I study the history of Russia, the Soviet Union, and the people who lived there who were not Russian.
As a person on the left who is against essentialist readings of Russian and Turkish history—the brutal Russian, the terrible Turk, or the godless Communist—I’ve gotten my fair share of criticism when I’ve tried to explain why these countries did awful things like Stalin’s Great Terror, the Holodomor in Ukraine, or the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians.
Putin’s fantasies about Nazis running Kyiv, the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state, and the fact that there wasn’t a Ukrainian nation that wanted to be free of Russia could have affected his decision to invade, which turned out to be a bad one.
The problem is that neither Moscow nor Washington has fully understood that the international security system set up after World War II cannot be changed or kept in place on the battlefields of Ukraine.
Both the US and Russia are guilty of what has been labelled “imperial overreach,” trying to dominate other countries or regions beyond their capacity.
Every city in Russia and Ukraine has monuments to past wars and the millions sacrificed to the ambitions of leaders who chose to realize their objectives with guns, bombs, and bayonets. Now that brutal battles are going on in the pointless war between Russia and Ukraine led by President Vladimir Putin, many of these monuments in Russian towns and cities show that people are against the war and the terrible things that are happening because of it. In a country where open defiance of the government has become dangerous, people protest with flowers placed stealthily at the feet of Taras Shevchenko or Nikolai Gogol. The so-called “flower protests” show that another Russia is different from official Russia and has always been there.
I study the history of Russia, the Soviet Union, and the people who lived there who were not Russian. I was born in the United States to Armenian immigrants from the Czarist and Ottoman empires. I have spent the last 60 years as a scholar teaching and writing about the troubled history of the rulers and colonized people of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, and Ankara. While researching and writing within the standards of good scholarship, I have lived and worked in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, and Turkey and have consistently sought to demonstrate to whoever listened to my lectures or read my writing the complexities and contradictions of history.
Without attempting to justify or rationalize the horrific repression repeatedly deployed by czars, sultans, communists, and successive authoritarians such as Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, I have noted the aspirations of ordinary people for greater freedom, well-being, and security. In these countries, despite the dangers of openly protesting, people have repeatedly taken to the streets to demand their rights—in 1905, 1917, and 1989–91 in Russia; in 1908 in the Ottoman lands; and repeatedly in the Turkish Republic—only to be beaten down by political elites dedicated to their own narrow, self-serving interests. History has not been kind to those living in those empires and their successor states.
As a person on the left who is against essentialist readings of Russian and Turkish history—the brutal Russian, the terrible Turk, or the godless Communist—I’ve gotten my fair share of criticism when I’ve tried to explain why these countries did terrible things like Stalin’s Great Terror, the Holodomor in Ukraine, or the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. Trying to explain such horrors, not as resulting from the permanent character of a people but as phenomena growing out of particular historical conjunctions and contexts, has brought down the wrath of critics.
When I wrote my first book, The Baku Commune, about the revolution of 1917–18 in the oil capital of the Russian Empire, I was called a “bourgeois falsifier of Azerbaijan’s history” by the Soviet government. Georgians said that, as an Armenian, I was “incompetent” to write The Making of the Georgian Nation, another book of mine. And when I tried to tell my fellow Armenians that the Young Turks killed and deported hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Assyrians during World War I, it was the final step in a long process of making them look bad.