Tuesday, 21 September 2010

An Unfaltering Gaze, by Dmitry Babich

Russia Profile, September 21, 2010

The Jobs of Provincial City Historians Are Back in Vogue

Russia’s regions are now using the history of their cities to forge their unique local identities.

The proclivity toward writing about a city, or even a town, usually the one where the author grew up, became widespread among Russia’s historians during the 1990s. Yuri Borisyonok, the editor in chief of the Rodina magazine, a monthly collection of historical essays and research published on glossy paper with pretty pictures, explained: “In the Soviet times, the best way for a historian to make a career was to go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, get an education and find a relatively well paid job with some scientific body, studying general problems of the country’s history—a research institute or an academic magazine.” To graduate from the historical faculty of Moscow State University and then return to one’s native town to teach at a school or, heaven forbid, to work at a local museum or an archive meant to fail. But this changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The state stopped distributing apartments, and payment for research work became laughably small,” Borisyonok said. “Historians in Moscow and St. Petersburg found themselves fighting for survival. In this situation, opportunities offered by the governors and mayors in Russia’s provinces suddenly became more appealing.”

Indeed, with the shift from a centralized economy to economic federalism that occurred during the 1990s, Russia’s regions suddenly developed greater interest in their local histories. The rich historical past of some of these regions (primarily Novgorod, Kazan, Yaroslavl, Vladimir and Pskov, among many others) offered an opportunity to attract more tourists and to raise the region’s prestige. Even the governors of not very affluent regions developed an interest in their local histories and allotted funds for historical research from local budgets. At some stage, part of this historical research took a self-aggrandizing turn, justifying certain regions’ separatist ambitions. But the easing of political tensions in the country and general pragmatism later led to a certain shift of interest from “ethnic history” to “city history.” The latter provided more opportunities to mold a local identity beyond ethnic definitions, since Russia’s cities and towns, as elsewhere in the world, tend to be multiethnic, with a history of belonging to different states at different times.

A city of many nations

A good example of how a city’s history can be important for an entire region or even for the whole of Russia is Sochi, the future home of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. A city of 330,000 people, it is a good example of a troubled but fascinating history, reflecting some of the most important stages in the history of Russia and its neighbors.

Located on the territory of the Byzantine Empire and ruled by the mostly Greek-speaking successors of ancient Roman emperors, Sochi was a part of medieval Circassia and a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until 1829, when it became part of Russia as a result of Turkey’s defeat in the Russo-Turkish war of 1828 to 1829. Seen as a key to the Caucasus Mountains, the city became the scene of protracted fighting between the advancing Russian colonizers and the local tribes. In the 1860s a large part of the local Adyghe population was faced with a choice: to be deported to Turkey or to move to other areas of the Russian Empire. As a result of tsarist policies the indigenous people were outnumbered by Russians—a situation characteristic of our times, too. At the same time, this period of history, decried by Circassian activists as “genocide,” serves today as a pretext for protests against holding the Olympics in Sochi. The format of urban (not ethnic!) history allows one to tackle even this thorny issue with tact, telling the truth without insulting anyone’s feelings.

After the end of hostilities in the Caucuses the city fell into its usual slumber, which continued until the early 1930s, when Joseph Stalin developed a taste for vacationing in that city. (Contrary to rumors about his workaholic character, during most of the 1930s Stalin spent at least two months every year vacationing in the south). Coupled with a similar passion for the place on behalf of the “first person in the Red Army,” Kliment Voroshilov, this became the driving force behind the city’s first general reconstruction, started by special Politburo order on October 9, 1933. The reconstruction was done on a grand scale, but in the post-Stalinist period of Soviet history the pace of change somewhat slowed, as Stalin’s successors in power preferred Crimea. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea found itself a part of independent Ukraine, and thus inaccessible for domestic vacationing. With Crimea out of business, Sochi was given a new boost by the continued presence of Russian presidents.

Both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin became great fans of Sochi. They pumped funds into it, citing the fact that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sochi became the only major health resort with access to warm seas on Russia’s territory. On July 4, 2006, Putin’s tireless lobbying of Sochi brought the desired result: the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi as the location of the 2014 winter games, preferring it to South Korea’s Pyeongchang and Austria’s Salzburg. Interestingly, every one of these major events and epochs in the city’s history found its devoted researchers among brilliant local (and outside) historians.

A deadly profession

The period before the Russo-Turkish war was best covered by Yuri Voronov, a native of the neighboring Abkhazia. After Abkhazia became a de facto independent country in 1993, separating itself from the nationalist Georgia of the early 1990s and fending off an attempt to bring it back to heel by the multi-faced Eduard Shevardnadze in 1992, Voronov devoted a lot of effort to studying the ties between Sochi and the ancient Abkhazian kingdom in the seventh to the tenth centuries. It was a classic attempt to use history to build a national identity. In Voronov’s case, however, it was not mere opportunism, but a conscious attempt to bring to fruition the work of a lifetime.

In 1979, long before Gorbachev’s liberalization revealed the dormant animosity between Georgians and Abkhazians, Voronov published the book “The Antiquities of Sochi and its Environs.” During Georgia’s short but bloody war with the multiethnic splinter state of Abkhazia, Voronov became a member of the Abkhazian Parliament. In 1994, meeting a group of journalists, Voronov described the predicament of the Abkhazian population, then cut off from Sochi by Russia’s border guards. Acting on the orders of Russia’s leadership, which at the time tried to ally with Eduard Shevardnadze, the Russian border guards in the north and the Georgian army in the south isolated Abkhazia for several years from the outside world. This alliance with the White Fox, as Shevardnadze is known in his own country, proved to be remarkably short-lived and futile, since Abkhazians never “crawled on their knees” back to Georgia, as Tbilisi had hoped.

“Sochi fascinates me as a wonderful example of multi-ethnicity,” Voronov said at the time. “If local history teaches us anything, it is that borders in the Caucasus are always bloody and dangerous. This area forms a very complex and multi-faceted entity, and you can never divide it to everyone’s satisfaction. Ethnocentrism and the construction of mono-ethnic states in the Caucasus is often tantamount to genocide. Sochi, with its ancient walls, portal graves and magnificent antiquities, has always been at one of the crossroads of the world’s civilizations.”

Unfortunately, Voronov was murdered in September of 1995 by an unknown criminal near his home in Tsebelda, an Abkhazian valley not far from Sochi. Public opinion linked this murder to Voronov’s activity as the leader of the Russian community in Abkhazia. Voronov’s death marked the end of a period of immature freedom and separatist tidings ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in the mid-1980s. A new, more down-to-earth vision of city history was needed.

The stench of Stalin’s failed struggle

And this vision was realized in the work of Sochi’s younger city historian, Lyudmila Kosheleva. Unlike Voronov, she did not go deep into the region’s ancient past, but instead concentrated on the fascinating story of Sochi’s reconstruction in the early years of Stalin’s rule. In the early 2000s, Kosheleva laid her hands on the fascinating correspondence of Stalin’s Politburo members discussing ways to clean up Sochi, which in 1933 to 1934, very much like nowadays, actually turned into the Soviet Union’s summer capital.

In a letter to Abel Yenukidze, the secretary of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union, published by Kosheleva in the Rodina magazine, the nominal head of the Red Army Kliment Voroshilov complained in 1933: “Everything is done in a very sloppy way… Since 1923 I regularly take (like hundreds of others) the dirt baths in Matsesta; this treatment must have some effect on my body. So, do you think our doctors keep track of my condition, draw the necessary conclusions, etc.? Nothing of the sort! In our sanatoriums this process is set in a lamentably shabby way. [Deputy Chief Sanitary Inspector Mikhail] Metallikov is naïve to the point of being criminal about it. He does not know anything, believes everything and allows himself to be deceived as the worst kind of idiot.”

It should be noted that in 1937 Metallikov was executed on Stalin’s orders. Officially, his meeting with the son of exiled Leon Trotsky at a scientific conference in Paris was the reason, but obviously the pitiful condition of Matsesta baths did not earn Metallikov a lot of friends in the Politburo. Metallikov’s sister Bronislava Metallikova was the wife of Alexander Poskryobyshev, Stalin’s personal secretary, but even her intervention did not save the poor doctor. The same terrible fate awaited Bronislava herself in the late 1930s, along with Voroshilov’s addressee, Abel Yenukidze. Why? Probably because, as Stalin wrote in September 1935 in a special message to Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov, “The water in Matsesta baths stays dirty, upon taking a bath it is still necessary to wash oneself again in fresh water at home… A special check revealed that the tanks had not been cleaned since 1933, developing a covering of dirt 30 centimeters thick. And this dirt is dumped with Matsesta water into the baths of the patients.”

Somehow, the Bolshevik leaders, always eager to require self-sacrifice from other citizens, were remarkably attentive to their own health and abhorred being sacrificed to some standard proletarian negligence. Kosheleva’s city-centered research reveals this better than hundreds of pages of abstract dissertations. And probably the reasons behind the cruelty of Stalin and Voroshilov should be looked for in more prosaic matters than Shakespearean ruminations about genius and villainy.

It should be noted that Matsesta’s waters stayed dirty even after a special order from the Politburo on October 9, 1933, which required putting all the dirt into a special sewer. The execution of Sochi’s mayor Alexander Metelyov in 1937 did not help, either—a demonstration of the “effectiveness” of Stalin’s system.

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