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Regular version of the site

Department Head — Professor Alexander Semyonov


Department Academic Supervisor— Professor Evgeniy Anisimov

198099 Saint Petersburg
17 Promyshlennaya Ulitsa, Room 107

Phone:+7 (812)786-92-49 

Postal address: 
190008 Saint Petersburg
16 Soyuza Pechatnikov Ulitsa



Interview About the Department of History with the Chair of the Department, Alexander Semyonov (HSE in St Petersburg, GS-OSES)

«Whither New Imperial History? New Approaches to Russian History» (Regensburg, Germany, 02.08.2016)

PDF version-  gs-oses.pdf

Interviewer - Henner Kropp (doctoral student at the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies and Research Assistant at the Chair of Southeast and East European History at the University Regensburg)

1.  Henner Kropp: Mr. Semyonov, I hope that you are enjoying your time here in Regensburg at the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies. What are your experiences so far?

Alexander M. Semyonov: I am very grateful to be a visiting scholar here at the Graduate School. I am working on my research projects and I am enjoying the intellectual atmosphere. I am meeting PhD-students and we are discussing their research, but I am also meeting other members of the Graduate School and from the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies. They are all wonderful colleagues with interesting research that I am very happy to learn from. I am also very interested in this structure of a graduate school between the two universities. It has been an experiment in Germany and from what I see here between Munich and Regensburg I can recognize that it has been a very successful experiment of developing an intellectual milieu for PhD  students and foster their dissertation research. It is a very interesting model and it is very helpful for me to observe that as we think back at my university in Russia on how to reshape the graduate school.

2.  What are you currently working on? Were you able to make some progress in your own research during your Fellowship?

Yes, I am very happy to be in an environment with a good research library that not only has a wonderful collection but also orders material for me from Munich libraries. There are two projects I am working on currently. One project explores imperial transformations that happened in the what I call “the arc of imperial revolution” from 1905 through the 1920s comprising the crisis and reform in the Russian empire, the war and imperial collapse and the reshaping the former imperial space of diversity into the Soviet Union. The key element of this project is looking at the ways the legacy of the late imperial Russian made it to the Soviet universalism (of Comintern and anti-colonial policies) and ethno-territorial and regionalist federal structure.  So I am asking a question of how do we understand this moment of imperial transformation, how do we understand the strategy that involved federalism, autonomy, together with the concept of nationality and regionalism that shaped the constitution of the Soviet Union. The hybrid architecture of the Soviet Union proved to be both long lasting and crucial for the end of the Soviet Union in the Perestroika.. This projects critically interrogates the notion of historical teleology from empire to nation and hegemony of nationalism as a political principle. I personally think, that the theme of imperial transformations rather than transition from empire to nation-state can be fruitfully explored in the Russian-Soviet history and in comparative perspective. I would like to mention in this context that together with Ronald Suny we have launched a new book series entitled “Imperial transformations” to explore the themes of multiple legacies of imperial management of diversity and imprint of various projects of post-imperial imaginations.  


The second project I am working on is the publication of diaries of Teymuraz Stepanov-Mamaladze covering the Soviet foreign policy during the Perestroika. 

3.  The broader frame of your work is the study of Russian history through the perspective of imperial history. What does this mean for your research? To which aspects and questions should historians of empire devote special attention to? And what does the so called “New Imperial History” do differently?

This is a good question, but also a big one. My colleagues and I have written in the journal Ab Imperio on this new perspective and frame of interpretation of Russian and Soviet history and it happened so that our project overlapped with other projects by the name of “New Imperial History” in other historiographies, such as the New Imperial History Reader by Stephen Howe. To give a short answer: The New Imperial History is a doubly new look at the Russian history, not only because Russian history has been traditionally dominated by the Russo-centric perspective and was in need of decentering,  but also because recently the study of empire has gone much in line with a structuralist political history, that looks at the empire as a mighty state emanating from the center and imposing its will on the periphery. Instead, the New Imperial History is bridging the gap between studies of social and cultural processes and political processes. It questions critically the notion of the all-powerful imperial state, simply because historically we find more than often that the imperial state was rather weak and hence historians need to explain this paradox. We are trying to look at the space of the empire from multiple perspectives, not only from the capital, not only from the central bureaucracy and indeed, as relational rather than linear. This perspective identifies the key element in the history of empire is the challenge of diversity and historic reformulations of the space of diversity in different political and epistemic contexts and paradigms. The central question here is uncovering different types of agencies and subjectivities in the space of empire without recourse to the catch-all notion of the imperial elite.

One of the interesting questions is to explore more carefully comparative and entangled  perspectives. There are calls everywhere to be more global and more comparative as a historian. The project that I co-direct with Ronald Suny at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg is named “Comparative historical studies of empire and nationalism.” One way to pursue this agenda is to take seriously the heterogeneous space of empire and the historical role of empire in making different connections and entanglements of what is called these days “transnational moments.” Another way, is to look at moments of connexity at the times of imperial crises, such as the one brought about inter-imperial competition of the World War One. The inter-imperial competition aided the comparative perspectives by different actors from different empires or what could be called the “politics of comparison.” They intensively compared own and other imperial regimes and engaged in different forms of post-imperial political imagination by drawing on this politics of comparison. For instance, some Russian actors rejected resolutely the would be future for the Russian empire comprising the federalist solution for the multiple national questions. Others welcomed it this comparison. It does not mean that the Russian Empire was identical with the Habsburg empire but that such a comparison was part of the imperial politics at the moment of imperial transformation.    

4.  How do you evaluate from your point of view as an insider the clash between the rather theoretical approach of histories of empires and the Russian tradition of a more descriptive historiography?

I would first deconstruct the notion of the Russian tradition. I consider Ab Imperio as a global journal that takes contributions from different regions and countries but it still covers Russia and adequately represents what has been done in the field of history in Russia. In the past there was indeed this division of labor between the Russian historians being more descriptive and the international historians being more theoretical, but I think it is gone now. You have many historians coming from Russia asking very interesting questions and engaging in a theoretical reflection of historical approachesI The question now is about nuances in the approach, different approaches that exist in the field of the study of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, but not about the division between people who study the sources and on the other hand people who ask the questions. Of course, if one looks at historical studies of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union written in Russian one can find more traces of naïve positivism. But this is also true about other historiographies one may just have a look at local studies of the Civil War in the US.  

5.  Please share your thoughts with us on how according to your opinion the studies of empires will develop in the nearest future. What new approaches and questions will emerge and how will these changes affect our research?

Historians having a hard time predicting the past and hence are not supposed to predict the future, as the Russian saying goes (laughs). I believe that there will be a very interesting conversation between the field of Global History and the field of New Imperial History in the near future. The field of Global History with such contributors as by David Armitage and Sebastian Conrad started to distance itself from the field of empire studies. But I still think that if you do not understand empires as a structures but rather as a spaces of relations, then the approach of the Global History is very much congenial to the approach of the New Imperial History. You would ask questions about horizontal relationships in the empire, you would ask questions about how people experienced differences in different encounters, not necessarily bound by the political institutions of empire. In some phases of their development empires sought to keep people disconnected and bound to their particular places, indeed, divide et impera as the saying goes. However, at other times, empires facilitated the movement of people and moments of connexity  between different part of populations, religions, languages, cultures and regions. There is another proximity betwee the field of global history and the field of empire studies. They are seeking to engage with the pressing concerns of the present societies. The difference here is that  the global history is the history of the present while the studies of empire may provide a different genealogy of the present and the moment of estrangement (defamiliarization) of the present. Not only today we experience migrants and cultural differences and questions about how we do accommodate diversity. It has been the pathway of much of the history of empires. And we can learn from these different experiences, for instance, we can learn the relative weakness of ethnic groupness and nationalism. For example, we may not want to start with the assumption that people live in ethnic communities – we start with the assumption that people live in different types of settings: neighbor settings, trading settings, the context of hybrid crossings, etc. A clear cut of ethnic or cultural boundaries is rather an invention of modern politics than the natural condition of humankind.

6.  Historians from the German speaking world contribute both to Russian studies and the history of empires. How big is their impact on Russian historiography and your field of studies from your perspective?

The field of Russian and Eurasian studies has become a global one. Indeed, Andreas Kappeler was a path-breaking work that started decentering the Russo-centric narrative of the Russian history. We are very proud at Ab Imperio that he serves on the editorial board of the journal. I cannot say that there is a particular German way of looking at the Russian historiography. In Germany you find different positions and schools on the twentieth century, nineteenth century and so on. Methodologically, this is true as well. One generalization that I would attempt is to say that it is thanks particularly to German historians that there emerged an imperative to compare the history Russia with other European spaces or to integrate Russian into the framework of European history. It was a welcome departure from the Russian Sonderweg historical narrative and brought new insights into the history of the Enlightenment, Polizeistaat, history of Russian civil society and modernization. Yet, at a certain point there was a realization of the limitations imposed by the European framework of interpretation of Russian history. In Ab Imperio we started asking questions of why is it that historians of Russia rarely engage in a dialogue with the traditions and perspective of post-colonial studies. The newest trend is to combine  the European and extra-European perspectives, that is to say Eurasian perspectives by looking at formerly neglected regions and lines of comparison: Caucasus and the Ottoman empire, Central Asia and the British India, etc. But then again, your research on Russia is the context of inter-imperial cooperation in the Pacific is a reminder and example of dangers of such generalization about historiographies.

7.  In the most recent past the relations between Russia and Germany did not develop very well. Did the tense relations with Germany affect your research and your collaboration with partners in Germany?

Well, one has to recognize that there are political clouds. But clouds could come from different directions. There may be more obstacles on the path of the pursuit of the international cooperation between the EU and Russian academe with the Brexit. In this situation when business and political connects may not work, I think it is important to continue the cooperation in the sphere of education and research. I would add to this that the position of DFG an DAAD has been similar to that and insistent on keeping ties and connections where possible.