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Karl Schlögel: “The dissolution of the Soviet empire is entirely new and demands new approaches and probably answers"

25.03.2023


Karl Schlögel is a historian, essayist, and professor emeritus at Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. E-mail: karl.schloegel@web.de


His books include:


Moskau lesen, Berlin 1984, (transl. English, French, Russian);


Jenseits des großen Oktober. Petersburg 1909-1921. Das Laboratorium der Moderne, Berlin 1988;


Das Wunder von Nishnij oder die Rückkehr der Städte. Berichte und Essays, Frankfurt am Main 1991

(transl.Italian, Dutch);


Berlin Ostbahnhof Europas. Russen und Deutsche in ihrem Jahrhundert, Berlin 1998

(transl. Russian, French);


Promenade in Jalta und andere Städtebilder, München/Wien (transl.French, Dutch, Polish)

Moscow 1937, Cambridge 2012 (transl.Russian, Lithuanian, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Swedish, Dutch2012);


Ukraine – Nation on the Borderlands, London 2016 (transl.Ukrainian, Russian, Swedish, Spanish);


To Read Time in Space. History of Civilization and Geopolitics, Chicago 2016 (transl.Italian, Spanish,

Polish);


The Scent of Empires. Chanel No.5 and Krasnaya Moskva, London 2022 (transl.in many languages);


The Soviet Century. Archeology of a Lost Civilization, Princeton 2023 (transl.Italian, Spanish)




Serguey Ehrlich: Dear Prof. Schlögel I am very grateful that you agreed to have an interview with our journal “The Historical Expertise” (https://www.istorex.org/), which was relocated to Moldova after the beginning of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. The first question is traditional because the specialization of our journal is memory studies. Jan Assmann points out that family (communicative) memory of modern people extends up to three generations or 80 to 100 years. How deep is your family memory? Did you try to find the archival documents regarding your ancestors?



I come from a farming family in southern Germany. The history of the farm where I grew up goes back to the Peasants' War of the 1520s and the 30 Years War. In the cemetery of our church there are monuments to the soldiers who died in the French-German War, in the First World War and in the vast spaces of the Eastern front between 1939 and 1945. I grew up after the war and in our family there were the typical conflicts of the generation of 1968 with the generation of parents — my father was in the war, most of his time on the Eastern Front.



Serguey Ehrlich: The Soviet studies are not very popular in Western academia. Why were you involved in that field? Maybe you have the Russian ancestry?


As I said, I had no family connections. But I met my wife in Moscow while studying and our daughter grew up in Moscow. It was biographical coincidences why I became interested in the East and Russia. In our village there were displaced persons who had to flee from the Eastern provinces after 1945. I went to a Catholic gymnasium where we had Russian lessons because the teacher was from Bialystok. I went to Prague very early because I was interested in Kafka, and our school class organized a bus trip from Munich via Kiev to Moscow and back in 1966. Those were very strong impressions and I always felt comfortable among the people, simple veterans and dissidents in the Moscow kitchens or in exile in Paris. I traveled a lot in the vast spaces of the former empire.



Serguey Ehrlich: How do you think the Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will affect the East European studies?



Definitely. In the late 1980s and 1990s, we had an enthusiastic cohort of students going to Poland, to Russia, learning the languages, and we all had ideas about what we could do now: Scientific projects, travel, cooperations. We went to conferences, joint expeditions on the Volga, on the Belomor Canal, on Solovki. We learned so much from the soratniki of Memorial, many of whom had to leave Russia now.


Now the possibilities to travel, visit archives, organize conferences in Russia have practically stopped. Contacts with friends remain, as best we can. But how we can afford to support the new diaspora, that is a big task (I have done a lot of work on Russkij Berlin and German exile in America).


There will be a whole re-start or Russian studies - reflection, reconsidering —, as well as a new re-start of Ukrainian history, of which most historians of Eastern Europe knew little or nothing before 2014. What is Putinism, what is deep history behind the war, how to understand the longue durée of Russian history.


I have just finished my book on the American Century, parallel to the Soviet Century. It will be published in the fall, and it is a parallel history, because I was always in the U.S. simultaneously with my Russian travels. And I finished my history of the Volga — which was interrupted due to the war against Ukraine — as a history of Russia — it was almost finished when Putin occupied Crimea. So the Volga will have to wait — but it will continue to flow when Putin is already gone.


Serguey Ehrlich: I asked my colleague Alexey Golubev (he is an associate professor of history in University of Houston) to compose a few questions regarding your fundamental research.



Alexey Golubev: Dear Karl, I really appreciated the opportunity to read your fabulous The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World. My recently published book, The Things of Life: Materiality in Late Soviet Russia (based on my 2016 PhD dissertation) discusses some of the same spaces and objects of late socialism, including staircases, collections, and museums, so it was fascinating to read your masterful discussion of Soviet material, visual, literary, and symbolic relics, even though in the end we pursue two very different research agenda. Needless to say, I would rather prefer to have this discussion as a live conversation. Our current format reminds of me “correspondence chess” (as opposed to “over-the board chess”), although there is still an important difference: you are getting all of my “moves” at once. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading your responses! 





























There are always spirits thoughts, exploring the world independently from one another. That is wonderful. And at some point they come together inevitably. Then there are paradigm shifts, Thomas Kuhn's turn and dream of scientific revolutions.


Alexey Golubev: The root metaphor of the book is organistic: the Soviet Union as “a form of life with its own history, maturity, decline and fall.” And this lifeform is apparently extinct; hence the subtitle of your book, “Archeology of a Lost World.”What kind of heuristic and analytical value is provided by this conceptualization of the Soviet Union in terms of a location and event (a chronotope) that is gone forever? Does it help us ‘defamiliarize’ the Soviet historical experience? Is it an opportunity to break away from the reductionist totalitarian framework?


I have no systematic theory, no method worked out as a plan, but follow my own intuition, approach. I follow the material — stuff? — and take all freedom — even it is called eclectic. My ideal figure is the well-trained, all-round interested flâneur, the phenomenologically trained eye, he uses all disciplines, he is "eclectic" and dilettante. In my mind and experience space and place are underestimated — and there will be no history of Russia properly if it will not overcome the dimension of space and the space-time-relation .From taking on this problem new Forms of telling the Story, new modes of narrations will emerge - but this we should discuss in Houston or somewhere.



Alexey Golubev: This is a continuation of the previous question: what are potential risks of this understanding of the Soviet historical experience in terms of a lost world in need of an archeological excavation? A quick comment on the question: when archeologists discover or excavate objects and place them in a real (or virtual) exhibition, this is always an operation of decontextualization: the public is offered to perceive and consume these objects as curious signs of the past that are not really relevant for us here and now. We don’t visit an exhibition about Pompei for inspirations on how to overcome the racial segregation and violence in today’s United States; we visit it to consume the spectacle of the “ancient past” of the human civilization. If we take Lenin as an example: his writings on imperialism and his strong belief in the right of nations to self-determination were definitely part of the “Soviet century,” yet The Soviet Century focuses more on his debilitating disease and mummification. Or another example: The Short Course in the History of the VKP(b) features rather prominently in your book but not Mikhail Pokrovsky’s strong criticism of Russian settler colonialism and epistemic violence of Russian imperial historical scholarship (Klyuchevsky and Co) that preceded the postcolonial turn in Western academic by at least half a century. Would you agree – or disagree – that your root metaphor, in a way, determined these choices?


Maybe I did not get your point. Decontextualization is only the first step in de-composing, ana-lysing, and re-composing, making the discovered “golden nugget” so strong to include the whole universe of the time. To crystallize the whole universe or situation in one point, the hardest. You may call it an “anecdotical” approach, to demonstrate l’histoire total in one moment or object. You have to find the type of material – to find the proper object in my experience take 80 percent of research, the rest is diligence, hard working with the material.



Alexey Golubev: And the last question related to the overall framework of your book:is my understanding correct that you wrote The Soviet Century as a story of historical exceptionalism? There was one and unique Soviet Union; its traces can be excavated through material objects in a Benjaminian manner, through textual analysis in a Foucauldian fashion, or through analysis of images like what Roland Barthes offers in Camera Lucida. The reason I am curious in this question and your answer is that the Soviet century can also be understood as part of the global twentieth century. The barakholka in Izmaylovsky Park reminds me of the flee market in Bielefeld that I frequented while a fellow there and where I purchased a Nazi good housekeeping book with an inlet featuring the Nuremberg racial laws. Having lived in Houston, TX, for almost six years, I see a lot of similarities between russkaya glubinka (chapter 38) and the rural communities in Texas and Louisiana wetlands. And I really appreciated your reference to the Soviet Union as a “museum empire,” yet I cannot help thinking that the Soviet state came into possession of its vast museum collections in the same way as European imperial museums: through dispossession of local communities. All regional and most local museums in Russia have rich collections of Eastern Orthodox icons that were forcedly taken from local communities in an act similar to the looting of indigenous art by English colonizers that resulted in the beautiful British Museum. You speak of the “western museum” as distinct from their soviet counterparts (p. 21) – yet if we add this (post)colonial perspective, are they so distinct? 


Your observations and commentaries are entirely correct. I agree, but this brings us to a far reaching or radical question about the function of museums beyond muzeality, muzealization – I just can recommend reading the essays and results of research in Peter Millers Book on material culture (Miller, Peter N. History and Its Objects. Antiquarianism and Material Culture since 1500. Cornell University Press, 2017). Material objects as realizations, incorporations of the social, cultural etc. life, that is of the Weberian search and theory building. Read the objects, the artifacts of all kinds of embodiments of social structures, values, etc.


Alexey Golubev: Your book is spectacularly attentive to social relations in Soviet society: you show how, despite proclaiming itself since the time of Stalin as a classless society, class still mattered there (e.g., the chapter on the staircase). In the light of this attentiveness to the complex, hierarchical, and diverse social landscape of the Soviet Union, including its last decades,what is your take on Yuri Levada and Lev Gudkov’s concept of “Soviet Man”? 


I am an admirer of Jury Lewada whom I had the chance to meet personally and I am full of admiration of the powerful strength of the work of his disciples and scholars he has formed and educated. I understand the formative power of the Soviet System, which seduces a bit the idea of the genesis of an anthropological type, of an entirely new person — but which I do not believe in. I prefer a bit less Max Weber and a bit more Georg Simmel.


Alexey Golubev: If you were to write this book now, with the Russo-Ukrainian War ongoing, would imperialism feature more prominently in it? If yes – how would you explain its resilience from the late Russian Empire through the “Soviet century” to Putin’s Russia? Were those three separate imperialisms, or is there a genealogical relationship between them?


The situation of the dissolution of this biggest formation of a continental empire is so unique, we can learn a lot from the fall of other empires – British, Spanish etc. – but the dissolution of the Soviet empire is entirely new and demands new approaches and probably answers.


Thank you for the interview!



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