Alun Thomas - Teaching Individuals or Identities in Soviet History
Before I took my current role, I taught briefly at various universities, often covering other people’s pre-existing survey modules on Soviet history. I learned far more about the broader Soviet Union during this time than I did from my PhD, and also came to understand how to structure a module to achieve certain larger goals. So by the time I joined Staffordshire University in 2017 and got the opportunity to conceive my own module, from start to finish, I knew exactly what I would flagrantly steal and what I wanted to do differently.
‘The Soviet Union and its People, 1917-1991’, as implied by the title, is a module of two halves. The first, taught in the autumn semester, is a standard survey of Soviet history from the Revolution to collapse, focusing on its major political and economic developments. The second half, taught in the spring semester, is built around a series of individuals, one per week, who made their lives in the USSR. The students vote for which individuals they want to focus on after Christmas, choosing from a list I curate myself. We access their lives through primary sources. Most of these are ego documents: memoirs, autobiographical fragments, correspondence and the like.
For me, one of the primary benefits of this focus on ego documents in the spring semester is that it obviates the binary thinking by which the historiography of the USSR was long coded. In the autumn semester, the continuing legacy of the Cold War makes itself felt in the discussions arising from required reading: how did socialism differ from capitalism? How did it differ from liberalism? How did it differ from (neo-)imperialism? Individuals cannot be coded this way. Soviet citizens did not live on a one-dimensional axis. Confronting the paradoxes, incompatibilities and inconsistencies of real people, who stubbornly resist easy categorisation, is one of the greatest joys (and most important tasks) of history, in my opinion.
As my main research interest is Soviet Central Asia, I normally try to gerrymander at least one individual from that region into the spring semester’s curriculum. So alongside a Muscovite textile worker or late-Soviet political prisoner, students are encouraged to choose figures such as Communist Party leader Alibi Dzhangil’din or survivor of the Kazakh famine Mukhamet Shayakhmetov.
Whatever the name and life story of our Central Asian individual that week, they frequently lead to discussion of gender and, in a related way, race. The sources often take us here; Shayakhmetov’s memoir speaks movingly of his sister’s marriage, for instance, and there’s such rich historiography to draw from. What I’ve noticed though, is that during our week discussing gender in Central Asia, my little academic crusade against binary thinking and false dichotomies faulters.
Were the women of Soviet Central Asia liberated or not? Was Soviet power in Central Asia proto-feminist or not? Was this cultural imperialism or not? These are the questions around which seminar discussion often emerges. And even further: does this mean the Soviet Union was enlightened, modern, progressive, good; or not? More so or less so than ‘the West’? I feel myself lapsing into this simpler normative thinking as much as my students. Why?
Gender and identity are unquestionably cornerstones of the contemporary zeitgeist in the UK and much of the wider world. As is often asserted, history is not only about the past, but about the past engaging with the present. It is right and proper that students should bring their own contemporary political concerns to their study of history, and that I should try to facilitate that with respect. I enjoy listening to them talk through the issues.
But at this intersection between today’s politics and the people of the Soviet Union, a challenge arises. Students are minded to treat Soviet Central Asia as a case study in two of their political preoccupations, which I’ll summarise crudely as feminism and anti-racism. Feminism is an ideology and, like all other ideologies, its heuristic purpose is to categorise people for political ends rather than to understand individuals in all their dizzying idiosyncrasy. Similarly, anti-racism as a movement must categorise people if it is to communicate a message and effect institutional change. Whatever their merits, these preoccupations lead students to treat my module’s Soviet Central Asians as representatives of political identities first and real historical people second. This isn’t wrong, but it’s not what I intended, and interestingly it’s not so much how our Muscovite textile worker or political prisoner get treated.
Culture today surely trains us less than it did in the Cold War to think about individuals in economic classes, in marketplaces, or inside or outside bureaucracies, but it trains us with acuity to think about individuals as gendered and ethnicised. Perhaps, therefore, I’m setting myself the comparably easy task of assaulting Cold War binaries but failing to meet the challenges of today’s binary assumptions.