University of Wisconsin Press
Welcomes New Publicity Manager

Kaitlin Svabek.

Kaitlin Svabek.

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to announce that Kaitlin Svabek will join our staff as Publicity Manager, effective Tuesday, September 4.

Svabek, most recently a communications and engagement specialist with the Wisconsin Network for Research Support (WINRS), will oversee publicity efforts for the University of Wisconsin Press books division. She previously held roles with the UW–Madison iSchool Laboratory Library and SLIS Department. Svabek earned a BA in English Creative Nonfiction Writing and Psychology at Northwestern University and an MA in Management of Information Innovation and Change at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She also cofounded and served as communications and marketing coordinator for Community Read Rock County (CRRC), a community reading project that organizes events, contests, and book discussions with libraries, schools, community organizations, and local businesses in Rock County. Svabek’s publishing experience includes positions at Agate Publishing and the Daily Northwestern.

“In addition to her experience connecting authors, books, and audiences, Kaitlin also brings an impressive range of social media, marketing design, and technical skills to the press,” says sales and marketing manager Casey LaVela. “I am tremendously excited to work alongside Kaitlin as she applies her creativity and abilities to our books publicity program.”

Svabek says, “I am so delighted to have the opportunity to build new and grow existing relationships at the University of Wisconsin Press. I’m looking forward to engaging more people in the exciting work coming from UWP and collaborating with such a creative and knowledgeable team.”

About the University of Wisconsin Press
The University of Wisconsin Press, one of the research and service centers housed within the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a not-for-profit publisher of books and journals. With nearly 1,500 titles in print, its mission embodies the Wisconsin Idea by publishing work of distinction that serves the people of Wisconsin and the world.

Daytime Stars: A poet’s memoir of the Revolution, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Thaw

Today’s guest blogger is Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, translator of Olga Berggolts’s memoir Daytime Stars.

Olga Berggolts was a prominent, often outspoken Soviet poet, who is hardly known in the English-speaking world. A citizen of passionate Soviet loyalty, she was arrested and tormented during the purges of the late 1930s. During the World War II siege of Leningrad, the former prisoner became the beloved voice of Radio Leningrad, an official figure whose moving poems, grounded in her own devastating losses, resonated with her fellow citizens and brought her literary fame. In the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, she was among the first writers to challenge the orthodoxies of Socialist Realism.

Berggolts began her memoir Daytime Stars immediately after the dictator’s death. In lyrical, often deeply personal prose, she expresses both idealistic enthusiasm for the Soviet project and doubt, even despair, about its outcomes. For Anglophone readers of Soviet literature, it is, I think a revelation, undermining our cold war inflected tendency to divide Soviet writers into official party hacks and heroic truth tellers persecuted by the regime.

Central to Berggolts’s Soviet identity was her self-conscious effort to speak not as an individual, but as representative of her generation — the generation born in the early 1900s that came of age along with the Revolution. The “daytime stars” of the title stand as a metaphor for her own efforts to speak her generation’s truth, to tell of its triumphs and its sorrows. She writes that as a child she learned about daytime stars. Outshined by the sun, they could be seen reflected in the still waters of deep wells. Try as she might, she never managed to see them. Still, she believed in them, and sought as a poet to make visible what was hidden: “I want my soul, my books, that is my soul open to all, to be such a well that reflects and holds within itself daytime stars — people’s souls, lives, and destinies.”

Completed in 1800, the Kalyazin Bell Tower was partially submerged in 1939 under the reservoir created by the Uglich dam. Berggolts saw the tower on her 1953 trip to Uglich. (Photo by author)

To tell the story of her generation, she returned just after Stalin’s death to Uglich, the Volga town where she lived in evacuation during the famine years of the civil war (1918-21) and which she associated with the purest idealism of the Revolution. Her return took her through the Moscow-Volga Canal. Opened in 1937 to much fanfare, the canal was a product of Stalinism’s commitment to modernization and a monument to its brutality. Berggolts could not acknowledge — perhaps did not know — that some twenty thousand of the convict laborers who dug the canal died during its construction. But she lamented the project’s devastation of the landscape: The rising waters of the reservoirs constructed along the canal and the Volga submerged the “fairy-tale beauty” of the region’s ancient Russian towns.

Entering the Volga through the last lock of the Moscow-Volga Canal (Photo by author)

Traveling the canal and visiting Uglich today, the Stalinist past is almost invisible. The cathedral of the Epiphany Monastery, where Berggolts lived during the civil war, and which in 1953 she found in a state of disrepair, its blue domes turned black, its stars rusted, now gleams in its former glory. But the living past remains visible in Berggolts’s luminous memoir. Its story of the generation that grew up under Lenin and fought and suffered in World War II still resonates in contemporary Russia.

Cathedral of the Epiphany Monastery, Uglich (2018, photo by author)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lisa A. Kirschenbaum is a professor of history at West Chester University and the author of International Communism and the Spanish Civil War, Small Comrades, and The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941–1995.

 

Staging the Forgotten

Today’s guest blogger is Alisa Lin, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who worked with us to publish a translation of Krzhizhanovsky’s That Third Guy.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is a name that stands out to most English-language ears. Seemingly long and convoluted, thrice studded with that uncommon “z,” it is memorable for its unusualness, with its odd spelling betraying the Russianization of an originally Polish name. For a few decades at the end of the 20th century, though, the name was a forgotten one. The writer who bore it was not remembered, and his life’s work of stories, plays, and essays largely remained unpublished.

And yet, Krzhizhanovsky’s writings, most of which weren’t published in their own day out of bad luck or misalignment with Soviet priorities, can be powerfully captivating to today’s English-language reader. I’ve seen this repeatedly in my Russian literature students who respond to his texts with wonder and enthusiasm. His tale of the room that expands infinitely, the one about the frog from the River Styx, the story of the tiny reflections of ourselves that live on in others’ pupils—these and many more offer richly imaginative worlds in which philosophically driven whimsy butts up against starvation, poverty, and death. Krzhizhanovsky, who was born in 1887 and died of alcoholism in 1950, drew such harshness from his own experiences.

Thus far, Krzhizhanovsky has been known in English only for his fiction (in award-winning translations by Joanne Turnbull for New York Review Books). But professionally he was a man of the theater, serving the eminent Moscow Kamerny Theater as a lecturer and consultant for over two decades. His many essays in theatrical theory and dramatic criticism convey the core of his creative worldview. Selections from these essays, along with Krzhizhanovsky’s unstaged comedic play That Third Guy (1937) will be published this week by University of Wisconsin Press in my translation.

The first actors to explore Krzhizhanovsky’s theater texts in English were a spirited group of students I co-taught at Princeton in 2015 together with director Tim Vasen and Slavic professor Caryl Emerson (who contributed a foreword and critical essay to this volume). With projections, film, finger puppets, dance, music, creative lighting, and an abundance of metaphor (including the Eiffel Tower reimagined as a coquettish pair of work boots), they designed and embodied the highly visual world of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories as informed by his theater essays.

That Third Guy, which I gave the class in draft translation, felt different to them at first. The play has a long literary heritage: the plot responds to Pushkin’s mythic poem about Cleopatra and the style parodies the Cleopatra plays of Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. The play’s comedy draws on the low-brow culture of farce and sensational detective-adventure tales. Yet the dark side of Stalinism, from Krzhizhanovsky’s own reality, looms in the background. As the students experimented with staging scenes from the play, this mixture of styles and tones found their place, and the play’s layers of metatheatricality, reminding of Pirandello or Stoppard, emerged.

As the students observed, That Third Guy offers much to the reader—and spectator—of today. It champions the “little guy” trapped by a bureaucracy whose allegiances invert with little notice. It’s about power and the gendering of forms of power. It considers the meaning of fame and legacy, and the frustrations of their arbitrariness. Heroism and the dramatic canon are turned on their heads as the play marginalizes Cleopatra and Antony to foreground the Third, a thoroughly ordinary, unnamed poet. Theatrically, the play engages in Krzhizhanovsky’s modernist, phenomenological conception of what the theater does best: inventing something fresh, full of potential, self-aware of its own devices, and utterly unlike the everyday.

 

Alisa Ballard Lin is an assistant professor in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University.

New Books & New Paperbacks, August 2018

We are pleased to announce the following books being published this month.

August 7, 2018
That Third Guy: A Comedy from the Stalinist 1930s with Essays on Theater
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Translated and edited by Alisa Ballard Lin, Foreword by Caryl Emerson

“This charming volume makes a notable contribution to the growing English-language literature by and about Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, one of the rediscovered gems of twentieth-century Russian literature.”
—Thomas Seifrid, author of The Word Made Self

 

August 14, 2018
Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan
Benjamin Gatling

Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World

“Drawing on tradition, poetry, and Sufi practice, Gatling shows how the present—and the nostalgia it facilitates—is always produced within a political context that tries to manage cultural expression. A lasting contribution to Central Eurasian studies and Islamic studies that deserves to be widely read.”
—David Montgomery, author of Practicing Islam: Knowledge, Experience, and Social Navigation in Kyrgyzstan

“Offers important insights into Islam, and Sufism more particularly, in Tajikistan, as well as to more general debates about tradition, social memory, temporality, and expressive forms.”
—Maria Louw, author of Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia

August 21, 2018
Daytime Stars: A Poet’s Memoir of the Revolution, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Thaw
Olga Berggolts, Translated and edited by Lisa A. Kirschenbaum; Foreword by Katharine Hodgson

“A lyrical memoir steeped in the world of the Russian/Soviet intelligentsia. Berggolts opens up to her readers the gray zones of Soviet life.”
—Benjamin Nathans, author of Beyond the Pale

“A compelling work and an interesting window onto a Soviet life, extending from a childhood during the civil war to the youthful revolutionary in Petrograd/Leningrad, from the terror of the 1930s and the siege of Leningrad to the present of the text, 1953–62.”
—Emily van Buskirk

August 31, 2018
Russian Performances: Word, Object, Action
Edited by Julie A. Buckler, Julie A. Cassiday, and Boris Wolfson

“A milestone in Russian studies. Offers rich, diverse insights into the performative dimension of Russian society through the centuries, demonstrating that artistic forms and social formations not only mean something but do something.”
—Andreas Schönle, Queen Mary University of London

“This important collection restores Russian thought, theater, and dance to the disciplinary conversation about performance. The result is revelatory: a new form of performance studies emerges, one more philosophical, theatrical, and literary than what we have known. A welcome addition to a changing field.”
—Martin Puchner, author of The Drama of Ideas

August 31, 2018
Farming and Famine: Landscape Vulnerability in Northeast Ethiopia, 1889-1991

Donald E. Crummey; Edited by James C. McCann

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture

“Scholarship of the highest quality. Ethiopia is often taken as a prime example of a society made susceptible to famine by environmental degradation. Crummey provides an immensely valuable and meticulous reassessment.”
—James L. Giblin, author of A History of the Excluded

“Has relevance extending well beyond the Wallo region itself or even Africa, to the analysis and understanding of famine worldwide. It will stand as a fitting final monument to one of the great scholars in the field.”
—Christopher Clapham, author of The Horn of Africa

Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan

Our guest blogger today is Benjamin Gatling, author of the new book Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan, which is part of the Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World series.

If Central Asia conjures more than obscurity in popular imagination, it’s likely as a restive region, possibly teetering on collapse, misruled by authoritarian regimes, bubbling with oil, gas, and other natural resources, or a bulwark against religious fanatics. The anthropologist Morgan Liu has written that “Central Asia is a curiously overdetermined yet understudied region of the world.” What he meant was that the region’s relevancy in US minds most often comes in its similarity or proximity to somewhere else; it is Muslim like the Middle East, a vector of Great Power competition, or a spillover for the global “War on Terror,” for instance.

Fixations on dictators, hydrocarbons, and violent Islamism share a common emphasis on security. It’s not that security concerns don’t exist in Central Asia. But whatever their salience, they get filtered through a distorted prism. That’s partly because, as Sarah Kendzior noted in the Atlantic, Central Asia isn’t America’s “Other,” but Russia’s, making Central Asia in some ways our Other’s Other. What’s most troubling is that security-centric framing plays into the agendas of the region’s autocrats. With respect to Muslim life in particular, it legitimates repression and the tight regulation of public piety.

When I first went to Tajikistan in 2010, everyday believers with whom I interacted walked a fine line between accommodating, what they saw as, unreasonable demands on religious expression and charting the course that their piety required. For Sufis, in particular, Muslims that had taken on special initiations and trace different genealogies of Muslim history, such concerns took on a special valence because the public practices they were obliged to perform easily ran afoul of a hostile state security service. As the Sufis I knew lived their lives, the securitization of Islam always lurked in the background, even as what was most important to their daily existence, what they talked about the most—the price of foodstuffs, jobs, crumbling rural infrastructure, dependence on labor remittances sent from Russia, etc.—seemed mostly absent from the concerns of the governing elite.

The Sufis I knew did their best to construct alternatives: alternative ways of living, alternative ways of talking, alternative times, alternative ways of dress even. Their everyday ways of living told a remarkably different story than the official one proffered by organs of the state. It was folklore, expressive culture, art, humor, memories, rituals, poetry, and dress that allowed the men I knew to create alternative selves. Sufi stories weren’t so much resistant as transcendent, taking their tellers and hearers beyond the state’s hostile interference.

In a world seemingly obsessed with the alleged political resonances of Islam, especially in Central Asia, expressive culture offers a key vantage point for seeing how everyday people act, think, respond, and negotiate their worlds. For Sufis in Tajikistan, it’s how they construct what it means to be Muslim in 21st-century Central Asia.

                                                 

 

 

Benjamin Gatling is an assistant professor of folklore at George Mason University.

WE CAN’T HELP WANTING AUTHENTICITY

Joseph Grim Feinberg is today’s guest blogger and author of The Paradox of Authenticity. The book is to be published this week as part of the series Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World. All photos included in this post were taken by the author.

I live in Prague. My office is above the stuccoed arcades of a baroque building wedged between two winding, cobbled streets about 200 meters from the famous medieval astronomical clock on Old Town Square. At the end of another winding street, about 300 meters away, is Charles Bridge, whose saintly statues seem to bless the admiring throngs of tourists that amble across on their way to what’s billed as “the largest castle in the world.”

But when I have to cross the bridge myself, to get to a bookstore or an occasional meeting on the other side of the river, or when I have to go through Old Town Square to visit my colleagues at the Institute for Czech Literature, I don’t feel so blessed. If I’m lucky, rain has chased the crowds away, but most of the time I can barely squeeze through the gaps between the selfie sticks and the caricature portraitists and the headsetted tour guides and the aimless admirers of romantic views.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the tourists as such. I’ve sometimes been one of them myself. Even in Prague, after hours, I’ve been known to turn my eyes up from my books and toward the towers and ramparts and the surrounding hills. It’s not the people’s desire for beautiful sights that troubles me.

When I’m in the right mood, it’s not even the crowds. It’s the hundreds of shops that cater to them, all lined with the same souvenirs promising to everyone the same unique mementos of the city. It’s the “Czech Food” sold for prices few Czechs can afford, prepared at a quality few Czechs can stomach. It’s the pushers of playbills for concerts of grandiose classics performed and re-performed, note for note, every day of the year. It’s the lack of grocery stores and barber shops and tailors, signs of people going about their everyday lives. I want something real.

Not that I know what “real” is. But I can’t help wanting it. And the tourists can’t seem to either. What else do they come for but the authentic experience of Prague—precisely what their desire makes disappear? I could take them to my neighborhood, just off the beaten track, with cobblestones and pretty towers, but not a souvenir in sight. But I might make even that experience inauthentic simply by proclaiming it to be authentic and thinking about its authenticity, showing it off to other people and perhaps expecting some reward or recognition, rather than just being there for the sake of being there? Once we begin to wonder whether something is authentic, authenticity itself seems to melt away. Is there any way out?

A few years back and a couple hundred kilometers to the east, I met some musicians and dancers in Slovakia who were troubled by a different inauthenticity but dealt with the same basic problem. It wasn’t tourism and consumerism but mass politics and mass performance that were to blame for influencing Slovak folklore performances and making them seem fake. These young enthusiasts had uncovered old recordings where folklore looked and sounded so different, and so much more real, where they caught some glimpse of how people sang and danced for the simple pleasure of it, instead of performing for others on stage. They decided they needed to share their discovery with the public.

As I describe in my new book The Paradox of Authenticity: Folklore Performance in Post-Communist Slovakia , bringing authentic folklore to the public was easier said than done. Because no matter how carefully the young folklore enthusiasts reconstructed the folklore of the past, they couldn’t publicize it without bringing it out of its earlier context, where people did it for their own pleasure, and not for the public. The seekers of authenticity realized that what they put on stage was never quite what they really longed for, that really authentic folklore was always out of reach. Some of them, exposed to contemporary social theory, even began to wonder whether their image of the authentic past was more than a construct of their own contemporary desires.

But still they pressed on, looking for some way of bringing some semblance of authenticity into modern life—or at least trying to dampen the blow of inauthenticity. And in this I admired them and felt I understood them. Because even if social theory can tell me that authenticity is an impossible goal, it can’t make me stop wanting it.

 

Joseph Grim Feinberg is a research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences, in Prague. He has published numerous articles and opinion pieces in academic and popular media.

Evaluating Teacher Performance

Journal of Human Resources cover image

Journal of Human Resources contributor Matthew A. Kraft believes that we do teachers and students a disservice when we assess teachers based mainly on students’ standardized test scores. His article “Teacher Effects on Complex Cognitive Skills and Social-Emotional Competencies,” which will be published in the Winter 2019 issue of JHR, examined teachers’ influence on students’ social-emotional abilities. These include such qualities as growth mindset, perseverance, and effort in class, which have been linked to employment and health outcomes in later life. Kraft also studied student performance on complex open-ended tasks in math and reading—problems more complicated than those required by multiple choice tests—to understand how teachers affect critical thinking skills. Kraft found that a teacher’s ability to impact students’ standardized test scores was not always a good indicator of that teacher’s effectiveness at fostering complex cognitive skills and social-emotional skills, suggesting that we need better methods of evaluating teacher performance.

Kraft, who is an Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University, joined us for a conversation touching on his background as an educator, his ideas on effective teaching techniques, and other topics. To learn more, read about the article on the JHR blog.

How did your time as a public school teacher influence your drive to research topics in education and/or the direction of that research?

As a public school teacher in Oakland and Berkeley, California, I often felt that teaching social-emotional skills had to come before teaching academic content. I tried to help my ninth grade students, most of whom were identified as at risk of dropping out, to feel like they belonged in school, to control their behavioral impulses, and to see value in what they were learning. My students did not take standardized tests, but if they did I doubt their performance would have captured the multiple ways in which I attempted to help them develop as young adults.

Do you remember any particular teachers that helped you develop social-emotional skills as a student?

I don’t ever remember being explicitly taught social-emotional skills. Instead, I remember teachers like Ms. Thomas, my tenth and twelfth grade English teacher, who set extremely high expectations but provided constant support to help us meet these expectations. She helped me to develop my own self-efficacy and perseverance by the way she taught core academic content.

Do you have a sense of what techniques teachers could use to develop students’ complex cognitive skills? Social-emotional skills? Maybe give an example or two. 

In my opinion, project-based learning holds great promise for developing complex cognitive skills. Examples such as the curriculum developed by EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) illustrate how authentic and complex tasks require students to use a multitude of skills rather than practicing individual skills in abstract isolation on worksheets.

How to teach social-emotional skills is very much an open question. I’m convinced that the best teachers both explicitly narrate and reinforce the value of these skills, while also designing their curriculum and pedagogical approaches to support their development through academic work. I think we learn things like persistence not by being told about the value of this skill, but by experiencing small successes in overcoming challenges with the support of educators.

What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to nonscholars or policy makers? 

Our understanding of teacher effectiveness, as well as the multiple measures used in new teacher evaluation systems, fail to capture the full range of ways in which teachers affect students’ success in school and life.

After this publication, where did your research go? Did you find yourself pursuing similar questions or changing course?

My current work in this area is focused on the importance of students’ sense of belonging in schools. Preliminary results suggest that schools and teachers who help support students to feel like they belong are creating environments where students develop their academic and social-emotional skills at faster rates.

Matthew KraftMatthew Kraft is an Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. His research and teaching interests include the economics of education, education policy analysis, and applied quantitative methods for causal inference. His primary work focuses on efforts to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in K–12 urban public schools. He has published on topics including teacher coaching, teacher professional growth, teacher evaluation, teacher-parent communication, teacher layoffs, social and emotional skills, school working conditions, and extended learning time. His research has been featured in The Economist, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Education Week, The 74 Million, public radio, and several blog sites.

The Making of Farming and Famine

This week’s post is written by Naomi Crummey, professor of writing and literature at Blackburn College. She is the daughter of the late Donald E. Crummey, whose book Farming and Famine will be published August 31st.

A true scholar to the end, my father spent his last months and weeks reviewing drafts, organizing source material, and making plans for Farming and Famine to be completed and published. Some chapters did not meet his usual standards and he was frustrated that the central argument was incomplete. He wrote to Bahru Zwede to ask for his help; Dr. Zwede and Dr. Tom Spear of the University of Wisconsin Press were kind enough to put my mother and me in touch with Dr. James McCann, to whom we owe our greatest debt of gratitude for his time and conscientious attention to my father’s work. We are also grateful to Tom Bassett for putting us in touch with Dr. Spear and to Gwen Walker and Anna Muenchrath for their patience and coordination at the Press.

I believe that my father wanted this book to re-examine the relationship of the farmers to the land in the context of famine and environmental change in Ethiopia. Particularly troubling to him in existing arguments was the implication that farmers and farming practices were somehow to blame, and he hoped to center their stories and practices in the book and the historical record. Throughout his career, but more so in the work represented here, my father’s deep respect and admiration for his sources drove him and his work.

My family and I are tremendously happy that this day has arrived and know that my father would be too.

Donald E. Crummey (1941–2013) was regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on Ethiopian history. His many books include Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia and Land, Literacy, and the State in the History of Sudanic Africa. James C. McCann, the author of numerous books including Deposing the Malevolent Spirit and People of the Plow, edited Crummey’s drafts to bring this book to completion.

Taboos and “Cover Stories” from Argentina’s Dictatorship

Today’s guest blogger is Nancy J. Gates-Madsen, author of the book Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling. The book is part of the Critical Human Rights series and will be released in paperback this week.

“Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos” (We Argentines are humans and righteous). A play on the words “derechos humanos” (human rights), this 1979 bumper sticker slogan served as part of the military government’s public response to accusations of human rights violations and was one way in which the junta attempted to shape the story that was told about their regime. Determined to deflect attention from mothers who were marching around the Plaza de Mayo, demanding information about their missing loved ones (los desaparecidos), rumors of clandestine detention centers, and stories of torture and disappearance, the military crafted an alternative tale in which Argentines were paragons of human rights, having recently hosted the 1978 World Cup, which Argentina won in a thrilling (if controversial) victory over the Netherlands.

The use of a “cover story” to conceal an uncomfortable truth is a tactic one might expect from a military government eager to suppress inconvenient reports of clandestine actions. However, my research shows that even stories that attempt to call attention to the violence of the military regime may conceal as much as they reveal. Taboos do not pertain solely to the realm of the military and its apologists; the rhetoric of human rights organizations also perpetuates certain taboos regarding the portrayal of victims and perpetrators. By analyzing cultural responses to dictatorship, including novels, plays, documentary film and telenovela—in particular, by paying attention to which stories are not being told—my book provides a framework for understanding the complex postdictatorship period itself. Overt silences—a literal lack of speech—are complemented by more covert silences or “cover stories” found in tales of victims of human rights violations. For example, fictional tales of torture most often emphasize the stubborn silence of the victim yet ignore difficult questions of complicity or betrayal in the torture chamber. Similarly, stories of babies born in captivity and appropriated by families sympathetic to the military regime highlight the importance of identity restitution—the discovery of the appropriated individual’s biological identity and happy reunification with family members who have spent years searching for them—but elide uncomfortable issues regarding love and appropriation.

The cultural landscape of postdictatorship Argentina is marked by silences: by unasked, unanswered, or unanswerable questions, by censorship, disappearance, and taboo topics. In many representations of the trauma of torture or disappearance, unpalatable truths regarding victims and perpetrators remain consigned to the shadows. However, a more complete understanding of the complicated postdictatorship terrain in Argentina only emerges when one attends not only to the stories that are being told, but also to those that remain taboo.

 

Nancy J. Gates-Madsen is an associate professor of Spanish at Luther College. She is the cotranslator of Violet Island and Other Poems by Reina María Rodríguez.

Archives of Terror: Reasons for Hope

Today’s guest blogger is Seth Bernstein, translator and editor of Alexander Vatlin’s Agents of Terror. The book is to be released in paperback this week.

Alexander Vatlin’s book Agents of Terror is one of the finest exemplars of Russia’s archival revolution. At the end of the Soviet Union and especially in its aftermath, Russian archives declassified millions of files and provided public access to the records. These documents remain the basis for thousands of scholarly and popular works that have appeared since the late 1980s. Vatlin, a Moscow State University professor, based his work on an especially coveted source—investigation files from Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937-38. Focusing on the lower ranks of Stalin’s secret police (the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, NKVD) and their victims in one district, it reveals the motivations and logistics of mass terror through a gripping micro-history.

[Above] A home in Kuntsevo District in the 1930s. The area faced repression from NKVD officers profiled in Agents of Terror.              

 Since the mid-1990s, declassification has slowed or reversed in some cases. Reclassification of documents primarily affected access to the archives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Recently researchers have revealed disturbing news that the FSB has destroyed records from the GULAG administration.

There have been less publicized archival closings as well. In 2006, a Russian law forbid archives and other institutions from releasing files containing personal information for 75 years. The nominal aims of the law are laudable. In practice, however, archival administrators have limited access to files that reflect poorly on the Soviet state because of fear or their own convictions. Among these collections are the case files that Vatlin used in Agents of Terror, a collection of the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). Two years after the original Russian text appeared in 2004, the research behind the book became impossible to replicate.

There is recent news that should encourage those who wish to see post-Soviet archives become more open, especially those who would like to see more research like Vatlin’s Agents of Terror. With the passing of 75 years on the dates of most of the archival files, a group of graduate students at Moscow State University (MGU) and the human rights organization Memorial agreed with GARF to digitize the entire collection of case files. Vatlin used roughly 500 case files from the terror from one district as a microhistory of Stalinist repression. In contrast, the MGU students are leading a team that will digitize approximately 100,000 files. The digitized collection will be published at the site Open List, a collaborative database of victims of Stalinist repression.

The project has great potential as a scholarly database, of course. For scholars working on the history of state repression, the history of Stalinism or using quantitative methods to explore other aspects of history and society, the collection promises to be a major source of data. More importantly, though, the database helps to fill a moral void that Vatlin exposed in Agents of Terror. In the conclusion, he states that his work is just a “fragment of an immense tragedy”:

 “In the fairy tale of the snow queen, a kingdom fell into an age of
darkness when a cursed mirror broke into myriad pieces, sowing
frosty indifference among its people. As in this fable, the living
fragments cast asunder in Soviet power’s war against its people
will weigh upon us until they are retrieved and placed into the light
of day—to the very last person.” (144)

Open List is one example of a group working to put these pieces back into place. Even as archival access has become more difficult in some instances, researchers, NGOs and state employees continue their work to bring new evidence to light about the Soviet past.

 

 

Seth Bernstein is assistant professor of history at Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He is the translator of Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin’s Secret Police (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016) and Liudmila Novikova’s An Anti-Bolshevik Alternative: The White Movement and the Civil War in the Russian North (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), and the author of Raised under Stalin: Young Communists and the Defense of Socialism (Cornell University Press, 2017).