• Peripheral Histories

Brigid O'Keeffe - Teaching the Soviet Union as a Multi-Ethnic Empire

For the first post of our autumn teaching series, we spoke to Brigid O'Keeffe, a historian of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. She is the author of New Soviet Gypsies (University of Toronto Press, 2013) and Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia (forthcoming with Bloomsbury). She teaches a series of courses at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. You can find more information about her research and teaching on her website.


PH: Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests


I am an associate professor of history at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York – a truly unique place to teach students who hail from every corner of NYC and the world. CUNY is a public institution of higher education that overwhelmingly serves students who are people of color, immigrants, first-generation college students, first-generation Americans, and/or working people. It’s an incredible place to teach history. I derive so much energy from my students and the knowledge, curiosity, and perspectives they bring to my classroom. It is also an exhausting place to work because our state government has cruelly and needlessly underfunded CUNY for too many years.


I am a historian of modern Russia and the Soviet Union. My research interests include Soviet internationalism; ethnicity and race in Russian and Soviet history; everyday life; and individual life stories. In my research and writing, I’ve most often been drawn to study the lives of people who have been ignored routinely by historians in the past. As a social historian, I’ve sought to show how the people whom most historians tend to overlook can offer us new understandings of both the broad themes and specialized topics at the heart of my field. So far, my published work has explored the history of Roma, Esperantists, and the life of Ivy Litvinov.


PH: How do your research interests feed into your teaching? Which courses/classes have you taught or are teaching at the moment?


At Brooklyn College, I regularly teach courses on historical methods (“The Historian’s Craft) and on modern Russian and Soviet history. I offer students history courses that survey the major themes and moments in Russian history, as well as more specialized electives. I offer an upper-division course for majors on Stalinism as well as an elective course on “The Soviet Union as a Multiethnic Empire.” I’ve recently developed a new course on “The Soviet Union and the World,” but have not yet had the opportunity to teach it.


I’m on sabbatical in fall 2020 semester – this turned out to be either great timing or terrible timing for a sabbatical, depending on how you look at it. I’m currently working on a manuscript for the “Russian Shorts” book series edited by Stephen Norris and Eugene Avrutin and published by Bloomsbury. My contribution to the series is a trim book titled The Multiethnic Soviet Union and its Demise. Its purpose is to explore the lived experience of the Soviet Union as a multi-ethnic empire in the format of an accessible, compact book. Perhaps it is needless to say, but my course “The Soviet Union as a Multiethnic Empire” in large measure inspired me to take on this project.


While it’s true that my research energizes my teaching, I often find that my teaching energizes my research. One of my favourite courses to teach is “The Historian’s Craft.” It is exciting to help students examine and uncover which historical methods and approaches most appeal to them. I enjoy hearing students out as they consider where they stand on major debates that have long shaped and that continue to shape the discipline. It is also exciting to find that every time I teach this class, it’s a new opportunity for me to think seriously and creatively about the historian’s craft. It’s a built-in prompt for me to consider anew which methods or “classic” texts are most energising and inspiring for me in any given semester when I teach this foundational course.


PH: How do you bring questions of centre and periphery borderlands, or “peripheral” narratives into the classroom?


One of the most satisfying things I have yet done is to create a course on the history of the Soviet Union as a multi-ethnic empire. The course is at once an effort to de-centre Russia and Russians in the study of Soviet history and an attempt to guide students in exploring the centrality of ethnicity to the diverse ways people experienced life (and death) in the Soviet Union.


Yet there are ready opportunities to bring these themes – of borderlands, of “peripheral histories,” of the relationships between centre and periphery – into just about any course on Russian and Soviet history, it seems to me. As a social historian, my instinct is to illuminate individual life stories of “ordinary” and “exceptional” people alike whose trajectories in imperial Russia or the Soviet Union were fundamentally shaped by these dynamics.

L.L. Zamenhof (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Take, for example, the case of L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), the creator of Esperanto. My research has led me in recent years to spill a great deal of ink on Zamenhof and the Esperantists whom he inspired in late imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and around the world. Zamenhof’s life story is in many ways a quintessential Russian empire story and a classic borderlands story. Zamenhof’s is also an emblematic but underappreciated story of how intellectuals in late imperial Russia sought not only answers to the anguished questions plaguing their own crisis-ridden empire, but also creative solutions to global problems. Although most are quick to dismiss Zamenhof as a “marginal” figure in Russian and world history, I have often invoked him in the classes I teach as an exemplar of his time and place. He is someone who can help us think through and understand the dynamics of late imperial Russia and the anxious fin-de-siècle search for a societal reimagining that would lead to Russia’s salvation and the world’s.


PH: What challenges do you face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus?


Some of the challenges I face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus belong to the category of “good problems to have.” When teaching my “Soviet Union as a Multiethnic Empire” course, for example, I can draw from what is by now several decades of rich scholarly work that has afforded us incredible insights into the lived experiences of the Soviet Union’s overwhelmingly diverse population. My greatest limitation in this sense is that there is only so much time in the classroom and only so many readings or podcasts that I can assign.


The field’s (relative) reticence to discuss race in Russian and Soviet history until recently has resulted in the opposite kind of problem – an underdeveloped historiography. I’m thrilled to see that so many colleagues in Russian and Soviet history have recently demonstrated real commitment to thinking carefully about race, racism, and our field. The historiography has plenty of room to grow, as does the field. One of my short-term goals is to develop a course for my students that examines the history of race and racial politics during the Cold War. I hope to build from the energy that is currently enlivening the field and I look forward to benefiting from new research and fresh analyses.


PH: What do you think a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching Russian Imperial/Soviet history looks like?


Fundamentally, if we as teachers are not constantly interrogating whose voices we are privileging and whose we are silencing – well, I dare say we’re not doing our jobs very well. This means thinking carefully and creatively about whose life stories are chosen to emblematize a theme or topic, and why. It also means thinking carefully and empathetically about who in our classrooms feels comfortable and welcome to speak.


I understand well the feelings of those students who have ideas, insights, and questions to contribute to class discussions, but who are nervous about raising their hands or sharing their ideas aloud. I have been that student and I know well those anxious feelings. I am keenly attentive to the ways that structures of gender, race, ethnicity, and class can overdetermine who feels comfortable speaking aloud in a public setting and who does not. I know that one of my most important tasks in the classroom is to create an atmosphere in which as many students as possible feel comfortable speaking aloud and contributing their insights to our collective explorations and debates of course material.


At the most basic level, taking a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching the history of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union also means interrogating our syllabi. It requires looking for ways to improve and innovate how we craft our classes and cultivate the conversations we have with students in the classroom. It means reflecting on our own blind spots, no less than that of the field or discipline as a whole. To take perhaps the most obvious case in point – it’s 2020 and I still see history syllabi that assign only readings by male authors. Every last one of us can do better than that. It’s honestly not in the least bit difficult – if, that is, one makes even the slightest of efforts – to appreciate that women write history as well as make history. In our field, women historians are producing much of the most exciting work (as they long have done), so for me the real challenge is having to make the difficult choice of selecting whose innovative books or articles to assign.


In practice, taking a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching the history of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union can come in many forms. For this reason, I’m always eager to hear more about what my colleagues have tried in their own courses and to learn which assigned readings they have found to be most effective in terms of producing vibrant classroom discussion. In the most recent iteration of my course “The Soviet Union as a Multiethnic Empire,” students responded energetically to Marianne Kamp’s chapter on Jahon Obidova in Russia’s People of Empire; Bathsheba Demuth’s AHR article, “The Walrus and the Bureaucrat;” and Mukhamet Shayakhmetov’s memoir The Silent Steppe.

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