20 years under Putin: a timeline

CI: Do you believe that a historian’s job is also to protect the layman from the historical demagoguery of modern politicians?

AS: Probably not. That is probably the job of the media.

CI: In that case, what are historians concerned about when it comes to their own work? You, for example.

AS: My colleagues and I are very concerned about the hegemony of certain categories in explaining the modern world and its genealogy. These ideas are based on misleading assumptions (and not always acknowledged assumptions, at that) that nations (nationalities, ethnic groups) are a natural form for collective social existence. The tendency to think this way is a universal phenomenon, characteristic not only for Russia and not only in the post-Soviet space. It’s the way people think around the world.

CI: How do historians fight this?

AS: As part of the New Imperial History project, we proposed a working category we call relativization.

CI: What is it?

AS: I would name two levels of relativization.

The first is the relativization of the hegemonic discourses, that is, of the dominant language or, as historians say, narrative. The dominant language always promotes its own portrait of the world and its own genealogy or past. By relativizing these hegemonies, we begin to take into account how our ideas about the world and society are formed. For example, we are used to thinking that in order to describe the peasantry we can use national categories, that we can say “the Russian peasantry.” If ‘Russian’ doesn’t apply, we can say ‘Ukranian.’ But what if the category of nationality itself is inadequate in order to describe this social group and account for how it understands itself? What if peasants exclusively understood themselves locally (“we here”) and never thought of the abstract categories of a national community or a greater historic region? By introducing the category of locality to our analysis we challenge the supposed self-evident and accepted relevance of the dominant language of nationality.

2. The renaissance in the study of history, like the renaissance in the study of man. The paradox here is that every person that is part of contemporary society is perfectly aware that he or she is simultaneously part of a number of different contexts in which he or she plays different roles. Each of us plays one or another role according to the logic of the situation.

CI: For example, right now I am a journalist interviewing you, but on a different plane I am a woman, a mother, a daughter, a consumer…is this what you mean?

AS: Yes. But the contradiction lies in the fact that when we look at history, we forget about this mosaic of situations and junctures. It is as though all historical actors are mere mannequins. Or mannequin/chameleons. Take Catherine II: she’s Great, then she’s a Jezebel; she’s a German, then she’s the Mother Empress. All of these are grave over-simplifications of her roles. Relativization means using history for its original purpose of talking about a person in the context of the past such that they retain their humanity—multi-faceted, paradoxical, complex, but always consistent with itself.

CI: This kind of thinking can alter our perspective on many historical figures.

AS: Naturally. Which doesn’t mean we eliminate judgment. But if we remember that all historical figures were human beings, we can make judgments more competently. We have better material with which we can acknowledge the many meanings of our past.

Acknowledging the plurality of the past—not only the multiple interpretations of a single event but the many possible consequences of a given moment in history—opens up the plurality of the future.

Ilya Gerasimov

CI: Who else participates in your project?

AS: Our group is a research collective that generally focuses on the second half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. It includes Marina Mogilner, Sergey Glebov, Ilya Gerasimov, and myself. We are members of Ab Imperio editorial board. Each one of us has his or hers own research project, but we are also working on a joint project, which I have already described briefly. Publishing the journal and working on the research together has allowed us greater contact and more room for debate with our colleagues—the regular contributors and our readers. In the course of our work, we have identified many important issues related to the interpretation of the Russian past and have even begun to account for many of the troubling phenomena in Russian history. (Brief biographies of the main contributors can be found here—Ed.)

CI: Why did you begin to work collectively specifically on this period? Was there a special reason for this?

AS: This was a very interesting, dynamic period. Many changes were taking place, the old turning into the new. A diverse, even inconsistent context was characteristic for this phase in the development of the Russian empire. When we were launching our first book in 2000, it was very important for us to focus on such breaking points, radical changes, when a society tears forward and leaves certain things behind, i.e. behavioral models, outmoded institutions, and even certain kinds of thought and thought mechanisms.

CI: Do the other contributors of Ab Imperio think in the same way as you do?

AS: I would say that they ask questions in the same way. For example, when we talk about power in the 18th or 19th century, no one thinks that this can be studied simply in the archives of Moscow or St. Petersburg, that is, in the cities where most of the archives of the central government are concentrated. We all understand that in the Russian Empire existed a localizing logic of government that makes it crucial to also research in the archives of Kazan’, Vilnius, and Tbilisi. That way, we can get a very different picture (and a decentralized, paradoxical one at that) of the system of imperial government and the society in imperial times.


Old structure on a cliff on the left bank of the Kura River, ca. 1910


When we talk about power, we don’t just mean the bureaucracy. We know that there were a number of groups with different measures of influence. For example, the Szlachta were the carriers of high culture. Did the Szlachta have narrowly defined political power? Yes, but also no. However, they had influence over some sense of power, the power of social status and high culture.

CI: So it is like you are working on a complicated Impressionist painting of the state of the country at that time.

AS: Yes, but our goal isn’t to paint this picture and show it off in a museum for people to admire. The sketch is only the first part. In the next, analytic phase of our work, we create a model and attempt to account for it: how a place was governed, how conflicts developed, what made up the dynamics, what role was played by, for example, the powerful perception of nationalism.

CI: So first you make your own, essentially new platform for analysis. And it’s not that Soviet historians didn’t do this at all, but that they were working from a completely different foundation. And if you change the foundations, you come to very different conclusions.

AS: This is a good summary of what we do.