Bauman views it as a language-specific disorder, with its main symptom being the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions.

Those who have detailed knowledge of the geography and the economic history of Ukraine or have done exhaustive research on the conflicting accounts on the current situation end up developing symptoms of ambivalence Read the rest of this entry »

“This is clearly not just about Ukraine, but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole neighbourhood”

By Blog Admin, on 20 October 2014

Wilson UCWIMFTW coverAndrew Wilson  discusses his new book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for The West with SSEES Research Blog.

SRB: You made a trip to Ukraine when writing this book. Could you tell us about your experiences there?

AW: When I was there, it struck me as a good idea that there was a book in all this. The previous time I was in Ukraine was in November last year, just before the protests started. But by February, it was also pretty clear that things were getting exciting and heading to some kind of denouement. So what do you do? You just go.

I arrived in the middle of an old fashioned revolution. I remember a human chain collecting cobblestones. At the front you had young guys chucking them at the militia, but the human chain was made up of the entire citizenry of Kiev – well dressed women in high heels coming from the office, the grandmother at the front still holding her shopping in a blue plastic bag. It was like a nineteenth century revolution between the citizens and the evil rulers, a bit like Les Miserables.

The book went to press really quickly, but hopefully, I can put some pictures in the second edition.

SRB: You refer to the Orange Revolution as a precedent to the Ukraine crisis. To what extent do you see this crisis is a continuation of the 2004 Orange Revolution?

AW: Well, the protesters clearly had that in mind. Initially they were copying the tactics of the Orange Revolution and it started in the same way – a peaceful, carnival-like protest. But people were also thinking of how to do it better. It was clear very early on during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that the regime wasn’t capable of using violence, whereas this time the regime did use violence–but did so very early and not sufficiently to put an end to things. So had a very early set of calculations with how to deal with a very different regime.

Ultimately the tragedy is that immediately after the uprising there was a sense of optimism that Ukraine was doing better this time but it never got the chance to show that because people were still learning lessons from the disappointments that followed the Orange Revolution.

SRB: Do you think in the immediate future that the Russia’s hegemony will dictate the political paths of countries in Eastern Europe?

AW: We can see Russia trying to influence all its neighbours, not just Ukraine. The bigger picture is a pretty scary one. If it is true that the countries that reformed fairly successfully in the 1990s in Central Europe were able to do so only because Russia was not really able prevent them, whereas Russia is now so able to do so here –that’s a pretty depressing conclusion.

It’s not just Ukraine but other countries that might be unable to reform or undertake the EU-friendly policies that Brussels wants; Moldova is a big test case with the election coming up, Georgia is a very interesting case too, because it has already reformed but under Russian pressure is now backsliding a bit. We can also see the reintroduction of a more Russian political culture – back to corruption, patronage, political prosecutions. The Baltic States are an important test case too because they’re in EU and NATO, but will that protect them from Russian pressure?

What’s more, this is clearly not just about Ukraine but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole  neighbourhood. Long- term I think Russia is over extended, so it would be able make trouble everywhere, but it can probably make trouble in two countries at once. Read the rest of this entry »

Latvia’s elections: Can there be harmony without Harmony?

By Blog Admin, on 8 October 2014

Latvia held parliamentary elections on 4 October. Licia Cianetti writes that while the elections saw Harmony – the centre-left party representing the country’s Russian-speaking minority – win the most seats, the results will most likely see the incumbent government led by the centre-right Unity party continue in power. The steady fall in turnout experienced in recent elections also suggests that despite backing the ruling parties, Latvian citizens are far from content with the status quo.

The parliamentary elections that took place in Latvia on 4 October did not hold many surprises and are likely to return the incumbent governing coalition to power. The results, announced by the electoral commission soon after the closing of the polls, saw the Russophone-friendly, centre-left party Harmony once again in first place, with 23 per cent of the vote and 24 of the 100 seats in the Saeima (the Latvian parliament).

This is a bitter first place, though, as the party lost 7 seats compared to the last elections in 2011. The governing, centre-right party Unity came a close second with a little less than 22 per cent of the vote and 23 seats. This is an increase from 20 seats in the last elections, but also shows that the merger with the disbanded Reform Party (which in 2011 got second place with 22 seats) did not bring significant electoral returns.

The nationalist National Alliance (NA), also in the incumbent government, had their best result yet with almost 17 per cent of the vote and 17 seats, up from 14. The other governing party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS) also had a strong showing with 19.5 per cent of the vote and 21 MPs (up from 13 in the previous election). Alongside these four parties, which were all represented in the outgoing Saeima, two new parties entered parliament: No Sirds Latvijai (From the heart of Latvia, NSL) and Latvijas Reģionu Apvienība (Latvian Association of Regions, LRA). NSL gained just under 6.9 per cent of the vote and 7 parliamentary seats. LRA gained just under 6.7 per cent of the vote and 8 seats (the distribution of the votes by constituency accounts for the less-than-proportional seat distribution). The Table below shows the full results.

Table: Results of the 2014 Latvian parliamentary election

Note: Vote shares have been rounded to one decimal place. There are 100 seats in the Latvian Parliament. For more information on the parties see: Harmony, Unity, Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), National Alliance (NA), From the Heart of Latvia (NSL), Latvian Association of Regions (LRA).Source: CVK

Six out of the 13 parties that contested the elections, therefore, entered parliament. Of those that remained out of the Saeima, the ethnic party Latvia’s Russian Union (LRU, formerly For Human Rights in a United Latvia) was the most successful with a little less than 1.6 per cent, but still far from the 5 per cent threshold. Another notable ‘loser’ of these elections was the (in)famous oligarch Ainārs Šlesers’s new formation Vienoti Latvijai (United for Latvia), which lined up a list of former ministers and prime ministers but garnered less than 1.2 per cent of the vote. Neither party was present in the outgoing parliament and neither was expected to make it into the new Saeima, according to pre-electoral polls. The results of the European Parliament elections in May (when LRU unexpectedly retained its MEP), however, indicated that surprises could not be completely ruled out. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Our dear Georgii Ivanovich’: an American journalist between Siberia and the Russian emigration

By Blog Admin, on 1 October 2014

Society of Friends of Russian Freedom flyer, from the LSE archives.

Society of Friends of Russian Freedom flyer.
LSE archives. Reproduced with permission

Archives in Moscow, London and Washington DC reveal the story of an American writer’s influence on the Russian revolutionary emigration, finds postgraduate Ben Phillips.

In a letter to the executive committee of the revolutionary populist group Narodnaia volia (People’s Will) in March 1882, the writer and sometime revolutionary terrorist Sergei Kravchinskii (better known by his nom de plume, Stepniak) insisted that the emigration to the West – then in its third and final stage before the events of 1917 – should conduct two distinct propagandas: one, characterised by revolutionary socialism, amongst the Russian youth, the other focused on stirring humanitarian outrage against the iniquities of Russian politics amongst the European bourgeoisie. ‘We can expect no sympathy in the name of our socialism’, he wrote. ‘We must acquaint Europe not with our political programme, but with the current state of the revolutionary struggle’ (Valk 1965, p. 345).

For years, the emigration was Janus-faced. Looking west, Russia’s political outcasts at once presented themselves as moderate liberals and democratic socialists to the European bourgeoisie, whilst introspectively debating the merits of revolutionary terrorism and engaging with theoretical questions. In this context, the story of George Kennan, with his web of contacts and personal friendships extending between the emigration and Siberia’s community of political exiles, and his writings on the Siberian exile system that were translated into Russian and disseminated illegally across Russia almost before they had appeared in English, remains one of the underexplored curiosities of revolutionary history. How did an American journalist come to transcend the audiences to which the emigration had previously spoken in two different languages and two different registers?

A distant cousin of his Cold War namesake, Kennan’s interest in Russia dated back to the 1860s, when a two-year visit to the Kamchatka peninsula provided material for Tent Life in Siberia (1877). However, it was his second visit to Russia’s eastern domains in the mid-1880s that cemented Kennan’s legacy. From 1885 to 1886, Kennan’s research on the Siberian exile system exposed him to the worst iniquities of Tsarist autocracy and brought him into contact with many political prisoners with whom he remained friends. His damning findings were serialised by Century Magazine at the end of the 1880s and early 1890s, creating a sensation across the Anglophone world. During this time, he frequented the American lecture circuit, and was recognised as his country’s preeminent Russianist. His magnum opus, Siberia and the Exile System, appeared in two volumes in 1891 and remains his best known work as well as a significant source for those working on the history of Siberian exile.

Kennan reached different audiences in different ways. Thomas M. Barrett has argued that it was through his American lectures, ‘more than anywhere else, that Kennan reached his public and became a celebrity’ (Stolberg 2005, p. 139). His oratory drew heavily on American melodramatic traditions and sensationalist representations of Siberia as a Ruritanian wilderness populated by terrifying natives and the exiled nobility of Russia’s western borderlands. Kennan’s trick was to add politics to the melodrama, along with a heavy dose of self-regarding chauvinism. Night after night, Kennan turned out the lights for magic lantern displays of political prisoners’ photographs, sang prison songs, disappeared mid-lecture only to return dressed as a Siberian convict and, on at least one occasion, reduced an audience to tears with an (unverified) anecdote of prisoners in a Petersburg forwarding prison flying the American flag to celebrate July 4th. (See Travis 1990.)Thus it is clearly true that in one sense Kennan tells us far more about American liberalism at the end of the nineteenth century than he does about Russia. One can relate the figure of the political exile in Kennan’s writings and his lectures to the role of refugees from the 1848 revolutions in the mid-Victorian consciousness: both represented mirrors on the self.

In another sense, however, Kennan was a fully fledged member of the revolutionary movement. His Read the rest of this entry »

How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia

By Blog Admin, on 21 July 2014

A satirical recipe book offers unusual insights into seventeenth-century Russia, says Clare Griffin.

One of the big questions for me when reading recipes is, did anyone actually use these? This is always a tricky point, especially when we consider the range of ‘recipes’ and recipe collections out there. One group of texts which circulated in early modern Russia, usually referred to as the ‘Satirical Leechbooks’, gives an interesting perspective.

Moscow's Foreign Quarter

Moscow’s Foreign Quarter, by Adam Olearius.
Via Wikimedia Commons

The most well-known starts like this:

A leechbook for foreigners.

A leechbook by Russian people, how to heal foreigners and people of their land; [using] very appropriate medicines from various and expensive ingredients.

 

 

 

 

The ingredients mentioned in this leechbook are odd:

- Part of a white bridge

- Chopped women’s folk dancing

- Light-colored screeching of a cart

- A fat eagle’s flight

- The voice of a bass violin

Bridge theft aside, these ingredients seem difficult to source. Would the peddler of the famous Russian folk song Korobeiniki – better known to non-Slavicists as ‘the Tetris song’ – have had such wares in his tray? It seems unlikely.

Korobeiniki (Peddlers)

Korobeiniki (Peddlers). Via Wikimedia Commons

 

Some of the accompanying therapeutic activities also seem unrealistic:

– Sweat for three days naked in ice

– Rise early, just after vespers

 

Reading these recipes, it does seem that the author might not have been entirely serious about healing his foreign patient; indeed, ‘healing’ itself here seems to be a joke, although the foreigner might not have seen it like that. The text itself notes: ‘those it does not kill it will surely heal’ – not perhaps the most assuring of claims. The ‘very appropriate medicines’ mentioned in the introduction really seem to be ‘just desserts’ for the foreigners as prescribed by a less-than welcoming Russian.

The text also seems to be mocking medicine in general. In seventeenth-century Russia, official court medicine was practiced by Western European medical practitioners, often using Western European medical books available in Latin and other foreign languages. This use of foreigners and foreign medicine seems to be the focus of the ‘joke’ being made here.

So, these recipes are more for entertainment than therapy, a type of recipe found across Europe, but do they actually tell us anything about Russian medicine? Perhaps happily for any sickly foreigners in seventeenth-century Russia, the Leechbook for Foreigners was not the only medical-style text available in Russia; by the 1700s, there were several medical recipe books circulating in Russia, and in Russian, which a rather kinder healer of foreigners would have selected.

In fact, the unknown author of the Leechbook for Foreigners seems to have been rather familiar with such texts. Leaving aside his idiosyncratic collection of ingredients, his recipes do make sense in the context of a medical recipe: he uses the same kinds of measures, and recommends combining ingredients in the same way, as ‘serious’ medical books of the time. On one level, this seems to be a part of his mocking of healing: by aping a format, he derides it as ridiculous. But on another level, it reveals that he has in fact read such recipes, in order to be sufficiently familiar with them to parody them. Our anonymous author may not have approved of foreigners and their foreign healing, but he seemed well versed in what he criticised.

This post was first published on The Recipes Project, and is republished here with permission. The fourth in a series of posts on Russian recipes on The Recipes Project, previous posts have introduced early modern Russia, and given advice on how to feed our servants, and how to get over hangovers.

Clare Griffin studied Russian History at UCL-SSEES, and is now a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

The SSEES Research Blog will return in September.

Russia’s Invisible Youth

By Blog Admin, on 18 June 2014

Deti 404 is an online project for Russia's LGBT teenagers. Photo CC: Ivan Simochkin

Deti 404 is an online project for Russia’s LGBT
teenagers. Photo CC: Ivan Simochkin

Maxim Edwards and Imogen Wade introduce a new documentary from Russia that will have its UK premiere at the closing gala of Open City Docs in London (17-22 June 2014).

Footsteps echo through the hallways of an undisclosed school in Russia; a telephone camera rocks to and fro before the grainy, leering faces of classmates. ‘For me, every day at school starts with shouts of ‘Faggot!’, ‘Be careful, he could f*** your ass with that fork’, and other terms of abuse. I think of it as ‘Good Morning.’ So begins the day of one of 45 teenagers, interviewed for Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev’s 2014 documentary film Children 404.

The ‘404: page not found’ youth of Russia

The effects of Russia’s controversial 2013 law prohibiting ‘LGBT propaganda’ are well known, but as the creator of Deti 404 (Children 404), journalist Yelena Klimova knows, few people have bothered to ask the opinions of those the law supposedly protects – Russia’s children. Deti 404 is an online project for the children who many believe do not exist – Russia’s LGBT teenagers, the ‘404: page not found’ errors who live in daily fear of harassment and intimidation in the classroom and at home. These are the children who have found a voice in Klimova’s project, allowing them to share their stories with the world.

The authorities’ response was predictable. As a result of Deti 404, Klimova was charged with breaking the law, though her trial on 27 February 2014 found no evidence of ‘gay propaganda’ in her activities. With 22,000 people joining its group on Russian social network VKontakte in its first year and 1364 teenagers having shared their stories so far, the project has been described by journalist Valery Panyushkin as the ‘youth crisis centre the state ought to have created, instead of adopting its anti-gay law.’

The film shows a world of faces hidden behind hands and cameras, furtive glances over shoulders and echoing taunts in school corridors. This is nothing to do with cinematic style; the majority of these children were interviewed on condition of anonymity. Read the rest of this entry »

Imperial Russia Salutes its Navy

By Blog Admin, on 9 June 2014

Neva mosaic, Admiralteiskaia metro station, St Petersburg

Neva mosaic, Admiralteiskaia metro station, St Petersburg

As the annexation of Crimea brings renewed attention to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Julia Leikin reflects on the place of the navy in Russian culture and collective memory.

What do we really know about the Russian navy? Jacob Kipp, writing about the Russian navy in The Military History of Tsarist Russia, observed that the imperial Russian navy’s strategic value left much to be desired, describing the status of the Baltic Sea fleet in the early nineteenth century as “the autocrat’s naval parading force” (Kipp, 2002: 152). This opinion was even shared by some contemporaries. The historian Sergei Soloviev quoted Count Ivan Chernyshev, consul in London and later president of the Admiralty College, as having written, “Since 1700 the navy has cost Russia more than 100,000,000, and what do we have to show for it? Seemingly not nothing, but very little.”

But how can we reconcile its negligible strategic value with the high regard that the Russian navy seems to enjoy in Russian society? In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, one journalist proffered that rather than gaining Russia any geopolitical advantage, the annexation was brought on by a collective fascination with Crimea as a Russian naval base. Whatever its strategic value, the Russian navy seems to enjoy a legendary, near-sacred status in Russian society, which has been shaped in part by the political priority accorded to building the navy in the imperial period. The place of the Russian navy in Russian collective memory has remained unexamined, but the evidence suggests that there are many rich layers to this national myth.

Many imperial and Soviet-era books construct a narrative of a noble imperial Russian navy that emphasizes its triumphs over adversity. These books recount the military successes of Peter I and Catherine II (better known by their epithets “the Great”) that resulted in the conquest of their respective ports on the Baltic and Black Seas, where they established Russia’s two main fleets. The origins of the imperial Russian navy and the periods of its greatest activity in the eighteenth century coincided with two of the fiercest efforts of modernization and Europeanization in Russian history under Peter I and Catherine II.

In fact, establishing and expanding the navy was a part of those processes. As historians we may have stepped away from the modernization and Westernization narratives of Russian history, but these were some of the very concepts that motivated Peter and Catherine to pursue a maritime presence for the Russian empire. Part of the navy’s hold on the Russian imagination must stem from the fact that it is difficult to disentangle its story from the dominating personalities of Peter and Catherine.

The primacy of maritime politics in Russia and its reverence for European models also came together in the institution that oversaw Russia’s naval expeditions. The Admiralty College, the top-level body in the government bureaucracy that regulated Russian ships and sailors at sea, sat directly under the monarch’s purview along with the War and International Affairs Colleges. Perhaps more than any other Russian institution, it held a high concentration of Europeans among its ranks.

Moreover, in the eighteenth century Russians often received navigation and shipbuilding training abroad, even while travel opportunities for others were quite limited. As one historian noted, the naval experience propelled Russian officers into an “active dialogue with general European culture.” Of course, the presence of foreigners and Europeanization itself were controversial, but many among the elite – particularly the monarchs – saw these as the right course to advance the Russian empire onto the international stage. In any case, it is fair to say that the preponderance of European culture lent a certain cachet to the navy, even while the institution’s efforts were directed at bringing glory to the Russian empire. Read the rest of this entry »