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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Interview: Donald J. Raleigh on a Career Studying the Russian Provinces

Donald J. Raleigh is the Jay Richard Judson Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of several influential works on the Russian Revolution and Civil War in the provinces, including Revolution on the Volga: 1917 in Saratov (1986) and Experiencing Russia's Civil War: Politics, Society, and Revolutionary Culture in Saratov, 1917-1922 (2002). Raleigh has also translated many important works by Russian and Soviet historians, such as E. N. Burdzhalov's Russia's Second Revolution (1987), as well as editing and contributing to collected volumes on Russian provincial history, including Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimensions of Soviet Power, 1917-1953 (2001) and the recently released Russia's Home Front in War and Revolution, 1914-1922, Book 1: Russia's Revolution in Regional Perspective (2015). Raleigh's more recent works include Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia's Cold War Generation (2012) and an ongoing project on Leonid Brezhnev.

Peripheral Histories? Interview: Donald J. Raleigh

1. Question: What did the field of Russian/Soviet provincial history look like when you started your PhD? Why did you choose to study regional history?

When I enrolled in the PhD program at Indiana University in 1971 the field of Russian local history remained at a formative stage. This was true largely because the closed nature of Soviet society had rendered the country’s heartland invisible and because of the lingering impact the totalitarian model had on our scholarship. But there was more to it than that. Although the totalitarian paradigm came under fire in the 1970s, I nonetheless encountered subtle and even obvious resistance to the practice of local history. For example, a mentor of graduate students at one of the country’s other premier programs at the time cautioned his charges not to waste their talents on local topics. In another top program, a senior colleague tried to convince one of his students that not enough sources existed to allow the young historian to write a dissertation on the New Economic Policy in a Russian province. Still others challenged me to justify my work by demonstrating the “typicality” or “representativeness” of Saratov, but they could not offer suggestions on how I might do so.

When I enrolled in Alex Rabinowitch’s field colloquium on Soviet history in the spring of 1972, I read Ron Suny’s newly published study of class and nationality in Baku, which represents the first full-scale local history of the Russian Revolution in Western scholarship. At the same time, I fell under the influence of new writing on the French Revolution, particularly the work of Lynn Hunt. My survey of the historiography on the topic revealed the outstanding contributions that some recent local histories of the French Revolution had made. As a result, when I enrolled in a year-long seminar with Alex Rabinowitch in 1972-73 to launch a dissertation project, I was more than open to the idea of writing a provincial history. Alex backed my plan, but also warned me of its pitfalls. I wrote to Ron Suny for advice. He also applauded my idea, but suggested I pick a locale that I could study using only published sources available outside the USSR in the event I didn’t secure a coveted slot on the exchange program (the product of a bilateral agreement signed between the U.S. and the USSR) then administered by IREX, which represented the only way to conduct dissertation research in the Soviet Union. My bibliographic sleuthing soon led me to conclude that one could write a local study of the revolution only by spending a research year in Russia. It also led me to choose Saratov as the object of my investigation.

The optimism of youth has its benefits: I decided to play Russian roulette with my career, and fortunately things worked out, although with the benefit of hindsight I acknowledge that picking a “safer” topic would have been a more prudent choice. I wrote two seminar papers on Saratov, exhausting all available source materials I could find. I applied for and received an IREX award. As importantly, the Soviet side chose me as well. But Saratov, like most of the Soviet Union, remained closed, so I researched my dissertation in Moscow and Leningrad, using rare published sources and local newspapers.

2. Question: What was studying provincial history like during the Soviet Union? Did you face any unique obstacles to your research that those in the capitals did not? Any relative advantages or benefits?

During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of Soviet historians, particularly those associated with the New Direction in Moscow and the Leningrad school in the country’s second capital, authored works, unfortunately largely overlooked today, which represented required reading not only for the rising generation of historians in the Soviet Union but also for those of us in the “West” who studied 1917 before the dissolution of the USSR. These authors (O. N. Znamenskii, Iu. S. Tokarev, G. L. Sobolev, R. Sh. Ganelin, Kh. M. Astrakhan, G. Z. Ioffe, E. N. Burdzhalov, E. N. Gorodetskii, P. V. Volobuev, and others) produced results that were not entirely invalidated by ideological content. For instance, when I gave an enthusiastic and positive report on Burdzhalov’s Вторая русскаяреволюция: Восстание в Петрограде in Alex’s colloquium on Soviet history, he suggested I translate it. I eventually did. Although originally published in 1967, the book remains a classic on the February Revolution.

I mention these developments to underscore the quite different state of affairs in regard to the writing of local history in the Soviet Union’s locales. Soviet power had left an indelible mark on kraevedenie, the study of local lore or the local region, which, until recently represented the Soviet and then Russian equivalent of what we call local history (the terms local history and regional history are widely used today). In brief, local historians produced a flood of monographic literature and document and memoir collections on the Russian Revolution in the country’s provinces that, even today, cannot go overlooked since the best of these works adduce statistical data that often defy or contradict the historiographical straightjacket restraining the author’s interpretations. That said, this literature remains flawed on two counts. First, it suffers from all of the shortcomings of Soviet historical writing in general. Second, the chronological, thematic, and interpretive frameworks for topics on the Russian Revolution are based on a national (Petrograd) model in which facts of local history appear to be plugged. Moreover, study of the Russian Revolution tended to attract party-minded practitioners, many of whom were deemed by their own colleagues in the profession who studied other topics as “second tier.” All told, the best local studies of the Revolution in Saratov influenced my thinking about Saratov as a socioeconomic entity, but not about local history as a genre. (I wrote about this at some length. See my essay in REGION: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia 2, no 1 (2013): 1-22).

The major obstacles to my work, of course, were that Soviet archives were closed to foreign practitioners as was Saratov itself. I first traveled there only in 1990, thanks to the ferment associated with Gorbachev’s perestroika.

3. Question: How do you think the field of provincial history has evolved since you published Revolution on the Volga in 1986? What impact did the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have on the field?

I mentioned that in 1972 when I began working on my dissertation, I had only Ron Suny’s book on Baku as an example of a local or regional history of the Russian Revolution. Surprisingly little had changed by 1986, when I published Revolution on the Volga. By then, Andrew Ezergailis had written a narrow investigation of Latvian Social Democracy, Russell Snow had put out a slim study of the Bolsheviks in Siberia, and Rex A. Wade had completed his well-researched monograph on the Red Guard, which includes chapters on Saratov and Kharkov. I might also mention two article-length studies on the Revolution in the locales (by W. E. Mosse and Richard A. Pierce), and broader surveys of the Revolution by Marc Ferro, Roger Pethybridge, and John L. H. Keep, which took a stab at making generalizations about the spread of the revolution outside the capitals. Therefore, my Revolution on the Volga represents the first local history of the Russian Revolution in “Western” scholarship that addresses events in provincial Russia.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the opening of its long-sealed archives, and of the country, changed everything. Young scholars (and not only) rushed in to investigate topics difficult if not impossible to address in the past such as the dark years of Stalinism, Soviet nationalities, religion, and local history. Many of my own Ph.D. students, then and now, have explored local topics. Moreover, the majority of my other students who took on broader, “national” topics included provincial case studies in their work. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to adapt quickly to improved circumstances. It’s therefore worth stressing that none of these studies or so many others would have been possible without the transformations that took place some twenty-five years ago.

However, interest among researchers in the Russian Revolution has abated since 1991, and for well-known reasons. Although this might sound heretical to some, I would suggest that the waning appeal of the Revolution was not necessarily an unhealthy development—especially since things are now rapidly changing.

5. Question: How do you assess the current state of academic work on the Russian and Soviet provinces? What has stood out to you? Are scholars asking different questions now than previous generations?

I invite blog readers to examine the “state of the field” essays by S. A. Smith, Boris Kolonitskii, and Liudmila Novikova in the fall 2015 issue of Kritika, in which Smith pointed out that “our times are not especially friendly to the idea of revolution.” In my response, I argued that they are more conducive to dispassionate discussion of the Russian Revolution than they were twenty years ago, owing not only owing to Russia’s resurgence on the world stage but also to the profound interest in World War I sparked by the centenary of its outbreak. Moreover, Russia’s Great War and Revolution publication project, whose first volumes have appeared or are in press, has stimulated new research on and reassessments of the Revolution since the initiative involves more than 200 scholars worldwide.

Taking a more sanguine approach than Smith or Kolonitskii, Novikova rightly underscores the distinctive “provincial turn” that the historiography of revolutionary Russia has taken. While reading the essays in the Russia’s Home Front in War and Revolutionanniversary volume (devoted to the spread of the Revolution to the periphery), I confirmed something that I had detected earlier: The “archival revolution,” the discrediting of aspects of the Soviet project, the evaporation of the exaggerated ideological differences that once divided us from our Soviet colleagues, the popularity of new intellectual currents, the rise of a younger generation of historians, and the impact of recent studies of the Russian Civil War—the Revolution’s most decisive and heretofore most understudied and distorted chapter—to say nothing of global political trends have provided a postrevisionist context in which Russia’s Home Front has been published. A post-cultural-turn approach privileging political and to a lesser extent social history shapes the essays.

I would also maintain that the most consequential development in the historiography of the past quarter-century on the Russian Revolution has been giving the Civil War the attention it deserves. Although Soviet historians writing on 1917 often produced results that were not invalidated by ideological content, this was simply not the case in regard to the Civil War, whose history they patently falsified, undoubtedly owing to the extraordinary level of mass discontent with Bolshevik practices after 1918.

6. Question: Where do you see the field going in the future? What questions are still left unanswered?

My crystal ball suggests that the provincial turn in scholarship on the Russian Revolution (and on Russia, for that matter), will continue. Among other things, this new work will make it possible to shed light on areas controlled by anti-Bolshevik regimes, on peasant rebellion, and non-Russian national governments on the country’s periphery. It is inevitable that new approaches and analytical frameworks reflecting historical scholarship as a whole will inform these studies.

I also see a real need for monographic and synthetic studies of the Revolution’s impact on world history.

Finally, it’s essential to keep our focus on how Russia will commemorate the centennial of 1917. Russian historians—and we—will have to compete with determined political agendas and their attendant vices. How they and their countrymen (re)evaluate the Revolution will shape the historiographical and popular conversation in, as of yet, untold but defining ways. But none of this can invalidate two points: The Russian Revolution remains the defining historical event of the 20th century, and the ideals of failed revolutions, if we may call the Russian Revolution that, remain vital even today.

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