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An Interview with Lewis H. Siegelbaum.

Every generation of historians has its own distinctive profile, shaped by the historical context in which its members grew up, the academic orientation of their advisers, and their own family history. Lewis H. Siegelbaum, the Jack and Margaret Sweet Professor emeritus of History at Michigan State University, weaves together all three strands as he tells his story of personal and professional development. Siegelbaum entered graduate studies inspired, as he recounts here, by the leftist politics of both his family and the heady days of activism and protest against the Vietnam War. His intellectual interests were embedded in the history he lived: from Marxism and labor history to social history and material culture. Along the way, he penned studies that were essential reading for colleagues as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

Siegelbaum's academic home was Michigan State University, where he taught from 1983 until 2018, but he actively pursued collaboration and contacts with graduate students and professors in areas that connected to his ever-expanding interests. Among graduate students at many different institutions, he gained a reputation as a generous mentor and supporter, inviting young scholars to participate in panels and then asking them to submit essays for collections. For the participants in those panels and essay collections, Siegelbaum's support was essential to developing contacts and articles that ultimately helped land jobs and promotions, not to mention advancing scholarship in fruitful new directions.

The range of his publications spans the entire 20th century and includes groundbreaking works in labor history, social history, material culture, and the history of migrations and transnationalism. He is the author of books on industrial mobilization during World War I, the Stakhanovite movement of the 1930s, Soviet state and society in the 1920s, and the award-winning Cars for Comrades. (1) He is co-author with Leslie Page Moch of Broad Is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia's Twentieth Century. (2) He has edited two books and co-edited six others, most recently Empire and Belonging in the Eurasian Borderlands with Krista Goff. (3) He also co-authored with James von Geldern the award-winning online sourcebook Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. (4) The last, as much as Siegelbaum's scholarship, illustrates one of the most distinctive features of his profile: his talent and penchant for collaboration and collegiality. The website has become an essential resource for instructors in Soviet history, providing readymade essays, primary sources, and compelling archival video footage. Thousands of students and instructors alike have saved time and money with this resource, creating a classroom learning environment that takes participants into the spirit and ethos of the distinctive periods in Soviet history.

How did you get into this field? What were the most influential books you read as an undergraduate and/or graduate student?

The answer to the first question has changed over the years. I used to think it had to do with my family origins: my grandfathers hailed from Odessa and Riga and my step-grandfather grew up in Skvira, a town in Kiev Province. My maternal grandmother came from Kolomea (Kolomyia, in Ukrainian), a town in Galicia still under Habsburg rule when she left it around the turn of the century, and my father's mother was from Bialystok. Did I choose to pursue Russian history to learn more about my grandparents' world? Not really. The impulse, I now am convinced, lay less in my connections to Russia's Yiddish-speaking borderland Jewish minorities than to communism, and therefore in my father's political orientation rather than his or my mother's antecedents. Born in New York City in 1915, Morton ("Morty") Siegelbaum entered City College in 1933 in the teeth of the Depression. Upon graduation in 1937, he became a social studies teacher in the New York City public school system. In college, he "flirted" (his word) with Trotskyism, but joined the Communist Party in 1939, the year of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. I always had trouble understanding how he could have done such a thing, especially as he frequently professed support for the Popular Front against Fascism. He did so, he explained, because those whom he admired most among his fellow teachers belonged to the party.

McCarthyism made Morty pay dearly for his party membership. In 1954, the New York City Board of Education purged him along with hundreds of other teachers from the school system, either because they refused to answer its infamous question about whether they "are now or have ever been" Communists or because they refused to "name names." His teaching career cut short, my father sold insurance while he went back to college to prepare himself for the brave new world of computer electronics. All this was happening while I was a toddler. If in high school I began to wonder what it was about this communism that made it so appealing to my father and so dangerous to the American way of life, then in college my fascination deepened. The war in Vietnam helped. I understood the US involvement in Vietnam as an outgrowth of its decades-long hostility to communism. So I became a foot soldier in the antiwar movement but also a student of communism. At Columbia, I along with many of my fellow students filled courses on peasant societies, guerrilla movements, and revolution. We read--to turn to the second question--Franz Fanon, Regis Debray, and Mao; debated the finer points of revolutionary strategy; and ardently believed that our grasp of the theory would lead to better practice. Or maybe, when I think about the student rebellion in the spring of 1968 that precipitated such courses, it was the reverse: practicing revolution would improve the theory.

I owe it to Stephen Cohen's two-semester Contemporary Civilization course (Fall 1967-Spring 1968) for introducing me to Marx beyond The Communist Manifesto as well as to Chernyshevsky, Bakunin, and Plekhanov. We also read in this and several other courses at Columbia Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, which, along with Ralf Dahrendorf's Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, probably made a greater impression on me than any other contemporary social scientist's work. (5) I should add that I picked up Russian along the way, starting in the fall of 1967. Here, too, war helped. The previous June, I watched the televised UN debates over the Six-Day War. Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Fedorenko's references to sovetskaia delegatsiia and izrail 'skaia agressiia were music to my ears. How hard could it be to learn this language, I told myself, if I could understand these phrases?

At Oxford, where I did my graduate degree, I wanted to read everything I could lay my hands on that had to do with modern Russia. Books from those years containing my underlinings and comments tart and otherwise include Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy; Stephen Cohen's biography of Bukharin; Merle Fainsod's Smolensk under Soviet Rule; the first six volumes of E. H. Carr's History of Soviet Russia; Geroid T. Robinson's Rural Russia under the Old Regime; a 1958 English translation of V. O. Kliuchevskii's study of Peter the Great; and Martin Malia's biography of Herzen. (6) As I got into my D.Phil, thesis--Russian industrialists in World War I--Soviet historians' works entered the scene. Among the better ones were V. S. Diakin's Russkaia burzhuaziia i tsarizm vgodypervoi mirovoi voiny (The Russian Bourgeoisie and Tsarism during World War I); V. Ia. Laverychev, Po tu storonu barrikad (On the Other Side of the Barricades), and A. L. Sidorov's Ekonomicheskoe polozhenie Rossii v gody pervoi mirovoi voiny (Russia's Economic Condition during World War I). (7) Finally, to keep myself honest, I continued reading Marxist theory. This ranged from Gyorgy Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness to Andre Gunder Frank's Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America. (8)

Two things embarrass me about these books: they were all written by men, and none was the work of a social historian. To say that I was oblivious to the absence of women among the scholars who most influenced me only makes the crime worse. As for social history, I was not unaware of its existence, but until I encountered E. P. Thompson's works a few years later, I thought it had little to offer me. It was hard enough to study the Soviet Union as a historian of any kind. Indeed, despite my paramount interest in Soviet communism, my thesis topic dealt with late imperial Russia because archival sources, the coin of the realm for historians, were inaccessible for the Soviet period--or so I believed. Only Sheila Fitzpatrick, who preceded me at Oxford by some five years, had cracked the code. Political science and political history dominated Soviet studies throughout the 1970s.

What were the primary factors that influenced your research interests in workers, cars, and migration, the main topics you have studied and written about over the years? In other words, how do you tell your own life history as a historian?

In brief, E. P. Thompson, my weariness with Stalinism and longing to pursue a topic with greater chronological breadth, and Leslie Page Moch. To start with workers, my first efforts--on Chinese migrants in the Russian Far East and their recruitment to work in the Donbas during World War I; and the political disposition of the workers' groups of the war-industries committees--stemmed from the thesis. (9) The leap I took into the Soviet period coincided with growing awareness (thanks to my reading of Thompson) of what a different story social history could tell and the discovery of a cohort of young historians already pursuing topics in Soviet labor history. What guided me was the Thompson-inspired observation that Soviet workers participated in their own making as well as that of Soviet communism. They too, like Thompson's "poor stockinger ... Luddite cropper [and] 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver," needed to be rescued--from the dismissiveness of an older generation of Western Sovietologists for whom only decision makers in the Kremlin mattered, as well as from assumptions among labor historians that only resistance mattered. Hence my interest in socialist competition, an arena and a discursive field in which self-organized production communes were confronted by "the imperatives of industrialization"; the ambiguous role of foremen in an increasingly Taylorist industrial system; and Stakhanovism. I also interested myself in workplace adjudication in the form of comrades-disciplinary courts in the early Soviet years and the coalminers' movement from 1989 across the Soviet/post-Soviet divide. (10)

After completing Stalinism as a Way of Life, I felt the need to save my own life or at least my sanity by breaking out of the period dominated by Stalin. (11) Moscow's ever-thickening traffic and the prominence of imported models made me wonder about the interface between cars and communism, two quintessentially 20th-century phenomena. When I suddenly realized that the relative paucity of automobiles available for personal use made them objects of popular imagination and desire, I had, so to speak, a "plot" for the book. I never have had more fun with a project. (12) It put me in touch with a different crowd, including car enthusiasts throughout the world, and helped redefine my primary interest as consumption and material culture.

Sometime early in 2010, Leslie and I found ourselves nearing the end of respective projects. She, a historian of European migration, sought new geographic pastures; I contemplated a new project on the refrigerator, only to abandon the idea when Leslie suggested we combine our expertise to study migration in imperial Russia and the USSR. The suggestion appealed to me in all kinds of ways: the scope was sufficiently broad--gargantuan, in fact--to satisfy my appetite for bigger history; I willy-nilly had developed a decent record of collaborating with other historians (e.g., Andrei Sokolov, Jim von Geldern, Ron Suny, Bill Rosenberg, Bill Chase), and wondered what it would be like to collaborate with one's spouse. Finally, I had envied the camaraderie among Leslie's fellow migrationists and longed to join what one of them called "the migration Church." So we did it, learning a ton in the process, including how to compose academic prose together sitting side by side at the dining-room table.

Your website Seventeen Moments in Soviet History has become an essential teaching resource for Russian history. How did it come about and what have you learned about teaching and history from your experience in creating and maintaining it?

Jim von Geldern approached me in 1998 about developing the website. "You know the sources," he wrote, "and our particular interests are complementary enough so that you seemed the natural choice." The conceptualization--multimedia sources connected to chronologically bounded themes--was entirely Jim's, but we both identified themes and shared the writing of over 100 essays introducing each theme. Thanks to an NEH grant and support from Abamedia, we devoted two trips to Moscow to choose clips from the vast holdings of Soviet newsreels at the Film and Photographic Archive in Krasnogorsk.

I found the work both challenging and liberating. Early in the process of designing Seventeen Moments, we discovered that plotting out the site required more associative, nonlinear thinking than either of us had ever done before. The type of documentation we amassed--graphic images, photographs, movie clips, songs, raw film footage--stretched beyond the traditional means of publication or, for that matter, presentation in the classroom. Within a year of the site going online, I was using it in every class session illustratively, as the focus of discussion, as part of students' repertoires for their own class presentations, and even on final exams. The site's maintenance also involved a lot of collaboration--not only between Jim and me but in recruiting and working with contributors of new units, and recently handing it off to the more than capable hands of Amy Nelson.

Looking back over the last decades, what do you think are the major changes the field has experienced? How has the collapse of the Soviet Union changed our perspective on Soviet history, if at all?

If by "last decades" you mean since the late 1990s, I would say there have been two profound changes: the shift from considering the Soviet Union as a whole or focusing only on "the Russians" to regarding it as an empire with distinct but obviously related nationally defined territories; and second, taking seriously what it meant to be Soviet--that is, exploring Soviet subjectivity. Each has been shaped in obvious (and some not so obvious) ways by the nonexistence of the Soviet Union and greatly facilitated by the "archive revolution" that accompanied the transformation of Soviet space into post-Soviet independent states. Neither of these moves has been exhausted, but in the meantime, as I wrote a few years ago, the relentless push toward the history of late socialism--that is, the post-Stalin decades--has led to a shift from an earlier emphasis on state coercion, resistance, and strategies of survival ("Soviet history with tears") to less doleful subjects: private life, consumption and material culture, transnationality within the USSR and nongovernmental contacts with the world beyond Soviet borders, gender and sexuality, and migration. Whether cause for sorrow or celebration, environmental histories and the end of the Soviet Union itself--not only the "why" but the "how"--should be added to this list.

What are the most exciting contemporary currents of scholarship, in your view? What might our field learn from historians in other fields? What do you say to students now who are considering graduate school and an academic career in our field?

The list I just gave is indicative of what I consider most exciting in our field. As to what we could learn from other fields, let me cite two books, both now decades old. The first is my favorite book in migration history: Jose Moyas Cousins and Strangers, about Spanish immigrants to Buenos Aires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (13) It beautifully combines a dispassionate methodological rigor expected in the social sciences with an empathetic sensitivity toward the waywardness and idiosyncrasies of individuals characteristic of the best of the humanities. The second is Robin D. G. Kelley's Hammer and Hoe, which uncovers with grit and tremendous sympathy the hitherto suppressed history of American Communists in 1920s and 1930s Alabama. (14) What I would say to anyone contemplating graduate study in modern Russian and Soviet history is know who you are and where you are coming from, learn as much as you can from and support your fellow students, and (alas, above all) [phrase omitted]!

(1) Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Politics of Industrial Mobilization in Russia, 1914-17: A Study of the War Industries Committees (New York: St. Martins, 1983); Siegelbaum, Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR, 1935-1941 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Siegelbaum, Soviet State and Society between Revolutions, 1918-1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1994); Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

(2) Lewis H. Siegelbaum and Leslie Page Moch, Broad Is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia's Twentieth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

(3) Krista Goff and Lewis H. Siegelbaum, eds., Empire and Belonging in the Eurasian Borderlands (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, forthcoming in 2019).

(4) Seventeen Moments in Soviet History: An On-line Archive of Primary Sources (

(5) Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966); Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959).

(6) Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954); Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929 (London: Oxford University Press, 1959); Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky, 1929-1940 (London: Oxford University Press, 1963); Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (New York: Knopf, 1973); Merle Fainsod, Smolensk under Soviet Rule (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958); E. H. Carr, A History of Soviet Russia, 14 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1950-78); Geroid Tanquary Robinson, Rural Russia under the Old Regime (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967 [1932]); V. O. Klyuchevsky [V. O. Kliuchevskii], Peter the Great, trans. Liliana Archibald (New York: Macmillan, 1958); Martin E. Malia, Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1961).

(7) V. S. Diakin, Russkaia burzhuaziia i tsarizm v gody pervoi mirovoi voiny (1914-1917) (Moscow: Nauka, 1967); V. Ia. Laverychev, Po tu storonu barrikad: Iz istorii bor 'by moskovskoi burzhuazii s revoliutsiei (Moscow: Mysl', 1967); and A. L. Sidorov, Ekonomicheskoe polozhenie Rossii v gody pervoi mirovoi voiny (Moscow: Nauka, 1973).

(8) Gyorgy Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (London: Merlin, 1968); Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967).

(9) Lewis H. Siegelbaum, "Another 'Yellow Peril': Chinese Migrants in the Russian Far East and the Russian Reaction before 1917," Modern Asian Studies 12, 2 (1978): 307-30; Siegelbaum, "The Workers' Groups and the War-Industries Committees: Who Used Whom?" Russian Review 39, 2 (1980): 150-80.

(10) Lewis H. Siegelbaum, "Production Collectives and Communes and the 'Imperatives' of Soviet Industrialization, 1929-1931," Slavic Review 45, 2 (1986): 65-84; Siegelbaum, "Masters of the Shop Floor: Foremen and Soviet Industrialization," in Stalinism: Its Nature and Aftermath, ed. Nicholas Lampert and Gabor Rittersporn (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1992), 127-56.

(11) Lewis H. Siegelbaum et al., Stalinism as a Way of Life: A Narrative in Documents (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

(12) Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades; Lewis H. Siegelbaum, ed., The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

(13) Jose C. Moya, Cousins and Strangers: Spanish Immigrants in Buenos Aires, 1850-1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

(14) Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
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Title Annotation:From the Editors
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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