Interview with Alfred J. Rieber, author of Pushkin Prize 2016 shortlisted book 'Stalin and the Struggle for Supremacy in Eurasia'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack

What first interested you in Russia?

It was really by chance. I had no Russian background. But I had a friend at Colgate as a freshman who had been on football team, was injured and turned to Chinese studies. He said there will be two great challenges to the US in the coming century: China, I have that; the other is Russia, why don’t you take that? I became the first Russian area major at Colgate. My mother was stunned; she wanted me to become a lawyer. For graduate studies I chose the Russian Institute at Columbia, and wanted to study Soviet foreign policy. Because of the lack of access to archives in the USSR, Philip Mosley suggested I approach the subject through the activities of the French Communist party during the Second World War. It was a brilliant suggestion. I went on a Ford Foundation fellowship to France for my dissertation, By chance I encountered Robert Aron, who was working on a similar project. He shared his findings, invited me to his apartment, and laid out secret documents given to him by friends. I worked there, and his maid came and served me tea every afternoon. It was one of the greatest acts of scholarly generosity I ever encountered. He gave me the Star of David worn by his father during occupation as a token of our friendship. My first job was a one year replacement at Colorado State University. Right away I loved teaching.

When did you travel to the Soviet Union?

In Jan 1956, after it had just opened up to tourists. The Ford Foundation paid for a full month’s travel and stay for me and my wife. It was a revelatory experience. I made friends who would last for the next 40 years, and opened up a world I did not anticipate: the plurality of life which went against the grain of a totalitarian model. I was determined to go back, and was then selected as one of 20 Americans to study at in the first year of the Soviet-American cultural exchange. At Moscow State University, I had drawn up a research plan but was told accessing the foreign ministry archives would be difficult. I was advised that if I was interested in foreign policy, I should shift to the nineteenth century and go to Lenin library archives. It was a treasure trove that opened up new possibilities.

What inspired you to write a book about Stalin and Eurasia?

 Most important, the Soviet archives opened up after 1991. So I could return to my earlier interest. But this time I took the longer view. The study developed as a sequel to a book I published 2 years ago, The Struggle for Eurasian Borderlands. From the Rise of the Early Modern Empires to the End of World War I - a comparative history of the Hapsburg, Ottoman, Russian, Iranian and Xing empires. It was a huge enterprise which took me 20 years to write. By the end, I realised I couldn’t stop at the end of the First World War. A new phase in the struggle over the borderlands had opened up with the creation of the Soviet Union.

What is your principal conclusion?

It’s the idea of continuity in Russian foreign policy. Stalin was a product of the borderlands: he came from Georgia, his early career and his exposure to Marxism was there. This shaped his outlook. Yet as began to build the Soviet state and take charge of its foreign policy, he faced many of the same problems as his tsarist predecessors. In the nineteen thirties, the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan once again challenged Russia for domination of the borderlands. I think the struggle of three great powers: should be understood in terms of the conflict between three transformative ideologies. Each of the three powers sought to reshape the politics and social life of the borderlands in radical ways that did not exist before. Like his tsarist predecessors, Stalin tried alternative strategies: collective security with the West, then separate deals with Germany and Japan, and after the Nazi attack a Grand Alliance with the U.S. and Great Britain. I interpret the coming of the Cold War as the post-war expectations of the Big Three were not met in reality. Stalin wanted to preserve the Grand Alliance on his terms. He sought to prevent the resurgence of Germany and Japan, gain Western recognition of his domination over the borderlands conquered by the Red army as a Soviet sphere of influence and obtain a $6bn loan from the US to rebuild the shattered Soviet economy. The Allies expected the liberated the borderlands would be free to choose their own form of government, that the Soviet Union would become a respectable member of the international community through the UN. They were reluctant to extend credits as they interpreted Stalin’s transformation of the borderlands as a first step in a new phase of Soviet expansion.

Were there any particular finds that surprised you?

I can’t say I found a document in the archives that made me cry out “eureka!” It was the accumulation of a vast number of documents I found in the archive of the Communist Party, the foreign ministry archives and the Archive of the Russian Federation. For example, in Stalin’s personal file in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, there is correspondence between Beria and Stalin on the internal situation as the Red Army reconquered the borderlands. Beria was reporting every fortnight on “traitors and saboteurs”, giving a picture of massive disaffection, a virtual civil war taking place within the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The depth, variety and difficulty of re-sovietising these liberated areas was revealed in a startling way.

Are there any resonances for you in today’s situation?

The name Putin doesn’t appear in my book but a lot of people who have commented mention it. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the loss of all the borderlands. It was an extraordinary moment in world history. It happened without the outbreak of a war. Since then, there has been an attempt not so much to reconstruct the Soviet Union as to make certain the borderlands do not become potentially hostile. This is an aspect of Putin’s policy that has been under-estimated. It is expansionist, there are aggressive moves but, let’s remember, the borderlands have been areas of historic, strategic and economic significance to Russia since Peter the Great. It would be a mistake to ignore these continuities. There have been unfortunately violations of international law as we read it, but you cannot expect a former great power to lose its entire security wall and not try to reclaim some of it.

What brought you to work in Budapest?

It was a snap decision. The University of Pennsylvania was a centre of Russian and Soviet studies that I’d helped to build up. Then a new administration in early 1990s began to cut back on appointments in the Russian area. I began to feel a lot of my institutional work was being dismantled. One day reading The New York Review of Books, my eye caught an ad for chair of the history department at the Central European University. I liked Budapest when I was there briefly early in 1956, and it was a great opportunity. I applied, gave a lecture, was interviewed and hired. It began my second career as an institution builder in reconstructing a history dept. It was very exciting time. Stressing the idea of comparative history in the teaching curriculum, I began to see the possibilities of studying the way in which the struggle over the borderlands had affected individual countries. So with the help of Soviet archives, I wrote monographs on Finland, Romania, and Hungary.

What plans do you have for your next book?

I have a collection of essays that I’ve written on Russian imperial history due soon, called “Economic development and social fragmentation in imperial Russia”. After that, I do have lots of plans. I don’t think I can resist returning to pre-revolutionary Russia. I think I’ve had enough of Stalin and Communist politics; but who knows? My files are still crammed with material on the long term struggle over the borderlands.

Interview by Andrew Jack