Five Questions for Peter Holquist


Kazimir Malevich, Red Cavalry (1928-1932)

Note:  This is the third 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. Peter Holquist, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

By Nicholas Chanos, Drake Long, and Alec Vivian

Question 1:      How did you get started in this area of study?

If you mean the international law of war—actually, I came to it through undergraduate teaching.  At Cornell University I developed an undergraduate lecture course together with Professor Isabel Hull, a German historian and a wonderful friend and scholar.  (And we each have continued to teach this course we developed together by ourselves after I left Cornell—she at Cornell, and me at Penn.)  We organized the course in such a way that—before we moved to treating the war proper—the course covered the prewar economic, social and political structure of each country, as well as the general structures of the nineteenth-century world: imperialism, the financial order, and so on.  And as part of the discussion of the prewar ecosystem, we discussed the emerging universe of the international law of war.  And in discussing this question, you come across the truly curious and precocious role Imperial Russia played in these developments.  So that set me off to explain this curious question.

Question 2:      What’s the most shocking revelation in your research?

Regarding this particular topic—the 1915 Entente note, its pre-history and its after-history—I would point to two moments.  First, the role of Great Britain from late April through mid-May in delaying the issuing of the note.  I spent nearly six months gathering materials in British archives and piecing together the reasoning for the British position.  Equally, I was very surprised by the position taken by the US representatives on the 1919 Paris Peace Conference’s Commission on Responsibilities and Sanctions.  Here too I spent several months researching and trying to understand its role.  It was great fun, though, to explore these questions in the National Archives of the United Kingdom, the National Archives of the United States, and private archives of the individual statesmen.

Question 3: Regarding the Civil War, does your research give any insight into how Russian emigres and internationals interpreted the atrocities? How did their narrative emerge?

During the First World War, the Russian government established a commission to document the “atrocities” committed by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.  And during the Civil War, the anti-Soviet governments established very similar commissions to document Bolshevik “atrocities.”   As regards Russian émigrés, the most important role they played after the Civil War was in academic discussions about atrocities and crimes against humanity.  The scholar Andre Mandelstam was a key figure here.  Equally, Russian émigré legal scholars played a very important role behind the scenes in developing the interwar legal regime for stateless refugees—they helped draw up the League of Nations legislation on refugees (the Nansen system).

Question 4: What other period in Russian history would you like to research more in depth? Why?

Hmm….  I am pulled in two directions.  Going backward, I have always been fascinated by the early nineteenth century and Russia’s place in the Napoleonic era.  I teach an undergraduate lecture course on “The Napoleonic Era through the Lens of Tostoy’s War and Peace” and get immense joy every time I teach it.  And looking forward: I have long been fascinated by the Soviet experience in the Second World War, the “Great Patriotic War.”  How could one not be fascinated by this immense, tragic, and monumental topic?

Question 5: What are the challenges and advantages historians of Russia and the USSR face now?

On balance, we are fortunate that archives—for most periods and for most topics—are open and fairly accessible, both in the Russian Federation and in the former Soviet space.  Of course, access for particular topics is uneven across this space.  It is possible to work with materials of the KGB, say, in certain post-Soviet states.  I would also say: we are very, very fortunate that the Soviet archival system over decades invested an immense amount of time and effort into cataloguing its archival collections.  I think we researchers too often take for granted the immense effort the Soviet archival bureaucracy poured into cataloguing these vast holdings.

The greatest inconvenience—and I say inconvenience rather than challenge—has been the changed interpretation of the visa rules for research visits.  For a very long period it was possible to make short research visits to the Russian Federation using an easily-accessible tourist visa.  The new insistence that foreign researchers working in the Russian Federation must have “humanitarian-research visa,” which itself requires the prior formal invitation of a Russian institutional body, has made it more cumbersome to plan research visit.


Nicholas Chanos is a senior major in psychology, Drake Long is a senior majoring in diplomacy and global politics, and Alec Vivian is a senior majoring in music education.

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