Archive for the ‘Historiography’ Category

Alert the media? Not so much.

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

UPDATE: The pummeling continues. At an LSE blog, Artemy Kalinovsky reiterates the problems with Stroilov and Berlinsky’s overblown claims. He adds an additional point: what will the reaction of Russian archivists be to people bragging of sneaking documents out of Russia? Most likely, banning scanners, closing off collections, treating foreign scholars with even more suspicion.
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UPDATE: Ron Radosh, whose anti-communist credentials are not exactly open to question, does a thorough demolition job on Berlinsky, Bukovsky, and Stroilov. Ouch. Hat tip to Tom Nichols for the pointer.
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Claire Berlinsky, writing in the City Journal, has asked why more people aren’t paying attention to revelations from the Soviet archives. She presents two individuals who smuggled documents out of the Soviet Union. One of them, Vladimir Bukovsky, has at least posted his documents online so that people can see for themselves what kind of material he’s got available.

The other person Berlinsky mentions, Pavel Stroilov, hasn’t put any of his material on the web, at least as far as I’ve been able to find. But as Berlinsky presents his claims, he’s got lots of terrific and untapped documents, like Georgii Shakhnazarov’s Politburo minutes and Anatolii Cherniaev’s diaries. Here’s the problem: a 700-page book in Russian has been published, based on those Politburo minutes from Shakhnazarov and others. Cherniaev’s diaries were published in the journal Novaia i noveishchaia istoriia, and are even available in English. They aren’t exactly tough to find–type “Cherniaev diaries” into google and see what pops up.

So at least some of the hot, secret material Berlinsky says Stroilov possesses is neither hot nor secret, and representing it as hot and secret is misleading. It’s tough to know whether Berlinsky or Stroilov is responsible. Berlinsky herself admits she doesn’t know any Russian.

The next big problem is that in many cases, Stroilov is pushing on an open door, and Berlinsky seems simply unaware of what scholars have known for quite some time. For example, Stroilov’s documents on German reunification (as presented in late 2009) show that Margaret Thatcher didn’t want to see it happen. Of course, that’s the same conclusion established by more or less all the scholars who’ve worked on the subject, including most notably Philip Zelikow and the hardly obscure Condoleezza Rice, who showed quite conclusively in 1997 in Germany Unified and Europe Transformed that France and Britain opposed German unification and only strong efforts by Helmut Kohl and George Bush the elder made it happen. Helmut Kohl himself in his memoirs, published four years before Stroilov’s big unveiling, said exactly the same thing.

Berlinsky says Stroilov’s documents describe “most shockingly” that Francois Mitterand wanted a socialist Germany under French and Soviet domination. Since Mitterand was a socialist, and French politicians since de Gaulle have wanted to see Germany under French domination, I don’t see how this qualifies as shocking.

Last, it’s clear that Berlinsky is writing with a particular political agenda–to discredit the European left, question European unification, and cast doubt on the continental European social model while at the same time pummeling the dead horse of Communism. I don’t have any problem with that. My problem comes when pursuing that political aim results in doing violence to historical perspective. One example: Berlinsky finds it scandalous that Joaquin Almunia, current member of the European Commission, was strongly opposed to Ukrainian independence. Know who else was opposed to Ukrainian independence? George Bush the elder.

The health benefits of booze, cigarettes, and women

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

The London Times (Hat tip to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria) has a charming profile of Norman Stone, who is the author of what is still more-or-less the only book out there on World War I on the Eastern Front (Peter Gatrell has a good intro to the social and economic side of the war, but doesn’t talk much about operations).

Stone (no relation) has clearly missed the memo–or perhaps used it to roll cigarettes–on what modern academics are not supposed to do or say. Health benefits of booze and tobacco? Check. Chasing undergraduates? Check. Vocal fan of Thatcher and Reagan? Check. Global-warming skeptic? Check. National and ethnic stereotypes by the dozen? Check.

Stone has a new memoir coming out. Sounds like it should be quite a bit less excruciating than your average academic autobiography.

Polonsky’s Original Review of Figes

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Excerpts from Polonsky’s original harsh review of Figes, the thing that may have started this whole dust-up, have been posted here. Up to this point, as far as I know, the review hasn’t been available online.

Historians Behaving Badly

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

On the heels of this week’s revelations regarding Orlando Figes’ sock-puppet denunciations of “rival” historians via Amazon.com comes breaking news of yet another scandal involving a “best-selling popular historian.” In this case, the shenanigans in question involve the late Stephen Ambrose (1936-2002) author of nearly two dozen books (including widely-heralded accounts of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the D-Day landings, and the American Trans-Continental Railroad) and adviser to Stephen Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning epic Saving Private Ryan (1998).

As Richard Rayner notes in an April 26, 2010 piece for The New Yorker titled “Channeling Ike,”

Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969.

The only problem? The claims aren’t true. A recent investigation of President Eisenhower’s papers by Tim Rives, Deputy Director at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum (Abileen, KS) has uncovered an alternate reality, namely “that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together.”

The issue might be brushed off as an unfortunate (if gross) embellishment of the record by an otherwise well-regarded historian save for two things.

First, Ambrose’s early career was built upon his prodigious writing as the “official” historian of the Eisenhower presidency. The discovery that he did not, in fact, have sustained and personal contact with Ike as he long claimed will doubtless call into question the voluminous notes and references in his books that cite these non-existent interviews.

Second, this is hardly the first time that Ambrose has been found to have acted in a manner that might be charitably be described as “less than scrupulous.” In 2002, he was infamously forced to admit to having copped numerous passages of his book The Wild Blue from other authors without attribution. [History News Networked exhaustively chronicled that earlier controversy here.]

On the whole, a rather dismal week for the historical discipline.

Figes, Continued

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

It has been a tough week for Orlando Figes. In recent developments,

Rachel Polonsky contributed her story to the Daily Mail.

Oliver Kamm on the London Times blog looks at 2007 edits to Figes’ wikipedia entry:

In 2007, a Wikipedia user called “Orlandofiges” created two sock-puppet accounts, called “DavidPricesolicitors” and “Penguinchristie”. David Price is Figes’s solicitor. Sarah Christie was publicity manager at Penguin Books, Figes’s publisher. “Orlandofiges” edited the entry on Orlando Figes using all of these accounts betweeen 22 and 24 October 2007. The edits have a predictable pattern to them: “Figes’s mastery of the big narrative and his literary style have won many prizes and critical acclaim”, and so on. The description “a historian of Russia” is amended to “one of the world’s leading historians of Russia”. The sock puppet “DavidPricesolicitors” weighs in to remove a statement that is “false and defamatory” about the subject.

And another academic has spoken with the Independent about a sourcing dispute with Figes:

An American academic, Priscilla Roosevelt, said yesterday she had written to complain to Figes about his apparent use of sources from her book Life on the Russian Country Estate in his award-winning A People’s Tragedy, some of which were so obscure she could not believe he had come across them himself. “You can’t prove these things absolutely, but the experience left me shocked and demoralised,” she said. “He sent me a one-line response.”