• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

‘In America I Was Attacked for Being a Marxist and Here I Was Attacked as a Bourgeois Falsifier of History’

Ronald Grigor Suny, Academic Director of international research project 'Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism' talks about his academic career and research interests.

‘In America I Was Attacked for Being a Marxist and Here I Was Attacked as a Bourgeois Falsifier of History’

In 2014 the working group of the Department of History of Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg won the university competition and received institutional support for the international research project “Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism.” The project is dedicated to critical rethinking concepts of ethnicity, nationalism, nation-state, and empire in the region of Eastern Europe and Eurasia and exploring in comparative dimension the break up of historic empires and imperial legacy as constitutive for the formation of post-imperial political order, including nationalization and federalization of political space.

The project’s academic director is Ronald Grigor Suny, Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History, The University of Michigan; Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History, The University of Chicago; Senior Research Fellow, Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg. The director of the working group of the project is Alexander Semyonov, Professor and Chair of the Department of History of Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg. Other members of the working group include: Ivan Sablin, Assistant Professor of the Department of  History of Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Anton Kotenko, Post-doctoral Fellow at the Center for Historical Research, Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Evgeny Manzhurin, Doctoral student at the Department of History of Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg.

  • What is your area of research in history and what were the factors that shaped your career as a historian?
  • Actually I have several different, but related research topics. I began as a historian of the Soviet Union, but I was interested in non-Russian peoples, particularly in Caucasus and in other regions of the Soviet Union. I myself was born in America and I’m Armenian in my background and my parents are both Armenian, so I was interested in this topic. My father came from Tbilisi; they left after the revolution and all of my childhood he was telling me stories about Georgia, the revolution. It was extremely interesting and I became interested. My first book was on Baku, the Baku Commune in the revolution, and there I was exploring class and nationality. I was interested in social cleavages and ethnic cleavage and how one turn into the other. In 1917 in Baku it was mostly social class struggles, but this than changed in 1918with the collapse of the Russian Empire and takeover of the most of it, to the international struggle. And that was interesting to me. I was not particularly interested in nationalism at the time. I came from the left and I was interested in Marxism, socialism, the working class, and revolutionary movement. It was the 1960-70, we all were interested in this type of social history. And then I decided to learn Georgian. I earlier studied Armenian and Russian, and now I learned Georgian. And I started The Making of the Georgian Nation, and there I develop in my own thinking on a constructivist approach - that is how nations are made in modern times. That book was published during the Soviet period, in 1988for the first time, and it was attacked, of course. The Baku Commune by the way was attacked as the bourgeois falsification of the history of Azerbaijan. So in America I was attacked for being a Marxist and here I was attacked as the bourgeois falsifier of history. It was an interesting position to me. Then I wrote a book on Georgia and Georgians criticized me, not impressed, of course, they couldn’t do that, as an Armenian nationalist who’s writing about Georgia, because I was writing about all the peoples of Georgia, of the country within the empire, not just a national history of one ethnicity. And that was not popular. By the way, now this book is very well received in Georgia. There are piles of them in book stores on Rustaveli avenue, you can buy it. But in that time it was attacked because of the nationalism was growing up in Georgia.

Then I went to the University of Michigan and I became a professor of Armenian history and wrote a book Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History. That book was attacked by Armenians because it was not nationalist enough (laughs). So they never liked this book at all. Again it was a constructivist account of making a national identity. It was in account of how the Armenians became a nation in modern times, how they turned from an ethno-religious community based in a church to more secular idea of nation first in the Russian Empire in the Caucasus and then also in the Ottoman Empire.

Then I thought I want to move more into the Soviet history. So I began to do research on Stalin. I think Stalin is an interesting connector, an underexplored link between a local history of the Caucasus, Georgia, and Russian history and Soviet history. I began to work on a biography of young Stalin, Stalin in Georgia. But at that time, in the late 1980s – early 1990s the Soviet Union was falling apart and archives were closed. So even though I had written 200 pages I decided to put this book aside and to wait till archives open. So I didn’t continue that book. I went on to write a history of the Soviet Union. It is called The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States, and I developed an account of the whole history of the Soviet Union. That is now the best selling text-book of the Soviet history in the United States and maybe in all of the west, I don’t know. So that book very well pays my local taxes twice a year (laughs).

In the meantime while the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1990-1991 I gave lectures at Stanford University on how nations are made in modern times through the lens of the constructivist approach. I called it The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. That book is kind of radical contribution, which in some ways, I’ll be proud to say, changed dominant paradigm of the way people understand nation-making in the Soviet Union. So before this book most of the writing about non-Russian peoples in the Soviet Union was based on primordial understanding of nationalities (nationalities, because I never use the word minorities, because they are not minorities in their own countries). I showed how the Soviet Union took ethnic, religious, and linguistic communities and turned them into modern nation with territories, with operahouses, with film studios, and the whole range of attributes of modern nations.

A year after I wrote that book and month after I published it the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 different independent countries. Only then I became interested in the ideas of empire and nationalism. I was interested in seeing the way in which empire helps to manufacture nations within its composite space. So the dominant paradigm about empires held that they were enemies of nations, nations grew up and destroyed empires. And I was trying to show how positive was construction of nation within the Soviet Empire and even, by the way, within the tsar’s empire. This is where the non-Russian intelligentsia was trained. Most of the Georgian intelligentsia in the first generation were trained in Saint-Petersburg, this is where Chavchavadze and Tsereteli and others came. So that was really interesting.

And then I would say because of my interest in Armenia in the last couple years I’ve turned to writing about an Armenian genocide of 1915. So I’ve made the effort in my advanced age to learn modern Turkish, and did a lot of research. The book will come out next year – 2015 is the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. The book’s title is They Can Live in a Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide.  And that phrase comes from the speech by Talaat Pasha, the Young Turkish architect of the genocide.

So now I’ve got these books coming out – Young Stalin will come out and Armenian genocide will come out – and with my wonderful colleague Valerie Kivelson who does early modern Russian history, at University of Michigan, we’re writing a book together called Russia’s Empires, which tells the whole history of Russia and Soviet Union and Russia.

  • So you were attacked every time your book came out. Is it good or bad for a historian to be in the public spotlight? Should historians think about public relevance of their work?
  • Oh absolutely, I hope so! (laughs). I think historians, whatever your politics are (and I feel very strong about politics) must try to do as best as possible real objective scientific empirically based theoretically informed history. So, you don’t write a history that has a political purpose. I believe, along with many other historians that truth is revolutionary. If you tell the truth it will subvert, it will undermine the common sense understanding and assumptions that people propagate and that governments propagate. The vocation of historians is to be critical intellectuals, not organic intellectuals agent of the state, Undermining common sense understanding – that’s our job.

As a matter of fact, in the book about the Armenian genocide I do not say: “It’s a terrible Turk, and it’s Turks, their culture, they’ve murdered Armenians, it’s in their blood.” Instead I tried to explain why in 1915 in a certain historical situation a government with a certain  affective disposition, that is a mental and emotional state, decided to carry out the most cruel  crime in human history that is the mass murder of a designated people.

In Armenia the whole generation doesn’t like that, they call me a traitor. Because I’m not writing a national history and I’m not anti-Turkish. I’m trying to explain that Turks are not monsters, their human beings that could do monsters things – that’s my view.

  • Is it normal that historians don’t have a political purpose?
  • We’re human beings. We live in historical space and time. So we have information and we have opinion. As Marx said: “Who educated the educator?” We didn’t come from Mars. But we can then impose our views on the writing of history. This is possible. You can both have these political views and these can be very strong views – I have a very strong view about the rights of Palestinians to have their own state and to defend themselves. But your work should be as careful, scientific, and objective as possible and you should try to show what happened and why it happened.

In certain moment around 1994 I got a phone call from the University of Chicago, the department of political science. They said: “Would you consider to be considered in our department.” I said “But I’m not a political scientist, but I’ll be happy to be considered.” Eventually, I got this position and for 11 years I was in political science at the University of Chicago and it was wonderful experience. Why? Because political science is very laborious work, they’re very careful about categories, about definition and about explanation. And it helps me in my history as well. Political science is very quantitative, very formal modeling. I respect those things, they’re very strong. But it’s not what I do. My work is more culturally oriented and more time centered. So, I find myself balancing between the caution of political science and the sensitivity of history which is always aware of the deep texture, of the temporal context.

  • So why history?
  • Because history is the queen of social sciences. History is all we can know about the future. The only thing we can know about the future is what happened in the past, what’s going on in the present and how it influences what may happen in the future. There’s no other way! That is the sum of human understanding of where we might go. Like historical statistics. If one looks at something like Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” – it’s all historical, it’s not a model built abstractly from numbers. It’s all about data of the past and how it might change the future. That’s the power of that book.

And the most important thing for a historian. There’re two kinds of history you could say. The official history, which is a history, where states write about themselves, organic intellectuals- agents of the state write about themselves, just showing how great they are, describing the current relations of power, who’s up, who’s down. Historians often help to make modern states and modern nations.  And there is a tiny spark which is important to preserve and to develop which is critical history, which is questioning those dominant paradigms.

And hopefully this critical history will continue to be developed because without it we can to go down the wrong road.

  • So you studied Russia and Soviet Union for all your life. You must have visited that country and our country for many times. What is the main difference for you between the USSR and Russia?

One of the first differences between the Soviet Union and Russia today is between order and chaos. In the USSR everything was very orderly, things were already set in place, you knew where you were going, where you were born, how you lived, how you died, everything was set. System like this can operate well. So, no matter what you did and it happened to me too, every day you broke the rule. No matter what you did there was some law you were breaking (laughs). You bought something on black market, whatever. But it was the system that was in place, that needed to be deeply reformed. And there was some wonderful attempts by Gorbachev which was unfortunately very rapidly carried out and led to a disastrous conclusion which was the collapse of the system and total disintegration of the Soviet Union which, I share Putin’s view, is a great catastrophe. Not a worst thing in the 20th century – we had World War I, we had World War II, we had the Holocaust, we had the Armenian genocide – many bad things happened in the 20th century. But the fall of the Soviet Union, the way it happened, was also tragic and we’re still experiencing the tragic results and aftermath of the fall of the empire. It hunts us with the Ukraine today, in Nagorny Karabakh, in the civil war that Tajiks suffered - so it is still an ongoing process. The Soviet Union in some way is still disintegrating and new society is being built. The sad thing was when the Soviet Union collapsed and really there was a possibility of creating new world order, of the European home from the Atlantic to the Urals and even to the Pacific – people were not taking that seriously. And there I would blame largely the west. Instead of thinking creatively, and George Bush the first by the way did think more creatively about it, he didn’t want the Soviet Union to collapse, by the way – instead of trying to create a new security architecture, a new paradigm, they went back to the old way and they pushed up to the border of Soviet Union and therefore Russia is very weak state at that time, couldn’t resist and didn’t resist until 2008 when Putin went to war with Georgia provoked by Saakashvili. Now this crisis we have today is also part of that problem. We are far away at the moment from thinking creatively about a new security arrangement of the world and that’s becoming a serious problem.

  • What is the main difference between American and Russian systems of education, and in history in particular?
  • I found Soviet students back then and Russian students today extraordinary. They’re very well educated. Even with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and there was a period in the 1990th when education was really devalued in this country, it’s been revived, it’s been recreated. At the level I was teaching that is graduate students – they are very good. They would do well at Michigan or Chicago. In the US we’re bringing students to the universities from all over the world. At Michigan we have an Armenian studies program we bring people from Erevan, also from Turkey to work on historical research together. They come with maybe not as much equipment, not as much knowledge. In place like Armenia they are raised in very nationalist environment but they grow very quickly. So I would say students are really excellent and this is the future. The world is in great trouble right now – in Ukraine, in Iraq, in Libya, Syria, in eastern Turkey, in Karabakh  – you can name these different places where crisis’s waiting to happen. And yet in a very small way, a few well minded, well intentioned thinking individuals can try to push forward a little bit our understanding of how we came to this place, what happens when empires fall, what happens when countries turn to chauvinism and nationalism. 

Everything are doing here at the Higher School of Economics is very much on the American level and American model. There are seminars, master classes, presentations, I gave formal and informal lectures – there were questions and answers. So I don’t see as much difference at that level. Maybe there’s difference on the undergraduate level, I’m not sure.

  • What are your plans for the project at the Higher School of Economics and other possible help that you can be of with us here at St. Petersburg?
  • What we’re trying to do is precisely develop a new generation of historians who are working on we can call the world level. Not the western level, not the Russian level, but the world level. That is the highest possible scientific standard of writing good history. And learning from the latest methodology. An example: when we were studying Russian history in the west, Russian history was not as highly developed as a historiography of let’s say the United States, France (the studies of the French revolution) or Britain. So we russianists in west were forced to read British history, French history, American history in order to learn how one does history. And then we can bring it to the field of Russian history. So a good student at the place like the Higher School of Economics will read this world historiography and add to it the Russian historiography, add to it the latest methodology and develop a high level of understanding of Russian history in the global context.

Now there’s a global development of the field of imperial studies, studies of politics of diversity in imperial and post-imperial contexts. The trend now is that specialists in other fields (history of colonial empires) are forced to read new type of Russian and Soviet historiography. You want to write a comparative history of empire? You can’t leave out the experience of the Russian Empire and you can’t leave out the Soviet Union. And this historical experience offers new and different analytical models for understanding empire and politics of diversity.

  • Please, describe the plans of the research project 'Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism.'
  • Here at the Higher School of Economics we have a plan for the next 3 years. We’re planning to convene workshops and conferences on themes of dynamics of modernizing imperial regimes, the causes and consequences of the collapse of historic empires, and imagination of post-imperial political order, emphasizing federalism and regionalism - alternatives to the centralization of the imperial space and uniformity of the nation-state. And that seems to me is not only a historical topic but the topic that is relevant to the present. In the former soviet space you have situations like Karabackh, Abhazia, South Osetia, Transnistria, Eastern Ukraine, Crimea etc. which cry out for other ways of thinking about the modern nation state and the possibilities of degrees of shared sovereignty. We also think of doing something about the cities, exploring especially the history of political capitals in the context of transition from cosmopolitan and multiethnic urban centers of empire to national capitals and symbols of homogenous nations. We even have made plans for a summer school, in which we will bring young faculty and researchers from the broad region to discuss new methodologies and approaches to the comparative history of empire and nationalism.
  • Do you have personal connection to St. Petersburg?
  • I actually do. My father’s father Grigor Mirzoyan Suni was born in Kadebek outside Karabakh, that is now Azerbaijan, in an Armenian village. And later he became a composer. He eventually was sent – he had no money, he was poor Armenian boy, the community paid for him – to St. Petersburg, to the conservatory of music and studied here under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. The archival files of the conservatory contain records about my grand father.

Elena Lisovaya of HSE- St. Petersburg