The Skalny Center has spent a lot of time looking backwards this year, commemorating historical events and coming to grips with their implications for the contemporary world. In a world in which historical lessons seem to be forgotten more readily than they are learned, looking backwards can provide a useful antidote to the general amnesia.
We began in 2017 with a series of lectures commemorating the Russian Revolution. This was one of fulcrums of modern world history, when the collapse of one of the great powers of Europe in the midst of the worst war the world had ever known led, by a series of improbable circumstances, to the seizure of power by a small, determined band of revolutionaries. After three years of civil war, the Bolsheviks set about transforming Russian society and declared war on the capitalist world economy. The first lecture, by Joshua Sanborn, emphasized the collapse of the Russian state during the First World War, showing how the declaration of martial law and the process of evacuating the borderlands – including, of course, Poland – caused ordinary administration to break down and spread chaos into the army’s rear. The revolution followed, not as the necessary culmination of intellectual trends in Russia or of developments in the world economy, but because the war disrupted the ability of the Tsar to control his army and his people.
Stephen Hanson offered a different view, which put Leninism at center stage. The distinctive feature of the Revolution, he argued, was that it empowered a revolutionary clique with a distinctive ideology. Lenin transformed Marxist critical theory into a political program, which spread over the next seven decades to pose an intellectual and political challenge to democracy and capitalism. The collapse of the Soviet state largely discredited this system of ideas, whose partisans are now almost extinct, and along the way it seemed to provide a glib confirmation of a neoliberal alternative. Hanson concluded that Ken Jowitt’s grim prediction had turned out to be prescient: the collapse of the Leninist ideological alternative would force America to come to grips with its own internal contradictions, and the result could be national populism.
Ronald Suny reminded us of an old joke about Russian optimism. The Russian pessimist, he told us, insists that things have reached such a pass that they simply could never be worse than they currently are. The Russian optimist raises a wry eyebrow. “Oh, yes,” he answers. “They can.” Suny wove a rich tapestry of the consequences of the Russian upheaval, tracing the social roots of support for the Bolsheviks, revisiting his path-breaking work on the Baku commune, and emphasizing the role of contingency in history. Leninism, he argued, does not explain everything; if it did, we would not need history, we could deduce what happened from a few well-worn texts. In fact, he argued, the stops and starts of Bolshevik policies were driven by pragmatic and opportunistic responses to their environment, and things could have turned out very differently. He emphasized the tragedy that the progressive ideas that motivated the revolutionaries’ supporters were largely marginalized by the bloody repression that followed and the eventual collapse in faith in socialism in the 1980s.
A panel commemorated the (approximately) twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, with Matthew Lenoe (History), Lisa Jakelski (Eastman School of Music), Annamaria Orla-Bukowska (Skalny Visiting Professor from Jagiellonian University in Krakow) and myself. Lenoe placed the Cold War in the larger historical context of the rise and fall of European supremacy in world politics, Jakelski traced out the threads of Cold War influences that emerged in parallel in music in the United States and Poland, Orla-Bukowska discussed the impact of the Cold War on ordinary life, and I discussed some things we have learned about the Cold War since it ended, as well as how it set the stage for the post-Cold War conflicts that we face in Europe today.
A final panel addressed some of the darkest episodes of 21st Century history on the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The panel turned to historical memory of the Holocaust, and consisted of Annamaria Orla-Bukowska (Skalny Visiting Professor from Jagiellonian University in Krakow), Bonnie Abrams, Director of the Center for Holocaust Awareness and Information (CHAI) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, and myself, moderated by Thomas Fleischman (History). It began by playing a brief video of a commemoration that had taken place in Warsaw earlier the same day, replete with symbolic daffodils (which evoke the shape of the yellow stars Jews were compelled to wear in the Third Reich.) A painful issue in Holocaust memory (which Professor Orla-Bukowska discusses in her essay in this issue) is the recent law passed by Poland’s Sejm criminalizing accusations against the Polish nation for complicity in the Holocaust. The speakers emphasized the complexity of Holocaust history, the mixture of complicity, resistance, victimization and witness that varied from place to place in occupied Europe but consisted of the same essential elements everywhere. The Polish people’s record in this respect is better than most in Europe, although its land was the site of the most extensive mass murder. One important point that was raised was that Holocaust memory did not arise spontaneously; it was laboriously constructed over many years, and against substantial resistance, and it represents an important achievement of international culture that deserves to be nurtured. The essential facts of the Holocaust were consistently downplayed by the official communist historiography in the Soviet bloc, which meant that it was not until some years after the fall of communism that those countries joined the international consensus.
It seems fitting that all of this backwards-looking concluded for this year with an uplifting concert by the stunning pianist Katarzyna Musiał which began a year of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the independence of Poland. Besides destroying the Russian Empire, which included most of Poland, the settlement of World War I recreated an independent Poland along with an array of new East European states. The concert featured music by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the brilliant composer and pianist who was chosen to be the first Prime Minister of independent Poland; by Tadeusz Kościuszko, the hero of Polish and American revolutionary wars; and, of course, by Fryderyk Chopin, the ardent Polish patriot and dean of Polish composers. Ms. Musiał’s performance fulfilled the promise of the critical acclaim that she has enjoyed throughout her career for her brilliant, passionate playing.
Randall W. Stone is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Skalny Center.