Excavating “The Last Empire”: Discussing Soviet History and Global History with Serhii Plokhii

Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Since the USSR formally ceased to exist on December 26, scores of books have been written on the Soviet dissolution, an event that resulted in the creation of fifteen new states across Eurasia and that current Russian President Vladimir Putin famously called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. In his new book, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Harvard professor Serhii Plokhii offers a definitive account of the end of the Soviet state.

Serhii Plokhii's latest book, "The Last Empire"
Serhii Plokhii’s latest book, “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union”

Based on research in archives in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States interviews with high-level officials, The Last Empire explores the decisions taken in Moscow, Washington, and various Soviet republics between 1989 and 1992 that led to the dissolution of the Soviet experiment. Standing at the center of his story are tensions between Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachëv and élites in the Ukrainian SSR. Already weakened by pressure from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and an abortive coup, Gorbachëv and his visions for a revitalized Soviet confederation were doomed by the decisive results of a December 1991 Ukrainian referendum in favor of independence.

The account of The Last Empire, published by Basic Books this May, might surprise to American readers, many of whom are led to believe that it was decisive action by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Plokhii shows through exhaustive research–and interviews with important figures like Brent Scowcroft–the Soviet collapse arose far more due to internal Union dynamics than American foreign policy.

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Global History Forum: Discussing “Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956” with Steven Serels

For most audiences today, the word “Sudan” evokes images at once terrorizing and timeless. Older readers may recall the images of emaciated bodies that television crews relayed from western and eastern Sudan during the great famines of the mid-1980s. Anyone reading today, however, will remember the outrage – but also lack of meaningful reaction – that the Sudanese government’s terror in the western region of Darfur evoked during the early 2000s. (Those wars, which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called genocide, still continue.) According to these images, Sudan remains at once black, Arab, Muslim, poor, hungry; but also – crucially – in the present. Appalled by the horrors of famine and genocide, it is easy to forget to probe the past – a colonial past – to inquire after the structural roots of hunger and famine not as an accident but as an accomplishment of modern state-making. Moral outrage and a human rights-inflected imagination may be important, but it’s solid empirical history that furnishes an understanding of the roots of crises like those that plague – or define – Sudanese stateness.

That’s why the Global History Forum was delighted to sit down recently with Steven Serels, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. Steven, whose first book, Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956, was just published by Palgrave MacMillan in December 2013, graciously met with GHF to discuss his work, his future agenda, and – at the center of it all – Sudan and the broader region and even world order that the country fits into.

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Is Global History Suitable for Undergraduates?

Cross-Posted on the Imperial and Global Forum 

Last week, I came across two provocative blog posts, at The Junto and the Imperial and Global History Network (IGHN), on teaching global history that got me thinking reflectively about my own recent experiences of approaching American and British imperial history from a global historical perspective. The big takeaways from both pieces seem to be: 1) teaching global history is a challenge not just for students but for teachers; and 2) that the net positive from teaching history from a global vantage point at the graduate level far outweighs said challenges. However, The Junto’s Jonathan Wilson concludes by quite explicitly questioning whether global historical approaches are in fact suitable for the first-year undergraduate classroom.

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Sleuthing the Origins of “Global History”

History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.

—Max Beerbohm, 1896.

Historians are often charged — sometimes correctly — with precipitously proclaiming a “new” field of study: a field that, upon further investigation, is shown to be remarkably similar to earlier turns in the historiographical timeline. The post-colonial and subaltern “turns” of the 1980s are cases in point, as they, however unwittingly, tended to ignore the prodigious and overlapping work within Area Studies that had appeared in preceding decades. I duly began to wonder if the term “global history” might prove to be yet another illustrative example.

Indeed, in recent months, historiographical debates have arisen at the New Global History Forum, the Imperial & Global Forum, and the New Republic, among others, over the promises and perils of the growing field of global history. Despite our disagreements, there was common consensus that “global history” was a relatively new historiographical phenomenon that arose in the 1990s — and one that rose in popularity in the early 2000s.[1]

But is “global history” really so new?

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The Contexts of Global History

Historians care about context. When setting out to explore any historical question, professional historians want some familiarity with the customs, institutions, social structure, economic system, and ideas prominent in the relevant place and time. Indeed, much of the training for a career in historical research aims to provide a broad understanding of the region and era expected to be the context of future research. But does global history have a context?

It does, because global history, however uncommon it may be, is methodologically unexceptional. Even the most ambitious global histories operate within limitations, letting principal topic and central method set standards of relevance that allow limits, including chronological and geographical ones. Like all historical work, global histories establish their own rules of relevance. The more imaginative and original the work, the more likely it is to delineate its context from a cluster of questions that constitute historical problems. These, however, are then addressed with arguments based on kinds of evidence and methods of analysis familiar in historical research. Distinguished by its conceptual scale and sometimes by the historical problems it addresses, global history proceeds in normal fashion to establish the context it must engage.

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Some Reflections on the Nature of Global History

During the 1990s, when the term “global history” started becoming more popular within academic circles, quite a number of scholars expressed great reservations against this field. One of the most frequently articulated charges was that global history was destined to operate on a rather superficial level and would not be able to reach deeper than the realm of textbooks, trade books and introductory undergraduate courses. After all, many critics added, no serious scholar could possibly know a sufficient number of languages which would allow him or her to operate at a truly global level. Hence, the same logic went, global history could never evolve into a true research field which in the field of history, after all, is based on archival work and an intimate familiarity with primary sources on a distinct subject matter ((See for example O’Brien, Patrick K., “Historiographical Traditions and Modern Imperatives for the Restoration of Global History”, Journal of Global History, 1-1 (2006), pp. 3-39)).

In recent years, these debates have subsided, and the new great discussions on global history have moved on to different issues and themes. It is mainly distant outsiders remaining unfamiliar with the field’s most recent developments and trajectories who still pose the question whether global history can indeed evolve into an area of research. As a matter of fact, global history is being practiced by a growing, vibrant community of researchers. For them it is not primarily as a site of textbook production but rather an arena of genuine historical scholarship. This simple observation is evidenced by the sharply growing number of journal articles, research projects and monographs which in their title refer to “global history” or closely related terms ((See for example, Crossley, Pamela Kyle, What is Global History?, Cambridge: Polity, 2008)). In this context one may also refer to the founding of the Journal of Global History in 2006, and one may add that even earlier, in 1999, the American Historical Review introduced a review section focusing on “global and comparative” studies.

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Globalization: An Agenda

It is now widely recognized that ours is a global age. One of the first to perceive and then describe this “happening” was the sociologist Martin Albrow, in his book with the title The Global Age.Since its appearance, in 1996 numerous studies have been published. Indeed, a critical bibliography would be a valuable tool, pointing to further research. This might be the opening project in carrying out an agenda that I am about to describe.[1]

In undertaking such a task, it would be well to establish what I will call regional globalization studies. Do these regional arrangements facilitate globalization? Work against it and in what ways? Examples immediately spring to mind. A major one, of course, is Globalization and China, perhaps the greatest challenge of our epoch. No less important is Globalization and Islam.[2] Of equal importance is the European situation, in which pulls toward a European and a Global identity may be in conflict. Other regional studies—the USA, Latin America, etc.–would also be subjects for further study.

I will now divide my proposed agenda into two parts. The first will focus on research projects, including those mentioned in the first two paragraphs, that appear promising. The second will concentrate on what I consider a most important offshoot from the globalization process itself—the concept of Humanity.

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