An Interview with Rex Wade, Expert on Russian History

Posted: August 18, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Anna Maurer

Rex Wade
Rex Wade
Photo by Evan Cantwell

University Professor Rex Wade of the History and Art History Department focuses his teaching and research on Russia and the Russian Revolution. At Mason since 1986, he has written and edited numerous books and articles on these and related topics.

With Russia and Georgia recently in the news, his thoughts about the revolution, history and their relevance today are particularly timely.

Why should people be interested in studying the revolution and other historical events?

Someone once said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. I would put it differently: that those who forget (or never studied) history are much more likely to mess up.

This is true in the small, particular instances and on the big issues. Knowing the history of a place or people is essential to understanding who they are, why they behave as they do, how they are most likely to respond to opportunities or crises, and what is possible in regards to dealing with them.

For example, spreading democracy has been a popular notion recently, but it needs a firm grounding in historical understanding of the complex historical, cultural and institutional factors that are the prerequisites to creating democracy in a country.

Ignoring that led to simplistic assumptions about what was possible in Iraq and our failure to properly prepare for what would follow the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Defeating a third-rate military power was predictable, but planning for what followed took both knowledge of the history and culture of the specific place and an understanding of the broader issues involved in creating a viable political system, especially a democratic one. Only historical knowledge can provide those perspectives.

What is one fact you have learned about the revolution that you wish other people would recognize?

I would have people realize what a complex event the revolution was, really a set of overlapping revolutions — political, social, cultural, economic, gender, ethno-national — taking place in a very compressed time period.

Then, from that, look for complexity in every historical event and contemporary situation. I’d ask them to accept what happened, whether we can reconstruct it or not, and to accept that there really are “facts” of past events, but that asking different questions of them can produce very different, but legitimate, results.

For example, I recently read two essays on the Women’s Battalion, an all-women military unit formed during the revolution. Both authors complain about what they see as failure to appreciate the significance of Russia’s women warriors. “Significance,” however, can depend on what question you are asking.

They are correct that the Women’s Battalion is important if one is using it to write about women or gender with implications for issues of equality, identity, citizenship, patriotism and similar topics.

It is not important, however, if one’s subject is the war and the actual fighting on the Eastern Front or the political outcome of the revolution. History is complex and multilayered, and the questions that you ask of it shape your results and your understanding of its “importance.”

Who is your favorite unknown figure from the revolution?

Irakli Tsereteli: an attractive personality and committed democrat who led the democratic center during the revolution. Had he and his associates been successful in their effort to end Russia’s entanglement in World War I, Russia would have had a good chance of coming out of the revolution with a democratic regime committed to the far-reaching social reforms that political stability in Russia required.

In that case, the history of the entire world would have been different. He has largely disappeared from general histories of Russia — the loser’s obscurity. There also is a delicious irony about him: he, like Stalin, was an ethnic Georgian, so one can speculate that either way the war ended, Russia was destined to be run for a critical period by a Georgian.

You have a reputation for being a culturally sensitive historian. What role did women and minorities play during the revolution and why is it important to include that in your scholarship? Or why is it often left out of historical examination?

As I said before, one of the eternally fascinating things about the Russian Revolution is that it actually was a series of overlapping revolutions.

Women entered the public sphere during the revolution in ways and to an extent that was unprecedented. They were involved in all kinds of public organizations and activities, sometimes taking leadership roles (although one should not exaggerate here — it remained a patriarchal society).

They created organizations to push specifically women’s issues. In July 1917 women got the right to vote on an equal and universal basis, making Russia the first European country and one of the first in the world to do so (before even the United States).

Equally or even more sweeping was the revolution among ethnic minorities. Imperial Russia contained about 100 important ethnicities. During the revolution, ethnic/nationality groups opted first for autonomy and then for independence, and nationality-based armies fought for independence in the civil war of 1918-21.

This had two lasting results. First, the Soviet Union was formed as a federal state based on ethnic territorial federalist principles, basically along the nationality fault lines of the revolution.

Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 separate republics along those same lines. It is a good example of how events of the revolution are still important to contemporary issues a century later, both regionally and worldwide.

When did you first become interested in history and what prompted your interest?

I really do not remember. I’ve always liked reading about the past and faraway places, in any form: fiction, formal history, archeology, anything. As I learned more history I came to appreciate its complexity and the rich texture of the past, and wanted to learn still more.

I think that perhaps the mindset of a good historian is one also congenial to my own, which tends toward looking at all sides of an issue, looking at what validity might be found on each side of an issue (or not), and fascination with trying to resolve complex problems (which most historical projects entail).

Russian history and the revolution became my specialties largely as a matter of accident — where and when I was in school, who was teaching, scholarship possibilities, etc. — coupled with the fact that Russia seemed at the time to be an exciting, complex place to study with an interesting set of questions to address. Which has turned out to be true.

How does your research engage your teaching and how does your teaching engage your research?

For me, teaching and research are closely related because in both I’m trying to understand, analyze and explain to others what happened and why, how it matters and usually how complex things are. A person brings, I think, the same mental practices to both teaching and research, and thus they reinforce each other.

If you cannot get excited about the one, it is hard to be excited about the other. If you cannot explain something clearly to undergraduates, you probably cannot communicate your scholarship to readers and vice versa. That is the way it works for me, anyway, and is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching undergraduates.

People ask me, “Don’t you want to do more graduate seminars and less undergraduate teaching?” and my answer is “no.” Teaching undergraduates is just as close or closer to doing scholarly writing as teaching graduate students, and I enjoy doing it. I think that each makes me better at the other.

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