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Dr Phil Cavendish at Grad London

By Blog Admin, on 29 March 2016

Dr Philip Cavendish spoke at the recent GRAD Eisenstein exhibition on the introduction of colour film to Soviet cinema.

The overarching title of the Gallery for Russian Art & Design’s (GRAD for short and based in Little Portland Street, London) series of public lectures this Spring is a play on the well-known slogan, ‘A Cinema, Understood by the Millions’. This became associated with Soviet cinema of the 1930s.
Dr Phillip Cavendish: SOVIET COLOUR FILM, 1929–1945: AN EXPERIMENT UNDERSTOOD BY VERY FEW

Courtesy of GRAD

Since the drawings of Sergei Eisenstein are the subject of the exhibition currently being curated at GRAD, it might be worth pointing out that the title also makes reference to the title of a newspaper article which Eisenstein published alongside Grigorii Aleksandrov in early 1929. Entitled ‘Eksperiment, poniatyi millionam’ (An Experiment Accessible to Millions), this was published in the film journal Sovetskii ekran to accompany the release of the film Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New) – also known as General’naia Linia, which they had directed together.

By suggesting that colour cinema was an ‘experiment understood by very few’, I don’t mean that Soviet audiences experienced conceptual confusion in relation to the phenomenon of colour. Instead, it is that the complexity of the scientific processes that underpinned the development of colour technology was generally grasped poorly. This is true of the direct consumers of film culture, the vast majority of film critics and correspondents who reported on that culture, the senior managers and employees of Soviet film studios and the bureaucrats that were responsible for the film industry as a whole.

This lack of comprehension had dire, if not tragic, consequences for some of those involved in colour-film production in the Soviet Union. It also produces significant challenges for the film historian who seeks to understand the phenomenon and its implications for the development of Soviet cinema and Soviet culture more broadly.

25602428721_119c0ddd55_z

Courtesy of GRAD

The reasons for being interested in this subject are nevertheless various and compelling. (more…)

All tomorrow’s parties? The future (and past) of politics in Eastern Europe

By Blog Admin, on 19 January 2015

By ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In this post we present a discussion between  Kevin Deegan-Krause, Tim Haughton, Stephen Whitefield and Jan Rovný on the current state of knowledge on political parties in Eastern Europe, what we still needs to learned and how researchers can get there.  The discussion had its origins in the Whither Eastern Europe conference held at the University of Florida in January 2014 and accompanies a special section on parties in the forthcoming issue of East European Politics and Societies.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s start with a simple question: Is there anything we know we can agree about?

Whitefield: I found it highly instructive to ponder the lessons from three intertwined perspectives. First, what do citizens want from parties? Second, what do parties have to offer to citizens? Third, how does the communication between parties and voters help deliver good democratic governance?

In terms of the citizen-party relationship, I believe that Robert Rohrschneider and I have already established that the underlying cleavage structure at the party-level differs between East and West: largely one-dimensional in the East but – importantly – no sign as yet of a shift in the axis of the dimension to resemble the West: in the East, party competition is still based on pro-West/Europe, pro-market, pro-democratic parties versus their opposite.

Rovný: Depending on country circumstances and legacies, you should find different combinations of the left-right versus gal-tan and different degrees of salience. The key is ethnicity (and state-building).

Whitefield: Of course, there is local variation. In some countries – historical national boundaries in Hungary for example or ethnic divisions in Ukraine or Latvia – specific issues are present that give national distinctiveness to party competition. But nonetheless, there exists powerful evidence of the importance of a Communist legacy on the nature of cleavages in the region as a whole and even of the freezing of the party systems there.

Deegan-Krause: To the extent we do see programmatic patterns (or other patterns), where do they come from? Do you see them anchored in the experiences of the region and if so, which ones?

Rovný: One of the most interesting debates has been the one on structure versus volatility of politics in eastern Europe. This debate has by now found a set of generally accepted conclusions. First, the literature on party systems and voting behaviour clearly and continuously finds increased levels of organizational volatility — parties get born, merged and dissolved more frequently than in the west — as well as increased levels of voting volatility — voters switch between parties at a higher rate than in the west, while fewer people turn out to vote.

At the same time, the literature on ideological structure continuously concludes that parties in the region offer reasonably framed ideological choices, and voters select parties on the basis of their political preferences. These two conclusions are seemingly contradictory: organizational and electoral volatility contrasts ideological structure. I believe that we should aim at the theoretical reconciliation of these findings by accepting that structured stability and volatility can coexist.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s talk about stability first. Given the kinds of electoral results we see in the region, it is interesting that there is any talk about stability at all.

Whitefield: We agree with what Jan [Rovný] is saying. Work that I did with Geoff Evans in the 1990s and 2000s did indeed point to the importance (contra some expectations) of most of the usual demographic suspects. Social class, measured using the Goldthorpe-Eriksson class schema—which is really based on characteristics of occupations, particularly manual/non-manual and the supervised/supervisory distinctions—was surprisingly useful in the post-Communist context.

Given what might have happened to the nature of occupational structures, this class scheme appears both internally valid but it also has good predictive value to both attitudes and political behaviour, as much as in the West.

As in the West, it doesn’t work as well in all countries—the cleavage structure and what parties offer helps explain variance—but it works. Age and education also work in wholly expected ways. Gender differentiates little. But where some of the most interesting results come are from the comparative study of the impact of religion and religiosity in the region.

At the extremes, Catholicism – and in Catholic countries church attendance – matter significantly for public political values and behaviour; in Orthodox countries, religion appears to matter little. I am intrigued to know whether this is a dog that continues not to bark in Russia and Ukraine. (more…)

‘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. (more…)

‘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 (more…)

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.

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. (more…)

Book review: Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition

By Blog Admin, on 9 May 2014

GettyAndy Willimott is fascinated by a lively study of Russia’s patrimonial practices and personalization of power: J. Arch Getty’s Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Recent developments in Ukraine and Crimea have raised a number of questions about Russia and her political machinations. Some of the most perceptive reports have noted that Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, his decision-making core, appears to have shrunk or concentrated over recent months; now centring around a loyal contingent of hardliners, including friends and former classmates of Russia’s über male leader dating back to his years at the KGB Higher School in Leningrad. The implication being that where Putin once acted as a mediator between the different factions of his power network, those that owed their position and/or wealth to his patronage, he is currently aligning himself with the siloviki (‘strong ones’) – formed predominantly from his connections with former Soviet security personnel, many of whom tend to consider the fall of the USSR as a national disaster for Russia and continue to maintain genuine suspicion of the West.

These unspoken connections and informal networks of power are key to understanding the various twists and turns of Russian policy. Russia is a country where institutions often seem to matter less than clientism. The functioning and historic links of network-based governance forms the focus of J. Arch Getty’s latest book, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition.Here he argues that while we must acknowledge distinct periods and breaks in history, we should not ignore the persistence of certain political practices. It is striking, suggests Getty, that despite various efforts to introduce rule-bound bureaucracy and formal systems of authority, personalised structures remain integral to Russia’s political operations. ‘The clientism of rulers Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Putin’, notes Getty, recall ‘patterns not only under Stalin but from the nineteenth century and earlier’ (p. 4). Where the history of ‘Great Men’ once dominated, Getty seems to be saying, we now attribute too much to the power of ideas over habitus and practice. This book challenges reductive readings of Weber that emphasise the distinction between premodern and modern. ‘Modern ideology’, stresses Getty, ‘does not guarantee modernity’ (p. 21). Instead, the Russian example seems to support the notion that old and new – the residual and the emergent – will often intersect, together forming the world around us. Stalinism – no exception – is thus presented as a product of modern socialism and traditional patrimonial structures.

Getty’s opening two chapters provide a thematic overview of Russian political conventions. He uses the examples of petitioning, patron-anointed awards, kinship, and personality cults to highlight the ‘deep structures’ and ‘personalisation’ of Russian politics (p. 25). Not without provocative intent, some of these practices are traced back to 16th-century Muscovy. Be it a letter sent to a Grand Prince or the voice of a citizen partaking in one of Putin’s televised call-in sessions, Getty notes the same patrimonial language and understanding of power. Typical rhetorical features and the formula for redress include fulsome salutations, emphasis of the subject’s lowly position, the faceless nature of their injustice (the improper workings of noble or bureaucratic systems), and the notion that justice is ‘a gift based on mercy and power’ (p. 33). This speaks to the Russian tradition of viewing the tsar as Batiushka (‘little father’), an omnipotent yet just figure not associated with daily travails and the failings of government; a caring father that would solve all problems, if only he were made aware of them! Getty demonstrates that the form and content of Soviet-era letters, with their appeals to ‘Kindred Father Iosif Vissarionovich [Stalin]!’ (p. 28), often exhibited the same characteristics as their pre-revolutionary counterparts.

Likewise, we are shown that the Bolsheviks were not able to escape traditional Russian assumptions about governance. From their roots in the political underground of late imperial Russia, the Bolsheviks operated through loyal connections and local associations. Despite Lenin’s attempts to establish a new rational mechanism of government in 1917 (he even suggested the German Post Office as an example of a modern bureaucratic structure), the Old Bolsheviks, those with experience of clandestine politics and pre-revolutionary habits, continued to exercise power through established patronages. Again, Getty cites comparisons with Muscovy, suggesting that the Old Bolsheviks resembled early Russian boyars (barons or nobles), who, like little tsars, stood atop a patrician network of clients, relatives, and supporters. This was a system of who you know, which revolved around loyalty, protection, and the physical embodiment of power within individuals. To get things done in medieval Russia one had to mobilise these networks, invoking the implicit promise of reciprocal favour and greater proximity to power. The Bolsheviks were not unaware of these parallels. As Nadezhda Mandelshtam recalled, ‘the [Soviet] state encouraged people to behave like boyars in medieval Russia who fought each other over their place at the Tsar’s table’ (p. 53). (more…)

Sharing Underwear, Living Revolution: The Urban Communes of Revolutionary Russia

By Blog Admin, on 10 April 2014

 

'In the Commune'. Krasnoe studentchetsvo, 1930

‘In the Commune’. Krasnoe studentchetsvo, 1930

Andy Willimott writes about the self-styled urban communes of revolutionary Russia, explaining how these activist groups made revolution part of their lives, practiced equality, and tried to be the change they wanted to see in the world.

The October Revolution of 1917 marked the birth of the first avowedly socialist state in history. As the earliest posters, fliers, decrees, and declarations appeared promising radical change, many contemplated what revolution would mean for them and their daily lives. Visions of a fairer, collective society, based upon the belief that human relations could be rationally reorganised, were frequently espoused by Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership. In turn, the Bolshevik press readily equated “class struggle” with the rejection not only of existing political and economic elites, but bourgeois norms, habits, and mores. Even when referring to the dense economic theorisations of Das Kapital, Lenin had long insisted that Marx’s assessment was rooted in “flesh and blood” – highlighting “everyday aspects” that had to be overcome if communism was to succeed.

Inspired by these messages and the opportunities of revolution, some activists set about putting into practice their own conceptions of what it meant to be part of this new world. As workers threw out their bosses and teenagers challenged the authority of their parents – all in the name of revolution – urban activists were re-thinking the way they conducted their everyday lives. In the tenements and basic housing of the early Soviet landscape, for instance, some young revolutionaries were dramatically re-imagining the home. Innocuous features of domestic life – from internal walls to personal ornaments – were associated with “bourgeois individualism”, as activists sought to construct new domestic and social relations.

At the forefront of this domestic assault were the self-styled “urban communes”. Essentially the product of like-minded individuals looking to share space, resources, materials, income, and, most important of all, modern socialist visions, the urban communes were cohabitational units run upon a popular understanding of socialist revolution. They embraced one of the key tenets of Marxism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Most adopted a “common pot” into which members placed a share or all of their earnings. Others took the cause one step further, often sharing clothes and even underwear. Founding agreements or “domestic charters”, signed by all members, dictated the parameters of a socialist lifestyle, including systems of collective voting, the promotion of self-betterment activities, as well as a commitment to social and political agitation. (more…)

History is too important to be left to politicians

By Blog Admin, on 10 July 2013

Sudeten-Gedenktafel (Linz)

Photo: Christoph Waghubinger/Wikimedia Commons

Czech debates about the forced removal of the Sudeten Germans exercise a powerful fascination, but they are refracted unevenly in historical writing in English writes guest contributor  Martin D. Brown.

 Seasoned Czech Republic-watchers will be well aware of the paucity of coverage provided by English language sources. With some exceptions, on the sporadic occasions when the country does make an appearance it tends to be in stories about political corruption, natural disasters, or the Czechs’ fondness for beer.

 This is nothing new – see Neville Chamberlain’s comments, circa 1938 – and the obvious solution is to read Czech, although, even this approach is not always straightforward, as was revealed by a dispute that arose during the Czech Presidential elections in early 2013.

 The elections, a contest between foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former prime minister Miloš Zeman (who won), proved ill-tempered, and included a heated televised dispute over the legacy of the forced removal of around two and half million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945. Intriguingly this just happens to be one subject that has garnered a fair amount of English language coverage in recent decades.

 Superficially this was a clash between opposing sides of the Czech political spectrum: Schwarzenberg, on the centre-right decried the ‘expulsions’ as illegal, unjust, against all the accepted norms of international law and argued they had contributed to the success of the communist coup in 1948; while to the left, Zeman defended the ‘transfers’ as a necessary response to the Sudetens’ collaboration with the Nazis, legal under international law and part of the constitutional   foundations of the modern Czech state. Particularly noteworthy was the way both candidates expressed their respective positions through the terms ‘expulsion’ (vyhnání) and ‘transfer’ (odsun)  to denote their approval or disapproval for the process.

 Anyone following this spat would have been left with little idea which position was the more accurate, and turning to Czech sources wouldn’t have offered any immediate answers. (more…)

Borders and what they do: lessons from a lost Habsburg province

By Blog Admin, on 3 May 2013

Contested Frontiers in the Balkans-p17oi0ls081o7l132i1l2ld101al9Why write about a province that has long ceased to be and is currently divided between three states?  Irina Marin explains why she wrote about the historic Habsburg province of the Banat of Temesvár

Well-hidden behind the title Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe is a monograph of the Banat of Temesvár or, by its Romanian name, Banatul Timișoarei. Why write a book about a historical province that has long ceased to be one and is currently peacefully divided between Romania, Serbia and Hungary? Outside the region and a narrow circle of historians, the Banat is a classic Ruritania, a non-existent land for all the reality it has for outsiders.

Everybody will have heard of Transylvania, Bosnia or Kosovo, but I doubt the Banat of Temesvár is at all known in the English-speaking world. Even when events take place there which are worthy of public attention, people usually refer to the present-day countries rather than the historical province, even if the name ‘Banat’ is still in local usage. So why write a history of this seemingly obscure province?

First of all, because no such history is available in English. The region deserves putting on the map of Anglo-Saxon historical scholarship. This, however, is not a strong enough reason and does not forestall the Ruritanian accusation. We instead should perhaps turn the question around and ask what makes a province worthy of interest. Sadly, more often than not the answer is blood and violence: whether blood sucked by vampires (as in Transylvania) or massacres and ethnic cleansing (as in Bosnia, Kosovo). Extremes of violence should, of course, never be ignored or left unexplored and unexplained.

The problem arises when one concentrates exclusively on such places visited by unprecedented violence. It creates the impression that nothing but ethnic violence comes out of Eastern Europe and fuels myths of  ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ as characteristic of the region.

I have therefore stopped at the Banat of Temesvár as a relatively peaceful province, with just as many ethnicities and religious denominations as these, but if anything dogged by myths of harmonious ethnic cohabitation rather than the perennial ancient-hatred myth. My new book is not intended to solve bibliographical disputes, count populations or work out who was there first. It is instead a historical meditation on the destructive and creative effect of ebbing and flowing borders on an ethnically variegated population, who lived and died under several waves of imperial rule, under nation-states and under communist and post-communist regimes. (more…)