Author Archives: James Ryan

About James Ryan

I am a Government of Ireland/Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow based at the University of Warwick (UK) and University College Cork (Ireland). I graduated with a PhD in Modern History from University College Cork in 2010, and I am the author of 'Lenin's Terror: The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence' (Routledge: 2012). I am working on a project entitled 'An Intellectual History of Soviet State Violence, 1917-1938'.

Seeking Meaning in Mass Murder: Butovo

Last Sunday, two friends and I took a train from Moscow’s Kursk station to Butovo, a residential district just south of the Moscow city limits along the Warsaw highway. Having meandered along the little streets beneath sometimes crumbling Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks, we came to a narrow, tree-lined road that soon led us to the Butovskii shooting range (Бутовский полигон). Parents with young children were strolling between the trees, playing beside the fence topped with barbed-wire that surrounds the shooting range. Inside, workmen were doing repairs to some small buildings at the entrance, and the sound of pop music drifted across from the radio of a car parked close by. There were no tourists, no tour buses, and it is clear that not many people visit the site; we were the only visitors at that time.


On this plot of land, between 8 August 1937 and 19 October 1938, 20,761 people were executed and buried in mass graves. The total number of people buried on this site could be as high as 50,000.[1] Butovo was the principal location in Moscow for the so-called ‘mass operations,’ which were secret policies of violent removal of suspect population categories conducted by the political police (under the NKVD, or Commissariat of Internal Affairs) in 1937-38. The vast majority of victims of the violence of the late 1930s in the Soviet Union were ‘ordinary’ people, not Communist Party members; they were former kulaks (wealthy, allegedly exploitative peasants), criminals and other ‘anti-soviet elements,’ and members of suspect nationalities as war appeared imminent. The so-called ‘Great Terror’ of the late 1930s is largely a misnomer, as the purpose of the bulk of the violence of that time was not to terrify a wider audience and communicate a political message, but to purge society of unsuitable persons at a time of intense security concerns.[2]

The ‘mass operations,’ beginning with the infamous NKVD Order no.00447 of July 1937, resulted in about 700,000 executions in the country over this short period, with many more people sentenced to lengthy periods of confinement in concentration camps. This was violence by quota, as precise figures for execution and arrest were handed down from Moscow to all regions. Once the bureaucratic, competitive dynamic kicked in at the lower levels of the security apparatus, the quotas were exceeded considerably, resulting in a crazed spiral of violence whereby utterly innocent people were rounded up to meet targets.[3] Those executed and buried in Butovo reflected the full range of the victims of Stalinism, of various social strata and nationalities. Most victims were Moscow workers who had previously been peasants. The relatively large number of clergy and persons shot as a result of religious conviction (973) helped to ensure that the site passed into the ownership of the Orthodox Church in the 1990s, and it is the clergy that are most prominently remembered at the place that the Church refers to now as a ‘Russian Golgotha.’[4] Most horrific of all, at least 830 invalids were shot there.[5]




It is not surprising that Butovo, as a site of commemoration, is very different from the Nazi concentration camps, for example. Russian society, like all societies, is complex and variegated, but there is no standardised, national narrative about the Soviet tragedy (nor necessarily should there be). The version of the Russian past preferred by the Russian state since the presidency of Vladimir Putin appears one that stresses national achievement and incorporates the Soviet past into this narrative, epitomised by treatment of the Soviet victory over Nazism. Putin has visited the Butovskii shooting range along with Church leaders, and there is no denial of these horrors, but what is most significant about Stalinism for the Russian state – and perhaps for most Russians – is the victory over Nazism and the subsequent attainment of superpower status along with the US.

The representation of Stalin and Stalinism in Russia, then, is often very different to that in ‘the West,’ and it appears only too easy here to sideline (or even justify) the repressions. When engaged in a conversation about politics and history (invariably the two go hand-in-hand in Russia) with Russians, one is as likely to encounter a liberal-minded, vociferous opponent of Stalinism (and probably by extension the present Russian regime) as a nationalistic-socialist, openly anti-Semitic Stalinist sympathiser. The bookshops in Moscow reflect this divergence, with sensationalist accounts of the horrors of Stalinism sitting on the same shelves as Stalinist hagiography. The short description inside the cover of one book published earlier this year to mark the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death, which I saw in one of the city’s main bookshops, castigated the ‘liberal Yids’ in the West for criticism of Stalin. In fact, I often feel slightly embarrassed when telling archivists or other scholars in Russia that I work on state violence in the Soviet Union. Sometimes, as happened this week when conversing with a young researcher in the library, I am asked (not without some justification) why Western historians always seem to view the Soviet Union in the narrow terms of violent totalitarianism, with the suggestion that the Western frame of reference derives from an anti-Russian bias.

The reasons for the violence of the ‘mass operations’ in the late 1930s are complex and multiple. Historians are methodologically disposed to avoid simple, neat explanations for complex events. These operations were not the logically violent culminations of the Soviet system, whether in its Stalinist or even Leninist forms. Those who make such arguments underestimate the complex, contingent, and even contradictory nature of the system and its ruling ideology. The nature of Marxist-Leninist ideology with its vision of a perfect future, and its basic precepts of class warfare and social conflict in the meantime; the immense hubris of this most modern of states; fear of imminent war; the perceived threat posed by ‘anti-Soviet elements’ to the security of the state under such circumstances; the nature of centre-periphery power relations; self-preservation and denunciation; the extensive system of police surveillance conducted for years on behalf of an obsessively paranoid state; the bureaucratic process and dynamic of killing; simple competition between individuals to see who could sign off on the greater number of death warrants – all of these factors contributed to the origins and course of these operations.

One of the great ironies of political mass murder is that its perpetrators – whether the political leaders or the actual executioners – assert the meaning of their own lives through the utter denigration of the meaning of the lives of their victims. The role of meaning in mass violence has been stressed in particular by the historian/psychologist/political scientist Jacques Semelin, in his description of massacre as an ‘act of purification’ in the service of imaginary constructions of friends and enemies, and the often sacred understanding of the cause. For Semelin:

‘Identity [in terms of the ‘friend-enemy dissociation’] supplies the framework within which the process of violence will take shape. The desire for purity toughens this identitarian framework by grafting on to it a theme of religion or secular sacredness […] The need for security, in phase with the context of crisis that led to the development of the imaginary construct, makes it urgent to move into action.’[6]

Why should one visit Butovo? Like Auschwitz, it serves little cautionary purpose: it is highly unlikely that these events will occur again in Russia. One should visit Butovo to give some dignity to those who died and were buried there, to assert the meaning of their lives. For, unlike the way in which the death penalty is implemented in developed countries today, as a sombre occasion whereby the condemned is treated with dignity and respect (even if one thinks the death penalty is barbaric), the victims buried in places like Butovo were disposed of as rubbish. They truly were like the ‘weeds’ that resulted from the ‘gardening’ process in which the Soviet state was engaged, in its attempt to cultivate a harmonious, beautiful socialist future.[7] To die like that is to die under a most direct assertion that one’s life has ceased to matter, and that it has been largely purposeless.

In that sense perhaps, Butovo and places like it represent the sites of a nightmarish scenario for all of us, in more than just the obvious sense. It is a basic human psychological need to construct meaning and purpose for our lives, and to interpret events accordingly. This, however, raises the question of how we deal with doubt, with ambiguity. I read Straw Dogs a few years ago, the best-known work by the public philosopher John Gray. I like Gray’s works, largely because they are understandable in addition to being well-written, and they are challenging for those of us not as well versed in the history of philosophical thought as we’d like to be (this seems very confusing to me). Gray’s philosophy can be neatly summed up as the assertion that life has no meaning and purpose – or at least not intrinsically, not apart from that which is constructed through myth.[8] Reading this book left me feeling uncomfortable, for once fully self-aware of and challenged on one’s own mental constructions, it is difficult to rely on them again so assuredly.

History provides very many examples of how religious and political movements have reacted bullishly and violently to any challenge to the security of their ideas. The Soviet state, with its near-absolute intolerance of dissent, of ‘other-thinkers’ (инакомышлящие), is but one extreme example. To accept doubt as a virtue is not something that is generally encouraged in our societies, even openly tolerant ones. However, one of the important lessons of history is surely that healthy doses of doubt are important for our societies as well as for us individually. Encouraging doubt, challenging entrenched opinions, is a basic function of a humanities education. Doubt should not lead to the inability to act, or to lying in bed for three hours in the morning wondering if there’s any point in getting up. Religious faiths, for example, are supposed to be about faith (which presupposes doubt), not absolute and unquestioning truth. The benefits of living with doubt are to challenge us to examine and accept our own frailties and insecurities, to be prepared to accept useful criticism, and to help prevent the type of processes that lead to the annihilation of others.



[1] Владимир Кузьмин, «Владимир Путин посетил Бутовский полигон, где похоронены жертвы массовых расстрелов», Российская газета, 31 октября 2007. <> Accessed 22 May 2013.

[2] On the validity of the term ‘terror’ in this context, see David L. Hoffmann, Cultivating the Masses. Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011, p.239, and David R. Shearer, Policing Stalin’s Socialism. Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924-1953, New Haven, CN, and London: Yale University Press, 2009, p.286

[3] For excellent, and detailed, accounts of the process by which these operations were implemented, see Shearer, Policing Stalin’s Socialism, and Paul Hagenloh, Stalin’s Police. Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926-1941, Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

[4] See <> Accessed 23 May 2013

[5] For a detailed study of the executions at Butovo, see Karl Schlögel, Moscow 1937, London: Polity, 2012, pp.472ff.

[6] Jacques Semelin, Purify and Destroy. The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide, tr. Cynthia Schoch, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, pp.49-50.

[7] The analogy of modern states as ‘gardening’ states is that of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. See Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, Oxford: Polity Press, 1993, p.15.

[8] See the review of Gray’s most recent book by John Banville: <>


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The Sky’s the Limit: Moscow’s Skyscrapers



One of the ‘Seven Sisters,’ the former Ukraina hotel, now the Radisson, with the orange facade of Europe’s tallest building, Mercury City Tower, behind it. All pictures courtesy of my lovely Canon camera.

There are no skyscrapers in rural Limerick, in south-west Ireland, where I grew up. I used to refer to the tall brick chimney at the local creamery co-op as the ‘tower of Effin’ or the ‘Effin tower’ (not a profanity, I grew up in a place called Effin!), but it’s not exactly the same thing! However, skyscrapers have always fascinated me; as a schoolboy I used to wonder what it would be like to stand at the base of the World Trade Center in New York, or the Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago, and look up.

Skyscrapers impress and subconsciously terrify, and if you are afraid of heights, it can be a very conscious fear. They stand as primary symbols of modernity, capturing the vision, drive, technological ability, and no little hubris required to construct structures that push the boundaries of imagination and expand fields of vision.

Skyscrapers, in the words of the author of one of my favourite books, have ‘become a complex metaphor for all that is good and bad about contemporary life.’[1] Modernity, as students of modern history are well aware, is not all about creation and progress; rather, creation and destruction have been the two sides of its metaphorical coin. With advancements in science and technology has come greater scope for destruction. This dual tendency was emphatically underlined in New York in September 2001 when two of the great symbols of the modern world, passenger jet aircraft and skyscrapers, were used to such devastating effect.

Skyscrapers are controversial buildings. Whatever the practical reasons for their construction, they have always been envisaged as statements, even as works of art. However, they are imposed on a city and its people, and there’s nothing really ‘democratic’ about them. They are usually statements of the wealth, power, vanity and puerility of an individual or a corporation, and therefore symbols of capitalism’s might. Their eventual height, as in the case of the Empire State Building in New York, has often resulted from competition to build something taller than one’s rivals (in the case of the Empire State, taller than the Chrysler Building). When driven by political power, they are statements of a self-conscious awareness of the growing power or prestige of a city or country, and are physical embodiments of that vision. In the case of One World Trade Center in New York (still unfinished), the statement is one of resilience in the face of assault, but perhaps also (slightly cynically) a response to a shift in global economic might. This shift has resulted in a surge of skyscraper construction in Asia and the Middle East in recent years, the highest of which far outmatch those in the Western Hemisphere.

Whatever the purpose of their construction, and though there are certainly reasons for people to be angered by the imposition of supertall skyscrapers on their environment, they are nonetheless majestic structures. Like other art forms, their aesthetic value does not depend on their relation to a messy – and often very ugly – reality. In that sense, I think it’s possible to appreciate them even if one disagrees fundamentally with why and how they were built.

This is an important point to bear in mind when one considers Moscow’s skyscrapers. The skyscraper in its modern expression was originally an American architectural form, developed in Chicago and New York from the end of the nineteenth century. This form of construction was slow to catch on in other parts of the world in the first half of the twentieth-century, but was openly embraced in the Stalinist Soviet Union as a means of providing monumental form to the achievements and vision of the socialist/communist cause. In the early 1930s, construction of the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow was planned. Work was abandoned following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and the building was never resumed. The project was audacious: if built, it would have exceeded the Empire State Building in height by several hundred feet, and would still be amongst the tallest buildings in the world today. Instead, following the war, the ruling Communist Party decided to build eight skyscrapers around the city, seven of which were actually built.

There are, I think, three aspects of particular interest about the ‘Seven Sisters,’ as they are usually called. First, their style was inspired by some New York architecture. Bolsheviks were theorists of history’s dialectical resolution: the capitalist era contained within itself contradictions that would require, and had created the means of achieving, a higher, socialist, form of social organization, building on the basis of the previous historical era. These Stalinist skyscrapers would borrow in style and construction technique from the urban heart of the capitalist world, but would supposedly point to a much higher purpose. In addition, they were constructed during the early years of the Cold War, when the Soviet leadership, conscious of the central role of the Soviet people in the defeat of Nazism, wished to project the status and permanency of their country as a new power in no way inferior to the Western powers, especially the US.

Second, the Sisters are in effect cathedrals of communism. The Russian Orthodox Church projected its glory of God, and its temporal power (the Orthodox Church was the state religion of Tsarist Russia), through beautiful tall cupolas, topped with crosses; the cathedrals of communism replaced the cupolas and crosses with spires and stars of socialism. The Bolsheviks replaced one state creed with another, and Marxism-Leninism provides perhaps the foremost example of what can be considered a secular ‘political religion.’[2] Reflecting the alleged notion of the ‘binary’ nature of Russian culture,[3] the Palace of the Soviets was to have been built on the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was blown up in 1931 (and rebuilt in the mid-1990s).

Third, the buildings are truly beautiful. They were built with the labour of GULAG inmates and German prisoners-of-war, and they were built to glorify the cause of a state that had intentionally or through criminal neglect brought about the deaths of millions of its citizens in peacetime. The cause failed, but the buildings remain as testaments to the high-minded goal of the Soviet regime. This goal could have been fully embodied only in artistic form.


The main building of Moscow State University, completed just after Stalin’s death in 1953, is the tallest and most dramatic of the ‘Seven Sisters.’ Perched atop the Sparrow Hills overlooking the city below, it stands at nearly 800 feet and was the tallest building in Europe until 1990. It remains the tallest education building in the world.


Spire of the Ukraina.

155426_3128359136571_1838888056_nWith the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revival of capitalism, and the need for the Russian economy to ‘modernize’ and diversify, political authorities are attempting to turn Moscow into an important hub of international finance. West of the city centre is the new ‘Moscow City,’ which means new skyscrapers.


The ‘stacked boxes’ that form the two ‘Capital city’ towers, ‘Moscow’ and ‘St. Petersburg’. ‘Moscow’ is the taller, at 990 feet.


The Ostankino TV tower, at 1,772 feet. It’s not technically a skyscraper, as it’s not a building, but in urban centres, towers are statements as well.


[1] Judith Dupré, Skyscrapers. A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings, New York, 2008, p.6.

[2] On political religions theory, see especially Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion, tr. George Staunton, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.

[3] See Iu.M. Lotman and B. A. Uspenskii, ‘The Role of Dual Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture (Up to the end of the Eighteenth Century)’, in Iu.M. Lotman and B.A. Uspenskii, The Semiotics of Russian Culture, ed. by Ann Shukman, Ann Arbor, 1984, pp.4-5.

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Is Political Violence Wrong?

Two months ago, I was looking through some files of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union during the 1920s in the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow. I didn’t find anything of use for my research. I was looking at short notes sent by the Court to the authorities of particular prisons informing them that such a person(s) had been sentenced to be shot, and that they should have the executions carried out. (The death penalty was common around the world at that time, and the Soviet Criminal Code of 1922 suggested it for a number of offences against the state and public order. Interestingly, murder was not punishable by death.) These were then followed by notes sent by the Court to a local morgue to request that the body or bodies be taken away. I was going to reel up the microfilm and move on, but I felt compelled to keep reading. The documents were formulaic and bureaucratic, which was precisely why they interested me. I was looking at the bureaucracy of killing.

I’m used to seeing protocols of meetings of the political police whereby lists of people have the word «Расстрелять» (shoot) written after their names, but these documents were more mundane, more ‘real’, and hence more disturbing. Maybe that day, or the day after, a man (these cases concerned men) was going to be walked out to a wall somewhere and his life would be deliberately taken. His lifeless body would fall to the ground, awkward and ugly. The body would have to be taken away and disposed of. I was a witness to part of this process, even after all these years. I’m used to reading about death through the discursive constructions utilized to justify, excuse, and perpetuate it, and that’s basically what my work is about. What I was reading here was the concrete reality of killing and its practicalities, and I was surprised that I had rarely thought about that aspect of Soviet state violence.

Violence is an almost permanent theme throughout history, and we continue to live in a time of considerable political violence. We are also now witnessing forms of violence in the 21st century European Union that we thought had been left behind: citizens taking to the streets to protest and finding themselves in conflict with the police.

The question that I’m asking here, and to which my response cannot be definitive, is whether instances of political violence can be judged to be right or wrong, justifiable or not. It’s not really a question about history as such, but I would like to bring my perspective to the question as an historian who works on the theme of violence.

Let me begin by asserting the legitimacy of the question: the answer is not obvious. We live in parts of the world where the dominant discourse typically (though, importantly, not always) postulates that violence is wrong, and condemns those perceived to be responsible. We assume that peace-keeping and peace negotiations are good things, and should happen. When the ‘Arab spring’ broke out two years ago, the initial reaction of the Western world was to stress the importance of the violence coming to an end, for there to be negotiations. When another deadly round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred last November, the priority of the world’s powers, again, was for the violence to end immediately, on both sides.

Political violence is, actually, very political. Some lives are more valuable than others. I don’t agree with this, but it is an unspoken assumption of international relations and even domestic politics. It appears that electorates in most advanced countries are not overly concerned about this.

We need to understand what the term ‘political violence’ actually means. The standard understanding is the infliction of bodily harm on a person, and perhaps also to property, for, or as a consequence of, a political purpose. There is, however, no reason why the definition should be confined to physical actions. Violence can also be considered to be structural, inscribed into the structures of socio-economic and political relationships. The concept of ‘structural violence’ can be traced to the sociologist Johann Galtung, and has been popularized more recently by the well-known intellectual as ‘objective violence.’[1] Galtung, in an influential 1969 article, argued that the absence of action can also be considered a form of violence when that action is possible, and necessary, to alleviate suffering and death.[2]

We all have some idea of the shocking realities of global income inequalities and the scale of poverty and hunger. In 2010, 925 million people were calculated to live in hunger.[3] This situation is perhaps indicative of a subconsciously racialized view of the world, despite all of our overt hostility to racism: the world’s poorest, after all, are not white. Poverty, however, is not ‘natural’ in some social-Darwinist sense. I don’t know how to tackle the problems of poverty, of unequal access to resources and wealth on a global scale, but I do know that they are solvable. We managed to put humans on the moon over forty years ago, and I am sure that we could sort out most of the problems on this planet if the political will were in existence. In reality it’s not, and so the problems persist.

If this constitutes violence – and I accept that it is – then who or what is to blame? I’m certainly no expert on this, and the answers are surely complex.  In addition to corrupt regimes in some poor countries, a foremost reason must surely be capitalism as it operates on a global scale. In this sense, capitalism kills more people than communism or fascism ever did because it helps to cause or sustain enormous structural violence, although one is not likely to read that in school history textbooks.

Capitalism – and the liberal-democratic political forms that allow it to flourish – is more deadly than communism or fascism (though conventional wisdom tells us otherwise). The latter two dictatorial, ‘totalitarian’ political forms are relatively unstable – inherently unstable in the case of fascism – or at least not likely to last for long if sustained violent campaigns are consistent features of their operation. Capitalism as a means of socio-economic and indeed political organization, by contrast, rests to a considerable extent on what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained through the concept of ‘hegemony’, by which he meant the ability of the dominant class to represent its interests in such a way that they are accepted as ‘natural’ or ‘common sense’ by society in general. The concept is similar to Michel Foucault’s explanation of how knowledge in any era or sphere is related to power in the form of discursive ‘regimes of truth.’ Living in the capitalist truth regime means that basic concepts of liberalism, private ownership of means of production, free trade, and the (endless) pursuit of personal profit as something to be valued positively, are generally held to be ‘natural.’ Of course, one can read or hear alternative viewpoints all the time, but we’re talking here about dominant ideas in a society.

This is not a left-wing rant. I may be a self-conscious socialist (though not a Marxist or any other qualifying ‘–ist’), but I think the above observations are fairly neutral. The reason I make them is to draw attention to the ways in which we perceive political violence, which again can be highly political.

Our perceptions of political violence are influenced to a very significant extent by our assessments of those who commit it, as opposed to the actual violence itself. When focus is put on the actual violence itself, regardless by whom committed, our attitudes do tend to change. For instance, the standard narrative of the Vietnam War is that TV and other media coverage of the actual violence effected a pivotal shift in American public opinion about the war. Overall, though, our societies tend to associate ‘crimes against humanity’ with oppressive, dictatorial regimes. To take the most obvious examples, the enormous violence committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes are inextricably linked with the persons of Hitler and Stalin in ways that are not rational, even (still) in scholarly works. It’s probably not an exaggeration to state that the general popular explanation of the Nazi and Stalinist phenomena is that Hitler and Stalin were terrible, evil men, perhaps with some personality disorders. By contrast, a political leader like Barack Obama is generally perceived to be very ‘human’, a family man who fist-pumps cleaners (I’m sure there just happened to be a camera there) and plays basketball. He is ‘one of us.’ Despite the increasing disquiet in some media quarters about American drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the CIA’s rationalization of these, or the devastating, even genocidal consequences likely to result from sanctions against Iran,[4] it was quite easy for most liberal-minded people to shelve these concerns – that is, if they were aware of them – and rejoice in his recent re-election.

Ok, now to try to work out where I’m going with this! Let’s return to the question. I contend that political violence is wrong, but that violence may be necessary under certain extreme circumstances for protection.

Political violence is rarely carried out for its own sake, or presented in terms of naked self-interest; it is usually justified by its practitioners as necessary for the salvation of a greater number of others. The Bolsheviks in early Soviet Russia provided the foremost expression of this paradox: we kill the class enemies, declared one Chekist (political police employee), because ‘we value and love life too much.’[5] The Bolsheviks believed that through violence in the service of establishing socialism, they would help to eradicate violence itself from human relations.

The problem of political violence is largely one of moral righteousness, as well as ideological and cultural arrogance: ‘the purpose absolves me of this crime against others.’ We see this consistently throughout history and in our own time. Violence may be effective. However, because violence strikes at the core of our moral being, because the act of severe violence is not assessed in rational, economistic terms by most people – and is actually utterly repulsive to most of us – anything resembling ‘excessive’ violence is not only counter-productive but morally corrosive.

Whatever later Marxist theorists of violence (such as Frantz Fanon or even Žižek) might say/have said about revolutionary violence as a means of developing the revolutionary subject’s consciousness,[6] violence (against people) corrodes the ideals of social justice, because it is the ultimate injustice. Yet social injustices form another large part of the problem of political violence: people don’t commit political violence because they are ‘evil’, or simply brainwashed tools of some crazy ideology, but usually because they are acting against some perceived injustice. (The fact that it is probably impossible to reason or negotiate with truly fanatical terrorists who fight for unacceptable causes should not obscure this completely.) This is why the standard calls for peace sometimes seem so empty: we must really examine and address the reasons for violence, insofar as we can and should. Furthermore, we must expand our understanding of violence to accommodate notions of structural injustices, and make this an issue of political weight. Democratically-elected politicians, after all, are obsessed with public opinion.

For left-wing revolutionary activists/thinkers and movements today, some of whom aim to re-apply and/or adapt the thought of such figures as Lenin,[7] the question of violence may become an immediate one, if it has not already. Should conflict with the police be encouraged? Should bank buildings be burned down? Should a revolution be physically fought for, come what may?

I think not, and I think the lessons of the past bear this out. Violence requires a ‘hardening’ of hearts, and it is not easy to ‘soften’ them again afterwards. Besides, it is much easier to destroy than to replace. The most profound revolutions tend to result from an evolutionary process, because they depend upon changes in ideas and culture. This is where a profound revolution must take place, and academics must play a crucial role in this. Why? Academics are paid to read, think, write, and teach. It’s a privilege, but it also brings responsibility. In some respects I think the discussion in the academic world about open access journal publishing and other means of better ensuring public return on taxpayers’ investment in academia is somewhat misplaced: we must accept that what we write in journals and monographs is not often appealing to the wider public, so we need to complement these bedrocks of academic endeavour with a greater willingness to communicate with a wide public audience through other, more accessible means, and to really adapt what we know and understand to what is currently important.

[1] Slavoj Žižek, Violence, London: Profile Books, 2008.

[2] Johann Galtung, ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol.6, No.3 (1969), pp.167-191.

[5] Quoted in James Ryan, Lenin’s Terror. The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence, London and New York: Routledge, 2012, p.115.

[6] See Christopher Finlay, ‘Violence and Revolutionary Subjectivity: Marx to Žižek’, European Journal of Political Theory, Vol.5, No.4 (2006), pp.373-97.

[7] See for example Sebastian Budgen et al, Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.


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Why History Matters

By James Ryan

Last August, I went to Krakow on holiday. It was the perfect city-break: a beautiful old city, bustling but small enough to walk around comfortably; welcoming but foreign enough to realize that you’re away from home; hot and sunny in summer; and cheap Ryanair flights. I didn’t deliberate for long when choosing a holiday destination, and the deciding factor wasn’t just a long-held desire to visit Poland. It was Auschwitz. Located about fifty kilometres from the city centre, or an hour’s bus journey, lies the town of Oświęcim, renamed Auschwitz by its German occupiers during the Second World War. It is the most infamous place on earth.

I work as an academic historian, researching state violence in Soviet Russia/the Soviet Union. I have spent almost a decade attempting to understand why and how highly idealist political activists come to practice and justify violence on an enormous scale. It makes sense that I had a strong desire to visit Auschwitz (even on my holidays). History for me – as for probably every historian in the world – isn’t just work, it’s a passion. I realized this when I was in school and wondering what I wanted to be when I grew up. For some reason, I really liked learning all those dates from the Renaissance period, and thought it would be a lot of fun to teach history myself. Then I thought it would be even better if I could continue studying it as well as teaching, and become a lecturer. When I mentioned this to my teacher, he told me that I would need to do a PhD. I didn’t know what a PhD was, but quickly found out that it came with a title and decided that I wanted one!

The reason I mention this is not narcissism, but because within a few months of having my professional life planned out in my head, I began to have serious doubts. I liked history, but I wasn’t sure what the point of it was. Why not try to become a ‘real’ doctor, or a psychologist, or something more practical? Or, if I did want a more academic route, why not study something more intellectually stimulating, like philosophy? I’m glad now that I stuck with my original instinct, but those doubts have had an important effect on me. They have ensured that I have always approached the discipline of history with the belief that it should be more than just fun (and anyway I’d rather watch a film or sport for fun), that it should yield important information and understanding, that it does actually matter.

So, does history really matter, and if so, why? There is, unfortunately, a particular need for historians to address this question today. In a climate of financial cut-backs, disciplines in the humanities are more likely to be targeted than the salaries and bonuses of university presidents/vice-chancellors and their retinue. In Ireland, the Department of Education is considering the removal of history as a compulsory subject up to junior cycle (GCSE equivalent) in secondary school, which would likely mean that a majority of Irish students would enter adulthood without any meaningful understanding of national, or global, history. In this context, on the pages of Ireland’s leading broadsheet in recent months appeared an article that argued not only that history is nothing more than mythology, but that it’s actually harmful (The Irish Times, 9 June 2012 ).

It might sometimes be thought that historians live in the past, desperate to work out the details of events long since completed. This would be a mistake, for history as an academic discipline has meaning through the present and its effects on the future. Each of us is an historical being. We can only live in the present, we can only envisage the future, and we can only draw on the past for experience and guidance. We are narrative beings, constructing stories about ourselves in an effort to create a sense of individual identity, with our sense of ‘who we are’ derived from who and where we have come from, what we have done, and what we would like to do. Most of us like to think that life isn’t just a series of random events, that there is some sense of ‘destiny’ or purpose to the universe and our individual lives. What is true of us individually is also true of us collectively, however the collective is defined.

History is certainly potentially dangerous, and one can argue intelligently that historical awareness is perhaps more dangerous than historical ignorance. The poet and philosopher Paul Valery (1871-1945) once observed: ‘History is the most dangerous product the chemistry of the intellect has ever concoted…It sets people dreaming, it intoxicates them, spawns in them false memories…keeps old wounds open’. History is often, and has often been, used and abused by those in positions of political power.

However, we cannot avoid the past and should not attempt to do so, for it has formed us in ways that we might not even realize. Our cultures, our political institutions, our political attitudes, our political ideologies, and our individual identities are all bound up with the past. For example, our cherished ‘Western’ institutions and concepts of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ are historically conditioned, and it is useful for us to understand their origins. If modern democracy owes its origins to the French Revolution, then it arose with ‘the despotism of freedom against tyranny’, to use Robespierre’s words, the same words that one Bolshevik deliberately chose as the title of a newspaper article in 1918 when justifying the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia. Perhaps the most striking and disturbing reality of post-Second World War global history is the willingness of the self-conscious champions of freedom, led by the ‘land of the free’ itself, to risk global annihilation in pursuit of this ‘freedom’. They should have learned their history.

What does it mean to learn from the past? The famous expression of the historian George Santayana, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, is frequently cited in defence of History. It is, in itself, inadequate.

First, historians don’t just remember the past, they interrogate it. We all remember the past, but it is how we remember it that matters. It is a natural instinct to suppress bad memories, and national histories are often remembered in more or less sanitized, or at least politicized, form. This is sometimes quite deliberate, as indicated by a commission that was established in Russia by President Medvedev in 2009 (and dissolved earlier this year) to combat historical ‘falsification’, but which was seen by many historians and others as a means of enforcing a whitewash of the activities of the Red Army during the Second World War. The purpose is to allow citizens to tap into a sense of national belonging, of national achievement and triumph, to generate loyalty to the state, and to further legitimize the incumbents of state power. The discipline of History, by contrast, should teach us the complexity of the past and, by extension, help us to appreciate the complexity of our own times. The greatest danger associated with history is not historical awareness itself, but the absence of a well-educated, well-trained, professional, independent, and articulate historical profession that assumes the responsibility of enlightening (and when necessary correcting) such awareness.

Second, Santayana’s expression presupposes that there are lessons to be learned from the past. However, these lessons are not always clear. For a start, the mistakes of the past are not always agreed upon, let alone the lessons to be learned. Take the figure of Lenin, for example, on whose political thought I based my PhD. For some, he was the devil incarnate, responsible for setting in motion much of the human carnage of the last century. For others, he represented the purity of the socialist revolution before its ‘betrayal’ by Stalin. This brings us back to Auschwitz. Santayana’s expression is now inscribed above the door of one of the buildings in the camp. Looking up at it last August, I had to look past dozens of young Israeli soldiers in their uniforms. I doubt the lessons that they took with them that day were the same as those felt almost instinctively by so many of us as we walked through the corridors in reverential silence, past horrific and poignant images.

History is the story of human existence. There really is little that is beyond the scope of the historian, and as a discipline it is especially well-suited to cross-disciplinary perspectives. It makes sense for the historian to read up on philosophy, sociology, political science, economics, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, linguistics, geography, etc. It is the most comprehensive of the humanities disciplines, and there is no reason why it should not be as intellectually stimulating as any other. It is crucially important to study history, to engage with it deeply, precisely because its significance is rarely fully understood and its lessons are not always agreed upon – nor necessarily should they be. History is contestable. Historians are entrusted with interpreting the past as well as recording it, and these interpretations are then contested and debated by others. History is like a mirror that we hold up to ourselves, individually and collectively. It is intended to encourage reflection, especially on the things we don’t like to see. Those who study it gain a great depth of perspective on what it is to be human, and how societies function. Whether or not students of history (or of any other discipline) are able to change the world for the good of others, knowledge and depth of understanding are inherently good things to have: they enrich our lives. It is unfortunate that all too often historians are content with an ‘ivory-tower’ existence, or brief appearances on TV documentaries as means of ‘reaching out’ beyond the confines of academia. We, as historians, have an enormous amount to contribute to contemporary debates, on a wide variety of issues, and I think we should be a lot more assertive in this regard.


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