Transcript

Russian History with Adrian Jones

adrian-jonesDr Adrian Jones
adrian.jones@latrobe.edu.au

You can also listen to the interview (MP3 13.8MB).

Matt:

You’re listening to the La Trobe University podcast, I’d be your host Matt Smith, good morning, good afternoon and good evening it does all depend on where you’re standing. Or should we say dobroe utro, dobriy den, dobriy vecher, and ‘ve have you now Mr. Bond, now vhere is the microfilm?’ because we’re here with Dr. Adrian Jones of the History department, to talk about Russian history! Thanks for joining me, Adrian!

Adrian:

Dobriy vecher!

Matt:

I hope I didn’t murder the Russian language too much…

Adrian:

Only slightly!

Matt:

Now Russian history, I’m sure there’s a lot of history there. Anywhere in particular you’re going to set us down?

Adrian:

I usually set students down in three different eras depending on whatever course I’m teaching at any given time.

Matt:

Well choose your favourite one.

Adrian:

My favourite period is the earliest period, the 16th, 18th century. So the formation of the Russian state, the formation of the empire, the great personalities in Russian history that everybody knows sort of. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, everyone knows about her sexual appetite.

Matt:

I don’t, actually. You’ve got a novice here!

Adrian:

But I also teach 19th century intellectual social history, politics of the great age of Russian creativity. Great novels and music. You can’t think about ballet or the novel without thinking Russia, particularly in the 19th century. And I also teach about Russian revolution in the broad. Lenin and Stalin and again we can’t think about politics and what it means to be a kind of radical without having a view, right or wrong, about the Russian revolution. So that’s why I teach Russian history, because I think it’s defining on so many levels for our own identity.

Let’s start in the 19th century, because if we think any area of culture, Russia is a wonderful place in the 19th century for sheer creativity. In one level it’s a backward place, one of the more backward places in Europe. Out of it comes this vibrant culture with these new forms of art. So I think Russia in a way in this era, from roughly 1840 through to 1920, so it goes right into the 20th century, is one of the most creative places in Europe. If we’re talking about ballet, the ballet Russe is fundamental. Nijinsky and the music that goes with this, Tchaikovsky, it’s fundamentally important in shaping the idea of free movement, unburdened by classical traditions.

Matt:

So what is it that brought this cultural revolution around?

Adrian:

Well in many ways that’s why I like talking about this to Australian students, because Australia and Russia are kind of similar in that they’ve been off the main streams tucked away to one side, but not as encumbered by the traditions received from Europe. And there people could do more creative things less encumbered by traditions, and certainly the case in Russia. And there are urgent questions there about how to create a free society because they were living in one of the most conservative reactionary monarchies in Europe. And yet their minds were full of Paris- and London-type ideas about freedom, rights, and liberty. So out of this comes a whole lot of really wonderful writing, which is perhaps my first love, and music as well.

Matt:

What are some examples… I know of Peter and the Wolf, or is that too far back?

Adrian:

Peter and the Wolf is a lovely example of populist writing for children, with musical overtones about where is the true source of our identity, which is an elemental question in world culture. And Russian intellectual history is full of this in the 19th century and the novelists, you can see them debating it, about if Tolstoy thinks that every time a Russian prince expresses himself in French, which is the language of culture and erudition, he’s actually betraying his Russian soul. And Natasha Rostova is only ever truly free when she forgets her ball gowns and her elegant French, and she dances like a peasant in the barn of the village. Issues of identity and freedom arose first and were thought about first.

Matt:

Were they able to write that sort of thing back then? Wasn’t there any restrictions in the sort of things they could write? How much freedom did they have before it became a bit too political?

Adrian:

Well the great novelists wrote with very clear political implications but were not necessarily political with a capital ‘P’. But there were plenty of people beside them who were political with a capital ‘P’. Who usually wrote in exile and in the 19th century Russian intellectual life spawned some of the great ideas about politics. Socialism, what kind of socialism, should we have a socialism that looks after the peasants and preserves the traditional way of life, and is called populism. Or should we have the kind of socialism that we call anarchism, where the big state structures are all dismantled and people are left to be local and free, which is again another Russian idea which is very influential. Just when you think it’s going to become a normal western society under Gorbachev, Yeltsin with the capitalist economy, then along comes Putin who is another kind of emperor, and close down some of the things you thought were now solid.

Matt:

Is it true that they go in cycles with Russian leaders where one’s got to be bald and the next have a full head of hair, and that’s actually how the Russian people vote, based on that? Probably not just based on that but it has a heavy influence on their thinking.

Adrian:

The bald theory is an interesting one. I think in the Russian case people are much more insecure, in the sense that if you live in the Russian plain, unlike Australia, you’re living in a part of the world where there really are no natural defences. It’s just a vast plain between China and Hungary it’s open space, it’s actually quite a fraught territory. When it was important for other people to go there it then became quite an insecure place. There are lots of nationalities living there with competing claims. So there’s a certain insecurity, and this is a theme that goes through Russian life, that lots of people want freedom, but they also want order and they’re not too sure whether the two go together. Certainly in recent times the more freedom they had the more disorder there was. I think in Australia we’ve always been lucky because in a sense we’ve always had continuity of institutions. We’re relatively relaxed about foreigners. There was only one time in our history that someone looked like they might attack us, and that didn’t get that close. Whereas in the Russian case there is this elemental anxiety. I remember talking with people in Moscow about Gorbachev, and I was much more positive than they wore. They saw him as utterly plunging Russia into chaos, and although they may not have liked the powerful soviet state which had dominated their lives, it was a powerful state, it had won the second world war, they had a kind of pride in that. But they didn’t have much pride in Yeltsin when he’s drunk on the podium or trying to turn Russia into a normal western European state, whatever that might be. So the fear of disorder is great.

But I think there’s a different boundary between public and private, it always perplexes me, for example, in our culture when you go to someone’s house they usually present their best face to you by having their garden nice and trim and the front yard will usually try to look better than the back. But in Russia public spaces are always tawdry and often stink of urine, and they’re very run down, and no one seems to be really looking after them, and there’s often empty vodka bottles and whatever. And then you enter a private realm, and you’re immediately ushered into this warm and cosy and utterly secure environment, where the public world is one to be greeted with formality and defence. So it’s a different sense between different boundaries of public and private.

I also think the personality issues in Russia are very interesting.

Matt:

There’s very much a need to be dominant in Russian history, from the personalities that we know.

Adrian:

Yes. Well you’ve got larger than life figures who shaped culture. The sheer personality of Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible were great reforming tsars whose violence and determination basically changed the course of their whole societies. And again I think in many ways it’s hard to do that about Australia, where a particular person could redefine it. We tend to think of our leaders as, like it or not, expressing aspects of ourselves. The White Australia Policy emerges from Edmund Barton, and Deakin and these people but it’s part of the Australian mentality at the end of the 19th century: keep out foreigners, particularly coloured foreigners. Whereas in Russia, particular tsars shaped the outlook of the whole society. So Peter the Great is determined to bring Russia into contact with Europe in a full and meaningful sense. So he orders people to change their dress. He orders them to dress differently. He orders the noble women to leave the seclusion of the palace. They were always kept in seclusio n, they came to church, they went home again, that was the way Russian women lived. Whereas he orders them to go to balls, to wear decolletage, to dance, to completely change. And so within a century, Russian music and balls are the glittering highlight of European culture so it’s amazing in the sense that people can change. Now Peter the Great does this by force in many ways, but there are people who responded warmly to what he was doing as well.

Matt:

It would be the difference in power structure as well, wouldn’t it? Because back in those times the leaders had a lot more power than the leaders do now.

Adrian:

Yes. Well certainly in the Russian case, the state was nothing but a military machine, and Peter the Great is trying to compete with more sophisticated central and northern European powers with more developed economies. But Russia has this vast population but a backward economy, so Peter the Great uses serfdom and other mechanisms of state violence to deploy this gigantic army. Which is successful and creates the Russian empire. It’s a very similar thing in the Soviet period: you’ve got this old paradox, in this society in which large numbers of rural people have never had a flushing toilet they are launching intercontinental ballistic missiles and putting Sputnik into space, and orbiting the moon, so what the state wanted to do it could do. But still, most people in the countryside haven’t got a flushing toilet. Whereas in the American case it would be kind of unthinkable, I mean everyone would have all of those things. So the Russian state has always been vastly greater in the relationship to society.

Matt:

So what does that say about the Russian people though, if they’re willing to follow the state like that?

Adrian:

Well Russian intellectuals have argued about this and discussed it. Some people said that the Russian people were different, that there was a difference as you are suggesting, Matt. That they had this sense that the state was out there, and it had to do it’s job, which was to hold us in good order and be successful and defend us. But we the people are not of the state really, the state is not ours, we don’t belong to it. And some people said that is what makes the Russian people great, because we are pure in our own traditions, solid, dependable. But then there are other people that thought that what they had to do was to change the state and make it serve the people. So this then gave rise to the revolutionary politics of the 19th century, people wanting to make Russia a normal western European state with a parliament. It sounds odd in one level but there are people in our own society who probably would think that. If the government would just get out of it and let us do our thing, we’d be happy.

Matt:

I really can’t comprehend how that would work!

Adrian:

Yes, but again, that’s one of the things you can do with a history study is to be provoked in the way in which you see the world. The things that I value in Russian history in particular are this intelligence and creativity, the exposure to a different culture.

Matt:

Have you been to Russia?

Adrian:

Yes, several times, yes, never for very long, never for longer than six weeks.

Matt:

Can you see Alaska from Russia?

Adrian:

I’ve never been to that part! I doubt it, I think there’s a chain of islands there, the Aleutian Islands. I don’t know, I’ve never been there!

Matt:

Dr. Adrian Jones, thankyou for your time today.

Adrian:

My pleasure!

Related articles

No results found. Try searching again:

Search for ...

Find an expert

Search our experts database.