Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

If I had it to do all over again . . . new research on the Great Fatherland War

Monday, December 12th, 2011

One of the things that this year’s ASEEES meeting brought home to me is the way in which all of our judgements as historians are inherently and unavoidably provisional. In particular, I heard quite a few things from new research on World War II that made me think about The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945, and the things I’d like to be able to put in that book if I could do it again.

This is not to say I have “editor’s remorse.” As I’ve said previously (and actually meant), I’m delighted with the quality of the chapters in the book. But when you hear about new research, it’s hard not to wish for a chance to find some way to get exciting results in. I’ll cross my fingers and hope for a paperback edition.

One panel in particular had a lot of new material. While Peter Waldron focused on World War I (discussed elsewhere), other papers brought in new and exciting research on World War II.

Donald Filtzer looked at the phenomenon of deprivation and death among the Soviet population, but as a social historian with access to reams of statistical information. We tend to throw around numbers on excess deaths, but given the enormous demographic shifts in the wartime Soviet Union, it’s hard to get a good handle on what was really happening to the population. Teasing out the difference between death from disease and death from malnutrition is quite difficult. Filtzer’s approach is to look at reams of mortality data from Soviet cities during the war. This mortality data is as problematic as you might expect. Lots of deaths took place without much inquiry from medical professionals, so the proportion of causes of death attributed to “other” skyrocketed during the war. Can we make sense of this?

Filtzer argued that though malnutrition can mimic the wasting of tuberculosis (endemic in the Soviet Union), malnutrition can also unleash a previously dormant case of tuberculosis. By combining figures for tuberculosis mortality with “other” mortality, and comparing that to those mortality levels before the war, we can get a reasonable sense of malnutrition-related deaths.

OK–but besides satisfying morbid curiosity, what do we learn? Well, Filtzer finds some intriguing patterns in the data. In the first year or so of the war, malnutrition killed vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, inmates of the Gulag. By 1943, though, starvation was killing males of working age in large numbers, far more than females. This leads to a couple of follow-up questions. One was asked at the panel: could it be that healthy adult males were in the Red Army, leaving the weak and sickly males on the home front to die disproportionately from malnutrition? Of course, it’s sobering to think just how sick someone would have to be to NOT make the Red Army’s standards, given enormous manpower losses. My question is slightly different: evidence from other cases of hunger (like, for example, the Donner party) suggests that women are more resistant to starvation than men; is that what we’re seeing here? We’ll have a better sense with Filtzer’s full results.

Brandon Schechter, a graduate student at Berkeley, looked at the material culture of daily life in the Red Army during World War II. This is something that really hasn’t been done before–we have a good sense, much like the Soviet leadership did, of the big, glamorous items of supply like tanks and aircraft. We have much less sense of mundane issues like uniforms and canteens. Some of what Schechter finds isn’t surprising, either in the specific Soviet experience or cross-culturally: food was vital to morale, for example, and scrounging, improvisation, and theft were quite common.

Other findings are newer and more startling. I didn’t know, for example, that Soviet soldiers carried glass canteens (with concomitant problems of weight and breakage) until very late in the war. The Soviet military initially focused on providing soldiers with high-calorie, low-bulk food that kept them fighting but made them unhappy. Soviet soldiers perceived a clear improvement in the provision of supplies over the course of the war.

My question to Schechter was, given the scale of Soviet pre-war maneuvers, and the Soviet experience of campaigns in Eastern Poland, Manchuria, and Finland, why were there such difficulties of supply in 1941? Was it the purges, the defeats and retreats or 1941, or something else? Schechter suggested that it was a combination of circumstances (distance and destruction), together with the Red Army’s decision to tie itself to field kitchens to keep its soldiers fighting, contrary to the American model of extensive preserved rations to enable soldiers to fight for at least some time without being bound to food supplies from the rear.

Finally, over lunch with Scott Palmer, GlavKom of this blog, I heard a great deal about his upcoming project on technology in Russian history. Of all the chapters that ought to be in the book but aren’t, I’d put science and technology at the top of the list. In part, that omission was a result of the lack of a lot of literature out there on those questions for the wartime years. Palmer’s book promises to be an excellent step in that direction. Perhaps he can be persuaded to share some ideas in this forum.

In Support of Language Training

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Late last week I drove over to Lawrence, Kansas to attend the day-and-a-half-long conference/birthday party marking the 50th Anniversary of KU’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES). Formally constituted in 1960 or, perhaps, 1961 (who’s counting?), KU CREES is among the longest running of the nation’s Russian/East European area centers that emerged in the wake of Sputnik’s launch. Since 1965, it’s been a National Resource Center offering language training,  degree-granting programs, and serving as a resource for K-12 teachers, post-secondary educators, business, media, government, and military.

The crux of the conference involved a series of presentations by KU CREES alumni and current faculty focusing on the Center’s past, present, and future. Guest speakers included one of the Center’s founding members, Richard De George (KU Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, of Russian and East European Studies, and of Business Administration), and several of its most prominent graduates, including John C. Reppert (Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies), Thomas Wilhelm (Director of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas), and Glen Howard (President of The Jamestown Foundation).

As one would expect for an event such as this, a good deal of time was devoted to extolling KU’s considerable accomplishments in promoting the study of all things Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian. Speakers also focused  remarks on the continuing relevance of an area-studies approach to fostering and sustaining knowledge of the world beyond America’s borders. The most striking aspect of the presentations, however, was a recurring meme that cut across each one of the conference’s dozen or so talks: the vital importance of studying foreign language. Every one of the event’s featured guests (and the vast majority of attendees) owe their current stations in life in no small part to the fact that during their educational career they seized upon the opportunity to not only study, but to master, one or more foreign languages.

Setting aside liberal arts agit-prop regarding the inherent, humanistic value of knowing another culture’s language, there are immense “practical” advantages to be gained from acquiring language skills: from raising one’s standardized test scores, to broadening employment opportunities, to significantly improving fluency in one’s native language. Students looking to get the most “return on investment” in their education would be hard-pressed to do better than investing time and energy mastering a foreign tongue.

It’s not easy. Depending on the target language it can be very difficult and time-consuming. Despite myriad “advances” in instructional technology the acquisition of a foreign language still boils down to a great deal of memorization and repetitive practice. But it is far from impossible. (I started my own language training in Russian relatively late — during my sophomore year at KU).

It’s the one piece of advice I have constantly given students during the course of my teaching career. If you learn nothing else in school — learn a foreign language!

Orlando Figes, back in circulation

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Orlando Figes appears to have recovered from the illness that had him on sick leave from Birkbeck College of the University of London in the wake of his phantom reviews scandal. He’s lectured at the Universidad Gabriela Mistral in Chile. Announcement is here; agenda is here (both are entirely in Spanish). There’s even a photo gallery posted at Flickr.

UPDATE: the links to Gabriela Mistral were dead for a while, but they appear to be back up. There’s also a newspaper clipping at a Chilean Russophile site.

UPDATE 2: The Independent tells us that this winter trip to Chile was part of a family vacation taken with the approval of Birkbeck College.

Russia’s Great War

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

With the AAASS annual conference having come and gone, I’d like to extend my thanks to the dozen or so folks who showed up for the Russian Front lunch. It was a great success. We’ll aim to reprise the event at next year’s meeting in Philadelphia.

The big news out of the New Orleans conference involved Sunday’s heavily attended roundtable devoted to “Russia’s Great War in Global Perspective, 1914-1922.”

In contrast to the typical conference roundtable which brings academics together to jawbone this or that subject, Sunday’s gathering served as the informal launch of a new long-term scholarly project. The session’s chairman, John W. Steinberg, announced that he, fellow roundtable members (Anthony Heywood, Steven Marks, David McDonald, Bruce Menning, and Grayson Tunstall) and others have been hard at work laying the foundation for a major new research initiative devoted to re-examining Russia’s experience in the First World War. Steinberg, et al. then used the occasion to describe the broad outlines of the initiative and to invite participation from scholars as well as current (and future) graduate students.

According to the project’s directors (Steinberg and Heywood), “Russia’s Great War in Global Perspective” aims to produce seven volumes of new essays each dedicated to a separate theme concerning the War in the “East.” These are:

1. Military Operations

2. Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs

3. European Russia

4. Empire (Western borderlands, Caucasus, Central Asia)

5. The Far East

6. Central and South-Eastern Europe

7. Culture

The compilation of these volumes will involved perhaps as many as 150-200 separate contributing members drawn from scholars across the globe. Publication will be timed to coincide with the centennial of the War, Revolutions, and Civil War (2014-2022). [An eighth “virtual” volume incorporating the latest in new media technologies is also in the works.]

In short, it’s an immensely ambitious and important project; one that promises to fundamentally alter the way historians and laypersons understand World War I and to shape research agendas for the next hundred years.

You’ll be hearing more (perhaps, a lot more) about “Russia’s Great War” here at TRF in the future. In the meantime, kudos to these historians for thinking big about the twentieth century’s most important conflict.


Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

The 2007 national conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies will be held next Thursday through Sunday (Nov 15th-18th) at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans, LA. If you’re one of the academics who regularly checks in here at TRF, AAASS is a well-known entity. If not, then I should let you know that AAASS is a non-profit scholarly society dedicated to studying the lands of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. Although historians make up its largest sub-group, AAASS is multi-disciplinary. Its members come from nearly every academic field including political science, language and literature, anthropology, sociology, economics, etc.

A glance at the conference program [.pdf version] reveals that the Big Easy meet will have more than one dozen panels and/or roundtable sessions devoted to military and diplomatic subjects. Highlights include panels on Soviet foreign policy; economics and defense under Putin; the militarization of Soviet youth; Soviet foreign relations in the 20s & 30s and the history of US-Russian relations. On Sunday, the conference wraps up with a roundtable session devoted to “Russia’s Great World War, 1914-1921.” A significant number of individual mil-dip papers will also be delivered as part of broader themed panels. In short, frontoviki in attendance should have plenty to do in between the weekend’s slate of NCAA and NFL games.

If you’ll be at the conference and haven’t already made plans for lunch on Friday, please consider joining me for an informal lunch with readers of and contributors to The Russian Front. We’ll meet in the lobby of the New Orleans Marriott next to the concierge desk at 12:30 pm sharp and decide where to go from there. (Like I said, it’s informal.)

Safe travels! And I hope to see you next week!