Archive for the ‘Scholarship & Research’ Category

Caring for Imperial Russia’s Sick and Wounded Soldiers

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I heard about a lot of interesting new work at the ASEEES conference this year, and one of the exciting things ASEEES was the way in which research at one panel complemented and extended research presented in an entirely different context. The way in which the Russian Empire handled the medical demands of war is one of those serendipitous moments.

I served as commenter on a panel loosely defined as veterans in Russian and Soviet history, but ended up being a wider ranging discussion on war and society in broad terms. One paper by Andrew Ringlee, a graduate student at North Carolina, looked at the Red Cross and its de facto role as the Russian Army’s medical service prior to World War I.

Though Ringlee’s research is still in its early stages, he has some intriguing findings. The Russian Red Cross might have been the largest and most significant of the various national chapters, and likewise might have invented the modern concept of disaster relief: stay tuned for the dissertation for full discussion of that point. On the specific question of the Russian military, the Russian Red Cross had its first experience handling sick and wounded soldiers in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, where its performance was remarkably good and well-regarded by the Russian educated public. Despite the normal frictions and difficulties we extent under such circumstances, the results were clearly positive. In 1904-05, however, the Russo-Japanese War proved quite different. The Red Cross was less effective, in part because of the remote theater of war and in part because the Russian Army’s failure to properly integrate the Red Cross into its planning. More importantly, the Russian public believed the Red Cross to have failed, and to have squandered its resources through incompetence and corruption.

What struck me about the story Ringlee told was the way in which the Russian high command expected its medical needs to be met by the Red Cross, and yet made no effort to integrate the Red Cross into its contingency planning or to provide it with the information and resources it would require to deal successfully with the challenges of war. Part of the reason seems to have been a deep official mistrust of Russian civil society. Though Ringlee has not yet taken his research into the First World War, there are clear parallels to the poisonous relationship between state and civil society we see in that period.

Peter Waldron (University of East Anglia) picked up the story in a roundtable on health and living standards in World War I and World War II by looking specifically at epidemic disease in the First World War. Many of the themes of Ringlee’s work–relatively successful efforts by Russian civil society to deal with a crisis, and tsarist indifference or hostility–were equally clear in Waldron’s.

Waldron provided a wealth of welcome data on the nature of disease in the war–of the five million hospitalized Russian soldiers during the war, just under half were there because of contagious disease. The biggest killer was cholera, which killed a third of all those it infected and accounted for 20% of all disease fatalities, but the most prevalent disease was typhoid. Despite the difficult conditions of wartime, Russian public health had made remarkable strides even since the 1890s. A cholera epidemic in 1892 had killed half of those it infected, rather than the third who succumbed during the war.

The pattern of disease is what we might predict: concentrated behind Russian front lines and in big cities, particularly Moscow. Though the precise reasons for this remain to be determined, Waldron found that while wounded soldiers were widely scattered around Russia, infected soldiers were concentrated in Moscow. It’s difficult to know what to make of this: given the city’s importance as an industrial and transportation center, and the huge numbers of vulnerable refugees in Moscow, dumping disease-carriers there would seem a really bad idea. This is hard to imagine as a result of deliberate policy. Of course, we are talking about Nicholas II, so deliberate policy is certainly a possibility.

In terms of the bigger theme, though, Waldron amply confirmed the pattern of the Russian state having a terrible time working effectively and productively with private initiatives. While Waldron did not discuss the Red Cross, he did bring in the Union of Towns, which had a great deal of responsibility for aiding the sick. Desperate for assistance, the Union of Towns begged for help in setting up hospitals, only to find the the tsarist government slow and grudging in its responses. In a remarkable range of circumstances, not simply care for sick and wounded soldiers, this seems to be the rule.

Oswald Spengler, Marcus Aurelius, and PM Dawn

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Not particularly Russian, but this does have some military history relevance . . .

In summer travels, I found myself stuck without a wide selection of reading material, but came across an old Modern Library edition of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Since that’s a book far more often referenced than read, and I didn’t have lots of other options, I decided to plow through it.

The book lived down to my expectations. It’s positively Hegelian in its grand rhetorical flights of fancy about capital-H History, and in its impenetrable style. On the bright side, once you get the hang of what Spengler is up to, the book’s easy to skim through very quickly. I may comment on some of his substantive arguments anon, what struck me was a single line on p. 387 in the chapter on “Philosophy of Politics”:

The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.

Thanks to a youthful flirtation with alternative rap, I recognized this as a line from PM Dawn’s 1991 song “Comatose.” I was pretty sure Spengler hadn’t stolen from PM Dawn, but I found it only slightly less surprising that PM Dawn was citing Spengler. To google I turned . . .

. . . to find to my surprise that the quotation is widely attributed to Marcus Aurelius (for example, here, here, here, and here), both in collections of military quotation and especially in business books. One organization even made it their official slogan, complete with a bust of Marcus Aurelius on the home page.

To add insult to injury, Marcus Aurelius wins the citation wars by a ratio of about 5:1 over Spengler.

The problem is that there’s no evidence that Marcus Aurelius ever uttered or wrote the words in question. It’s nowhere in his Meditations, and no one ever gives a real citation. The dubious prize for earliest misattribution to Marcus Aurelius (at least according to google books) goes to Jay Levinson and David Perry’s Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters.

Of course, in terms of the popularity of the quotation, Marcus Aurelius is a lot better than Spengler. The one is a philosophical emperor, one of the last good one the Romans had. The other was an obscurantist pessimist, and while not the Nazi he’s often painted as being, was no friend to democracy, capitalism, or liberalism. It’s tough to imagine management theorists being quite so eager to Spengler for inspiration.

Sheila Fitzpatrick on working in the archives

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Doyenne of Soviet historians Sheila Fitzpatrick has written a charming essay for the London Review of Books on her experiences as one of the very first outsiders to gain access to Soviet archival sources (Hat tip: Ralph Luker at Cliopatria). Reading her, it’s clear that much has changed, but to a surprising degree things have remained precisely the same.

Bureaucracy and lines are the obvious ones, but there’s more. We now have access to archival catalogs, but we are still subject to the whims and affections of archivists when it comes to the documents we can see, or perhaps even more important, where we ought to be looking for them. As Fitzpatrick remembers, the archivists were quite choosy about whom they might assist: “after a while, if they thought you were a hard worker and therefore a real scholar (not a spy), the archivists would cautiously begin to help you.”

This is precisely my experience, which is why I was so fortunate to be funded in 1994-1995 in a way that let me go to Moscow and stay for sixteen months, long enough to really establish my iron-assed credentials as a serious researcher. Fitzpatrick also was lucky enough to burst into tears at the right moment to get some additional material. I didn’t do that, but I did unwittingly benefit from the pitying maternal instincts of archivists who couldn’t imagine how a poor boy, all alone in Moscow, might manage to keep body and soul together.

Fitzpatrick also notes how historians can’t help to some degree identifying with the worldview and priorities of the people and institutions they study. Tongue-in-cheek, she remarks that the secret police would have been better off to

give Western scholars access to the most taboo of Soviet archives, the NKVD’s, so that the scholars would stop slandering this fine institution and see things from its perspective: the Central Committee cadres department reassigning any Gulag officers who showed signs of competence and sending the Gulag administration nothing but duds, the difficulties in setting up native-language kindergartens for Chechen deportees to Kazakhstan, and so on.

I found the same thing–going native–happening to me. It wasn’t that I decided that Stalin was a good guy (I didn’t), but that I began to sympathize with Stalin’s bureaucrats. They had tough jobs, and worked hard to solve real problems. Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Stalin’s minister of industry, was quite the cold-hearted bastard when it came to the politics of his native Georgia. I studied him, though, when he was trying to build steel mills and tractor factories amidst shortages of everything. He drove himself and others mercilessly, built real esprit de corps, and finally killed himself in despair over Stalin’s Great Purges. I couldn’t help liking him.

In the Red Army, Stalin’s long-time minister of defense Kliment Voroshilov never struck me as anything but an idiot far out of his depth. I likewise never warmed to the ostensible genius Mikhail Tukhachevskii. He was happy to persecute those with suspect pasts, was quite out of his mind on a number of questions related to tank production and military technology, and popularized the ideas devised by brighter minds junior to him. But lesser-known figures like Ieronym Uborevich and Innokent Khalepskii–they were bright, hard-working, and effective. Stalin had them killed, of course.

To be sure, there are limits to going native. I was looking at industrialists and military men. All modern societies have and need armies and industry, and so I could look at them to some degree independently of the regime they served. If, on the other hand, I had been studying those who carted kulaks and their families off to Siberia, I doubt I would have been quite so sympathetic.

Soviet Union at War now available in the US

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010


The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945
is now available in the US through Casemate, its American distributor. Amazon and other outlets should follow shortly.

Archival News

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

On 7 September, the Kremlin hosted a joint meeting of two commissions: the Commission to Oppose Attempts at Falsification of History, and the Interinstitutional Commission on Defense of State Secrets. The falsification group last met back in January; for additional background, see here and here.

To the outside observer, this would sound like two opposed organizations. This being Russia, of course, appearances can be deceiving. Only a few of the speeches and statements have been released, but what’s available so far suggests that there was much more about openness and access than there was about secrecy. Being generally bitter and cynical by nature, I was expecting only boilerplate (and there was, to be sure, plenty of that), but there was a remarkable amount of substantive information on offer. In particular, historians of Russia owe it to themselves to read the speech of Rosarkhiv head A. N. Artizov in full.

Chair of the meeting was S. E. Naryshkin, head of Medvedev’s Presidential Administration. His remarks were quite brief, and opened with a very vague set of goals for the meeting: “perspectives on the development of archival affairs, working out and realization of a series of measures directed at supporting a just and objective representation of Russian history.” This is, of course, not especially enlightening.

It did get better though. Naryshkin conceded that the falsification and anti-Russian history that Russian political leaders have been getting so worked up about are largely the result of bad access to documents. In Naryshkin’s words, “lack or inaccessibility of information becomes the condition and reason for falsification.” This makes the most important step “further declassification of archival documents.”

Naryshkin also set priorities for the Russian archival system. His first was electronic access–both the preservation of newly-generated electronic documents (not a big deal for most historians, at least not now) and improving electronic access to existing collections.

Next came access to documents, in which Naryshkin actually referred to the “society’s right of free access to information.” This was immediately followed by a qualification to “strictly provide for the security of the state and respect the rights of citizens,” but the very idea of treating access to archival information as a right, even if phrased in social rather than individual terms, is a major step.

A. N. Artizov’s speech was much heavier on concrete information. He noted the particular problems Russian archives face: finding qualified staff, and coping with the mass of records created by the totalizing nature of the Soviet state. Nonetheless, he touted the achievements of Russian archives in the last few years, including declassification and scholarly publication. Scans of key documents on the Katyn massacre achieved two million hits per day when made available to the public.

Veterans of reading rooms know that many of the people there are seeking to document the work or military service records of themselves or their relatives. Rosarkhiv has a new website where such inquiries can be submitted electronically. Historians of limited time and unlimited funding should note the ability to submit thematic requests for information as a paid service.

Thanks to Artizov, fans of the political use of history can look forward to a document collection that Artizov has promised will be coming soon: “the collaboration of Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazis”

Artizov had quite a bit to say about declassification. He cited 10 million files declassified since 1991, but noted how slow and labor-intensive the process is. He claimed that 1.7 million files remain classified, 1.1 million of those Communist Party or USSR government files. I should note that those numbers sound low to me. They could be true, I suppose, if they exclude some very important archives that are outside the Rosarkhiv system: the military, the foreign ministry, and the security services.

New files come in to the Rosarkhiv system at the rate of 1.5 million per year. Most notably, Artizov says the Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev fonds have all been transferred from the Kremlin’s Presidential Archive to Rosarkhiv. The bulk of the remaining Politburo archive will make the same transfer in 2010-12. Transfer doesn’t mean declassification, of course, but certainly the move from presidential to archivist hands is a good thing for researchers.

Artizov also gave some updated information on the major World War II archive that he discussed back in March. I was skeptical of this on practical and scholarly grounds, and remain so. Artizov is remarkably specific, though, which suggests that efforts proceed apace to make this archive happen. The plan for the new archive is to build it on the grounds of the existing Ministry of Defense Archive in Podol’sk. While this will certainly make the physical transfer of MoD records much simpler, it makes life much tougher for foreign researchers, who will be faced with the unenviable choices of either taking a daily elektrichka trek out from Moscow, or living all the way out in Podol’sk.