Mar 14, 2014

The Practice and Uses of History

Eleven intrepid members of our History Book Club braved the wind and rain for an evening discussion of the practice of history and the uses of history. The Kensington Row Bookshop again offered its hospitality to our group.

Eli Sola-Sole, who runs the Bookshop asked that we share the news of the upcoming

Sunday April 27th 2014, 11am-4pm 
Howard Avenue, Old Town Kensington, Md 

We tried a new approach in this meeting with people reading a book of their own choice on the subject  People had read:

The discussion was lively as usual. We had read Margaret MacMillan's book in 2010, and it describes several ways history is used, such as how historical stories can help people feel comfortable when confronting uncertainty. History can be used well in creating a sense of unity in a nation-state, but also has the danger of fueling conflict among ethnic groups as they make conflicting claims of ownership of land and property; indeed, we suspected that many of the situations in which people resort to violence rather than living peacefully together were based on this kind of misuse of history.

One of our members, who had majored in history in graduate school, made the comment that all the graduate schools now seem to focus on quantitative methods for the study of history, and none allow students to do narrative history using qualitative approaches. A second member, who had majored in political science in graduate school noted that that was true also in his field. Both were concerned that the emphasis on quantitative methods sometimes was instead of good thinking on important issues.

We noted that the questions being asked by historians today are different than those asked in the past. We all were brought up with a "great man" approach to history, while now there is much more interest in women's history, black history, and histories of other actors. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was mentioned as a book helping to broaden our understanding of colonial America (especially as Ballard was the subject of a TV program popularizing the knowedge). We noted that the further back in time one goes, the less information that there is available to historians about the common people.

It was noted that sometimes historical papers misuse statistics, which got us into a discussion of the problems of peer review of journal articles. We also noted that statistical packages make it easy to provide analyses that appear knowledgeable but have the difficulty that they may disguise poor understanding by the authors of the study. We thought it might be interesting for some future meeting to choose an article from a professional history journal to discuss, rather than a book.

MacMillan got us talking about "what history is good for" and we recalled the final comment from that discussion -- we read history because we like to.

We then moved to discuss the use of history in foreign policy, drawing on May's book. We noted his thesis that frequently White House leaders surround themselves with like-minded people of similar backgrounds, and tend to draw on historical antecedents from their own experience during times that they were already in high office. (It was noted that these days the executive branch has historians, as does the Congressional Research Service.)

May points out that in a situation such as occurred in the post war planning after World War II, it was important to have historical understanding of the places in which actions would be taken (e.g. Germany, Japan), but also of U.S. public opinion, of the Congress and of the government bureaucracy.

We chatted about the utility of a White House Council of Historical Advisors, perhaps like that of the Council of Economic Advisers or the scientific advisory panels organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology. Such a body might help to identify historians whose expertise was specifically relevant to the issues before the decision makers.

Experts in each relevant field might help identify alternative historical events for consideration by the decision makers -- comparable situations illustrating alternative actions and outcomes. They might help to avoid analyses of those historical events that had been challenged as failing to utilize relevant information or utilizing data which had been shown to be questionable. 

One of our members kicked off the discussion of Gaddis' book saying how much she liked it, noting that another had been so annoyed by the early chapters as to give up reading the book entirely.

Gaddis suggests that many historians seem to have a desire to make history more like the social sciences. We noted the anecdote of William McNeill, describing his approach to writing history -- thinking, then reading and researching, refining his original ideas, and then iterating the process. This was greeted by a physicist who said it was also the process of physics.

Gaddis talks about the relation of historical methods to scientific methods. This relates to the earlier point of the focus on quantitative methods in history departments. Certainly historians have difficulty developing hypothesis tests for historical theories. On the other hand, sciences from cosmology, to ecology, to systematic biology, to evolutionary genetics tend to use methods much like those of traditional historians. 

Gaddis suggests that historians write first to convince themselves of the correctness of a narrative, and then the quality of that narrative is judged by the degree that it convinces other historians. Clearly it is an important function of the profession to subject reports of historical research to professional peer review. It is only people who are thoroughly familiar with previous research on the subject, who have themselves explored relevant original sources, who can fully appreciate novelty, and fully criticize the sources and analysis in a new study.

On the other hand, history buffs like the members of this club are better served by people who write well for the intelligent generalist. Such writers will tend to draw on secondary sources rather than present their own research into original sources. They help us to gain the larger picture.

We frequently complain about the teaching of history in our schools and the history text books used in those school classes. (The school boards that select texts and pass on curricula are sometimes more interested in teaching the preferred historical myths of their members rather than the best estimates of the facts or the more complete view of the past.)

One of our members had read What is History by E. H. Carr. This book, first published in 1961. This was from a series of lectures. (The MacMillan and Gaddis books also seem to read like series of lectures compiled in a book.) It is perhaps the classic in the field, read still by those preparing for a career as historians.

We had been discussing (on the Internet) reading a book related to the current crisis in Ukraine and Crimea. That led us into a discussion of the crisis. One of our members had been to Odessa several years ago and again last year, and stressed how much change he had noted; he felt strongly that a very recent book would be necessary to understand the most relevant situation.

We noted that the Crimea is almost an Island, which only became part of Ukraine in 1954 (to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the union of Russia and Ukraine). Moreover, it has a special status in Ukraine, and is important to Russia as a naval base. Russian tourism and export industries are economically important to Crimea.

Few of us had read any Ukrainian history and there was an interest in a book which briefly sketches the distant roots of the current situation. (Indeed, the crisis involves Russia, Turkey, Poland, the EU and the USA, and we have not read much of the relevant history.) It clearly will not be possible to find a book of manageable length that looks at recent and distant history, both specific to Ukraine and Crimea and general to the countries with interest in the conflict. We decided to try to replicate the experience of this evening, letting every member read a book of his choice, and bring together the different viewpoints in our May 14th meeting.

Mar 2, 2014

Shall We Read About Ukrainian History?

Given the current crisis between the Ukraine and Russia, is there any interest in reading a book about Ukrainian history as our next selection. Here are a few possibilities:

Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation by Serhy Yekelchyk (2007, more than 4 stars, 320 pages)
In 2004 and 2005, striking images from the Ukraine made their way around the world, among them boisterous, orange-clad crowds protesting electoral fraud and the hideously scarred face of a poisoned opposition candidate. Europe's second-largest country but still an immature state only recently independent, Ukraine has become a test case of post-communist democracy, as millions of people in other countries celebrated the protesters' eventual victory.
Any attempt to truly understand current events in this vibrant and unsettled land, however, must begin with the Ukraines dramatic history. Ukraine's strategic location between Russia and the West, the country's pronounced cultural regionalism, and the ugly face of post-communist politics are all anchored in Ukraine's complex past.
The first Western survey of Ukrainian history to include coverage of the Orange Revolution and its aftermath, this book narrates the deliberate construction of a modern Ukrainian nation, incorporating new Ukrainian scholarship and archival revelations of the post-communist period.
Here then is a history of the land where the strategic interests of Russia and the West have long clashed, with reverberations that resonate to this day.

Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid. (2000. almost 4 star average rating, 272 pages) We have an outside recommendation for this book from a good source.
Borderland tells the story of Ukraine. A thousand years ago it was the center of the first great Slav civilization, Kievan Rus. In 1240, the Mongols invaded from the east, and for the next seven centureies, Ukraine was split between warring neighbors: Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Austrians, and Tatars. Again and again, borderland turned into battlefield: during the Cossack risings of the seventeenth century, Russia’s wars with Sweden in the eighteenth, the Civil War of 1918–1920, and under Nazi occupation. Ukraine finally won independence in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bigger than France and a populous as Britain, it has the potential to become one of the most powerful states in Europe.In this finely written and penetrating book, Anna Reid combines research and her own experiences to chart Ukraine’s tragic past. Talking to peasants and politicians, rabbis and racketeers, dissidents and paramilitaries, survivors of Stalin’s famine and of Nazi labor camps, she reveals the layers of myth and propaganda that wrap this divided land. From the Polish churches of Lviv to the coal mines of the Russian-speaking Donbass, from the Galician shtetlech to the Tatar shantytowns of Crimea, the book explores Ukraine’s struggle to build itself a national identity, and identity that faces up to a bloody past, and embraces all the peoples within its borders.
 Black Sea by Neal Ascherson (1996, 4 stars, 320 pages)
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History
In this study of the fateful encounters between Europe and Asia on the shores of a legendary sea, Neal Ascherson explores the disputed meaning of community, nationhood, history, and culture in a region famous for its dramatic conflicts. What makes the Back Sea cultures distinctive, Ascherson agrues, is the way their comonent parts came together over the millennia to shape unique communities, languages, religions, and trade. As he shows with skill and persuasiveness, Black Sea patterns in the Caucasus, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, and Greece have linked the peoples of Europe and Asia together for centuries.

2014 Ukraine and Crimea Crisis: The Crimean Tatars and Their Influence on the Triangle Of Conflict - Russia - Crimea - Ukraine, History of Crimea, Sevastopol, Russian Black Sea Fleet (2008, unrated, 161 pages) (This book is available from Amazon on Kindle for a fee, or to sample for free on the Internet.)
This study of the conflict over the years involving Ukraine, Russia, and the Crimea is particularly interesting and relevant in light of the ongoing crisis in 2014. The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought about multidimensional problems to the former republics of the USSR and their inhabitants. In 1990s Ukraine, Crimea became a center of conflict between Ukraine and Russia over the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet and Crimea itself, perceived as historically their own by both sides of the conflict. Local Crimean authorities took advantage of the specificity of a demographic situation in Crimea were Ukrainians, the titular nation, are in minority and considerably Russified to claim for autonomy. Later, they attempted to secede from Ukraine. At the same time, the Crimean Tatar influx from exile, orchestrated by the Stalin regime in 1944, further exacerbated the 'triangle of conflict' between the dyads Russia-Ukraine and Crimea-Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars, currently 12 percent of the Crimean population, proclaimed Crimea the national territory of the Crimean Tatar people, on which they alone possess the right to self-government and claimed greater rights for themselves as allegedly the most indigenous peoples in Crimea, while the rest are colonizers. The explains the historical developments in Crimea and attempts to draw implications to the Ukrainian government in dealing with Crimean Tatar nationalism which seems to be overcoming the problems within the 'triangle of conflict' that was so sharp in 1990s. 
Please Comment!

  • Do you think it is a good idea to read a book on Ukrainian History? 
  • Do you have any suggestion in addition to those listed above for us to read on the Ukraine?
  • Which if any of these books interest you?
  • Do you like the idea of everyone choosing their own reading and having a more general discussion on Ukrainian history?
As a result of a request from a member, I have added a couple of new books to the list of possibles:

The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation by Andrew Wilson (unrated, 416 pages, 2009)
This book is the most acute, informed, and up-to-date account available today of Ukraine and its people. Andrew Wilson brings his classic work up to the present, through the Orange Revolution and its aftermath, including the 2006 election, the ensuing crisis of 2007, the Ukrainian response to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the economic crisis in Ukraine, and the 2009 gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine. It looks forward to the key election in 2010, which will revisit many of the issues that were thought settled in 2004.

Russia, Ukraine, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union by Joseph D. Dwyer. (3 stars, 438 pages, 2000)
Focusing on the critical relationship between Ukraine and Russia, renowned scholar Roman Szporluk chronicles the final two decades in the history of the Soviet Union and presents a story that is often lost in the standard interpretations of the collapse of communism.

This is not exactly history, but it might be worth reading:

Return to Ukraine by Anie Savage (4 stars plus, 272 pages, 2000, only available in hardback, but available at paperback prices from other venders)
Nearly fifty years after fleeing Ukraine during World War II, Ania Savage returned with her mother and aunt—their first trip back to their homeland. In this riveting account of the journey, she records both the changes they found in Ukraine in the early days of postSoviet existence and the memories they had gone to seek.
Savage, a journalist traveling to teach at Kyiv State University, records in vivid detail her experiences in her homeland, including the political turmoil that gripped Ukraine as it struggled to establish a democracy. In a moving subtext, Savage also describes the intense emotions she felt traveling with her mother, who at age seventyfour was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Savage skillfully threads these personal themes into narratives of Ukraine's larger history, events that include stumbling upon the excavation of a mass grave from the Stalinist era. She moves through the discoveries of her trip with an honest and passionate voice as she witnesses the rebirth of a nation and as she and her family reconnect with their past. Savage also describes the experience of working in Kyiv and speculates on how her Ukrainian heritage and American youth and education combine to shape her view of the people and places she encounters in Ukraine.
This story will prove fascinating to historians, sociologists, and general readers alike, especially those with an interest in the rise of democracy in Eastern Europe, life in those troubled countries, or personal struggles with memory and its loss. In addition, Ukrainian immigrants and those of Ukrainian heritage will find Return to Ukraine a moving account of their homeland and what it has become.
The cemetery is a desolate, forgotten place. My mother’s face has turned white. She clutches at her purse and is whispering to herself. "This is not the cemetery," my mother says. "We had a beautiful cemetery."
"Of course this is the cemetery," Katia cries. "No one moves cemeteries, not even Communists."
I’m the one who finds the double grave of my grandparents near the center of the cemetery. A rough concrete cross rises above the graves, paid for with money my mother and Katia had sent to the village a few years into Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost. A metal plaque bearing my grandparents’ names hangs from the cross.
We place the gladioli we have brought with us at the foot of the cross and bend our heads in prayer. Our tears mingle with the raindrops falling on the graves.—from the book
Still more books to consider (added 3/10/2014)

Ukraine: The Search for a National Identity edited by Sharon Wolchik and Volodymyr Zviglyanich (unrated, 338 pages, 1999, expensive but available at lower prices used)
This comprehensive book focuses on the challenges facing Ukraine as a newly emerged state after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like all countries with no recent history of independence, Ukraine had to invent or recreate effective political institutions, reintroduce a market economy, and reorient its foreign policy. These tasks were impossible to accomplish without resolving the question of national identity. In this balanced and clear-eyed assessment, a team of U.S. and Ukrainian specialists explores the external and internal dimensions of national identity and statehood, providing a wealth of information previously unavailable to Western scholars.
Arguing that the search for national identity is a multidimensional process, the authors show that it reflects the realities of the dawning twenty-first century. Paradoxically, this quest must cope with the both the weakening of state boundaries caused by globalization and the strengthening of the national model as new countries emerge from the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
After providing the historical context of Ukraine’s international debut, the book analyzes the complexities of constructing a national identity. The authors explore questions of ethnic relations and regionalism, the development of political values and attitudes, mass-elite relations, the cultural background of economic strategies, gender issues, and the threat of organized crime to emergent civil society.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (4 stars plus, 580 pages, 2012)
Americans call the Second World War “The Good War.” But before it even began, America’s wartime ally Josef Stalin had killed millions of his own citizens—and kept killing them during and after the war. Before Hitler was finally defeated, he had murdered six million Jews and nearly as many other Europeans. At war’s end, both the German and the Soviet killing sites fell behind the iron curtain, leaving the history of mass killing in darkness.
Bloodlands is a new kind of European history, presenting the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of a single history, in the time and place where they occurred: between Germany and Russia, when Hitler and Stalin both held power. Assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, Bloodlands will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the central tragedy of modern history.
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt (4 stars, 960 pages, 2006)
World War II may have ended in 1945, but according to historian Tony Judt, the conflict's epilogue lasted for nearly the rest of the century. Calling 1945-1989 "an interim age," Judt examines what happened on each side of the Iron Curtain, with the West nervously inching forward while the East endured the "peace of the prison yard" until the fall of Communism in 1989 signaled their chance to progress. Though he proposes no grand, overarching theory of the postwar period, Judt's massive work covers the broad strokes as well as the fine details of the years 1945 to 2005. No one book (even at nearly a thousand pages) could fully encompass this complex period, but Postwar comes close, and is impressive for its scope, synthesis, clarity, and narrative cohesion.
Judt treats the entire continent as a whole, providing equal coverage of social changes, economic forces, and cultural shifts in western and eastern Europe. He offers a county-by-county analysis of how each Eastern nation shed Communism and traces the rise of the European Union, looking at what it represents both economically and ideologically. Along with the dealings between European nations, he also covers Europe's conflicted relationship with the United States, which learned much different lessons from World War II than did Europe. In particular, he studies the success of the Marshall Plan and the way the West both appreciated and resented the help, for acceptance of it reminded them of their diminished place in the world. No impartial observer, Judt offers his judgments and opinions throughout the book in an attempt to instruct as well as inform. If a moral lesson is to come from World War II, Judt writes, "then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. 'European Union' may be an answer to history, but it can never be a substitute." This book would be an excellent place to start that lesson. --Shawn Carkonen