Tag Archives: #human rights

Burying the United Nations Genocide Treaty

This week, University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release THE SOVIET UNION AND THE GUTTING OF THE UN GENOCIDE CONVENTION. After the staggering horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, the United Nations resolved to prevent and punish the crime of genocide throughout the world. The resulting UN Genocide Convention treaty, however, was drafted, contested, and weakened in the midst of Cold War tensions and ideological struggles between the Soviet Union and the West. Author Anton Weiss-Wendt presents a unique historical account of the failure of the genocide convention. 

Joseph Stalin is the most outstanding figure in Russia’s history, followed by Vladimir Putin and Alexander Pushkin, according to a poll of Russians released in June 2017 by the independent Levada center in Moscow. The 38% of Russians who gave their vote to Stalin clearly dismiss and/or trivialize the mass crimes committed by his regime.

Mine is a story of international criminal law through the prism of Cold War, a legal history of the Cold War. Click To Tweet

When I learned the word genocide, it was in Russian. My paternal grandparents spent nearly twenty years of their lives in Stalin’s Gulag, though they rarely spoke of it. For me, genocide is a personal story. But I am also a professionally trained historian. Hence, the objective of my book is not to condemn but to explain. Neither is it exclusively a story of the communist dictatorship and its crimes.

Unearthing a mass grave on the site of a Gulag camp at Chelyabinsk, east of the Urals, in 1990 (Scanpix)

The Soviets were certainly the biggest offenders in trying to hollow out the Genocide Convention during the UN debates in 1947–48, but they were not the only ones with a vested interest. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States wanted political groups to be protected by the Genocide Convention. The two countries also reached an unlikely consensus that postponed indefinitely the establishment of an international criminal court. The British, for their part, never tried to conceal their dislike for the kind of international treaty they regarded as futile.

As I worked through documents in over a dozen archives in the United States and Europe, I have oscillated in my view of whether or not Stalin and his top diplomats/ accomplices Andrei Vyshinsky and Vyacheslav Molotov (the men on the front cover of the book) should have stood trial on charges of genocide. I conclude that, “under ideal circumstances, Stalin and the Soviet Union could no doubt be indicted for genocide,” yet I caution that this statement not be taken out of context.

Negotiators for the former Allies in World War II—the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom—were each conscious of cases of mass violence that they did not want to be covered by the convention. For the Soviets it was forced labor, ethnic deportations, and the destruction of political opposition in Eastern Europe. The Americans had on their minds racial discrimination at home and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe. The British had yet the longest list of hot-button subjects: the treatment of colonial populations, American use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the treatment of Jews in Mandate Palestine, again the faith fate of German expellees, and so on.

A car owner in Moscow displays his admiration of Stalin, October 2015 (Photo: Ilya Varlamov)

The big question for me—and for all those who have examined or tried to apply the Genocide Convention in a court of law—is whether or not it is a useful legal tool. I am not optimistic. Cold War politics bankrupted the word genocide and ran aground the international treaty that was meant to stamp genocide out of existence. Stalin, and bloody dictators like him, care little for human rights law and are seldom brought to justice.

Stalin, and bloody dictators like him, care little for human rights law and are seldom brought to justice. Click To Tweet

Anton Weiss-Wendt directs research at the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo, Norway. He is the author of Murder without Hatred: Estonians and the Holocaust and Small-Town Russia: Childhood Memories of the Final Soviet Decade; editor of The Nazi Genocide of the Roma; and coeditor of Racial Science in Hitler’s New Europe, 1938–1945.

New books and new paperbacks, July 2017

We’re pleased to announce these new books, and titles new in paperback, debuting this month.

July 18, 2017
WISCONSIN AND THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN LAW
Joseph A. Ranney

“Not simply about Wisconsin’s legal history, for Ranney covers the sweep of state laws in American history from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to recent legal questions of the twenty-first century. Impressively researched and invitingly written, this is a unique introduction to our states as laboratories of democracy.”—Lloyd C. Gardner,Rutgers University

State laws affect nearly every aspect of our daily lives—our safety, personal relationships, and business dealings—but receive less scholarly attention than federal laws and courts. Joseph A. Ranney looks at how state laws have evolved and shaped American history, through the lens of the historically influential state of Wisconsin.

 

July 18, 2017  NEW IN PAPERBACK
AMENDING THE PAST
Europe’s Holocaust Commissions and the Right to History
Alexander Karn

“Historical commissions, Karn argues, have brought expert historical practice to bear on complex questions, adding new meaning to facts that have either been debated or glossed over. These commissions matter because they serve to amend history in cases in which social memory has impeded understanding of historical injustices and begin the amelioration of past human rights violations.”Choice

“A very important contribution to the interdisciplinary scholarship on the broad theme of reckoning with histories of atrocity.”—Bronwyn Leebaw, University of California, Riverside

Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

 

July 18, 2017 NEW IN PAPERBACK
SHAPING THE NEW MAN

Youth Training Regimes in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany
Alessio Ponzio

“Ponzio tells a nuanced story of the delicate and volatile relationship between interwar Europe’s two fascist regimes. . . . He highlights power struggles between leaders, curricula designed not to educate youth but to transform them into ideal representatives of their regimes, and strict gender policing within each of the organizations. Recommended.”Choice

“Ponzio provides, above all, valuable new perspectives on the tremendous influence of Italian Fascism on fledgling Nazi youth organizations, and the cooperative and reciprocal relationships that flourished between the two regimes.”—Michael Ebner, author of Ordinary Violence in Mussolini’s Italy

George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Cultural and Intellectual History
Steven E. Aschheim, Stanley G. Payne, Mary Louise Roberts, and David J. Sorkin, Series Editors

 

July 27, 2017
BEYOND THE MONASTERY WALLS

The Ascetic Revolution in Russian Orthodox Thought, 1814–1914
Patrick Lally Michelson

“Impressive in its analytical breadth and astute in its interpretive depth, this is an engaging, lucid, and original contribution to the history of modern Russian thought and modern Orthodoxy.”—Vera Shevzov, Smith College

“Reading this extraordinary book is like having missing pieces of a puzzle click together at last. Actors normally examined separately—radical socialists, theological academies, hermits, great writers, bureaucrats, lay intellectuals—emerge as part of the same religious culture that placed asceticism at the center of discourse and practice in imperial Russia’s defining century.” —Nadieszda Kizenko, University at Albany, SUNY

 

July 27, 2017
IF YOU DON’T LAUGH YOU’LL CRY 
The Occupational Humor of White Wisconsin Prison Workers
Claire Schmidt

“A lucid, compelling study of some very funny, compassionate corrections officers. Their intelligence and comic delight shine through on every page.”—Jackie McGrath, College of DuPage

America is fascinated by prisons and prison culture, but few Americans understand what it is like to work in corrections. Claire Schmidt, whose extended family includes three generations of Wisconsin prison workers, introduces readers to penitentiary officers and staff as they share stories, debate the role of corrections in American racial politics and social justice, and talk about the important function of humor in their jobs.

Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World

 

 

Finding Empathy Through Troubling Stories

Aaron Denham, author of Spirit Children: Illness, Poverty, and Infanticide in Northern Ghana, comments on the importance of reading about distressing subjects. His book is published today in the University of Wisconsin Press series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture

As I began writing about infanticide and the “spirit child” phenomenon in Northern Ghana, I became interested in how narratives of vulnerability and difficult human experiences can evoke powerful emotional and imaginative reactions in listeners and readers. Spirit children are, most often, disabled or ill children believed to be spirits sent to destroy the family. In their fear, and with limited treatment options, families occasionally hasten their child’s death.

When speaking about my research to friends and the public, my descriptions of families’ difficult decisions would often induce silence or provoke awkward replies. After one presentation depicting a family’s struggles to care for a spirit child, a well-intentioned literature professor suggested I bring an MRI machine to the remote savanna to scan the children to determine if they are indeed spirits. In other venues, some people vehemently denied the fact that infanticide was even occurring. The most powerful responses, however, come from parents with young children. I soon learned to temper my descriptions after a friend became distressed when I casually explained the grim reality one family faced. She vividly imagined her infant confronting similar circumstances.

Some authors and anthropologists have written about the value of attending to their own emotions and the anxieties that arise while conducting research. George Devereux stressed that ethnographers should scrutinize their reactions and blind spots, because our emotional worlds shape the ways we experience and interpret other people. This self-attunement is useful for readers too. How might our internal world shape our understanding of what we read?

When confronted with difficult material, our emotions and anxieties can enhance or limit comprehension. When I’ve discussed infanticide, I have found that people quickly gravitate to familiar but experience-distant sociobiological paradigms. These are often encapsulated in the question: “Considering their circumstances, doesn’t infanticide make good environmental sense?” Although at times reasonable, biofundamentalist accounts can foreclose deeper moral engagements with human experience. People defer to purely objective explanations to distance anxiety and move disturbing knowledge to more familiar and manageable terms. Devereux described this process as interpretive undercomprehension. This dilemma results in anxiously clinging to a point of view simply because the reader can “tolerate that particular interpretation, while considering all other (psychologically intolerable) interpretations unscholarly and erratic.” Jacques Lacan described a similar process that he termed the “passion for ignorance,” or the desire not to know, and to want nothing more to do with knowledge that is too intense.

Authors leverage readers’ internal worlds in many ways. In my writing, I wanted to bridge diverse cultural experiences to confront the perceived strangeness of infanticide. I wanted to encourage moments of mutual recognition, if not always an empathetic attunement. The challenge has been in finding a balance between presenting the visceral realities of people’s lives and developing emotionally tolerable narratives that facilitate a deeper level of understanding.

Readers can also contemplate their own reactions to emotional subjects. Stories that confront cultural difference and distressing practices can evoke anxiety or revulsion. In these cases, we can maintain our passion for ignorance, or we can take the opportunity to contemplate the reason for these sentiments and reflect on the complexity of our shared humanity. Challenging stories can help build empathy and inspire us to action. Moreover, as we open ourselves to difficult material, we do more than learn more about the lives of others. If we pay attention to what a text evokes within, we can ultimately come away learning more about ourselves.

Aaron R. Denham is the director of the Master of Development Studies and Global Health program and a senior lecturer in anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He formerly was a mental health provider for children and families, a fellow of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders.

A model for 21st-century prophetic activism

Doris Dirks and Patricia Relf  are the authors of a new book,  To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, published today by the University of Wisconsin Press. In this guest post, they reflect on the social justice activism of the little-known Clergy Consultation Service, a religious organization of the 1960s and early 1970s dedicated to providing women with safe abortions.

On May 22, 1967, at a time when abortion was illegal in the United States, an article on the front page of the New York Times announced that twenty-one New York City clergy would counsel and refer women to licensed doctors for safe abortions. The group called itself the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS).

Doris Dirks, Minister Howard Moody, and Patricia Relf

Not many people know the story of the CCS. Some of the loudest speakers in the debate about abortion access since Roe v. Wade have been conservative religious voices, leading the general public to believe that all people of faith, especially the clergy, were opposed to abortion.

Just since 2010, states have adopted 334* abortion restrictions , constituting 30% of all abortion restrictions enacted by states since Roe v. Wade. On March 6, 2017, the White House proposed preserving federal payments to Planned Parenthood only if it discontinues providing abortions. Congressional Republicans have said that they will move quickly to strip all federal funds from Planned Parenthood.

As the fiftieth anniversary of the CCS approaches in May, we think about the network of some 3,000 clergy who referred as many as 450,000 women for safe abortions between 1967 and 1973. Will that kind of service will be needed again? The clergy we interviewed for our book came of age during the 1950s and 1960s and were at the forefront of the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s rights movements.

When we first started researching the CCS in 2002, we wondered where the voices of progressive clergy were in the social justice movements of the twenty-first century. Now we are starting to hear those voices being raised once more. In recent weeks, clergy and religious organizations have spoken out on transgender civil rights. More than 1,800 religious leaders signed on to an amicus brief on behalf of Gavin Grimm, a trans student who has fought for the right to use a high school restroom that aligns with his gender identity. A broad network of thirty-seven Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations announced a campaign to mobilize congregants to lobby Congress and the president on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and undocumented people.

The pastor of Ebenezer Lutheran Church and congregants at the Chicago Pride Parade.

We are experiencing divisive and turbulent times. The CCS provides a historical example of how clergy acted in the past to help women get safe abortions. It provides an example for social justice activism today.

*research published in 2016 by the Guttmacher Institute.

Doris A. Dirks is a senior academic planner with the University of Wisconsin System Administration.

Patricia A. Relf is a freelance writer.

Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era

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Law professor Michael O’Hear has just published his new book with us this week: Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era. We spoke with him about his findings on this timely subject.

A lot has been written in the popular and academic press about mass incarceration, as the number of Americans in prison has increased tremendously since the 1970s. What does your book add?

Most writing on mass incarceration deals with the subject as a generalized national phenomenon. However, the vast majority of American prisoners—about seven in eight—are held in state institutions after being sentenced in state courts under state laws. Really, it is state-level policies and practices that have driven the unprecedented imprisonment boom that we have seen in the U.S. over the past four decades. This helps to explain why mass incarceration has hit some states a lot harder than others. Yet, there are very few studies that explore the experience of particular states in depth. We will not have the full story of mass incarceration in America until state experiences are better understood.

My book covers the historical development of sentencing policy in Wisconsin over a period of more than forty years. Only a handful of other states have been studied in a comparable fashion. I hope to enrich the literature by putting another state that has had a distinctive experience under the microscope. Of course, I think my book will also hold a special appeal for Wisconsinites who are interested in better understanding and possibly reforming penal practices in their own state.

How hard did mass incarceration hit Wisconsin?

In some respects, the Wisconsin experience has been representative of the overall national experience. As with most other states, Wisconsin’s prison population rose sharply in the last quarter of the twentieth century and remains today near its all-time high. At present, the prison population amounts to about 377 out of every 100,000 state residents. This figure is not far off the national average of 402 state prisoners out of every 100,000 U.S. residents.

However, Wisconsin’s numbers do stand out in at least two ways. First, the state’s prison population grew remarkably quickly, even by national standards. In the early 1970’s, Wisconsin’s imprisonment rate was only about half the national average. In essence, Wisconsin went from being a low-imprisonment state forty years ago to a middle-of-the-pack state today. Second, mass incarceration hit Wisconsin’s African American community in an especially dramatic and disheartening way. By some measures, Wisconsin may have the nation’s very highest rate of black male incarceration. In some neighborhoods in Milwaukee, in particular, imprisonment has become a routine and expected part of the life experience of young men of color.

What caused Wisconsin’s prison population to grow so quickly?behind bars

Let me first address two common errors about mass incarceration. I’ve heard these stories often from commentators both locally and nationally, but the Wisconsin experience does a good job of highlighting the problems with these accounts. First, many people think that mass incarceration was caused by the “war on drugs.” It is true that the imprisonment boom, at both the state and national level, coincided with a toughening of drug laws and a sharp increase in drug arrests. However, the vast majority of arrests have been for low-level offenses, like simple possession of marijuana, and the offenders have tended to cycle in and out of the criminal-justice system relatively quickly. Thus, in Wisconsin, the portion of the prison population serving time for drug offenses topped out at about 15 percent, and has since dropped to below 10 percent. The national numbers are a little higher, but the fact remains that mass incarceration would still exist even if every drug offender were released from prison tomorrow.

Second, it is often said that mass incarceration resulted from the adoption of mandatory minimums and other laws that took away the discretion of sentencing judges. It is true that Wisconsin, like many other states, adopted a host of new statutory minimums in the 1980s and 1990s. However, upon closer inspection, the minimums are revealed for what they really were—largely symbolic enactments that vented public frustration over crime without actually doing much to pump up the prison population. Minimums were relatively short, or narrowly targeted, or included safety valves that permitted judges to avoid them. In some states, like California, discretion was much more dramatically curtailed. However, the Wisconsin story demonstrates that mass incarceration happened without aggressive changes in sentencing law.

In Wisconsin, the prison population initially exploded because crime exploded, and because judges and prosecutors lacked confidence in the ability of the Department of Corrections to manage the rising tide of offenders effectively in the community. But then, even when crime stabilized in the 1990s, the prison population continued to grow, as indicated in the figure below. Sentences were becoming more severe, reflecting the entrenchment of tough-on-crime attitudes among criminal-justice officials. (In Wisconsin, as in most states, judges and district attorneys are elected, which makes it perilous for these key local officials to appear overly lenient.) For a few years, generous parole practices partly counterbalanced tougher sentences, but parole grew politicized in the mid-1990s and was effectively phased out. The formal elimination of parole through “truth in sentencing” helped to ensure that Wisconsin’s prison population would remain near its all-time high on a sustained basis.

Figure: Wisconsin Prisoners and Arrests for Violent Crime

Figure: Wisconsin Prisoners and Arrests for Violent Crime

Why should we care about the state or national imprisonment rate?

Commentators have been calling for large-scale decarceration in the United States for years. The numbers-crunchers tell us that that this could likely be accomplished with little or no adverse impact on public safety. The historical experiences of Wisconsin and Minnesota offer a telling comparison. The two states had similar crime and imprisonment rates in the early 1970s. Since then, Wisconsin’s imprisonment rate has grown far more quickly than Minnesota’s, but the crime rates have remained closely in sync.

In recent years, the opponents of mass incarceration have particularly emphasized the fiscal burdens of imprisonment. It is true that corrections expenses are stressing state budgets in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Local taxpayers are now paying more for corrections than they are for the University of Wisconsin, which hardly seems an ideal way to prioritize public expenditures. Still, I am skeptical that appeals to fiscal restraint alone will inspire much decarceration. Fear of crime remains widespread, and people resist thinking about crime policy in terms of dollars and cents; the stakes just seem too high.barbed wire

Reformers need to make the case that new sentencing policies would not only save money, but actually make us safer. Accumulating bodies of evidence show that imprisonment can make some offenders more likely to reoffend, while some types of community-based rehabilitative programming can significantly reduce risks of recidivism. However, I argue in my book that real reform likely requires more than just a good public education campaign.

Ultimately, as a society, we must move beyond the reflexive vilification of offenders and recognize their shared humanity. They are not just criminals, but also parents, children, spouses, neighbors, friends, and employees, and many desperately want to do something positive with their lives. Moreover, most come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have faced extraordinary adversity growing up, which ought to inspire at least a little compassion. If we care about the well-being of prisoners, and the well-being of those on the outside who are connected to them, then we should care very deeply about the excessive use of imprisonment that is reflected in the mass-incarceration numbers. This is not to say that we should empty out the prisons tomorrow. Saint Augustine taught us to hate the sin, but love the sinner. If we were really to take that teaching to heart, we would find ways to protect public safety and hold offenders accountable, but without doing so much unnecessary damage to so many human lives along the way.

Michael OMichael O'Hear‘Hear is a professor of law at Marquette University. He is an editor of the journal Federal Sentencing Reporter and has published many articles on sentencing law, criminal procedure, and public opinion about the criminal justice system.

 

Michael O’Hear

New books, December & January

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We are pleased to announce these new and soon-to-be-published books.

Published December 6
Inside Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts: Seeking Justice after Genocide
Bert Ingelaere
“This masterful study provides a balanced, nuanced assessment of Rwanda’s local courts, showing how diverse social dynamics influenced both the operations of gacaca and its outcomes in different local communities. Essential reading for anyone interested in transitional justice and conflict resolution, in Rwanda and beyond.”—Catharine Newbury, Smith College
Critical Human Rights   Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

 

To be published January 10Lamore-Reading-African-American-Autobiography-2016-c
Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism
Edited by Eric D. Lamore
“These provocative essays reveal the exciting state of African American autobiographical studies. The critical approaches explored here—from new-media studies and eco-criticism to reading the interplay between visual and verbal autobiographical acts—not only frame and interpret the life narratives proliferating within today’s digital and popular cultures, they enliven classic literary texts for a contemporary age.”—Angela Ards, author of Words of Witness
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography   William L. Andrews, Series Editor

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American Autobiography after 9/11

Megan Brown
“Demonstrates how several American life-writing subgenres have reflected and responded to national and personal anxieties after 9/11. This accessible and well-argued book is an essential resource for understanding contemporary memoir.”—G. Thomas Couser, Hofstra University
Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography   William L. Andrews, Series Editor

 

To be published January 175415-165w
Understanding and Teaching the Cold War
Edited by Matthew Masur
“A superb collection of authoritative, imaginative, and even provocative essays on teaching the history of the Cold War, effectively merging historiography, methodology, and innovative use of primary documents.”—Jeremi Suri, author of Henry Kissinger and the American Century
The Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History

John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin, Series Editors

5493-165wTo be published January 17
Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: 
How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway
Michael O’Hear
“Serious students of modern sentencing reforms—as well as everyone eager to understand the roots of, and potential responses to, modern mass incarceration—must have this book on their reading list. O’Hear thoroughly canvasses the dynamic story of Wisconsin’s uniquely important sentencing reform history.”—Douglas Berman, author of the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog

 

 

The Politics of the Stalinist Past in Today’s Russia

Russian author Alexander Vatlin gives insight into his book Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin’s Secret Police, published this week by the University of Wisconsin Press. With Seth Bernstein providing the translation, Vatlin expands upon Stalin’s legacy today and the issues that still divide the Russian people.

I am delighted that my study of Stalin’s terror at the local level has been translated into English. In this blog, I’d like to frame the book in the context in which I wrote it— present-day Russia. When I wrote the original Russian-language book [published in 2004], the primary point of dispute among Russians stemmed from their opinions about Stalin’s regime. Indeed, this divide remains today. Academic historians have written hundreds or thousands of books with well-researched arguments about Stalinism. Some have even published documents from formerly secret archives, revealing the inner workings of the party-state. Yet among many ordinary people, these works have had little impact. As a colleague commented, a Russian’s view about Stalinism are a question of faith, not knowledge.

Stalin’s era remains the period in Russian history that attracts the most attention from researchers. It is an epoch that allows, even encourages, contradictory interpretations. Take the example of Stalinist forced collectivization: one historian might condemn the campaign as a crime against the peasantry, another lauds it as one of the regime’s great achievements. It suffices to cite a recent survey of Russians on the place of Stalin in history. Over the last several years, approximately 40 percent have claimed that Stalin would be the right leader for Russia today. Among people older than sixty, this figure is nearly 70 percent.

There are three main questions that divide the Russian public’s interpretations of Stalinism:

  1. Did the violence of Stalinism reflect the broader trends of European history in the twentieth century (what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the “age of extremes”)? Or was it a path peculiar to Russia (borrowing from the German concept of the sonderweg in their country’s history), a product of the country’s underdevelopment?
  2. Was Stalin’s regime—despite all its brutality—the only way that Russia could have survived the crises of the twentieth century? In other words, could the country have industrialized so rapidly without the Gulag?
  3. The final question, especially relevant for today: did Stalinism represent a dark age—a historical regression that forced the country to restart its development anew after the dictator’s death? Or was it the opposite—did Stalin drag the USSR into modernity, and now we can forget about the troubles of the past?

In current debates, few (other than the most politicized radicals in the Russian Communist Party) continue to defend the massive state violence of 1937-38, better known as the Great Terror. However, there is still reason to be concerned about the terror’s place in society. It is not that the public celebrates the elimination of so-called enemies of the people, but that Stalinist repression has been effectively forgotten. Scholarship on 1937-38 has almost no popular resonance today. This fact is most striking, because the history of the Great Terror was enormously important during Gorbachev’s perestroika of the late 1980s. Then, new revelations about Stalinist repression drove a moral reckoning in the country and were partially responsible for political reforms. In 1989, 39 percent of those surveyed in said that Stalinist repression was one of the most significant episodes for the USSR/Russia in the twentieth century. By the time my book was published in 2004, that number fell to just 10 percent. When I tried to present my book at a library in Kuntsevo municipal district in Moscow—where the events of my work took place—I was turned away. Administrators from the library said, “We can’t raise our children on that kind of history.”

Russians, the young above all, have turned away from the dark pages of their country’s past. This lack of historical perspective is dangerous—a formula for collective amnesia and apathy. Only a quarter of the locations are known where mass shootings occurred during the Great Terror. The only people currently looking for the mass graves are volunteers who receive no support from the state. The relatives of the repressed in many cases still do not know where their parents and grandparents are buried.

In short, readers of the English-language translation of my book should be aware that Russian historical understandings differ significantly from those in the West. Russians like to quote the poet Fedor Tyutchev’s famous lines:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness,
She stands alone, unique,
In Russia, one can only believe.

Every country has traditions that govern acceptable attitudes toward domestic and international tensions. This behavior formed over hundreds of years, and the resulting national traits are not always laudable. Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore them.

There are several aspects of Stalinist rule that are important for a non-Russian reader to understand. Stalin constructed his dictatorship by working within the Russian tradition of autocratic rule. He also exploited the passivity of ordinary people, who had grown weary of struggling after decades of revolutionary upheaval. The threat of external aggression contributed to Stalin’s ability to form an authoritarian regime. A huge number of ordinary Russians were isolated in the small world of their villages, and many peasants cared little about what was happening in Moscow. These Russians had limited experience with representative democracy. Even today, people’s deference to central leaders is not based on a social contract, but upon fear of the powerful and anxieties about instability.

For all these reasons, both the victims and the executors of the Great Terror could not understand its causes nor comprehend its scale. Perpetrators’ lack of understanding allowed them to deny their responsibility—a phenomenon readers can see among the officers of the Kuntsevo NKVD in my book Agents of Terror. NKVD workers often claimed that they had only fulfilled quotas, that they had completed the number of arrests that leaders had demanded. If agents had questioned the purpose of the terror, let alone objected to it, they could have soon found themselves on the other side of the interrogation table.

This argument was a convenient way for NKVD officers to absolve themselves of guilt. All the main figures in Agents of Terror made similar claims when they were called to account at the end of 1938. As a scholar who works primarily on German history, I could not help but think of a phrase that millions of Germans recited during Hitler’s reign: Der Führer denkt für uns. The Führer thinks for us.

I do not want to suggest that today’s Russians should come to a final understanding about the meaning of Stalin’s regime in the country’s history. It will take perhaps another two or three generations to reach a popular consensus about the era. More important is that individuals work through the past—a process that cannot occur without moral assessments. Asking a personal question—how would I have acted in the place of a victim or an executioner, in the place of a hero or a traitor?—does not permit one to hide behind the straw men of the great villains in history. Strange as it sounds, the history of the Great Terror can have a positive impact on contemporary Russia. It should force every one of us to reflect, so that a tragedy like 1937-38 will not occur again.

 

Alexander Vatlin is a professor of history at Moscow State University. The author of many works in Russian, he is the editor of Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution: Bolshevik Self Portraits.

 

 

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Seth Bernstein is an assistant professor of history at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

 

 

 

New books for October 2016

We are pleased to announce five new books arriving in October.

Publication date: October 11
DEATH IN COLD WATER
Patricia Skalka

The third book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series

“Patricia Skalka has pulled off the near impossible—a tale of grisly murder filled with moments of breathtaking beauty. Sheriff Dave Cubiak is the kind of decent protagonist too seldom seen in modern mystery novels, a hero well worth rooting for. And the icing on the cake is the stunning backdrop of Door County, Wisconsin. Another fine novel in a series that is sure to satisfy even the most demanding reader.”—William Kent Krueger, author of Windigo Island

“Skalka has created magic with this excellent police procedural. She confronts Sheriff Dave Cubiak with a kidnapping, snakes, and even a bag of nearly drowned kittens, deftly brought together in crisp, evocative prose. A great read!”—Libby Fischer Hellman, author of Jump Cut

Publication date: October 11
AGENTS OF TERROR
Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin’s Secret Police
Alexander Vatlin
Edited, translated, and with an introduction by Seth Bernstein

“Although the literature on the Great Terror has improved markedly over the past twenty-five years, only a handful of case studies consider how the purges took place at the grassroots level. Thankfully, Alexander Vatlin’s pathbreaking work has now become available to English-speakingВатлин1 audiences. One can only hope that Agents of Terror will inspire more research on the purge’s perpetrators and victims as well as on the broader sociology of this brutal period.”—David Brandenberger, author of Propaganda State in Crisis

“Groundbreaking. In the first detailed description of Stalin’s mass terror, Vatlin unfolds the day-to-day working of the Soviet political police who carried out orders to select, arrest, interrogate, and often murder their fellow citizens. An absorbing, heartrending account.”—David Shearer, author of Policing Stalin’s Socialism

Publication date: October 18
A THIN BRIGHT LINE
Lucy Jane Bledsoe

“Merges fact and fiction to create a historically accurate picture of the struggles faced by LGBT people in the 1950s and ’60s; the closeting that was required for professional advancement; and the ways the Cold War pitted pure science against research to benefit the defense industry. A stirring and deeply felt story.”Kirkus Reviews

“This is gripping historical fiction about queer life at the height of the Cold War and the civil Bledsoe-Lucy-2016-crights movement, and its grounding in fact really makes it sing. Like the scientists whose papers she edits, Lucybelle Bledsoe is passionate about the truth. Whether it’s the climate history of the planet as illuminated by cores of polar ice or the pursuit of an authentic emotional life in the miasma of McCarthyism, she operates with piercing honesty.”—Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home

Publication date: October 27
THE PHANTOM OF THOMAS HARDY
Floyd Skloot

“Only the inventive Floyd Skloot could come up with—and gorgeously pull off—an experiment like The Phantom of Thomas Hardy. With the intensity of a fevered dream, he seeks his own self-integration after brain trauma while digging around, assembling, and imagining the history of the elusive Hardy. Blending memoir, reportage, literary analysis, and historical fiction (who does that?) Skloot dazzles with the depth of his research, and enchants with his signature vivid, precise, and thoroughly delicious prose.”—Jeanne Marie Laskas, author of Concussion

“This strikingly original book crosses the boundaries of genre in daring ways, as we observe a fictional self in pursuit of a phantom, another self, the soul of a great author. This is a work of memoir, fantasy, literary biography, spiritual questing—and more. As ever, Skloot draws on deep reserves of intellectual and emotional energy. A remarkable achievement.”—Jay Parini, author of The Last Station

Callary-Place-Names-of-Wisconsin-cPublication date: October 31
PLACE NAMES OF WISCONSIN
Edward Callary

“Up-to-date and fully documented, this alphabetical guide to more than two thousand names of Wisconsin’s counties, towns, cities, and villages will be the definitive resource on Wisconsin place names for years to come. Readers—whether locals, travelers, or scholars—will enjoy learning about the unique history of the state as reflected in its place names.”—Luanne von Schneidemesser, senior editor, Dictionary of American Regional English

“The introduction is laced with apt examples of naming patterns and sources. It explains pseudo-Indian names and corrects many fanciful but false popular accounts of name origins. And, Callary includes a helpful pronunciation guide for anyone confronted with Mazomanie, Menomonie, and Muscoda for the first time.”—James P. Leary, editor of Wisconsin Folklore

Why silence is key to understanding the past

In postdictatorship Argentina, insight into what remains unspoken

We spoke with Nancy J. Gates-Madsen about how the role of silence in postdictatorship Argentina is essential to understanding the crimes of the past. 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, and author of Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling: Listening to Silences in Postdictatorship Argentina, recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

How did you become interested in the topic of silences and taboos in postdictatorship Argentina?

I was reading a lot of novels and plays written after the return to democracy, and I kept noticing the prominent role of silence: characters who would or could not speak, unspecified yet sinister horrors, and a fragmented or indirect language that called attention to the difficulty of expressing crimes against humanity. While existing scholarship alluded to the importance of silence, few critics had attempted to unpack its meaning. At the same time, the rhetoric of human rights was often couched in terms of speech versus silence: one must break oppressive silences in order to voice the crimes of the past. Yet it seemed to me that the myriad silences in cultural production were more than simply negative states to be broken. The strong silence of fictional torture victims who refuse to offer information to their captors, for example, belies any interpretation of silence as unequivocally negative. The more I began to explore fictional and testimonial narrative with an ear to silences and taboos, the more I realized that understanding the interplay between silence and speech (in particular, paying attention to which stories are not being told) was critical to understanding the complex postdictatorship period itself. I also discovered that 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.

It sounds like a sensitive topic to study.

It certainly is. This came out particularly in the review period of the manuscript. One chapter in the book analyzes stories of babies born in captivity and appropriated by families sympathetic to the military regime.

Many of these individuals have grown to adulthood with no knowledge of their biological origins or the crime committed against them during their infancy. The chapter explores which aspects of the complicated questions of identity that surround these youngest victims of the dictatorship come to the fore and which remain taboo. Of all the chapters, this one generated the most commentary from UW Press’s peer reviewers, due to its discussion of the rhetoric employed by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a prominent human rights organization that has been searching for these missing children for decades. Given the delicate nature of identity restitution, the readers’ responses did not surprise me, but it was a constant reminder of the way in which as a researcher I needed to be sensitive to the admirable work of human rights organizations yet unafraid to signal the limits that seem to govern the tales of the postdictatorship. In many representations of the trauma of torture or appropriation, unpalatable truths regarding victims and perpetrators remain consigned to the shadows, but a more complete picture of the legacies of the dictatorship only emerges when one examines both the stories that are being told and also those that remain taboo.

Listening to silences offers unexpected insight regarding postdictatorship Argentina, for even stories that struggle against forgetting may conceal as much as they reveal.

Any final thoughts?

Listening to silences offers unexpected insight regarding postdictatorship Argentina, for even stories that struggle against forgetting may conceal as much as they reveal. The overt silences of the military (such as the refusal to account for the fate of missing victims) are complemented by more covert silences in tales of victims of human rights violations (such as questions of complicity or betrayal in the torture chamber). Although the insights gained by exploring silences may prove troubling, identifying and unpacking the lingering taboos can help articulate the depth and breadth of the painful legacies of the dictatorship.

Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling: Listening to Silences in Postdictatorship Argentina is published in the University of Wisconsin Press book series Critical Human Rights, edited by Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus. Find all of the books published in the series to date here.

 

New Books For June 2016

We are pleased to announce these four books debuting in June.

Women Lovers

June 21

Women Lovers, or The Third Woman

Natalie Clifford Barney
Edited and Translated by Chelsea Ray
Introduction by Melanie C. Hawthorne

Three sensual women in dangerous liaisons.

“A first-ever translation that shines new light on Natalie Barney, the invincible ‘Amazon,’ sexual rebel, and arch-seducer of women who in the 1920s aspired to make Paris ‘the Sapphic Centre of the Western World.’ Chelsea Ray shows us another side to her: vulnerable, jealous, and volatile in love.”
—Diana Souhami, author of Natalie and Romaine: The Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks

 

Gates-Madsen-Trauma,-Taboo,-and-Truth-Telling-c

June 28

Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling
Listening to Silences in Postdictatorship Argentina

Nancy J. Gates-Madsen

Critical Human Rights

In the aftermath of state terror, silence carries its own deep meanings.

“Opens our ears to silences and their meanings. Gates-Madsen persuasively shows how the unsaid shapes memories of the traumatic past. An outstanding contribution to the study of human rights memory.”
—Rebecca J. Atencio, author of Memory’s Turn: Reckoning Dictatorship in Brazil

 

Hoeveler-John-Bascom-and-the-Origins-of-the-Wisconsin-Idea-cJune 30

John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea

J. David Hoeveler

An intellectual history of the public service mission of universities.

“Comprehensive and insightful. Hoeveler shows that John Bascom played a pivotal role in the foundation of the American public university as a radically new institution of higher learning, dedicated to producing better citizens and serving as a resource for government of the commonwealth.”
—John D. Buenker, author of The Progressive Era, 1893–1914

 

Rush-Hamka's-Great-Story-cJune 30

Hamka’s Great Story
A Master Writer’s Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia

James R. Rush

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies

Fully modern, fully Muslim, fully Indonesian.

“Few Muslim intellectuals and activists loom larger in modern Indonesian history than Hamka. In this richly detailed and elegantly written book, James Rush has provided a moving, definitive account of this complex man. This is a major contribution to our understanding of Indonesia and Indonesian Islam.”
—Robert W. Hefner, Boston University