Saturday, 28 March 2009

From Fitzwilliam College, BASEES

I want to keep brief notes as I go, because these are interesting events. Coming at academe from the outside, so to speak, or by the back door, or indeed by some other analogy, I take real pleasure in listening to scholars speak. If I had more time I'd do much more of this at UEA, but I have so many deadlines and projects, I really have to be physically wrenched away from them to be able to give myself entirely over to listening.

Fitzwilliam is a modern college, and what it lacks in prepossessiveness from the front it somewhat makes up in postpossessiveness once inside. The gardens have a nice lushness, and most of the buildings serve up an amiable partly monastic modernism, with an especially fine later auditorium building and touches of art deco in the actual halls. The rain has swept in and out several times during the day and I have been to three out of four sesions.

The first was in the auditorium itself. Title: Does Russia have Free and Fair Elections? There is a kind of music to this. It turns out that, regionally, there are a good number of 100% votes with 100% cast for the government, on the other hand it also turns out that, according to some surveys at least, most Russians are pretty happy with their democracy and don't see much corruption. The music in the background is the familiar tune of: Why do you think your western model of democracy should be imposed on our freedom loving people? with the chorus: So what makes you so perfect? It is, of course, a high class set of papers and questions. Personal hunch goes with the view that countries with no established tradition of democracy will always regard it as something rather less important than jobs, stability, a full belly, and a good football team. And considering the histories it is hard to blame them, while regretting, etc.

Wave of tiredness overcame me next, and though I thought I would sit in on Russia in Motion: Screen Reactions to Ballet or alternatively on Through the Iron Curtain - Networking in Cold War Europe, presented by four Finns, one of whom has a Hungarian name, the resolve goes and I retire to my room, emerging for the third session, chaired by the one person I know here, my friend and ex-neighbour M. This is in a smaller room and is headed Espionage and the History of the Second World War. Only two papers here, one about the case history of a female Polish spy who set out on her spy career back in 1926, the case being a sample from research about women in the military and in intelligence. The story itself is fascinating, more like fiction than fiction, as is generally the case with interesting lives, though the gender line is exactly the one I could have written without having done any research. The young woman giving it is doing so in her second language, and has spent uncounted hours in the vaults of the Polish secret service, having run through over a hundred files.I see it is a heroic effort and of course, the gender line, is correct, and the whole is a part of the furnishing out of the lives of women which must be worth doing. Whether the subject had spied for the Gestapo as well as for the Communists is an issue that is raised but the truth is not established. She might have. From the gender point of view it doesn't matter.

The second paper is about Chekists generally, the internal tensions and divisions in the Cheka / NKVD / KGB / SMERSH and so on, particularly in the Second World War. It is eloquent and very well informed, the central point perhaps being that the whole was far from the big monolothic organisation we assume it to be, and that during the war - we get a good run down as to what the range of security forces duties were - SMERSH wasn't in the business of enrolling only ace agents but almost anybody they could get. The questions at the end include one from a younger man researching in KGB files who says every time he finds something really interesting it disappears the next day, and that in Leningrad there were swastika banners all ready to fly, welcoming the German invaders, just in case. Once the Germans had retreated enthusiasm for Soviet Union returned. The same might have been the case in Moscow, he says.

The evening session is a splendid three-way discussion of 1989 in the Soviet Union - Memory and Legacy, between, I'll name them, Archie Brown (Oxford), Philip Hanson (Birmingham) and Marju Lauristin (Estonia), all remarkable people with direct knowledge. AB argues that communism died in 1989 because the six characteristics that defined it, including the desire to propagate communism abroad, the belief in 'democratic socialism' etc, lost all force that year. PH concentrates on economics and the frantic search for a new economic model, while ML disagrees about the death of communism, arguing that the party structure was still in place, and might still be if Gorbachev had been stronger - 'a good man' she says, but not up to it. AB argues back suggesting it would have been very hard to have been up to it. It is not so much the argument here as the detail that fascinates, the behind the door, remarks made to so and so, notes written, conversations conducted, meetings attended, books read or not read. AB points to Gorbachev's second - unpublished - book about perestroika. Events had overtaken it, he said.

1989 is what I am to talk about, at least partly. That is tomorrow. Late now. Clocks go forward tonight, one hour less sleep.

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