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Rethinking “The Archives” in the Aftermath of Russia’s War in Ukraine, Part I

Just as Europe must plan for an energy future without Russian fossil fuels, the field of history and related fields must plan for a future without access to Russian archives.

The Jordan Center stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See our statement here.

Last spring the online working group 19v hosted a forum on the question: How will our scholarship on nineteenth-century Russian culture change in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine? Six scholars responded in brief talks, which were then followed by open discussion. Revised versions of the presentations were recently published as short essays in the journal Ab Imperio. The Jordan Center is grateful to Ab Imperio for their permission to post the cluster introduction and the below essay on the Blog this week.

This is Part I in a two-part series. Part II may be found here.

Susan Smith-Peter is Professor of History and Director of the History MA and Public History programs at the College of Staten Island/ City University of New York. Her book, Imagining Russian Regions: Subnational Identity and Civil Society in Nineteenth-Century Russia, was published with Brill in 2018. 

There was a field whose scholars were defined by the language they studied. Its members went to the main country whose people spoke that language and the scholars were deeply influenced by the way that country told its history.

Then, in 1979, the Iranian Revolution took place and Persian scholars had to work elsewhere. Over time, they found that the need to work in what they had previously considered to be peripheries strengthened and deepened their understanding of their subject and gave them a view that was no longer from the center.

Scholars of Russia, especially Russian historians and others who depend on archives, are in the same situation now. This challenge is also an opportunity, as this short thought piece will show, to connect and serve new communities and to break the habit of seeing things like the Russian state. The moral necessity of such a shift should be obvious, and the practical impossibility of work in Russia provides a moment for the field to consider other approaches that better serve the field and the public.

After a discussion of the implications of seeing the Russian archives as the only true archives, the article will turn to two subfields of history with especially rich archival materials in the US, then to the practical changes in funding that will be needed in order to make this transition. Just as Europe must plan for an energy future without Russian fossil fuels, the field of history and related fields must plan for a future without access to Russian archives.

The field needs to consider the possibility that we will be barred from the Russian archives for as long as Persian scholars have been unable to use Iran’s. Even if the war were to end in the near future, hopefully with a Ukrainian victory, there would still be the issue of the Russian visa. The visa has had a chilling effect on the willingness of historians, aside from a few prominent exceptions, to criticize Russia before February 24. There was little to be gained from criticism and much to be lost, as the denial of a visa would mean the end of scholarly productivity, as defined by the field. We should no longer allow a state like Putin’s Russia to have the power to determine who is a “real scholar.” Even if the denial of a visa was unlikely, it was a possibility and, given that the norm in the field was not to critique the present Russian state, it played a role.

The field of political science had been more willing to make public critiques of Putin’s Russia a common feature. After February 24, the field of history has become more active in such critiques. Hopefully this will continue.

If the field continues to demand that grad students go to Russia after the end of the war, what it would really be demanding would be the silence of the entire new generation of scholars – a silence that would be personally shameful as well as collectively complicit in genocide. Even if Putin were to be overthrown, which does not seem likely, he would, in all probability, be replaced by someone from the military and intelligence circles, who might end the war but would be unlikely to allow discussion of what happened in it. The threat of the denial of a visa would continue to serve as a means to encourage self-censorship, which had been widespread, although little discussed in public.

This article focuses on Russian history because, as a historian of Russia, I can speak about that field but not about Ukrainian history. There is plenty of cleaning up that needs to happen in the house of Russian history and so discussions focusing on that field are justified. I will focus on the US because I know that institutional and funding situation best. Hopefully, scholars from other fields, such as historical sociology, and countries will be able to profit from this discussion as well.

Archives are not just in Russia

Russian history in the US has tended to confuse an institution (“the archives”) with a place (Russia). When we say we or someone else will spend a year in the archives, we mean a year in Russia, and most likely in Moscow and St. Petersburg. What are the implications of this? First, despite thirty years of work on the provinces and the expansion of research trips beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg, the view from the center still predominates in the historical narrative, including as written in the West. More prestigious works are those focusing on the central state. Works on the provinces are often seen as worthy but marginal, rather like works on Russian women and other less powerful players. This is evident, not in what the field says, but in what it does. Part of the reason is that hiring committees are interested in scholars who work on topics that are seen as “natural” draws for classes, which in practice tends to mean the central state, Stalin, and so on.

Second, only winners really matter. That means that the emigration, whose archives are scattered over the world, has only recently been the focus of serious study. The state that creates the archives also designates what is prestigious for the field, including in the US and the West more broadly. That needs to stop now.

Third, working with immigrant communities and their archives is not highly valued by the field. The top scholars and grad students from the top universities go to Russia, not to Pennsylvania. What is lost? Huge troves of archival materials in the US are barely touched, as those with the language skills have little motivation to use them and those who are interested – Americanists working on immigration – are unlikely to have the language skills.

Fourth, before February 24, the assumption was that Russianists went to Russia, while Ukrainian archives were for scholars of Ukraine. That will need to change. Russianists will need to also learn Ukrainian, particularly those working on the Soviet period, so that they can use the Ukrainian archives. When that becomes possible, of course. The disinclination of the field of Soviet history to engage with the violence of the Soviet project will also need to be confronted by a new generation of scholars. The practical need for grad students in Russian history to learn Ukrainian in order to use Soviet and imperial-era archival materials in Ukraine will hopefully also help to recenter Ukrainian topics in the study of Russian history.

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