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Historian Ivan Kurilla

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BEN EKLOF: Hello. You're listening to Profiles. My name is Ben Eklof, and our guest today is Dr. Ivan Kurilla.


He is a professor of political science and a historian as well at the European University in St. Petersburg. Dr. Kurilla is a specialist on the history of Russian-American relations, and I'm really excited to talk with him about his perspectives and his experience on the politics of history as well and memory studies. He's lived and worked in the United States on numerous occasions, including stays in Washington, D.C., of course, in New Hampshire at Dartmouth College, the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale, and I'm sure the list goes on from there. Dr. Kurilla, welcome.

IVAN KURILLA: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for inviting me.

BEN EKLOF: It is certainly a pleasure to have you. You were born in Volgograd in I believe 1967, is that correct?

IVAN KURILLA: That's correct, yeah.

BEN EKLOF: Formerly - I think many Americans know that city as Stalingrad because it was at the center of the terrible war in the Soviet Union in the 1940s - World War II. And many people, I think quite rightly, believed the battle of Stalingrad, which leveled the city - totally destroyed it - was the turning point in World War II. There could be some arguments about that, but what I wanted to ask you was what did growing up specifically in Volgograd on the Volga River mean for a young historian and young man?

IVAN KURILLA: Yeah. Well, I would start probably at - saying that I'm not sure that the younger generations of Americans do know the Stalingrad people because, for Americans, history means - my impression that Americans are much less interested in the history of the 20th century than Russians do. And for a reason - because Russians - no, the Soviet people lost three to seven million its official figure, 27 million people dead in the Second World War, and the Stalingrad battle was indeed the bloodiest battle of the war. So that was, like, up to two million people dead in one battle during the several months. And then, yeah, I grew up there. But as a child, I did not quite realize that - you know, I had a friend - elder friend who came to Volgograd - been already grown up, and he told me several times on different occasions that sometimes he feels like he's living among the big cemetery - you know, among the great battlefield where tons of blood was spilled. That was an impression for him. But, you know, for me, I was born there, I grew up there, it was something - usual landscape around me. While at the same time people in Volgograd - you know, postwar generations felt that the city in its appearance - since its cultural appearance and the historical appearance looks like a city of one event. It's - you know, the Volgograd is more than 400 years old, that it's an old city. But everything but the battle was forgotten, and that is why many people in Volgograd, you know, try to rebel against - not against the memory of the war, but for - against the monopoly of that memory for the city's history. So that was the beginning of of all that. So when I decided to go to history - so it's probably not because I lived in Volgograd. You know, it's not - it was not a factor in my decision. But when - later - again, later, when I was a student of history, when I started to study the role of the past in the contemporary societies and the contemporary politics, I learned how important was Stalingrad battle and how it is still important in the debates in Russia. It is even in the international debates in some instances. When I learned some more about my history of my city - you know, I - no, my major field's been - was - right, you were right when you told that I was study Russian-American relations and the role of history in the contemporary societies. But I had one publication in my academic biography. I was - I co-authored the textbook of the history of Volgograd, which is used in the secondary schools in Russia - in Volgograd - yeah, in the city. And that was part of my, I would say, tribute to my city, which is - I consider it an important part.

BEN EKLOF: And we are going to talk about your publications. I want the audience to know that you have a very interesting and very educated amount of scholarship available, some of it - quite a bit of it in English. So I couldn't agree more, as also a scholar of Russian history, how Americans tend to under-evaluate or even be quite ignorant of the scale of the war in Russia in World War II and the dimensions of the loss, which are incomprehensible. You mentioned 27 million. I believe it was something like 350000 in the United States, and I think we need to keep that in mind, clearly. So - and I wanted to ask you quickly about - in terms of your background - your parents were educated. They were - were they educators or...

IVAN KURILLA: My mom was from a family of educators. My mom herself was a journalist on the local TV, but her parents were teachers. My - but not in Volgograd, they were from Siberia - from southern Siberia - from Altai region of the south in Siberia. My grandfather was a teacher of Russian language and he was the principal of the local teachers college in some Altai city. My grandmother was a teacher of mathematics in school. So that was the educational background. But my father's line - it was quite different. My father was a construction engineer. He was in the building business and my grandfather or grandmother - we were just peasants. My grandfather actually - from my paternal side, was actually the prisoner of First World War. He was a Hungarian prisoner, first of all, and he was drafted to Austish-Hungarian army and was taken prisoner in the Russian state for life. But this is a separate line - yeah, that is a part of my complex family history.

BEN EKLOF: I think it's also very interesting that you come from a teaching background that is in secondary school because your - and we'll get to it again, your scholarship has involved to study as well of textbooks in both countries, the United States and Russia - that is the way in which knowledge is filtered, packaged, revised. And so it links you - it does something that not all scholars are aware of is how knowledge works its way out of universities and is transformed in the process when it's being presented in the public. You were educated and I believe you taught in Volgograd at the Volgograd State University, then moved, I think, seven years ago to St. Petersburg. How did that change your - St. - and what does it mean to - in the Russian context, to move to St. Petersburg from the Volga region?

BEN EKLOF: Maybe 10 or 15 years ago I did not thought that I would move. I wanted to develop my own university. I knew that Volgograd State University is not ranked as a top universities in Russia but, well, when I was a student, when I was educated, we still did not have this stratification - hierarchies of universities as you have in the United States. And my first - when I was younger and back in the '90s when I was a young professor at my university, my dream was to develop the university, to develop new programs there, and we started and we were quite successful back in the '90s and even the early 2000s. But later it became more and more complicated and, you know, the Volgograd, unfortunately, is not a resource region, so we had no external resources for development of education - of new ways of education. And unfortunately at some point I found that, OK, I know what I can get here, and actually I've already gotten the most I could achieve in Volgograd. And I started to look around and to look for possibilities. And, of course, St. Petersburg is a former capital of Russia and one of two capitals. Some people will argue that we have system of two capitals and St. Petersburg is considered the cultural capital and, to a lesser extent, also the - maybe the major educational center, especially in humanities. So that is why when I got an invitation from St. Petersburg, I decided to go. European University where I am now teaching - it's a small post graduate university, but this is probably the top university in humanities in Russia and that is, of course, a big change in my career. And as you know - probably this is universal - in my current university I have a bit less teaching assignment, much less bureaucratic requirements than I had in Volgograd and much more freedom. Well, and more resources I mean - more resources to develop my scholarship, my academic work. So it's - it was a change for the better in my education career. Well, and St. Petersburg is a beautiful city. I hope you all can come at some point and see.

BEN EKLOF: It is a gorgeous city, and I think virtually every American I've ever talked to who has been there have come away - well, it's been called the Venice of the north, of course, and its canals running through are remarkable. And your university, I think, along with the higher school of economics perhaps in Moscow - although they're very different institutions - are unusual in the university system. As you pointed out, they - they're free of many of the regulations, and I think very small classes and very competitive in many ways. It's also had a difficult time since its founding, I think, and the Russian government has not always looked favorably upon it. I guess that's been resolved, which is good. It is a remarkable institution, research and teaching both. And we could spend a lot of time talking about university - maybe we can come back to it if we have time - the university experience - how it differs from the United States. Perhaps you can say a couple of words about that before we move on. What strikes you in terms of similarities, but also in differences?

IVAN KURILLA: You know, we have, like, I would say, the (unintelligible) which is quite popular this last years in Russia - the hybrid system now because the Soviet system of university education was quite different from American one. We had five years of university education that it included, I would say, what you call bachelor and masters - or you can count. And after completing this five year degrees, people usually come to start to work, and only those who wanted to pursue academic career stayed for postgraduate education and got their, you know, dissertations. But since the early 2000s - it's already like 16 years ago - Russia joined the so-called Bologna system in Europe, which was actually modeled after the American system of education, which is obligatory four years bachelors degree, two years of masters, and, you know, post-graduate after that. So now it looks more like an American one, but only from the distance. Inside it's still very much like it was in the Soviet time, because it's early specialization. The people in almost all Russian universities start and join the program from the first year - from being freshmen, they already started to study in law or, you know, engineering or medical profession, which is not the case in American universities. It's, you know, the early specialization with very difficult ways to change the majors, and this is still there. We have just a couple of examples of the universities that started to provide liberal arts education. One of them is here in St. Petersburg. My colleagues part of St. Petersburg State University do it, along with American partners. But this is an exception. In the most universities, we still have early specialization. But my university is postgraduate. We start it with MA and PhD programs and we still have only MA little. So that's more or less like a research part of the big western university than it is the Soviet one. And then my university was actually founded only in the '90s. It's like - now it's 25 years old. So it was part of the big reforms that Russia experienced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So the creation of my university was a part of these experiments in the higher education.


BEN EKLOF: You are listening to Profiles, and our guest today is Dr. Ivan Kurilla. He's a professor of political science at the European University, as you've been learning, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

What I wanted to do was just quickly summarize - what I see from reading your work is your approach to the history and to international relations in general. By choice or not, you're very focused on the comparative dimension - that's because you've been looking at both the United States and Russia and trying to get both the inside and the outside perceptions on that, and that gives you an added dimension that not many scholars have, which is the comparative. You also - when you look at relations between the United States and Russia and the Soviet Union, in your writings I think you emphasize and you say this specifically that the primacy of the domestic - which is a approach that German scholars kind of pioneered in the 1970s - and by that you mean that if you really want to understand a country's place in the world and its foreign policy, you need to look really at what's going on domestically in the country, both in the culture and the politics. And then, third, when we think about foreign policy, we usually think about scholars who focus on the geopolitical aspects of it - for example, Henry Kissinger and such and such as that. And my impression is that what - instead what you try to draw our attention to is the socio-cultural approach and the ways in which the society and the culture impacts perceptions and decision-making. And at one point in one article, you referred to a French-Bulgarian scholar called Todorov who was very influential, who kind of breaks up the framework of understanding politics and particularly foreign policy into three aspects - knowledge, values and practice. You do a really remarkable job of applying that to another to a triangulation, which is, first of all, foreign relations are determined by, first of all, academic research and then, secondly, the role of the state and, third, public perceptions. Let's talk about whatever you want to tell us about how American policies and views have evolved. And in one of your articles, you do mention that the Russian image in the United States - the image of Russia in the United States is more negative than it generally is elsewhere in Europe in particular. Can you give us a kind of brief summary of how you see this has evolved and where it is now?

IVAN KURILLA: I will try to make it briefly, because certainly I can make a whole lecture on that. You ask my - me about my favorite topic, but I will try to be short. But I still - I need to say something about this constructivist approach, which actually - it's actually about our image of ourselves. And when we try to answer questions, who we are and what we are, we need somebody to compare ourselves. Best example for me, when I've been to Canada and asked Canadians, what does it mean to be Canadian? The most frequent answer I received was we are not Americans. And this was something - you know, to define yourself, you should be able to compare yourself with somebody you don't - you are not. What's happened that during the last century - maybe more than a century, Russia and America developed the vision of each other is such a constitutive other - you know, this is other from - capital O. So this country to compare yourself or ourselves - for a number of reasons - and for America, Russia was the most convenient European country to compare American self with. It all started when Americans still describes themself as somebody, you know, run away from Europe and say trying to build a new better society that get rid of European - old European superstitions, old European institutions like monarchies, slavery - serfdoms, actually, in Europe. And Russia was the quintessential Europe - that Europe that America wanted to left behind because Russia was the most autocratic European country. It's - Russia was the most unfree country in Europe, so it was the best opposite - the best opposition to the American image of American society. That is how Russia developed in American imagination - as a representative of everything un-American. I should say that, when it was developed - and it was still the 19th century. And during that time, Americans could not compare themselves with somebody beyond European arial. I mean, Americans could not compare themselves with China, for instance - the Chinese, because it was too exotic. You cannot - you should not - if you are live in the 19th century, you should not explain Chinese political system the same with using the same language that you describe American system. But it worked with Russia. You can explain the Russian political system with the same European language. And in this language it was the opposite one. So that's how Americans developed this vision of Russia as the representation of everything un-American. And sometimes it was true. In some other instances it was not quite true because it was not a direct opposition. But the logic that - if you want to see un-American everything which is opposite to America, you should look - search somewhere in Russia or about Russia. It's how it developed over a century. OK. It's a bit of simplification because we don't have enough time to say all of that, but this is a major point which I wanted to make.

BEN EKLOF: It is true as well, of course, that the countries - each of the countries have pointed to the common frontier identity. And there have been moments - and these are - you write about these moments when windows, you even call them, when relations improved, and I want to come back to that. How would you say that Russian views then of America took shape? What would you call it - the originating myth that consolidated an image of America?

IVAN KURILLA: Russians had developed at least three competing or, you know, combining images of the United States for centuries, and that was an image which, you know, originated in the different periods and the different, I would say, groups within the Russian society. One was an idea that America was a model society, and that was quite widespread not only in Russia - you know, that many European revolutionaries also looked into America as a model - as a pattern for their own revolutions and blueprint American Constitutions were - Constitution was considered the blueprint for the revolutionary constitutional projects in Europe and in Russia as well. So many Russian revolutionaries back in the 19th century and the 20th century considered the United States as a model society - as something which can be repeated - reproduced here in Russia. At the same time and because of this - because of the revolutionary interest to America, all there are some governments, starting with Catherine the Great with Russian empress of the 18th century until probably now - until Mr. Putin, many Russian governments looked to the United States as a threat. During the Cold War it was, of course, an - also a military threat, but it started well before. Of course, Catherine the Great could not consider the young American republic a military threat to Russia, but it was already a threat because it's provided this model for Russian revolutionaries. And this is how Russian governments, especially conservative Russian governments - especially Russian governments at the moment when they felt vulnerable domestically - when a Russian Czars or Russian presidents or Soviet general secretary felt the need to freeze Russian society. Each time during this period of Russian domestic - let's say turbulence or Russian domestic vulnerability of the government, the United States was portrayed as a threat - as a power that wants to undermine Russian everything. But there is also the third variant and the third variant also originated from the Russian government. Each time Russian government - again, back in the 19th century, Tsar Nicholas I was probably the first one - or Bolsheviks in the '20s - in the 1920s - or Soviet or post-Soviet governments planned to make a breakthrough in economy - wanted to reform Russian society and Russian - and especially Russian economic system from above. Each time, the United States also turned out to be a model, but not the model of the political system or social - state-society relations, but as a model society with the best engineering - engineers, the leading country in economic efficiency, the country of inventors. So Russian government, several times in its history, invited hundreds of thousands of Americans to help Russia to make economic breakthroughs. You know, the first big railroad in Russia between Moscow and St. Petersburg was built on American craft with American engineers and American providing the cars and locomotives. The big Stalin industrialization, when the hundreds of industrial enterprises were built in Russia, were built mostly by Americans or on American technologies. And Khrushchev wanted to reform Russian economy and he also traveled to America and brought back some of the ideas. And finally, you know, quite recently - if you remember, we had a president, Dmitry Medvedev between President Putin and President Putin, and Medvedev also claimed that his aim was to modernize the Russian economy. And what he did immediately after he pronounced it and he printed out this slogan of modernization, he traveled to the Silicon Valley and brought back not only iPhone but he also brought back that idea that Russia needs to have its own Silicon Valley and built his Skolkovo enterprise near Moscow. So that is repeating pattern. So in Russia, those three ideas about America - America is a model, America is a threat, and America is a source of innovations always competing. And it's - you know, this is how Russians look at America, historically.

BEN EKLOF: I think what you're emphasizing here is the big picture and there's - where you have some real continuity, even though one aspect or another will fade or come to prominence. Let's turn just briefly to the Cold War there because, of course, that's still - the impact of the Cold War lingers, and how did it take these components and either exaggerate them or reconstruct them? And maybe at this time, too, you can compare and contrast these three - this triangulation in the two countries - that is, in each country, you have academic research, the role of the state, and public perceptions. But the way I understand your writing, they play different roles in the two countries. And how did that - how was that visible in the Cold War, for example?

IVAN KURILLA: That is - the Cold War was certainly the period when Russians and Americans - Soviets at the time and Americans were much - you know, the most probably interested in each other - or maybe, you know, just recently we had a kind of retrieval of - we had in the Cold War, but on the - still on the lower scale. And there is a difference. Of course, that is a difference in the organization of these communities which look on each other because, well, public in the United States and public in Russia looked on each other quite similar. Well, there was a difference still because Russian public was more ready to accept that America was a good country and only bad - you know, military industrial complex actually makes a threat to the Soviet Union while American - especially in the peak of the Cold War - if you - at least if I - if you judge by American movies of the Cold War, you will see that all the Russians are equally bad, which is not - never was a part of Russian culture of the Cold War. But you asked about this triangulation and that is also - was different and probably it's still different because, as far as I know, American academia and the American state are interconnected. There is an idea of revolving doors and many experts on Russia - historians, political scientists, international relations specialists, after teaching at universities, got to the position at one or another American administration and could apply their expertise - their knowledge of Russia working for the Department of State or, I don't know, for CIA maybe, I'm not sure - but for other agencies which deals with Russia, which is - never was a case in the Soviet or in post-Soviet Russia and the situation. Our academics usually stay in academia for life. People who work for, you know, foreign ministry spend there whole their careers. So the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had their own expertise in the United States or they have some connections with a specialist at Institute for USA and Canada Studies within Russian Academy of Science. This is the only institutes which had some collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But even if some of their retirement diplomats start to work in the - in that institute, it's not the revolving doors, it's a very different story. And nobody from university - even from the best university ever go to that government to work for a while and to return to the university. It's not just the case in Russia. So it means that Russian expertise is split between - this is not efficient and as the American side, and I am - as a - as somebody who teaches American political system and American history, I sometimes want to be heard by somebody in the decision-making, but I'm not sure that - if they ever heard. Maybe they read my articles or my books, but I never participated in something really important. And, well, this is how it - how the things are here in Russia.

BEN EKLOF: To step back for a second you mentioned your students, and I'm going to take us back to the beginning of the conversation in a sense in the university. I think maybe our audience would be interested to know the most striking questions you get from students about the United States. You having traveled here, you bring an expert, what surprises them in your classes about either your description of the government or the society or anything you want to say?

IVAN KURILLA: I'm teaching for almost 30 years already - wow - and the questions were changing - very dramatically changing. Because when I just started in the '90s I had an almost unique experience and no of my - nobody from my students ever travelled to America, so I could just tell them how things are in the United States and what was the difference. So that was that. And - but since the late '90s, and by now it's definitely so, many of my students already traveled to the United States, had American friends, or, you know, had a much wider understanding of American society, and this is actually - the (unintelligible) of Russian students changed and their - the questions also changed. I would say that the recent questions which I sometimes got from - sometimes from my students, but not quite - but much more frequently maybe on my social network because when somebody wants me to answer about the United States - one of the questions which is hard to - not have to answer, but hard to be believed - you know, proceeding from the idea here in Russia that there is no real and sincere democracy in the United States, and this is something like the United States is the same as Russia. And if we have rigged elections, America also have rigged elections, and this is recent - and the - actually the current ongoing crisis - or maybe the crisis is over, but still the news flow from the accusations about results of American elections reminds many people here in Russia about Russia. And it's hard to explain that this is a different situation - that here in Russia, we indeed have rigged elections, in the United States it's some of the politicians just don't want to go. But - well, it's hard to explain because it's looks like, for some of - maybe for many Russians, the whole idea of a true democracy was undermined in the recent years, and that's - they - that is why they say, OK, America - even the American political model is not better than Russia - Russian political system is, and this is probably the most difficult topic for me to explain the real difference between those two systems.


BEN EKLOF: You are listening to Profiles, and our distinguished guest today is Professor Ivan Kurilla from European University of St. Petersburg in Russia. I think that if - without going into any detail about it, relations between the two countries are quite a low point. Certainly there's been, from most accounts, a rise in anti-American sentiment, both popular and academic. You've also, in your literature - in your scholarship, you've pointed out there have been moments where there've been windows of opportunity to improve relationships. One of them you - was very interesting you mention about the civil war period, when both the United States and Russia were addressing what scholars call unfree labor, whether it was serfdom or slavery. And at that point, both of the countries had kind of a rapprochement. But returning to the present or to more recent examples, what examples have you looked at where there were momentary improvements in relationships and the reasons for these windows?

IVAN KURILLA: You know, when I describe the American attitude - American ideas about Russia, I did not mention very important image of Russia which also developed over centuries, and that became actual from some - time to time during the most critical periods of international relations. You know, that during the - all - at every big military crisis that the United States was involved in, when the very existence of the United States were put in question, Russia was a major ally. It was during the American War for independence, you know, Catherine the Great, you know, supported American colonies and introduced a system of armed neutrality which helped American trade - American commerce during that, and that was an important contribution of Russia into American independence. During the Civil War, Russia supported Abraham Lincoln government, and that was the only major European power which was undoubtedly not hesitatingly supported the North, and that was an important stuff. And during the 20th century in two major wars, in the First World War and the Second World War, Russia was on the same side with the United States. So we never were the enemies in the major war. We had - there were proxy wars like Vietnam or Afghanistan war, but there was - whenever we were the enemies in the major wars that happened in the last centuries. And this actually produces one of the images of Russia and the United States - that Russia can be a friend, at least a friend in arms, and we do remember - we can remember that, after 9/11, Russia was the first - and President Putin - we do not like him now, but back in the 2001 he was the first president who made a phone call to President Bush and offered him support. And that actually was a - at least an year, maybe an year and a half of very good relations between Russia and the United States. So that was one of the recent experiences. Or when we had President Medvedev, which I've already - whom I already mentioned, and that was a reset policy. And during Medvedev, it was possible to make a reset. But, well, Mr. Putin returned and that's - the whole situation started to deteriorate. But that is still windows of possibilities from time to time. And there is mistakes made from both sides which led - or maybe not the mistakes, but the decisions made out of the domestic concerns more than on the concern of the improvement of the relations. That is - that happens quite frequently.

BEN EKLOF: I want to come back to that in a second. That's a very important point - that the turn for the worse in relationships is often determined not by geopolitical issues, but by issues related to the - what's going on inside each of these countries and the audiences. That's, I think, really important. When you compare these windows that opened up over time - different times, was there some sort of common features? Were there also domestic common events or conflicts or whatever that would lead to improvements or to the opportunity for improvements?

IVAN KURILLA: As a historian, I could start earlier - and you already mentioned, like, serfdom and slavery and the abolition of two institutes which actually made Russia and America close to each other. That was early in the 19th century, of course. Or territorial expansion - you know, frontier experience also was quite common for Russia and America, which is develop and expansion - westward expansion of the United States and eastward expansion of Russia. So we met in the Pacific somewhere. So that was an early experience, of course. And we actually had Alaska - you know, that is a unique territory which had a, you know, century and a half being a part of Russian empire and a century and a half part of the United States. So the history of Alaska is divided on two - by, you know, Russian and American ownership. So that was a part of it. But speaking about most - more recent - you know, I've mentioned that Russian economy was - experienced waves - subsequent waves of Americanization - you know, that was American-made - American technologies, American-made enterprises, American modeled system of production - while America also experienced the influence of Russia, maybe not as visible but, you know, through the Russian immigration. More than a century ago, since the last decades of the 19th century until the First World War, more than three million people immigrated from Russian Empire to the United States. Well, mostly Jews, also Poles, but also some Russians. And that is - it was a great big immigration which influenced the American way of life. You know, that's - if you look on the American culture of the 20th century, you will see everywhere the very important prominent figures who were born in Russia or were - you know, immigrated from Russia or maybe whose parents immigrated from Russia. You know, from Hollywood studios, you know, four or three biggest Hollywood studios - movie makers were founded by people who were born in Russia. Or to Irvin Berlin, the composer - great composer who was also born in Russia. So that was a big influence on that. And up to the political thinkers - you know, from anarchist Emma Goldman, who was an icon for anarchist or Left-Wing American political movement in the '20s - late 19th and 20th centuries to Ayn Rand, who was a right wing, you know, model figure. They were, you know, Jewish women who were born here in St. Petersburg - in the city where I'm now situated, and they immigrated to America trying to get rid of the country they immigrated from. But Emma Goldman immigrated from the conservative Russian empire and continue to fight for the freedoms - for Left-Wing agenda during her life in the United States. And Ayn Rand immigrated after the revolution from the experiment - or socialist experiments, and she continued to fight against socialist experiments for her - all of her life. So that is how the early experience here in Russia influenced the way of thinking of the major American centers of the 20th century. And that influence - I would say that, you know, that Russian immigrants influenced America in the way - they wanted to make America is different from the country they escaped as possible. So the influence of Russian immigration was great and it's probably understudied here - underestimated. But this is a big influence of Russia onto America. We are different, but not as much different as we can, yeah?

BEN EKLOF: And looking at these windows of opportunity for improved relations - as you say, the U.S. and Russia need to find problems to solve - joint problems. And I think that was a really important statement because there are many people who believe that when you look at U.S.-Russian relations, it's difficult without understanding the evolving cultures and historical kind of forces at work to understand that there really are no major geopolitical issues between the two countries that couldn't be resolved. And if we focus on, again, problems to solve, that this provides an avenue by which we can gradually build improvements in relationships. Would you agree with that - that that's your perception?

IVAN KURILLA: We do have some geopolitical problems. And - but I would argue that geopolitical problems are quite less significant than what Soviet Union had with the United States during the Cold War. I mean, the contemporary situation is very different and the real mutual threats are much lower. But if you follow just the rhetoric - if you just follow the propaganda in the Soviet Union - in contemporary Russia - if you follow some of the newspaper coverage of Russian foreign policy in contemporary American - or recent American media, you will feel like you are back into the Cold War, and this is something which I do not like. I do know that - well, I do agree that President Putin makes a lot of things which I would never support. I do not - I think that Mr. Putin makes a lot of bad things to my country. But when I read American coverage of what Russia is doing, I want to defend if not Mr. Putin, but to defend some of the Russian behavior, because I will say that is not the real reasons to be criticized for. So this is about misunderstanding and about - again, I can explain that only by the way those - you know, those media coverage appears. It appears out of the domestic internal splits, and the coverage of America here in Russia is determined by the current regime's attempt to stay in power indefinitely and they wanted to have a big foreign threat to mobilize population and to attack in an open and says American problems. But, well, if I see in the United States, I see not the same but quite similar tendencies in American media, and I am very much concerned about this.


BEN EKLOF: Folks, you're listening to Profiles. And our guest today is Dr. Ivan Kurilla, professor of political science and - at the European University in St. Petersburg. And we thought now we would turn to what Ivan calls historical politics - that is the way in which history is mobilized to serve political purposes and symbolic purposes. And Ivan has written on a couple of occasions that Putin is really a master of symbolic politics and we should say that we are no stranger in our country, and recently we've had problems - more than minor problems with statues - tearing down statues. Well, we're not the only country that has been trying to figure out what to do with statues from their past, and perhaps, Ivan, you could talk about that a bit.

IVAN KURILLA: Well, this is an interesting - well, interesting story which somehow connected American experience and Russian experience, because we do have the problems with our monuments - with our statues, but it's a bit different from what you have in the United States. But, yes, the monuments - well, here they're very intensive, symbolic meaning and, of course, people who want to tear down the statue - they means more than just to destroy this piece of art, you know? But what is interesting - well, there are several interesting points. First of all, usually the massive destruction or removal of monuments happens during the revolutions. You know, we in Russia experienced at least, like, several revolutions in the 20th century, and each revolution coincided with a massive removal of monuments. You're - in America had no revolution since - or maybe Civil War was the last - latest revolution, but you still recently had a massive removal of monuments. And this makes me wonder, can we look into America today as experiencing some kind of a revolution? Not exactly there, like, a bloody uprising, but the revolution which changes the whole, you know, symbolic landscape I would say - the historical landscape which legitimate the current political system and current cultural ideas and the identity of Americans. And most of all - probably identity is the most important word here because, well, if you have a different set of monuments on your streets, it means that you're probably the different people. And this is what happened and which is still unfinished here in Russia. We have a lot of Vladimir Lenin statues on the streets with statues of monuments to the Tzars which were destroyed during the Soviet time and then rebuilt or, you know, built anew after the collapse of the Soviet Union with people who were fighting the Russian civil war on both sides. Because recently I could say to Russians that, OK, there is the United States - they have two dominant memories - two different - two variants of memory. They have, you know, southern figurative monuments in the south. And they hear that - well, they have no Lincoln south of some parallel in the United States while there is no Robert E. Lee North of some divide. But now it looks like the United States is trying to get rid of the remaining southern monuments, and that actually makes me wonder if Russia will be the only country which still coexist with monuments from a very difficult - different - ideologically different eras. What else I would say to the monuments - there is important, symbolic meaning and in each monument, but those who destroy or remove monuments usually ascribe to the monument their own ideas, and this is not exactly the same ideas which were among those people who erected the monument, like, 100 years ago. And this is a very interesting difference because while the new generation grew up with a different set of references about the past - about the history - about the ethics actually - what was good and what was bad. But they also ascribe to the monuments some more - actually usually more simplistic ideas. You know, like, people - and it's actually works both ways. It works also for those who erect new monuments. You know that in Russia, Communist Party of the Russian Federation tries to erect monuments to Joseph Stalin. Everybody else are against and usually they are unsuccessful. Sometimes they build small Stalin statues somewhere on the territory of the Communist Party committees somewhere - but still, they want to erect Stalin. They can not resurrect Stalin, they cannot return Russia to the Soviet time - to the Soviet Union, but they want to make a symbolic gesture. And sometimes when you destroy the monuments you want - you also want to make a symbolic gesture. You know, my feelings when I followed American news this last year - there is a big problem in the United States - maybe not the only one, but one of the biggest problems in the United States is a race question, which is still - you probably will not - or you can disagree, but I think this is, like, common knowledge. There is a big question - a big problem in American society. And subsequent political leaders of the United States were unable to solve it - finally to solve the racial question - the racial divide which existed in the United States. So if you ascribe the problem to a monument and destroy the monument, it could be like a symbolic gesture. You cannot make the racial problem unexisting, but you can ascribe - you say that this monument to Robert E. Lee is the representation of the racial injustice and let's get rid of this monument. You will be, you know, free from this monument, but the problem will still be with you, and this is something which actually makes the whole symbolic fight - the symbolic struggle around the monuments.

BEN EKLOF: It's involved not only monuments, of course, historical politics have involved textbooks. Another essay that you've written - there was an attempt 20 years ago by the mayor of Volgograd to return the name of the city to Stalingrad, and that did not happen. One of the reasons you cite is that the population itself was against it. What does that mean?

IVAN KURILLA: So just the mayor - you know, they're a Communist Party - Communist Party had one of the goals or targets to return the name of Stalin to the city. You know, it's an initial name was, of course, not Stalin - it was not Stalingrad, it was Tsaritsyn - you know Tsaritsyn. Zavitz. It was the name of the city before 1925. Communist wants to do it, it's not just 20 years ago, they continued their campaign for renaming but it's a failed campaign because majority of the population in Russia, according to any polls, are against the name of Stalingrad. So it cannot win in a referendum or any democratic decision, so they want to make it undemocratically, but it does not work. This is a part of return of Stalin. You know, this is an interesting difference in understanding of what is - the struggle was for. Because when communists defend their idea to return Stalin's name, they say this is not about Stalin, this is about Stalingrad battle. All the people in the world know Stalingrad battle, they know the city because of this name. This is not about Stalin. But they turn to their own audience and say they - we want to return Stalin. We want to build Stalin's monument. We want to praise Stalin as the greatest leader of our country. And also it's double think I would say. I do not think that it works. But in the historical politics - maybe been in many politics like that and activist politics, sometimes the opinion on - of activists became more important in the decision-making than this polls - which polls reveals about the population's idea. You know, sometimes the monuments are erected or removed because activists wants to do it, not because there was some kind of referendum about - should we keep the statue or should we remove it? No, nobody makes a referendum, it's just an activist move, and this is how it works in the historical politics in Russia and in the United States as well.


BEN EKLOF: I wanted to really thank you profoundly for a really interesting and, I think, lively discussion. Having been around the scene studying Russia and the Soviet Union for maybe almost 50 years, I can't tell you how much the environment has changed since - in terms of the interactions of Western and Russian scholars. It's an enormous pleasure to be able to talk so openly and so widely about virtually any topic.

IVAN KURILLA: Thank you very much for your questions and for the very good conversation. Thank you.

BEN EKLOF: This has been our interview with Ivan Kurilla from St. Petersburg. You've been listening to Profiles. Thank you very much. 

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Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Jillian Burley. The studio engineer is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us again next week for another edition of Profiles.

Ivan Kurilla

Ivan Kurilla is a professor of Political Science at European University at St. Petersburg. His primary field of interest is the history of US–Russian relations. He has organized workshops, published articles, and edited volumes on the theme of the use of history, historical memory, and historical politics in Post-Soviet Russia.

Ivan Kurilla’s books include Frenemies: History of opinions, phantasies, contacts, mutual (mis)understanding of Russia and the USA (2018),  History, or the Past in Present (2017), and Partners across the Ocean: The United States and Russia (2005).

Kurilla’s articles have been published in the leading Russian historical journals, as well as in Journal of American History, Demokratizatsiya, Journal of Cold War Studies, Problems of Post-Communism, Nationalities Papers. He is a member of editorial board of Amerikanskii ezhegodnik (American Yearbook), the Journal of Russian-American Studies (Kansas University), and a member of the council of the Free Historical Society.

Ivan Kurilla is also sought by Russian, American and international media for his views on issues encompassed by Russian-American relations. In 2017-2018 he published two op-ed articles in The Washington Post and was frequently quoted by The New York Times.

He spoke with Ben Eklof, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Indiana University: Bloomington.


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