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Teaching Soviet History from the Borderlands: A Case Study of Belarus and Ukraine


 

The calls to decolonise the curriculum have been among the most persistent in our field in recent years, and they have led to some major rethinking of how we teach our subject. Already in 2018, the RHS Race, Ethnicity and Equality report found that most UK History departments were working to broaden their teaching of history beyond Britain and Europe and endeavouring to incorporate histories of race and ethnicities.

These efforts, however, should not be conceived exclusively in terms of the ‘traditional’ West European empires. The teaching of Soviet history has much to gain from similar critical rethinking and diversification. It is true that the Soviet Union does not fit easily into the customary frameworks for understanding the empire and colonial domination. While highly authoritarian, the USSR was also an ‘affirmative action empire’ (Terry Martin, 2001) that simultaneously encouraged and kept in check its ethnic republics’ cultural, economic, political, and social development. Yet, historians in the field have risen to the challenge, and the past two decades especially have seen a great deal of important new research into non-Russian and multi-ethnic Soviet histories as well as lively debates on the nature of the Soviet Union as an empire.

The current war in Ukraine … is largely the product of the Kremlin’s rejection, three decades later, of the Soviet republics’ ‘decolonising moment’.

Some of this new research has been trickling down into reading lists and module syllabuses on Soviet history at UK universities. The current war in Ukraine has done much to propel this development further, as it brings home in a brutal fashion the fact that the decolonisation process in the post-Soviet region is still incomplete and bitterly contested: the war is largely the product of the Kremlin’s rejection, three decades later, of the Soviet republics’ ‘decolonising moment’.

 

‘Minsk Railway Station, Soviet Belarus, 1926. Wikimedia Commons. The city’s name is given in Belarusian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish, the four official languages in interwar Soviet Belarus.’

 

But modules that properly take the vantage point of a Soviet non-Russian republic, rather than Moscow’s, are still rare and tend to exist in specialist departments or institutions, such as UCL’s School of East European and Slavonic Studies. One barrier to designing such modules elsewhere is the availability of primary sources in English translation to support the teaching of non-Russian histories to students who do not speak the region’s languages, i.e., the overwhelming majority of History students at UK universities.

No teacher of history needs me to tell them how crucial primary sources are in the classroom. They allow us to bring the topic alive to our students and are indispensable tools for developing the fundamental skills of the profession. No less importantly, they help us train students in critical thinking, empathy, and social responsibility. Their importance is reflected in the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement for History that notes that ‘opportunity for close work on source material originating in the period studied is essential’ and prescribes the ability to ‘critically and empathetically analyse primary sources’ as one of the Minimal Threshold Standards that university students have to meet to graduate in History.

The past two decades especially have seen a great deal of important new research into non-Russian and multi-ethnic Soviet histories as well as lively debates on the nature of the Soviet Union as an empire.

This is why I am enormously grateful to the Royal Historical Society for awarding me one of the 2023/24 Jinty Nelson Teaching Fellowships to support my project of making a collection of Ukrainian and Belarusian primary sources available to English-speaking students. The project aims to bring together, and have translated into English, a selection of materials that would support the teaching of history of Belarus and Ukraine in the Soviet Union.

This project emerged out of my own plan to develop a new module on Belarusian and Ukrainian history in the Soviet Union at the School of History, Queen Mary University of London. I have been weaving Belarusian and Ukrainian topics into various other modules on Soviet history I have taught over the years, mainly at the University of Winchester where I worked for 14 years before joining Queen Mary. But this is the first time I will be teaching a module that puts twentieth-century Belarus and Ukraine centre-stage. As a researcher of Soviet Belarus for close to a decade, I am especially excited about the opportunity to bring this research into my teaching in such a concentrated way, while also pushing into the relatively new (to me) frontiers of Ukrainian history.

 

Youth in Belarusian national costumes pose in front of a building with posters “All to the elections to the Supreme Soviet of the BSSR!” (in Belarusian) and “Long Live the Creator of the Constitution – Great Stalin!” (in Russian). Minsk, Soviet Belarus, 26 June 1938. Wikimedia Commons.

 

But this is not just about indulging my own research interests. In the UK, stand-alone courses on modern history of Ukraine are few, and the teaching of modern Belarusian history is close to non-existent. The relevance of a comparative module that helps to fill this lacuna and allows students to study in-depth the recent history of these two nations might seem obvious against the background of Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Belarusian regime’s complicity in it, but its importance stretches beyond current events.

As I have indicated at the start of this post, such a module seeks to de-centre the traditional approach to Soviet history with its heavy emphasis on Russia. While the importance of exploring Moscow’s perspective is beyond doubt, the new module invites students to ‘place’ themselves in the borderlands and see how important republics like Ukraine and Belarus were in the multi-ethnic Soviet empire, where the relationship between the centre and the peripheries was not a one-way street. Most importantly, it will demonstrate that Belarus and Ukraine have their own, connected yet unique, histories that merit nuanced understanding rather than being confined to footnotes in the teaching of European history. In this light, I hope the module will make a contribution towards our collective efforts to decolonise the history curriculum.

As things currently stand, only a handful of potential topics in this new module would be well supported by translated primary material (for example, the 1930s Holodomor in Ukraine). There is an especially acute lack of Belarusian sources in translation. I first encountered this problem when teaching seminars on Soviet nationalities within broader Soviet history courses, as well as a Year 1 skills-focused module on Russia’s western borderlands at Winchester. This led me to spend part of the research allowance from my British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship in 2020-21 on translating a small batch of documents on 1970s Belarus I had collected during my fieldwork in Minsk archives. These translated sources together with my brief introductory essay were generously put up as a web-section entitled ‘1973 – Belarus’ by Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, an award-winning open-access online archive of primary sources for students and teachers.

Belarus and Ukraine have their own, connected yet unique, histories that merit nuanced understanding rather than being confined to footnotes in the teaching of European history.

One document from that selection stands as a particularly good illustration of how translated primary sources can deepen students’ understanding of this topic. The document is a letter written in 1970 by the Belarusian editors tasked with compiling the first-ever Belarusian Soviet Encyclopaedia.

Writing to the Party secretary in charge of cultural affairs at the Central Committee of the Belarusian Communist Party, the editors complain in considerable detail that their team of authors is unable to produce entries on a multitude of topics, from the history of Belarusian science and literature to pre-revolutionary architecture and folk crafts, because scholarly research on those themes does yet not exist. The encyclopaedia was to be in Belarusian, yet the editors found that many scientific or technical terms were absent in that language. They also point out that many geographical places or landscape features in Belarus had not been surveyed by geographers and, therefore, could not be properly described in the encyclopaedia. But rather than give up on the whole project, the editors end their letter by asking the Central Committee to spur scholars on to produce research on all those topics as a matter of urgency. We now know that the work was done, and the Belarusian Encyclopaedia was published.

The RHS Jinty Nelson Fellowship will help make such a larger collection of sources available to my students and enable us to make analysis of primary sources an integral part of our seminar discussions.

Works of reference are always good sources to work through with students because they show how knowledge is produced, but this letter is a particularly eloquent example of how the Soviet regime sponsored ethnic nation-building in its borderlands, and not just in the early post-revolutionary years but well into its ‘mature age’.

Analysing this source leads students to think about the role of experts and scholars, about dynamics of local power (writers using the Party to put pressure on academics), about the role of the centre (Moscow decides who gets to have a national encyclopaedia and funds its production), as well as about which ‘building blocks’ make up a nation (by filling those blank spots with content, history, and national meaning, the editors were inscribing Belarus as a nation). Ultimately, this document helps students to debunk the simplistic and inaccurate notion of Moscow squashing all signs of ethnic identity in the periphery and draws instead a much more complex picture of local negotiation, agency, and mixed signals from the centre. It also allows students to get a glimpse of how Belarus developed into a nation and the contradictions of that process. In a field that is not as well served by English-language secondary literature as some others, translated sources like this one have immense pedagogical value.

 

‘Gas masks lie scattered in an abandoned school in Prypiat’, the city next to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Photo by Yuo7si, 2023, Wikimedia Commons’.

 

A much broader selection is needed for a specialist Year 3 module on Soviet Ukraine and Belarus to deepen the students’ engagement with the subject and facilitate the development of relevant skills at this advanced level. The RHS Jinty Nelson Fellowship will help make such a larger collection of sources available to my students and enable us to make analysis of primary sources an integral part of our seminar discussions.

However, my ultimate aim with this project is to produce a teaching resource that would be of value and interest to students and their teachers beyond my own classroom. Once the collection of primary sources has been translated and tested in my module, I will investigate the possibility of placing it in open access for use by teachers and students at other universities and schools. Many, if not most, History departments in the UK offer courses in Russian and Soviet history and could find such a resource useful in bringing new perspectives to their existing modules. I hope it could also assist others in striking out in new directions and developing new modules on histories of Ukraine and Belarus.

 


 

 

About the author

 

Natalya Chernyshova is Lecturer in Modern European History at Queen Mary University of London. Her publications focus on Belarusian history, Soviet nationalities politics, and everyday life during late socialism, including the monograph Soviet Consumer Culture in the Brezhnev Era (Routledge, 2013) and a recent chapter on the Soviet legacy in the 2020 Belarusian protests in E. Korosteleva et al (eds), Belarus in the Twenty-First Century: Between Dictatorship and Democracy (Routledge, 2023).

She is currently writing her second monograph, a history of Soviet Belarus in the long 1970s told through the prism of the life and career of its popular communist leader, Petr Masherau (the project funded by the British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship in 2020-22). In September 2023, Natalya was awarded a Royal Historical Society Jinty Nelson Teaching Fellowship for a project to make a collection of Ukrainian and Belarusian primary sources available in English translation.

 

 

 

HEADER IMAGE: A march to commemorate a quincentenary of Zhaporizhzhia Cossacks organised by the Ukrainian Popular Front in August 1990, Zhaporizhzhia, Ukraine. A photo by M. Iakovenko and V. Bilets’kyi. Wikimedia Commons.’

 

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.
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