Five Questions With … Jonathon Dreeze

Note: 2020-21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center.  One of the ways we will mark this occasion is through a regular “Five Questions With …” series, where we will check in with former colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and students.  In this latest installment, Stephen Norris, Director of the Center, asked Dr. Jonathon Dreeze five questions.

  1. You defended your PhD dissertation this past spring at Ohio State on the subject of Stalinist-era propaganda in Kazakhstan. Tell us more about what you argue in it and some of the more interesting conclusions you reach.

My dissertation, “Stalin’s Empire: Soviet Propaganda in Kazakhstan, 1929-1953,” examines Communist Party propaganda and agitation (agitprop) in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakhstan) during Joseph Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union. I define propaganda as the transmission of ideological information to indoctrinate and persuade a populace to adhere to a larger political or social idea. My dissertation argues that Communist Party propaganda in Kazakhstan was decentralized, under-funded, and understaffed. Rather than higher-ranking party officials in the Kazakh capital Alma-Ata, or even Moscow, directing propaganda (which one would expect in such an authoritarian state), individual propagandists and agitators (agitprop workers) at the grassroots level were responsible for the production and dissemination of propaganda, specifically the conveying of Marxist-Leninist ideology in Kazakhstan. Much of this propaganda would have taken the form of lectures, study circles, and classes during which agitprop workers would convey ideological information to groups of people. The Communist Party placed huge expectations on propagandists to act as professional teachers, albeit without the professional-grade training of teachers. These unrealistic expectations often resulted in undertrained and unmotivated agitprop workers disseminating ideologically incorrect propaganda that did not align with Soviet ideology.

The decentralized Soviet bureaucratic culture of the propaganda apparatus further exacerbated these issues by passing the responsibility for rectifying chronic problems with agitprop—such as lack of propaganda texts and financial resources, poor organization, and general apathy towards agitprop work—to the lowest bureaucratic level. Local propagandists would be ordered by higher party officials to simply solve the problem without adequate funds or specific instructions. More often than not the problems went unsolved. This bureaucratic culture resulted in shortcomings with propaganda that remained unresolved for the duration of the Stalinist period and served to undermine, rather than reinforce, the transformative impact of communist ideology on Kazakh Soviet society.

When I first started my research on Kazakhstan I expected to find considerable regional variations in Kazakh Party propaganda, regarding both agitprop content and mechanics. But regional variations were relatively minor. The propaganda meant for Kazakhs was often in Kazakh, but the content differed little from what Party officials expected agitprop workers to create and disseminate in other Soviet republics. The mechanics for propaganda creation and dissemination, including the heavy reliance on grassroots level agitprop workers, appear to have been prevalent through the entire union, including the mechanical shortcomings. The problems with agitprop in Kazakhstan did not appear unique or different compared to agitprop problems in Uzbekistan or Russia.

2. You’ve now studied Stalin and Stalinism for over a decade, stretching back to your time as an undergraduate at Miami (when you wrote your senior honors thesis on Stalin’s 70th birthday celebrations): how has your understanding of Stalinism evolved?

When I first started studying the Soviet Union I was very much drawn to the figure of Stalin and the immense control that he had over the country. I really wanted to understand how this son of an illiterate cobbler from Georgia became the supreme ruler of a super power. It was for this reason that I first turned to studying Soviet propaganda, specifically Stalin’s cult of personality. Propaganda and a strong leader cult appeared to be the clearest explanation for how Stalin was able to maintain his hold on power and govern the country.

As I continued to study Russian and Soviet history in graduate school, my views of Stalin and the Soviet Union began to broaden. I no longer related the idea of Stalinism to just the individual and cult of Stalin, but to an entire social, cultural, and political system. To borrow from Stephen Kotkin’s work, I began to see Stalinism as a civilization. I was and am still very fascinated by how such a large socio-political apparatus responded to the whims, beliefs, and policies of one individual, but also how these ideas affected Soviet society in general. For example, the command system that emerged from Stalin, the Politburo, and lower party and state organs constantly barking orders to their subordinates directly impacted the mechanics of Communist Party propaganda. Much as Stalin dictated that orders should be fulfilled, often without specifics or the necessary resources to fulfill his orders, low ranking Party officials ordered agitprop workers to create and disseminate propaganda content without providing the training or resources for agitprop workers to carry out their work. The result of such a system was a mechanically flawed agitprop network and a populace that more often than not learned little, if anything, from propaganda.

As I began to more fully understand the impact of Stalinism on the Soviet Union, I also started to realize how the ideas at the very heart of Stalinism (authoritarianism, opposition to plurality, regular use of terror and fear, heavy control over media and information, dogmatic adherence to ideology, and the prioritization of the state over the individual) were also the foundation of the entire Soviet Union. When Mikhail Gorbachev began to implement his reforms in the 1980s under the banner of glasnost  and  perestroika, he sought to change the Stalinist attributes that had long defined the Soviet Union and which had fully matured under Stalin’s rule. The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc was partly the result of the inability of the Soviet state and Communist Party to continue to exist as it had without the Stalinist features that had long empowered these institutions.

3. You studied Kazakh and then spent a year in Almaty using the archives there. Tell us about the archives there and give us a good story about working in them!

The initial plan for my dissertation was to examine Communist Party propaganda in Uzbekistan. I took intensive Uzbek language courses during the summer at Indiana University, as well as another two years of Uzbek at Ohio State University. But as I started to do research on the party archives in Uzbekistan it became clear that it was very difficult for Americans and other foreign scholars to gain access to the main Uzbek Communist Party archives in Tashkent. I then shifted my project to Kazakhstan. I was fortunate enough to be able to take Kazakh language courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as at Kimep University in Almaty.

Unlike the Uzbek Party archives in Tashkent, the Kazakh Communist Party archives (officially known today as the Archive of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan), and to a slightly lesser extent the Kazakh State Archives, were very open and inviting to foreign researchers. The archivists were very friendly and did not hesitate to help locate and acquire the documents that I was looking for. Not only was photographing and scanning documents free of charge, but the rules for what documents could be photograph were very generous. This atmosphere stands in pretty stark contrast to my experiences with Russian archives in Moscow. It is not uncommon in certain Russian archives to receive a verbal dressing-down if you did not strictly follow the rules, regardless of whether you knew the rules, had ever been told the rules, or if you were a rookie graduate student or senior scholar. During my first few visits to the archives in Russia I had several verbose encounters with Russian archival employees who did not appreciate my lack of knowledge of the archive’s rules.  

            While the Kazakh archives were pretty pleasant to work in, there were a few quirks. I was often the only native English-speaker at the Presidential Archive and several times archive employees would ask me to proofread various English-language documents they had drafted. There was also the possibility that you would be called into a random, unannounced conference. I can remember one summer I was in Almaty conducting some preliminary research at the Presidential Archive and an employee asked me to meet with the director of the archive the next day to talk about my research with him. I agreed assuming that it would be a low stakes one-on-one meeting. When the time for the meeting came, an employee ushered me into a conference room where I was asked to present my research topic to most of the archive’s staff. I was equal parts terrified and surprised. Everything, of course, had to be in Russian or Kazakh, and I had not prepared any materials or put together a presentation. But I was able to discuss a few salient points of my work and answer the questions that the audience asked of me. Needless to say, the whole thing was quite a stressful experience.

4. Are you sticking with Stalin for your next research project?

My larger research goals are to write a few articles and publish a monograph based on my dissertation research. Once I have done that I think I am probably going to move away a bit from Stalin and the Stalinist era as a whole. I would like to examine Kazakh and Uzbek society during late socialism under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). I am particularly interested in the onset of economic stagnation in Central Asia and the extent to which it followed a similar course as compared to other regions of the Soviet Union. I also want to examine how major global events during this time period, such as the rise of youth protest movements in the 1960s, Cold War tensions, greater focus on environmentalism, and increasing disillusionment with socialism in the Eastern Bloc countries influenced Central Asian society.

5. You just spent your first semester as an assistant professor at Cornell College in Iowa: how did it go? How has Cornell adapted to the pandemic?

I was very excited to join the faculty at Cornell College. My first semester has been a bit hectic, especially given the coronavirus pandemic, but I think that it went very well. Cornell College is on block schedule, which means that students take one class at a time. The school year is divided up into eight blocks, each three and a half weeks long. This class style allows both the students and the professor to delve deep into subject matter and readings in a way that is difficult to do in a regular semester-long course. It has been a challenge to adjust to this different schedule, but I do enjoy the class style.

This past semester I taught three courses, “The Soviet Union in World War II,” “Revolutionary and Soviet Russia,” and “Modern Europe and Its Critics.” I was very excited to teach these courses. I was especially excited to teach the military history course on the Soviet Union during World War II, in part because I now had a captive audience to whom I could lecture on the finer details of Soviet tanks versus German tanks during the war! But also because I was able to revisit readings and authors that I had read many years ago. I assigned large sections of Vasily Grossman’s grand epic Life and Fate. I had read this novel, along with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in a Russian history class at Miami taught by my old advisor, Stephen Norris. I really enjoyed the book then and I enjoyed reading it alongside my students.

I think that Cornell has been able to deal with the challenges of the pandemic in a very effective manner. Being a liberal arts school, Cornell prioritizes teaching and student-faculty interactions. The administration sought to maintain this focus and over the summer developed an extensive plan over the summer to ensure Cornell’s campus was a safe place to learn and teach. Its small size (slightly more than 1,000 students) and location in the countryside has been a major advantage. A smaller student population in a more out of the way locale has meant that the chance for transmission was lesser than in a more urban populated setting. Cornell science and health faculty were able to establish a regular testing regime in which several hundred students, faculty, and staff were regularly tested every week. The administration also set up quarantine and isolation dorms for students who had been exposed to the coronavirus or who had tested positive. The New York Times even mentioned Cornell in an article about some of the more successful measures that colleges and universities were taking to combat the pandemic.

At the start of the fall semester students had the option of coming to campus like normal, or choosing to take all of their courses in an online format. There were a few classes that were in an online only format, but most of the classes this fall have been in a hybrid format, with in-person and online components. My own classes were hybrid with in-person and online components. It was definitely a challenge to teach in a hybrid format on the block schedule during my first semester, but everything worked out well. The number of students who tested positive for the coronavirus remained relatively low during the fall semester, although there was an increase in the latter half of the semester. Despite this increase, the measures that Cornell has put in place kept any outbreaks on a small scale. I think I speak for all of the students and faculty at Cornell, that we are all looking forward to the end of this pandemic and a return to in-class teaching.

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