Archive for October, 2009

Silver lining

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Turns out the Russian government’s fight against historical falsification has some good sides as well. The site (all material in Russian) has a truly amazing collection of scanned historical works. Interlibrary loan offices throughout the country will give thanks for everything that’s now available digitally. It starts with the standard great works of Russian-language historiography (Karamzin, Soloviev, Kliuchevskii), extends to three major pre-revolutionary military encyclopedias, and includes a host of 19th century military histories.

My only quibble is that the works are overwhelmingly pre-1917, which reduces the site’s usefulness to me personally. Nonetheless, there are a few post-revolutionary publications. I was delighted to see, for example, the Red Army’s seven-volume Strategicheskii ocherk of World War I. I weep for the trees I killed a couple of years ago making copies of what’s now available online. Likewise, there’s A. A. Svechin’s Evoliutsiia voennogo iskusstva, which will immediately handy.

For a site that seems inspired by the anti-falsification campaign, there’s remarkably little on the things that have preoccupied the Putin-Medvedev regime. Those fall under the site’s category “historical themes.” The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact page, say, has some standard documents (text of the Pact and the secret protocol) but nothing at first glance that seeks to whitewash Stalin. The Katyn section likewise recognizes Soviet responsibility for the massacre and the clear evidentiary trail.

A couple of drawbacks from a technical point of view–the site loads slowly. Full functionality seems to require the use of a DejaVu plugin, which I could not make function on my Mac system. Nonetheless, I was still able to get to everything I wanted to see.

My imperial Russian comrades should bookmark this site and visit often.

Historian arrested

Friday, October 16th, 2009

Latest news–Mikhail Suprun, an historian from Archangel, arrested in Russia for research on sensitive topics. (And let me note–the Guardian continues to do an excellent job of monitoring the politics of history in Russia).

There doesn’t appear to be much whiff of falsification or President Medvedev’s Truth Commission about this. This involves state interference in history, but this seems more local than central, and the issue that set it off doesn’t appear to be among those things that have Medvedev upset. Three things jump out at me on the supposed grounds for this arrest.

One is that an official of the Interior Ministry was arrested as well, presumably for handing over documents that weren’t supposed to be handed over. This gives a real “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling. The rules and procedures for what’s classified and what’s not are byzantine and opaque. Any researcher has to trust that archivists and officials are handing over documents that are permissible to use. I’ve never been on the archivist side of that relationship, but I have to imagine navigating the rules for Russian officialdom is quite difficult.

Two is that the ostensible grounds for this arrest seem to be Suprun’s alleged violation of the personal privacy of either Germans sent to labor camps in the Soviet far north or of Soviet officials running those labor camps. In each case, talking about privacy seems a little ludicrous. I’ve run into this particular standard for closing documents before–back in the late 1990s folders at the Party Archive in Moscow had pages that I wasn’t supposed to look at because they contained personal information. Security wasn’t exactly tight–the bound volume had a paper loop slipped around the pages I wasn’t supposed to read. Again, the line here seems rather arbitrary. What materials in an archive don’t contain some kind of personal information?

Three is that the real reason for the arrest, not the ostensible one, seems to be embarrassment over the treatment of Soviet citizens of German ancestry and German prisoners-of-war at the hands of the Soviet government.

This illustrates the big problem with suppressing history–getting your story straight. In the kerfluffle this summer over Colonel Kovalyov and his attempt to blame World War II on the Poles, it seemed clear to me that the bigger goal was being nice to Germany (Russia’s best friend in Europe) and jabbing at Poland. A similar but short-sighted motivation may be at work here: i.e., “don’t let anybody know about bad things that happened to the Germans.” This has backfired spectacularly; anyone who’s interested already knew very well that bad things happened to Germans in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, and Suprun’s arrest has ticked off the Germans, including the German Red Cross.

The line that has not been crossed yet (to the best of my knowledge) is the arrest of a foreign historian or confiscation of the research materials of a foreign historian. Anyone knows differently, I’d like to hear.

US President wins Nobel Peace Prize! (No, not that one.)

Friday, October 9th, 2009

In case you’ve been living in a deep dark cave, you may not have heard that Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Most news stories I’ve seen, to their credit, have mentioned previous American presidents to win. The first was Theodore Roosevelt, indeed the first American to win any of the Nobels, who won it in 1906 for something directly related to Russian military history: the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War.

Roosevelt was awarded the prize, according to the Nobel committee, for his
“happy role in bringing to an end the bloody war recently waged between two of the world’s great powers, Japan and Russia.” Roosevelt brokered the peace talks, which took place predominantly in Portsmouth, New Hampshire thanks to its relatively cool climate.

The standard story has long been that Russia was decisively defeated on the battlefield, and only two things saved Russia from a far more draconian peace: first, the diplomatic skill of Sergei Witte, Russia’s chief negotiator at Portsmouth, and, second, Roosevelt’s tipping the scales in favor of the Russians. This last is often attributed to a desire to maintain a balance in the Pacific or out of racial solidarity with the Russians. My sense of the literature is that this conventional wisdom is getting a little shaky; the Japanese were running short of men and especially money, so both sides were interested in settling things in a peace of exhaustion. Bruce Menning’s Bayonets before Bullets is particularly good as a brief introduction to the battlefield developments.

In any event, as a sitting president, Roosevelt did not travel to Norway to accept the prize until four years later, visiting only in 1910 as part of world travel and lecture tour. I’d never read his Nobel lecture–looking at it now, I’m struck by two ideas that seem to belong to a later post-war era–one of Bolshevik revolution and pacifist utopianism, but already clear to Roosevelt in 1910. One is his emphasis on the need to prevent class warfare. His initial acceptance of the prize by telegram in 1906 originally included his intent to use the prize monies to support industrial peace; in fact, the money was spent after World War I on causes relating to war relief. Roosevelt’s son Quentin was killed in the war; two other sons were wounded.

But speaking in 1910, he was still preoccupied with the need to avert class warfare, something that he’d spent a lot of time on as president. Labor militancy, industrialist greed, and middle-class consumerism were equally dangerous:

in our complex industrial civilization of today the peace of righteousness and justice, the only kind of peace worth having, is at least as necessary in the industrial world as it is among nations. There is at least as much need to curb the cruel greed and arrogance of part of the world of capital, to curb the cruel greed and violence of part of the world of labor, as to check a cruel and unhealthy militarism in international relationships. . . No nation deserves to exist if it permits itself to lose the stern and virile virtues; and this without regard to whether the loss is due to the growth of a heartless and all-absorbing commercialism, to prolonged indulgence in luxury and soft, effortless ease, or to the deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality.

Roosevelt’s other priority was international organization, presaging the League of Nations and later United Nations. He wanted extensive arbitration treaties, at least among “all really civilized communities,” along with strengthening of the international judicial institutions already in existence at the Hague. Finally, he wanted the world’s powers to create a “League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent, by force if necessary, its being broken by others.” Recognizing the problem of enforcement, Roosevelt envisioned a policing power made up of the great powers “which sincerely desire peace and have no thought themselves of committing aggressions.” He clearly includes here the United States, probably Britain, maybe France, but it’s not evident to me who else he includes in his list. What seems implicit is his idea that the great states ought to be, and at least some are, status quo powers, satisfied in their possessions and uninterested in expanding them. World War I would make that view difficult to sustain.