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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Toynbee Prize Foundation Leadership Featured in New York Review of Books

In the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Tamsin Shaw reviews Toynbee Prize Foundation Vice-President Darrin McMahon’s most recent work,  Divine Fury: A History of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

“Darrin McMahon’s Divine Fury,” writes Shaw:

does not shy away from the preposterous and the ridiculous, or from the disturbing and dangerous. Many of us now use the term “genius” as a simple expression of wonder, referring to a person or an achievement that we find inexplicably brilliant. But as McMahon’s rich narrative shows, across its long history the term has accrued connotations that go far beyond this commonsense core, leading us into the realms of superstition, bad science, and subservience to questionable forms of authority. And yet his book ends on an unexpected note of regret that “genius” in the most extravagant sense of the term has given way to more trivial uses, to a culture in which everyone has a genius for something and where even infants might be “baby Einsteins.” The cult of the “great exception,” the unfathomably and inimitably great human being, he tells us, has justifiably waned. Nevertheless, McMahon’s closing words are elegiac, hinting that its loss might somehow diminish us.
In his intriguing story not only is the age of genius dead; the seeds of its destruction were sown very early on. The term “genius” in its modern sense was first adopted in the eighteenth century and it involved a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, which for the Romans was the god of our conception, imbuing us with particular personality traits but nevertheless a supernatural force external to us, and ingenium, a related noun referring to our internal dispositions and talents, our inborn nature. McMahon also details the associations that these ideas had derived from the Greek world, particularly from speculation about the Socratic daimonion, the Platonic idea that poetry is the product of a “divine madness,” and the Aristotelian view that there are fundamental differences between minds.

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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Call for Papers: “Trafficking, Smuggling, and Illicit Migration in Historical Perspective”

A group of scholars from the Birkbeck (University of London), Sydney, and Texas Tech have recently announced a conference on the history of trafficking, smuggling, and illicit migration to take place at Birkbeck from June 18-20, 2015 – a great chance for a field that necessarily invokes global themes to coalesce more and for scholars to develop international connections.  “Human trafficking, human smuggling, and illicit migration,” write the conference organizers,

are some of the most politically volatile and pressing issues in the present day. They are also the subject of a growing amount of sociological, criminological, and historical research. This combined conference and workshop aims to bring together the growing number of scholars who are currently working on the histories of trafficking, smuggling, and illicit and sexual migration from all regions in the modern period. In particular, it aims to critically engage with the concept of sexual trafficking in the past by exploring the way in which it was entangled with labour and with migration more broadly. Papers need not be limited, therefore, to the subject of trafficking: we encourage submissions from those working on smuggling and illicit migration as well, though we are especially interested in work from a gendered perspective.

It promises to be a rich discussion. The conference organizers request that proposals for papers (300-500 words) and expressions of interest in the workshop (150-200 words) be sent to traffickinghistoryconference@gmail.com no later than October 1, 2014.

International Research Award in Global History 2015

Here’s an exciting opportunity for post-doctoral scholars of global history, advertised jointly by the Universities of Heidelberg, Sydney, and Basel. Scholars are invited to propose and organize a conference on global history, to be hosted by the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Heidelberg in December 2015. The three participating institutions will make available a purse of €10,000 to help defray the invitees to the conference.

This is a wonderful opportunity for early-career scholars seeking to establish themselves, not to mention an excellent chance for the further development of global history as a field. Applications are due November 30, 2014.

The announcement follows:

The Universities of Heidelberg, Basel and Sydney are proud to announce the International Research Award in Global History, to be awarded for the first time in 2015. The successful applicant will receive up to €10,000 towards the organization of an international symposium on a topic of his/her choice at one of the participating institutions. 
Global History is still a comparatively young research field. Over the last two decades it has emerged as an important sub-discipline in the broader field of historical research, encompassing a wide range of methodological and thematic approaches, including transnational, international and world history. The International Research Award in Global History and the award symposium has been initiated jointly by some of the leading researchers in the field, in order to identify innovative young researchers in this broad field. The award will further their work by giving them the intellectual freedom and the financial means to bring together scholars from all over the world to engage with a topic of their own choice and design. Our aim is to make the scholarly work of the awardee visible in the scientific community and put them in closer contact with established colleagues in their field. Beyond supporting the research and academic networks of the prize-winning scholar, the award symposium will contribute to the field’s ability to critically reflect and intellectually replenish itself. The award also aims to reach out to an academic public beyond the sub-discipline of global history and provide a broader stage for the pioneering research currently undertaken in the field. 
The purse of up to €10,000 attached to the award will be used to host an international symposium on a topic proposed by the successful applicant. In 2015, the symposium will take place at Heidelberg University in Germany, on 4-5 December. It will be the awardee’s responsibility to organize the panels and invite the speakers for the symposium. Chairs and discussants will come from the initiating institutions at Basel, Heidelberg and Sydney and the award jury. Organizational support will be available. 
The International Research Award in Global History is jointly advertised by the Department of History and the Cluster of Excellence ‘Asia and Europe in a Global Context’ at Heidelberg University (Roland Wenzlhuemer), the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel (Madeleine Herren-Oesch) and the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney (Glenda Sluga). The award jury will be comprised of the organizers, as well as Marcel van der Linden (Amsterdam), Tamson Pietsch (Brunel/Sydney) and Peer Vries (Vienna). 
Typically, applicants will have recently completed their doctoral studies and be in the early stages of their postdoctoral career in History. However, a doctorate is not a formal requirement. Applicants should submit a cover letter explaining their interest in the award (max. 2 pages), an academic CV and their proposal for the award symposium (detailing the topic, a tentative list of participants and a preliminary budget, max. 5 pages) electronically to susanne.hohler@zegk.uni-heidelberg.de (as one PDF file) by November 30, 2014. 

Toynbee Prize Foundation Announces New Leadership

Professor Dominic Sachsenmaier, a renowned scholar of Chinese and global history, will succeed Professor Raymond Grew as the President of the Toynbee Prize Foundation.

Named after Arnold J.Toynbee, the Toynbee Prize Foundation was chartered in 1987 “to contribute to the development of the social sciences, as defined from a broad historical view of human society and of human and social problems.” The foundation awards the prestigious Toynbee Prize for distinguished work in the social sciences – former recipients include William McNeill, Ralf Dahrendorf and Natalie Zemon Davis. In addition, the Foundation sponsors global history regular sessions at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, international conferences, the online Global History Forum, and the journal New Global Studies.

Currently a Professor of Modern Asian History at the Jacobs University in Bremen, Sachsenmaier also holds an active chair professorship at the Global History Center in Beijing. Before returning to Germany, his country of origin, Sachsenmaier held active faculty positions at Duke University as well as the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has played a key role in institutionalizing Sino-German academic exchanges, serving as a recurrent honorary chair professor in Global History in Beijing and running a program for visiting Chinese professors of social sciences and the humanities at Jacobs University.

Sachsenmaier has authored a wide range of books and articles. His main research interests include Sino-Western relations between the 17th and the 20th centuries as well as theories of global history. His most recent monograph is Global Perspectives on Global History. Theories and Approaches in a Connected World (Cambridge UP, 2011).

Professor Sachsenmaier said of the appointment: “I am truly honored to accept the presidency of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, and I look forward to collaborating with the board members and all the other people involved. I will do my very best to contribute to the Foundation’s promising paths. More specifically, I will seek to strengthen its ties to individual scholars and institutions outside the United States, including Europe and Asia.”

Sachsenmaier’s appointment will consolidate and build upon the achievements of outgoing Toynbee Prize Foundation President Raymond Grew, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Grew is the author of several works on 19th century Italian and French social history, most notably A Sterner Plan for Italian Unity and School, State (1962), and Society: The Growth of Elementary Schooling in Nineteenth-Century France (1991). Throughout his career he has also written on comparative and global history, from his 1980 American Historical Review article “The Case for Comparing Histories” to a more recent edited volume on the construction of minorities across different times and societies. Grew has served as the President of the Toynbee Prize Foundation since 2006, a period marked by an upsurge in interest in global history in general, thanks in no small part to initiatives launched during Grew’s tenure.

Outgoing Toynbee Prize Foundation Vice-President Bruce Mazlish (who himself served as President from 1997-2006), commented on Grew’s leadership: “It is often said that continuing an enterprise is more difficult than founding it. This has been my experience with The Toynbee Foundation. However, Raymond Grew proved the maxim wrong. As President succeeding me, he has overseen the stability and then the expansion of the Foundation’s mission.” Under Grew’s leadership, the Foundation established its presence at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, where the winner of that year’s Toynbee Prize delivers a prize lecture. Grew also oversaw the reconstruction of the Toynbee Foundation’s website before convening over the election of his successor. At the same time, Grew has continued to author pieces on global history. “How he has managed to do all that he has,” commented Mazlish, “is something of a miracle.”

Fortunately, in taking over an organization that Grew has done so much to shape, Sachsenmaier will not be alone. He will be joined by incoming Vice-President Darrin McMahon, Professor of History at Dartmouth College. McMahon succeeds current Foundation Vice-President Bruce Mazlish, Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

McMahon, a scholar of modern European intellectual and cultural history, has published numerous works on the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. His 2006 book Happiness: A History, published by the Atlantic Monthly Press, was awarded Best Books of the Year honors by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and several others, and has been translated into twelve languages. McMahon is also the author of Divine Fury: A History of Genius, published by Basic Books in 2013, as well as the co-editor of the  volume Rethinking European Intellectual History for the Twenty-First Century.

Current president of the Foundation Raymond Grew commented: “The Trustees’ search committee should be congratulated for their selection of outstanding new officers. Building on the earlier initiative of Bruce Mazlish, the Foundation has in recent years greatly expanded its activity, especially with respect to the global study of global history. Professors Sachsenmaier and McMahon will take the Foundation to a new level in every respect.”

The appointment of Timothy Nunan as the Foundation’s Executive Director is another important change to the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s programs. He is  a historian with a strong interest in 20th century international history. He received his intellectual training to this point at Princeton, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Corpus Christi College of the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. While at Oxford, he edited and published a translation of several of Carl Schmitt’s writings on internationalism, published as Writings on War by Polity in 2011. Having received his doctorate in History from Oxford, Nunan was an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, where he re-wrote his dissertation on the history of international development in Cold War-era Afghanistan into a scholarly monograph.

“Europe in a Global Perspective” Lectures at Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences

The Gerda Henkel Foundation has made available the videos of two recent lectures on global history given at the July meeting of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences’ Akademievorlesung series. The lectures, given by Professors Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Wilhelms Universität Münster) and Sebastian Conrad (Freie Universität Berlin,  are titled “The Europe of Enlightenment – A ‘corps politique?'” and “Whose Enlightenment? Global History Perspectives,” respectively.

Professor Conrad’s lecture may be of particular interest to an audience interested in global history. As the site blurb explains:

Conrad argues that the Enlightenment cannot only be “understood as a European event.” His lecture follows the Enlightenment’s “global career” and points to the effects of this global networking process to the “concept of Enlightenment itself.”

The lectures and the discussion (which is also available at the linked page) are in German.

Lynn Hunt on Globalization and History

Professor Lynn Hunt of UCLA chimes in with a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education here on the role that globalization takes on in historical writing today.  “Two new developments are reshaping the way we study history,” begins the piece.

The social and cultural theories that stimulated much of our writing, from the 1950s on, have lost their vitality, creating uncertainty about how history will be written in the future. At the same time, talk of globalization has proliferated like kudzu; it coils around any attempt to determine the direction of the future or the meaning of the past. Is globalization the new theory that will reinvigorate history?

Hunt’s article is excerpted from a forthcoming book on writing and teaching history in a globalized age that we look forward to discussing this September.


Two International and Global History Conferences for Graduate Students and Post-Doctoral Scholars

It’s not always easy for graduate students and post-doctoral scholars to find the right venues to present work in progress. Sometimes, graduate students can feel hesitant about making the transition from seminar paper to conference paper – and thence to dissertation or book chapter. Even post-doctoral scholars can face similar challenges, whether it’s to do with turning the doctoral thesis into a more robust book, or laying the groundwork for the second book. Hence, it’s worth noting two opportunities that have come up on our radar recently. Firstly, on February 27-28, 2015, the Berkeley International and Global History (BIG-H) Committee is organizing their Third BIG-H conference. The conference (more here) invites submissions that address the following questions:

  • How did commercial exchange and cross-cultural interaction change definitions of what is human, divine, natural, or machine?
  • How were the boundaries of scientific truth and objectivity established across cultures?
  • How did modes of representing ideas change to accommodate interactions among different linguistic groups?
  • In what vehicles did ideas travel across cultures and polities, and how was the traffic of ideas governed?
  • How did ideas about the purpose of states change as people came into contact across cultures and political boundaries?
  • How did the spread of empires, nation-states, or markets change basic understandings of community, class, power, value, environment, religion, accountability, identity?
  • When did ideas transcend cultural difference to give rise to transnational social movements?
  • How did the scale of human imagination change as people interacted across cultures?

If that’s not enough, the international history community at Harvard is organizing a graduate student conference on March 12-13, 2015 entitled “Transitions: States & Empires in the Longue Durée.” According to the conference’s organizers, for this, the 15th iteration of the conference, “ the History Department will partner with the Department of the Classics to investigate these moments of transition between imperial orders and their international successors and precursors in a longue durée framework. Cross-temporal analysis will deepen and problematize established approaches that have tended to focus on the Age of Revolutions and the ‘first wave’ of newly independent states prefigured by the American Revolution, or on the global decolonization movement of the twentieth century. Alternative origins stories may be found, instead, in the tumultuous political re-organizations of the Hellenistic Age, the fall and break-up of the Roman, Byzantine, or Mughal empires, and the variety of successor states and other political units that replaced them.  Empires too can be crafted from states, like the emergence of the Soviet Bloc after the Second World War. Historical comparisons between the transitions from empire to state, and state to empire, could also reaffirm the distinctiveness of the modern international order and the novel ways in which people have come to conceive its appropriate political units.” Both are something to consider for the coming academic year. The Harvard conference is for graduate students only; the Berkeley conference for graduate students and post-docs. For those of you contemplating a visit to California, the deadline for the BIG-H conference is October 3; for those more inclined to the East Coast, the Harvard conference organizers request that submissions be handed in by August 24. More information can be found on BIG-H’s and the Harvard graduate student conference’s websites.

Mark Mazower on the End of Eurocentism

Critical Inquiry has just published a piece by Columbia University’s Mark Mazower, titled “The End of Eurocentrism,” that looks promising.

The abstract for the piece follows:

From one viewpoint, the years from 1945 to 1948 can be seen as a story about European reconstruction; from another, they emerge as the opening chapter of decolonization. Putting these two stories together raises the question of how Europe’s relations with the world changed in these years and, in particular, how contemporaries thought about Europe’s changing place in the world. This in turn was bound up with the ways in which they read the war and how the experience itself shaped their sense of Europe’s relationship with the world. This helps explain both Bidault’s surprise and Murray’s anxious discovery that there are other continents.

The Second World War marked the end of a long period of European ascendency, whose critical starting point was not the sixteenth century, let alone the Renaissance, but somewhere at the end of the eighteenth or the early nineteenth century. The age of Eurocentrism spanned the period from 1800 to 1945 in several senses. First, it marked the emergence of Europe as a center of world power through its formal colonialism and the technology gap created by the Industrial Revolution. Concurrently, there was the rise of settler societies, of which the “Anglo-world,” as James Belich tells it, was the most successful—although there was also the German-Russian settlement expansion south and eastwards, as well as its smaller Ottoman version. Subsequently, there was a kind of diplomatic intellectual counterpart to this European ascendancy: a new discipline of international law, one that enshrined the notion of a standard of civilization, that Gerrit Gong wrote about and that rested on a differentiated categorization of sovereignties in different parts of the world. This was accompanied by a changing conception of Europe. Paradoxically, as Europe expanded in power, Europe as a concept shrank. In 1840, for instance, the European powers could plausibly propose to Mehmet Ali that if he stopped threatening to invade Istanbul they would allow him to become part of the system of Europe. Forty years later, that was not an offer anybody was making. The geographical conception of Europe had become more focused even as Europe became more powerful.

Source: mark mazower on the end of eurocentism