Five Questions for Melissa Stockdale

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Note:  This is the second post in what will become an ongoing “Five Questions with” series where students enrolled in the Fall Havighurst Colloquium on Russia in war and revolution pose questions to the guest speakers who speak to the class.  Today’s five questions were posed to Dr. Melissa Stockdale, Associate Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma.

By Ben Cushing, George Eidson, and Colin Sullivan.

Question 1:  How did you get involved with Russian Studies? Also, since this class pertains to WWI and the Revolution, what excites you the most about this time period?

My fascination with Russian history was a little like falling in love on a first date. As a college junior I was taking a seminar on “The Age of Louis XIV”, and I happened to write a paper on the building of St. Petersburg.  I was immediately hooked, and by the end of the semester had decided to apply for grad school to study the history and culture of this unique country.

The time period of World War I and the Russian revolution is profoundly, often tragically, interesting—something we’ve been seeing with the ongoing commemorations of the centennial of World War I. This first “total war,” and the revolution that it produced in Russia, shaped the course of the 20th century. Whether we look at technology, propaganda, the existence of states and drawing of boundaries, government practices, the avant-garde, the war and revolution helped produce or shape them.  Just reading the letters and diaries, or seeing photos of, ordinary people who lived through these ordeals and upheavals is a powerful human experience.

Question 2:  Much of your recent work focuses on Russian patriotism during WWI.  What are some of the big ideas about this topic that you hope students will take away?

One thing I’ve learned over the course of my studies is that “patriotism” is a more complex concept than people often assume. There are different kinds of patriotism, different ways of practicing and expressing it.  (Just think about recent controversies in our country over some athletes’ stance on singing the national anthem at the start of a sporting event.) And as the British historian Linda Colley has demonstrated, demonstrating patriotism can also be a way of accumulating political capital, of advancing or protecting one’s own status or prospects within the community.  That’s not necessarily a cynical observation, along the lines of Mark Twain’s line that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” It’s more a realization that if we want to understand patriotism in any given time and culture, we have to understand that it can have multiple meanings and motives.

Question 3: How have your studies about Russia during the Great War shaped your own thoughts on patriotism? Have they changed or evolved since you have been studying the subject?

I can’t really add anything to what I’ve said above.

Question 4: When conducting research and writing about Russia, what has surprised you the most?

That’s a hard one to answer, especially since things have changed profoundly in the years that I’ve studied Russian history.  The Soviet Union still existed when I was a graduate student. It was incredibly difficult to even get into an archive in the 1980s, let alone to get to see materials once you were in! KGB agents actually followed foreign scholars around, as utterly unimportant as we were. With all that Cold War overlay, and the grimness of the regime, I was also surprised by how warm, and kind, and funny Russians are.  I made amazing friends there, people with whom I still have deep bonds. With the end of the Soviet Union, conditions for scholars improved vastly. You could really work in archives like normal historians, rummage around, follow a paper trail, make discoveries—it was hugely exciting! I could never have found the files on the women soldiers of 1917, or read hundreds of private letters intercepted by the Tsarist secret police, or stumbled across investigations into clergy accused of lack of patriotism, if access in Russian archives had not fundamentally changed. And I think those kinds of archival finds, the detective aspect of doing history, are a big part of what makes scholarship fun. (There are certainly some tedious parts as well…) Finally, in a more somber vein, I have been sadly surprised by the turn back towards authoritarian government under President Putin.

Question 5: If you could meet and interview anyone who had played a prominent role in the War or Revolution who would it be and why?

What a great question! There are actually so many fascinating people I would wish to talk to that it’s impossible to pick just one.  Some of the “decisive players” would probably not be particularly enlightening interviews—a Kerenskii or Lenin, or Empress Alexandra—because one suspects that these people were not very capable of changing their minds or admitting to errors. A truly interesting individual in this period was Count Ivan Tolstoi, mayor of Petrograd until December 1915. He knew everyone and everything, was friends with famous musicians and writers and liberal politicians, but also had influential connections at the imperial court. I think he could throw light on all manner of issues. I would also love to interview the two younger children of liberal leader Pavel Miliukov, who was the subject of my first book. Miliukov’s son Sergei volunteered for the infantry when war broke out, and was killed in summer 1915 during Russia’s Great Retreat. Miliukov’s daughter Natasha married in 1919, fled cities five in the face of Bolshevik forces, and was already a widow in 1920. But instead of joining her family in emigration, she decided to take advantage of the Bolshevik regime’s new educational opportunities for women, and study engineering. She died in an epidemic in Moscow in 1922.  The tragic lives of these two young people embody so much of the aspirations, and blasted hopes, of the war and revolution.

Ben Cushing, George Eidson, and Colin Sullivan are History Majors at Miami.

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