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Charles A. Ruud: “The problem is I think Putin is not a reader, he does not know Russian culture, he does not feel the Russian soul”


During the 54 years Charles Ruud taught at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, he made over 40 trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg to conduct research In Russian archives. His books have concentrated on the the influence of liberal ideas in an authoritarian society. Email:

Authored books:

Fighting words: imperial censorship and the Russian press, 1804-1906. University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Russian entrepreneur: publisher Ivan Sytin of Moscow, 1851-1934. McGill-Queens Presss, 1990. Русский предприниматель московский издатель Иван Сытин. М.: Терра, 1996.

Fontanka, 16: the tsars' secret police. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999. Фонтанка, 16: Политический сыск при царях. М.: Мысль, 1993.

The constant diplomat: Robert Ford in Moscow. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009.

My life for the book: the memoirs of a Russian publisher by Ivan Dmitrievich Sytin. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012.

Jan Assmann argues that the usual span of communicative (family) memory of modern people includes three generations (80-100 years). How deep is your family memory?

We Ruuds are from the Mid-West, from Minnesota. It is a Scandinavian area. My grandfather came from Norway; my grandmother, from Germany. Their eldest son, my father, became a printer. He wanted me to become a printer, but I chose to become a Russian historian and so learned to speak the Russian language that I love because it is so systematic, so predictable. And I think my English became better because of studying Russian. And the other great success in my early life was to marry Margie. Margie comes from Swedish background. I have concentrated on the Russian Empire censorship and I have to date written six books.

Why were you involved in Russian studies?

Great question. I wonder myself why did I do that? I think possibly I came along when was a particular interest of Americans we discovered at least we thought this that Russians and Americans are very much alike. Most Russians and most Americans share a sense of humor. Maybe you agree, maybe you do not, but I thought that harmony between two great peoples was interesting to understand how did that happened, what did that produce, what are the results, what are the effects on the World. These similarities I think were a reason why I was attracted in Russian studies. First and foremost I decided to make Russian studies when I decided to be a scholar. When I made choice I decided that for me Russian studies were most interesting. So I started concentrated on Russian studies. And gradually I found myself concentrated exclusively on Russian studies. Other subjects were interesting, but Russian studies were compelling. And that is all I have been thinking since that time. I like Russians. I started my university studies at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon in 1951 was graduated from there in 1955.

Were there any Russians among your University professors?

Yes. Eventually the most interesting professors were the émigrés. They went up to America and turned to universities to teach and became very influential scholars and professors. I think particularly about Mikhail Mikhailovich Karpovich. What a great man, a great fellow! I went to his classes at Harvard with great enthusiasm. He was fascinating. Following the February Revolution of 1917 Karpovich went to work for the new Provisional Government. After Bolsheviks took power he became a professor at Harvard. And I have been at Harvard where was Karpovich. That was fateful getting together of an evident student and superb scholar. I had never encountered anyone like Karpovich who had a quest of mind and ability to understand and in the same time to be humorous. I have decided since that time that humor is a characteristic of democratic people. And I think we all have the experience of speaking to others. At once you talk to democrats have present conversation. At once you talk to authoritarians have very doubtful conversation. Can you imagine for example having a good conversation with Donald Trump? That is impossible.

Did Karpovich tell to the students any details regarding his experience during the Russian revolution?

Karpovich did not speak about himself. His course was advertised basically about Russian literature. Russian literature was a part of my awakening as a scholar. I simply was floored by Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and countless other Russian authors. What a magical world that was. And in my own courses I spent a lot of time urging my students to read Tolstoy or Gogol. I find Gogol the funniest author I have ever read. He is extraordinarily clever and amusing. What a great outlook on life!

Could you tell about your academic stages in the Soviet Union?

I went to Russia under the IREX exchange in 1966, a year after I earned my Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley, and have since returned about forty times. And I found it an absolutely fascinating place. It was after I had earned my PhD. The Americans thought we were going to loosen up to the Soviets. I discovered later that some of the Russians thought they were going to loosen up up to the Americans. We had similar ideas. When I first got to the Soviet Union I was thinking that ‘well, I know the language,’ but I did not really know it well enough to converse fluently with it. So it surprised me to hear spoken Russian all around me and then I had to master. So the first year was learning of conversation with Russians, learning how to work in Russian archives, learning how to enjoy myself in Moscow. In all worked out and although some people thought that I am crazy I decided to go another time and I got absorbed in Russian studies. And I began to go back just to read in archives. That was a challenge but it was worth doing. Censorship was the main subject which I took with me into the Soviet Union. When I got there I met a Bulgarian and he said ‘You know you are a departure. It is interesting that the Soviets let you in when you are studying censorship.’ There was a kind of indicative of the changes that were taking place in Russia. So they let me in and let me working in archives and there is the beginning of the story.

Who was your Russian tutor?

We each had a language tutor as exchange students. Mine was named Boris Konstantinovich Zareanko. and we encountered different kind of teaching Russian. In America we were all together in one class. We took up a different problem at every meeting and worked on it until I mastered it. It was an a approach I thought very valuable.

Who were the Soviet professors you collaborated during your first stages in the Soviet Union?

Piotr Andreevich Zaionchkovsky was my supervisor. He gave me some guidance but not much. It was up to me to find my way. Piotr Andreevich met with us. More or less I decided to meet with him. He was an expert in the archives. So he was a great resource and I followed his lead. So that was really valuable. It was a different approach to academic life. In the Soviet Union of course was very hard on liberal scholars, but Piotr Andreevich was a liberal scholar. How did he manage to get along in the Soviet Union? He did. He wrote interesting books. They were books that were quite different from the books we wrote. They were extremely profound, detailed, searching and I learned a lot from him. So he was in a way of my inspiration and guide into Russian research.

Was your communication with Zaionchkovsky and other Soviet academics limited only by professional subjects or did you discuss other subjects as well?

As I recall we had a human connection and it was not characteristic of official Soviet relations. And we all called the pun to be careful not to push it too far recognizing the restrictions and the limitations under which Soviet scholars had to work. And what I really found valuable was how it was possible to accomplish good things under a bad system. This was a revelation to me because a had gone to the Soviet Union thinking that it is a dictatorship where I had to be careful, we could not do anything much and then I discovered that we were doing a lot. This I guess is a Russian characteristic, you can one side show yourself to be in favour of the regime and the other side you show that you are not in favour of the regime. I love that experience.

Was it possible to discuss with your Soviet friends the problems of Soviet life, for instance the restrictions of freedom of expression?

It was not impossible but as I recall was always suggestive. I did not ask them to declare themselves to be liberal, but our conversation nonetheless went off in liberal direction. And if they were asking me about life in America when I answered I would try to talk without seeming I denounce life in the Soviet Union. So we had a subtle game going on all the time and it was a great fun. Some of the Americans got in the trouble because they went too far. One or two were actually expelled from the country. So I guess it was a lesson to all of us: pay attention to business, do what we admitted to do, do not mess around. So I was very careful in Russia. I did not go beyond the limits of the program under which I was studying. This was not the Russians. This was the Soviet government imposing these orders on us.

I think you met in the Soviet Union some young scholars, your peers. Did some of them become your friends?

Let us see. That is a tough one. I remember my roommate in Moscow University, Yuri. He spent his days fooling around. Yuri was a Soviet ex-military officer and every afternoon he would go and drink beer with his friends. One day his mother came over to visit us in the dormitory and she said: ‘Yuri why cannot you be like this American?’ He did not want to be like an American. I do not blame him, he was having a good time. I often wandered what happened, but alas I cannot tell you. So he was I suppose my closest contact since we lived together in a room at Moscow University an academic year. I do recall that I went away to visit my family in Germany during the Christmas break. I came back and turned out that Yuri had using my bad because he had invited a certain lady to live with him in my room and they had shared my bad. This made life very interesting I think. Then I got my bad back and lived on the rest of the year in Moscow and I also would get permission to go to Leningrad because there was a good archive there. In fact Leningrad had the better archive than Moscow for me because the government documents are in that archive.

Do you remember your colleagues from Leningrad?

I do remember one. His name was Boris Lvovich Kandel and we became very friendly. We would get together from time to time and had a chat in the Saltykov-Schedrin library. Kandel was a sort of person who wanted to be close to an American but in the same time he was a little bit afraid of the American. I remember one time we met in the library and we were having a chat by the window and he suddenly changed the subject because an orthodox priest had come close to us and Kandel said ‘You have to be careful. You never know who is close to you, what are their up to.’ It was a great lesson to me. The priests could also be in hands of KGB. You see how much I learned about Soviet life, about Russians. Just my being there. And I remember that we used to have lunch in the library. I remember too we used to stand in line. And to get into a library sometimes you would have to wait for a half hour. And when you got into a library you had to be very careful because they were a general collection and a special collection (Slujebnyi katalogue). One day by mistake I got into a special collection and started looking through the card catalogue and one of the librarians came up to me and said ‘You are not allowed to be in this part of the library.’ It was very strange. And then I also remember in reading rooms every hour library attendants (dejurnye) would come up and opened the window leaf to let a fresh air inside and in that point most people would go out and have a cigarette. I also remember the Russian papirosy. I tried one once. It is not worth (Ne stoit). And I never could use to the idea of going out and have a beer in the middle of the day like my dormitory’s neighbour did. Russians like beer I think.

In later years speaking of different ways doing things I invited some friends to come visit me in Saint-Petersburg. They came over and it was clear that they are not enjoying life. They did not really appreciate how to do things in Russia. We decided to go from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg and I wanted to go on the train and one of my friends said ‘can we fly?’ I said ‘no you have to see Russia on the ground not from overhead’. And we went on the ground.

You were many times in the Soviet Union. Could you predict Perestroika when not the dissidents but the leader of Communist party initiated the process of capitalist transformation of the Soviet society? Or was it a big surprise for you?

It was not entirely a surprise. I thought Russians are now able to be themselves. My fundamental conclusion was that Russian personality is now coming out and is becoming honest itself. It was a sort of the vindication of my thinking that the Russians really were much like Americans. We had a lot to say to one another, we could talk easily to one another; we need not as Americans think that the Russians were dedicated to our destruction. It was wonderful! It has been the great experience of my life.

I was very interested in the reactions of Russians. I recall in particular that it was an archive attendant (dejurnaya). While the Soviet Union was still holding a country in its grip she wore dark close, she had her hair done back in a bun. When thing began to relax the same woman was still there but she had a dress harbored with flowers, her hair hanging done loose, no more bun, she had on a bit makeup. It was a different person. Her personality had begun to emerge. It was incredible alteration of people’s personality.

Unfortunately, the time of freedom was very short in Russia. Now we are witnessing how the ‘Brezhnev-style’ moderate authoritarian rule of early Putin has been replaced by the quasi ‘Stalin-style’ dictatorship of the late-Putin regime. Some Western intellectuals and even academics believe that Russian classic culture, including Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Brodsky, is a transmitter of anti-liberal values and blame them for the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. In their opinion the ‘toxic’ Russian culture must be canceled everywhere. What do you think about that?

That is nonsense. I think Russian literature is the protector and the nurturer of democratic ideas. All you have to do to read them carefully. I do not think that Russian culture somehow protects authoritarianism. Not at all. Quite the contrary, as I think Mikhail Karpovich would argue. He was a great Russian liberal, he understood Russia on the inside. Yes, I think that what is still to happen. So we have the authoritarians like Putin. They got a wrong message. They did not understand what the true Russian is. The problem is I think Putin is not a reader, he does not know Russian culture, he does not feel the Russian soul. It is a great tragedy for him, for his country, and for the World. I think Russians understand otherwise. Here was Zaionchkovsky, giving a talk to the students at Leningrad University. Everybody knew that Zaionchkovsky was a liberal person somewhat limited by the environment but he was nonetheless a man of true Russian spirit. That what we need keep in touch I think.

And the last traditional question, what are your academic plans?

My first book was on censorship. Then I began to look for liberals and I found them. Here is Ivan Sytin a famous Russian entrepreneur in the field of publishing business. He did the great things and a great typography in Moscow. He published a wonderful newspaper Russkoie slovo. This happened in Russia. But he understood how to operate under strict conditions. He had a wonderful writer Vlas Doroshevich, who was a great journalist. His works is filled with democratic ideas. I think he was a true Russian intellectual. And Sytin brought together in his paper a wonderful collection of writers and illustrators. One of them Grigory Petrov was a writer and a priest in the same time. He was able to do two things to worship God and to write wonderful articles. And Doroshevich wrote wonderful articles. He was a satirist, very clever writer, he wrote in a way which his ideas became clear. His sympathies were clear, but still he was writing inside an authoritarian regime. These writers whom Sytin hold together and Sytin himself were liberals. These gentlemen were extremely interesting, attractive and I thought they are Russians.

And now I am working on a book about another great Russian, Nicolai Pirogov. He started out a firm believer in ideas of the eighteen century Enlightenment. These were rational people, very good people and they saw the world as a series of mechanisms. And then Pirogov felt in love and his outlook began to change, he became a romantic and philosopher. So he has slightly changed his point of view. He was still a great doctor but also a philosopher. I find this point very interesting combination both a doctor who specialized on amputations and a philosopher who has a positive view on the world. So he did not lose his capacity to be reasonable to understand problems but injected into this into this point of view was an appreciation for ideas. He married a good woman, unfortunately she died early, so he married another one. He had two children by the first one and he had an estate outside of Moscow. He knew how to live, he knew how to work with women, he was a wonderful guy who solve the complexity in the world and appreciated it. I guess that is I mean. And now I am pursuing this fellow in my recent book and the manuscript is now in the hands of the publisher. And we will see what happens.

Thank you very much for your interview!


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