Ronald G. Suny is the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is an alumnus of the Russian Institute.
Q: Today is January 10, 2017, Tuesday. This is Caitlin Bertin-Mahieux. I am here with Ron [Ronald G.] Suny, the William H. Sewell Jr. Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan. We are in Paris at the Columbia Global Center for the first session of his Harriman Institute Oral History Interview. So, Professor Suny, welcome. Thank you for joining me here today, and for making the time. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to you. As I just mentioned, we usually start with some background information on the individual, so I was hoping you could tell me—I know you were born in Philadelphia in 1940, but I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about your childhood and your family background.
Suny: Okay. It is a pleasure to do this. It is always fun to talk about yourself [laughter], I think.
Q: I am glad you think so.
Suny: So I was born in Philadelphia of Armenian parents. My father’s family, the Suny family, came from the Caucasus, from—my grandfather, my father’s father, was born near Karabakh, which is now part of Azerbaijan, at least the town where he was born, Gedabek. He was a musician, trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, by [Nikolai] Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander [K.] Glazunov. He became kind of activist. This is Grikor Mirzaian Suni, who is still known in Armenia, his music, his operas, his collections of folk songs. I would say, in my youth, my father, who adored his father—unfortunately, my grandfather died the year before I was born; I never knew him personally. My father really loved his father, admired him, and in a sense, embedded in me a kind of worship, or heroizing of Grikor Suni.
Suni was himself a very political character. Earlier in his career, he had been a member of the Armenian Nationalist Party [Armenian Revolutionary Federation], the Dashnaktsutyun, which was a Second International socialist party. But then he broke with the Dashnaks, or they broke with him. And when he came to the United States, after the Bolsheviks came to Tbilisi, he became a Communist; he actually joined the Communist party. Well, there was a kind of Armenian progressive group called Harajdimakan in Philadelphia, and they were pro-Soviet, pro-Armenian. Suni collected instruments—they had no money—repaired them, and sent them to Armenia. Some of them are still in the conservatory there. So he was very pro-Soviet Armenia. He wrote songs about Armenia, he wrote—there is a little book we have at home called Nor Kyank’i Yergere, Songs of the New Life, with a sun, with a sickle and hammer rising above Ararat—you know, the mountain, Armenian mountain, which is now in Turkey.
So, there was this pro-Soviet, Marxist situation with my grandfather that my father would relate to me. My father also told me that in 1937 during [Joseph V.] Stalin’s purges, Suni, my grandfather, made a speech against the purges and against what was going on in Armenia. So he was then thrown out of the Communist circles. He was considered a traitor, and his music was never again played in Armenia until after Stalin’s death—until the 1960s, really, when a very nice and very important Armenian musicologist, Robert Atayan, began writing about and publishing his music with my father’s help. So, that is kind of the first background.
My father was not a Communist. He was leftist, you might say, very pro-Soviet. He told me these stories, and would relate, at dinner, about what it was like to be a little boy, ten, eleven years old, in Tbilisi, when the Red Army came in, and when the Mensheviks of Georgia fled. So I grew up with these stories. So, this is a very odd milieu. There I am, an Armenian-American, born in America, learning these stories, thinking positively about the Soviet Union—during the Cold War. I mean, this is a bizarre time.
I remember my father once—I had to give a report in school, and he urged me to give a report on how things were not as bad in the Soviet Union as people wrote about, that they were building socialism. So this tiny little, you know, skinny ten-year-old or eleven-year-old—it was 1950, ‘51—went to school in sixth grade and read this report about how the Soviet Union had defeated fascism in the Second World War, how they built so many cities the size of San Francisco since the war, and resurrected the economy, etc. My teacher blanched completely. She almost fainted—wanted to know who had told me these things. I said, “My Daddy told me this.” And I had done all kinds of research in the World Book Encyclopedia. So, from that day on until I graduated, I was known as Comrade Suny in school.
So this was a kind of odd juxtaposition—being an Armenian in America, knowing you were American, not being discriminated against, particularly, but also knowing you were different, and also having these politics which ran against the grain of American politics at the time. That was what led me to be interested in Russia, the Soviet Union, revolution, working classes, the left, Communism, etc., so all of those things.
My mother’s family was quite different. My mother’s family had come to America from the Ottoman Empire, from Turkey. They were more religious. They were more Armenian, in some ways. They were more conservative, and more churchy, you might say. So we did go to the Armenian church; we learned about those things. But I must say, my mother’s mother, Azniv Tashjian, came to America after the 1890s massacres of Armenians under Abdul Hamid II in the Ottoman Empire, after her sister and others were murdered in Diyarbakir, in what we call Tigranakert. They came to America, and she became a dressmaker in Philadelphia.
My mother’s father, Avedis Kesdekian, was from central Turkey, Yozgat, which is a Turkish- speaking town. He was a nineteen-year-old tailor. After the 1909 massacres of Armenians in Adana, on the Mediterranean, he decided to leave and go to America against his family’s wishes, never saw his family again. Went to America, ended up in Philadelphia, married my grandmother, set up a tailor shop. My mother was born in Philadelphia, and was an Armenian speaker until age five. In fact, she was distressed when she went to school and found that no one understood her, because she only spoke Armenian [laughter]. Later, she would forget Armenian. My grandfather lived to be over a hundred, my mother lived to be 98. But all of their ancestors who were left in Turkey were murdered in the massacres in 1915, 1916, that is, the genocide of the Armenians.
So, that is the background. Actually, when I tell the story, it sounds richer than I even imagined it. You know? I mean, you live with it, you think, “This is normal, isn’t it?” So I grew up, I am this kid, growing up in Philadelphia. We were not a particularly wealthy family. My father was a truck driver at first, then became a businessman, owning dry-cleaning stores. So he could not become a Communist, because he was a businessman. He was always a little bit skeptical of things. He was still very pro-Soviet, I must say, all through my life. In fact, when the Soviet Union collapsed, he once asked me, “Ronald, do you think there will ever be socialism again?” I said, “Dad, I don’t think so. Not in that form, anyway. We will see what happens, but not in that Soviet form again.”
So, that is how I grew up, always interested in these things. I was also interested, because of my mother’s brother Mesrop Kesdekian, in the theater. I did a lot of acting as a young person, at a summer stock theater, Green Hills Theater, that he had in Reading, Pennsylvania. I think that theater background helped me, almost more than anything else, in becoming a good teacher, and communicating with students.
Q: Teaching is like a performance, sometimes.
Suny: It is a performance. It is very histrionic, right? You have got to keep your audience interested, and excited. I think that was important too. So all of those ingredients come together. I finished high school outside of Philadelphia. Of course, we moved out of Philadelphia because African-Americans from the South were moving in, and this was a time when there was a kind of white flight, at the beginning of the 1950s, out of the city. My family was very tolerant, not biased against blacks, but the reality was that their relatives and friends were leaving for the suburbs and the city was being segregated. We moved into a suburb, semi-rural—to another kind of America, which I saw there, all about cars and football and other things. I always was a little bit, I would say, at odds with my surrounding. More intellectual, more interested in reading, and writing, and thinking, and complaining about politics, and all of that stuff. But, it was a nice background.
Then I went as a freshman to Tufts College, and then transferred to Swarthmore. So I was freshman year at Tufts College, and then I went to Swarthmore. I did not get into Harvard [University], which had been my dream. That was 1958. A funny year, because they turned me down, and turned down William H. Sewell Jr., for whom I named my current chair at Michigan, who is the son of a very prominent sociologist from Wisconsin. Bill and I—neither of us got into Harvard at that time, but Ted [Theodore J.] Kaczynski, who later became famous as the Unabomber, did get in. So I think they had a little bit of a problem with their admissions [laughter].
But anyway, maybe it was good that I did not go to Harvard. I went, instead, to Swarthmore, which was an extraordinary place, did a lot of studying of Russian history and French history with Paul Beik, other people there. Then went on to Columbia. And in 1962, I came to what was then the Russian Institute.
Q: So, before we get into the Russian Institute, I want to back up and go over some of the fascinating background, family story. You mentioned going to church with your family, the Armenian church. Was there a large Armenian community in Philadelphia at the time, or maybe still?
Suny: Yes, there was, and they had many churches. They fought with each other, obviously. The Armenian community, like many diaspora communities, was divided, riven between those who were either pro-Soviet—they were very few; Armenia was after all a Soviet republic, the only Armenia we had—that was a very small group, of which my family, on the left side, on my father’s side, was somewhat attached. Though by the ‘50s, it was too dangerous to be open about leftist politics. It was not something that was deeply a part of their life. They were not activists— my father was not an activist in any way; he was a businessman; though I understand that he had been involved in the labor movement in the 1930s as a young man. I remember him telling me about mixed racial dances sponsored by the Communist Party, the only place in the ’30s where blacks and whites mingled together. But among Armenians there were those kinds of progressive people, called Harajdimakan.
The Church itself was divided between those who recognized the Catholicos, the head of the Church, in Etchmiadzin, which was in Soviet Armenia, outside of Yerevan—that was the majority of Armenians—and the breakaway Armenian Church, led still by the Dashnaktsutyun, this nationalist party, who had its headquarters in Antelias, in Lebanon. Those two sides fought each other. In fact, in the ‘30s, some Dashnaks murdered an archbishop, in the early ‘30s in New York—a very famous case—and the whole Armenian community then split, in America, and eventually throughout the world, between these Dashnaks and the other group. Either, they were sometimes called Ramgavar, democrats, or chezok, neutrals, who were more willing to—not love Armenia—they did not love Soviet Armenia, but they were willing to associate with it a little bit. So that was the background.
I grew up in an Armenian community, in a way, that is, Armenians associated with each other, socialized with each other, through the Church, or through associations. My father was a musician, as well as a dry-cleaner, and he had choruses, and they gave concerts, they presented operettas. That was a big part of the life of my mother and my sister, Linda Suny, now Myrsiades. I was not permitted to sing, because I apparently could not sing [laughter], they told me. Only my wife, Armena Marderosian, later would say that I could sing. But, Armenian food, Armenian culture, thinking about Armenia, all was there. But, I want to emphasize, because my family was left, democratic, liberal, whatever, there was no concerted, concentrated, persistent discussion of hatred of Turks, hatred of Kurds—because half the family came from the Caucasus, and had not experienced the genocide. The other part had left Armenia after massacres, but before the Genocide. So, genocide consciousness, as I was growing up, was somewhat muted. It was there. We knew these things had happened; we heard stories. But it was not a big part of our socialization, you might say. Much more influential was thinking about Armenia, the Soviet Armenia, those kinds of things.
Q: You mentioned music, which I think played a huge role in your family. Your grandfather, Grikor, was a renowned composer. If you were not allowed to sing—but were you musical in any other way? Were you—[laughter]?
Suny: I am the one non-musical person in the family. My sister is musical, and she sang. My mother sang in the chorus. That is how she met my father. My father was the conductor. I married a musician, Armena [P.] Marderosian, a wonderful pianist. I will talk about her later, maybe. We had a son, Grikor, who we named after my grandfather, who was very musical, but sadly, got very ill at age two, and died. We lost him. Both daughters, Anoush Tamar Suni and Sevan Siranoush Suni, are very musical. Sevan is a very fine violinist, right now playing in the Harvard orchestra, and will continue with her music. Anoush also plays violin but has now turned to Middle Eastern instruments, the oud, saz, and cümbüş.
Q: Wow—oh, so someone went to Harvard [laughs].
Suny: Yes, someone finally got to Harvard. My friend Valerie [A.] Kivelson and her husband, Tim Hofer, graduated from Harvard, always knew that I was sort of anti-Harvard, even though I was on committees on Harvard, and must have given ten or fifteen lectures at Harvard. When Sevan finally got a post-doc at Harvard, we both said, “Go Crimson!” Now I had sort of gave up my hostility toward Harvard University, yes. And so, everyone around me—and Anoush plays the oud, and the saz, and sings. So everybody is musical. I have lots of music in my life. Armena, my wife, was a wonderful pianist, a Suzuki piano teacher. So I have had plenty of music, but I myself, the only thing I play is the phonograph, or, now, the phone.
Q: Well, what a rich environment, that you are constantly surrounded by music.
Suny: Yes. Yes. Are you musical, by any chance?
Q: No, but I came across the Suny Project website, and so I was listening to clips of your grandfather’s pieces.
Suny: Oh, wonderful. That was Armena’s job. That was what she did. That was her great achievement. Yes. I should mention, Armena was a student of mine when I taught at Oberlin College—
Q: Yes. We will get to that, for sure.
Q: And so, your grandmother—he spelled his name differently, Suni with an i and not a y. Is that right?
Suny: Yes. Right. Which was more Armenian.
Q: Is it? Okay.
Suny: Yes, but I think either at Ellis Island, or wherever, they transcribed it S-U-N-Y. And then all our lives, people call us “Sunny” instead of Suny. So with the children, we went back to the original spelling, so Grikor, Anoush, and Sevan all have S-U-N-I.
Q: Very interesting. Ellis Island [laughs]. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more—I find it really interesting how the Genocide was not so central in this Armenian identity that you were growing up in, and it was more of a Soviet Armenia—so in light of the Cold War, and all these things going on, beyond that presentation in the sixth grade [laughs], how did you reconcile that message from home, and then the one from the wider world around you?
Suny: Yes. I think the home environment, and my father—when I think about it—were absolutely fundamentally formative. I remember when I was in high school—I had a very good voice then, and I was very, as I said, histrionic, an actor and all that, and the coach of the football team asked me to speak at the big Thanksgiving Day game. Maybe this was around 1956, ‘57, or something like that. You can imagine what time that was—and I would be the announcer then. This was a great honor. Then they gave me the script, and it was all about how wonderfully free America was. And you remember, this is a time of segregation, Jim Crow, and all kinds of horrors like that, which we were aware of, as people on the left—and how wonderful Thanksgiving was, but in the Soviet Union, which is a prison camp, and so forth, it was terrible, and they could not have Thanksgiving. So I went to the coach, thinking, I am going to protest this, and I said, “Look, I don’t believe these things, and I would not read this text.” And he said, “Okay,” took it away from me, and that was the end of that [laughter].
So, I always had those ideas, and always tried to remain faithful to a much more open stance toward the Soviet Union, more critical of the way—of [the way] this hegemonic anti-Sovietism existed—remember, the ‘50s is also the time of [Nikita S.] Khrushchev, and attempts at détente, and cooperation, and all kinds of other things going on. But no matter how much you tried to explain the Soviet Union, or how much you tried to understand what they were doing, the Soviets would always do something, like invade Czechoslovakia [laughs], or in this case, 1956, invade Hungary and put down a revolution, which was a genuine revolution, genuine workers’ revolution—or Poland. Then you had to start all over again, [laughs]. Eventually, I would write about all of these things, but it was a difficult time to try to live in the Cold War situation, and also try at the same time to be more understanding of what the Soviets were trying to do as well, and not demonize them. But, I was also developing a more critical view toward them as well, so it was never exculpatory. I mean, it was never simply justifying what they were doing, but trying to understand what they were doing.
Q: I bet that helped when you got to college, when you started focusing on Russian Studies.
Suny: Yes, already at Swarthmore, yes.
Q: So, what made you transfer from Tufts to Swarthmore?
Suny: A girlfriend, [laughter] was one reason. I had a girlfriend in Philadelphia, Eve Niederdrenk, but by the time I got back, she had already found someone else whom she married later. Also, I missed home. I missed the warmth of my parents, and all the rest. Swarthmore was, in my view, an extraordinary place, a great college, and a place that deeply valued intellectual activity. And so I think I thrived and developed at Swarthmore. One did not have to justify oneself as an intellectual. One did not have to—there were words, terrible words, like “egghead,” or “brown-noser,” that you were trying to make your way intellectually. At Swarthmore, all of this intellectual activity and serious thinking and critical thinking were acceptable. That was really important in my development.
Q: I think now, Swarthmore is seen as, you know, a very liberal liberal-arts college. I think it has roots in—Quakers?
Suny: Quakers, yes.
Q: Was it still, at the end of the ‘50s, a kind of more left-of-center place, perhaps?
Suny: Absolutely, it was called “The Kremlin on the Crum.” It was on Crum Creek, and it was called the Kremlin on the Crum. They opposed the loyalty oaths at the time. This was a really harsh period. It is going to be much like the one we are about to go into, as we enter dark times in a few weeks. And, it seemed to me that it was a protected zone; it was a kind of haven, or a harbor, where you could still think critically, and so forth. Now, I remember at one point, when the [John F.] Kennedy administration invaded Cuba, there was a petition opposing the invasion. The students actually supported the invasion, rather than were critical of it. But still, it was a serious discussion. I remember Gus Hall [Arvo K. Halberg], the anodyne and not very interesting head of the American Communist Party, came and spoke at Swarthmore. That was a daring thing for the college to permit, but they believed in free speech, etc. He was so boring. I mean, no one was converted to Communism by listening to Gus Hall.
Q: He should have taken some acting classes, right?
Suny: Yes. But there were protests, and there was resistance, and calumny against the college, for those kinds of things. Swarthmore was also very active early—remember, this is the early ‘60s we are talking about. I graduated from there in ‘62—in the civil rights movement, and in the antiwar movement. I was more active in antiwar than in civil rights, but all of this was part of it. And Michael Meeropol was a student there. Michael Meeropol, we learned later, was one of the two sons of the Rosenbergs, of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I can remember him under a tree, singing folk songs. That was the atmosphere of the time. You know? So, the left was—it was a very congenial place, for someone with leftist ideas. Not necessarily Marxist; I don’t think people were Marxist. They were left, left-liberal, more in the American tradition. But I already was taking Marxism seriously, even though I had no idea what it really was. I hadn’t read that much yet.
Q: It sounds like a great intellectual community.
Suny: It was, it was [laughs].
Q: It really does [laughs].
Q: And you majored in history?
Suny: It was history. Yes, it was history with a heavy emphasis on European, and particularly Russian and Soviet history. And politics – political science, as a minor, and English as a minor.
Q: You were busy [laughs]. That is a lot.
Suny: Yes. Well, Swarthmore’s pretty intense.
Q: Yes, and still to this day. And so, you went directly to grad school after college?
Suny: Yes, because otherwise you were drafted into the army, and you’d go to Vietnam—
Q: I was wondering about that, yes.
Suny: —so you immediately went to graduate school. Right in 1962—again, not getting into Harvard or Yale—I went to Columbia—
Q: [Laughs] So, it wasn’t your first choice.
Suny: It wasn’t my first choice, to be honest, and it turned out to be the right choice, because Columbia was the place to do Soviet and Russian studies. The Russian Institute at Columbia was the first of its kind, and there was this extraordinary pleiad of people there. The institute as I remember was headed by Alexander Dallin, who became not only a mentor but, a friend later when he went to Stanford—I loved him very much—and his later wife, Gail Lapidus, as well, who was at Stanford. Zbigniew Brzezinski was there, in political science. He was extraordinary. I remember conversations with him, though when I went to take his course, there were so many people in the room I had to stand outside, so I did not bother with the course. But I read everything and knew what he was talking about, and—though we differed on the Soviets, he was very anti-Soviet, etc., I still really appreciated his seriousness. I loved the book he wrote called The Soviet Bloc, which was just an extraordinary book, and a very, very important scholarly contribution.
Dallin was extremely important. A wonderful historian named Henry [L.] Roberts, who later went to Dartmouth, but died too young, who was an expert on Eastern Europe, and on Romania. I think he had been in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services], or some intelligence thing during the war. He was very important, and he helped me in a way that I will tell you about later. There were many others. There were these literature people like Rufus [W.] Mathewson, who was an extraordinary scholar. Most of it was very critical of the Soviet Union, and far more hostile to it than I was. But it was an extraordinary experience to be confronted with these ideas, to think through what my sympathies were, how critical one had to be, and so forth. So that was all—
Q: So, it wasn’t a hotbed of Communism, at the time?
Suny: Oh, it wasn’t at all. No, just the opposite. I mean, whatever the McCarthyites thought— they, in fact, investigated, I think, Ernest [J.] Simmons, and John [N.] Hazard, and others—think of the people that were there. It was just an extraordinary, extraordinary bunch of people. I am trying to think who else—oh, Joe [Joseph A.] Rothschild—oh, extraordinary political scientist who did a whole year course on east central Europe. All of these people—so, it was the place to be, and far less ideological, I think, than Harvard’s center, with [Richard E.] Pipes, and [Adam B.] Ulam and so forth. So I think it was the right place for me.
Q: And so you get there in ‘62, so what is Columbia’s campus and New York like in the early ‘60s?
Suny: [Laughs] Wow.
Q: I mean, that is such an interesting time.
Suny: So, I lived on the Upper West Side, on 93rd and Riverside, with my mother’s brother, Mesrop, who was a theater director. We shared an apartment. Mesrop would be around, and we’d go to the theater all the time, which was wonderful. And then he’d often be out of town doing plays, so I had the place to myself, which was very good as well. I’d walk up or ride up to Columbia, on the Upper West Side.
The Upper West Side was a little bit sketchy at the time. So there were streets that, you know, Edward Albee once described as full of permanent transients. I think that is from The Zoo Story. And it was—yes, you had to be careful. You knew that 93rd Street was okay, but 94th Street, you wouldn’t necessarily go down at night. But it was very vibrant, and very lively, and it was in transition. The first Chinese restaurants of the Szechuan and Hunan type were coming in, so we were learning—New York food culture was developing—this was the time of Craig Claiborne, and the New York Times, really starting a whole new interest in better eating, and so forth, and looking at world cuisines.
It was an exciting time to be there. And, you know, I was exploring it like crazy. This was the moment when Abstract Expressionist was giving way to Pop Art, so I would go over with a wonderful woman named Julie, who was also in the Russian Institute, to the East Side, to the Leo Castelli Gallery there where we saw the first Pop Artists. I actually bought a print by Robert Rauschenberg, and he was willing to sign it for me. I gave it as a wedding present to my sister. So, those were really exciting times. New York was very, very interesting, particularly the Upper West Side.
Q: Was there political activity going on on campus, any protests at the time, or—?
Suny: Not so much. That came later. So, it was 1965, ‘66, that I went to Russia, the Soviet Union, for the exchange program. By the time I got back, the Vietnam War protests were going strong. We marched through the city in 1966, I remember. I remember going with friends, with sort of left friends—a fellow graduate student, Manuella Dobos, and her then boyfriend, the extraordinary Alex Szejman, and others, to Central Park, to get ready to march down Fifth Avenue, wherever we were going to go. There were different groups you could march with. There was, Peace Now, Get Out of Vietnam, or whatever. Then there was one, Victory to the Viet Cong [laughter]. So I said, “We should march with that group,” and my friend said, “No, no, no, no, that is too radical for us. We will go with Peace Now,” or something. I said, “Yes, but peace now means victory to the Viet Cong. If you have peace, they are going to win. They are the national liberation movement of Vietnam.” I mean, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in the south. But they would not do that, so we did not march with them. We marched down Fifth Avenue, and people yelled and screamed at us, and things like that.
It was a very heady time, and of course, we were on the right side. The war was a disaster, it was a horror, and it was the wrong thing to be doing. The United States did not learn a damn thing from it, as they went then into other countries, you know—Iraq, and Libya, Syria—I can’t remember which other countries we’ve invaded lately, but there have been a number of them.
Q: It is a growing list. And so, these political protests, did they reverberate at all in the Russian Institute? Was it even talked about in the classroom, or amongst professors as well?
Suny: Not particularly that I remember. The professors were somewhat behind—not supporting, but somehow, they were lagging behind where the students were. The students were moving more quickly into a more radically critical stance toward American intervention, and so forth. The professors—and this would be true of the professors at Oberlin, when I went to teach afterwards—were much more of a generation that bought into the Cold War mentality about Communism as a serious threat.
Now, I must admit that in the Russian Institute, though I was not privy to this, there must have been disputes or tensions between people like Alexander Dallin and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzenzinski was extremely anti-Communist, even anti-Russian, almost. By the way, I admire him tremendously, and I once debated him, even, on PBS News. He had this, maybe, Polish aristocratic [laughs] upbringing that led him to a much more critical stance. Dallin, of course, as a son of an old Menshevik, as, basically, a moderate socialist, was a wonderful balance, because he was not so—he was not pro-Soviet; he was very critical. But he was not a person who demonized the Soviets. He was much more balanced and much more nuanced in the way he thought about the Soviet Union and international Communism. I took a very good seminar with him on international Communism, in which there was a member of the Communist Party, a former member, in which there were some other famous people, even, in it—I can’t remember her name now, but I’ll think about it [Patricia Blake]. I think I learned a lot from him from that. He was not the most dynamic teacher. He was a rather boring teacher, actually, but he was so smart and so kind that I appreciated him enormously.
You see, I say everything I think. Someone asked me that once, “Do you always say everything that comes into your head?” I said, “Yes, I think I do.”
Q: That makes this better.
Suny: It does? [Laugh]. All right.
Q: Yes. You are mentioning all these wonderful people that were there at the time, this great community of scholars. Was Marshall Shulman also there then?
Suny: Marshall Shulman was not there directly, but he was maybe in and out, or a kind of influence, to some extent. But I only met Marshall later, and actually gave a lecture in his honor just before he died, thanks to Bob Legvold. I loved his little book on Stalin’s foreign policy revisited, or whatever it is called. But I don’t think he was directly there. He must have been somewhere else, or retired, or something.
Q: Yes, I think he would come back later—I think in the ‘70s, he was director again. And so, during your course of study—I meant to ask before—growing up, did you speak Armenian? Were you speaking Armenian at home with your family at all?
Suny: No, because my family, which was Armenian-speaking, wanted us—Linda and me, my sister and I—to be really Americans. So they gave us American names, Ronald and Linda, and they did not teach us Armenian, which was regrettable. So I started Armenian at Columbia University, with Nina [G.] Garsoïan, and I want to say a word or two about her.
Suny: Nina Garsoïan is one of the most extraordinary scholars, perhaps the best Armenian scholar we have. She was teaching at Smith College, in 1962. In the fall, the first semester I came to Columbia, Nina commuted from Smith to teach Armenian history and Armenian language at Columbia, in Kent Hall, I remember. And I and Dickran Kouymjian who is now here in Paris—we just had dinner together—and others—very few—and my uncle Mesrop, took this course in Armenian language. I remember she said, “So, how much Armenian do you know?” I said, “Let’s start with the alphabet.” Of course, I knew some Armenian, but not very much. I took a two-year course with her in Armenian.
She was largely a Russian speaker, but she taught us Eastern Armenian, the Armenian that is spoken in Armenia itself, in Soviet Armenia—which is always a problem, because people in America mostly spoke Western Armenian, which is from the Turkish Empire, and from Istanbul. And, she taught a two-year course in Armenian history, though she ended, roughly, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century—you can imagine how detailed this was, a four-semester course—because she thought everything after the fifteenth century was journalism. But she was the most incredible scholar, with the highest possible standards. She is still alive; she lives on the East Side of New York. She should be interviewed, because she has such an extraordinary life story. She wrote her memoir, by the way, but she probably has more to say, and she is very outspoken.
She was willing to read my master’s essay, which was on Stepan [G.] Shaumian, an Armenian Bolshevik, and the Bolshevik movement in Trans-Caucasia, and she was very critical. She would [say], “Why do you need to know about this strike?” And, “Why is this important?” And, she was enormously helpful. Totally out of her expertise, she was willing to investigate these things, and gave me good criticism. I think she, like Dallin and, later, my mentor, Leopold [H.] Haimson, were formative in my formation as a historian. Marc Raeff, as well, I have to mention.
Q: Wow, that is amazing.
Suny: There is a lot of stuff you are bringing out, and you are doing a good job. It is like dredging up these things from somewhere in the gray matter that I have not thought about in a long time.
Q: And it is so important that we can still learn about it. And so, did you also take Russian, at the Russian Institute?
Suny: Yes, I had taken one year of Russian at Swarthmore. Then I went into the honors program, and you could not take Russian, so I sort of puttered around with it. Then I went to Columbia, and I took Russian with Mrs. Iuliia Kammermacher, who I think was also an old Menshevik, I remember. I had taken Russian at Swarthmore with Justus Rosenberg and Olga Lang, also a former revolutionary and an expert on China.
Q: It sounds familiar.
Suny: I remember Olga Lang said something like—when she was trying to teach us Russian pronunciation—[imitates accent] “look what is going on with your mouse [mouth].” That is what I remember.
But I never took that much Russian, so it was like, I had a year and a half, or two years. I learned most of my Russian when I went to the Soviet Union, and lived in Moscow, in the dormitory, yes.
Q: There’s nothing like immersion [laughs].
Suny: Yes, yes. Yes.
Q: Was there an emphasis on language at that time in the Russian Institute? Was it an encouraged part of the curriculum?
Suny: Yes, it was. And you really needed Russian, because your work was supposed to be in Russian. I remember, some of my early courses were with Mark Raeff. Mark Raeff was an extraordinary teacher, did imperial history. He would require us to read these Russian memoirs, like, you know, of [Gavrila R.] Derzhavin, and [Andrey T.] Bolotov in eighteenth-century Russian. It was extremely difficult. People knew you could not get through these volumes in a week, or whatever, but there was this very high standard, and they were quite extraordinary. So your Russian was improving very rapidly as you were doing the work as well. I don’t think people came in with as much Russian as they do now, because you can now study it much more easily as undergraduates. But they did emphasize that.
So I was learning Russian and Armenian, and I was trying—I wanted to learn Georgian, but I delayed that, even though Prince Nakashidze, Giorgi Nakashidze—patara Giorgi, as he was known, little Giorgi—was teaching my friend Peter [B.] Golden Georgian, who also studied Turkish. But all those languages would come later. Peter was one of my closest friends while I was at Columbia and has become a distinguished Turkologist among other things.
Q: Oh, wow. Was it difficult to learn Armenian and Russian side-by-side, or are they—? I don’t know. Are they distinct enough?
Suny: They are distinct enough. They are distinct enough, yes. In general, I don’t mix up Russian and Armenian. I have more trouble mixing up Georgian, and Turkish, and some others [laughs]. There are like nine languages rummaging around in my brain; that is the problem.
Q: That is very impressive. You mentioned how you spent a year, ‘65 to ‘66, abroad, in Russia. Right?
Q: Tell me about that experience. I mean, that, I assume, was your first time—
Suny: No, not my first time. Let me explain.
Q: No? Oh, then let’s start—yes.
Suny: So, I was at Columbia, and I am studying in the Russian Institute. My father’s brother Rupen, who had also been a Communist, and an activist of some kind, decided he was going to take a trip to Armenia to help them build their first khimchistka, their first dry-cleaning plant in Armenia. So, in September, October, 1964, when I was twenty-four years old, Rupen Suny and a friend of his, whose name I cannot remember, and Rupen’s grandson, Greg, and I, flew to Constantinople—Istanbul—and took a Soviet ship—I think it was called the SS Latvia—or Litva; I can’t remember—and we went by boat across the Black Sea, landing at Yalta. So, we went to Yalta, and we ended up at, finally, Sochi, and from Sochi, we took a train through Sukhumi, and Tbilisi, to Yerevan.
Suny: Yes. There we were in Armenia, in 1964, and it was extraordinary. Of course, I was very enthusiastic about Armenia, and about what they were trying to do there. I mean, it was a little bit of a cold shower, because the place was much poorer, and people were having a hard time, much more than I expected. But they were very warm, and they accepted us, and they fed us, and regaled us with—and there was an enthusiasm, at that time—this is early ‘60s, still—for the Soviet project. Not uncritical—Armenians loved to complain—but there was not serious alienation from what was going on. Things seemed to be improving. At least, that is the way I perceived it at the time.
I flew from there, from Yerevan, to Baku. I visited an aunt, Nino, in Baku, so I got to see Baku. And I was already becoming interested in writing about Baku. That is why I went there. And then I flew, and we all met again in Tashkent. In Tashkent, we had relatives—an Armenian woman, cousin of mine, had married a Polish Jew who had been deported—not deported, but, in a sense, saved by emigrating during the war to Tashkent. So I had Jewish relatives, along with my Armenian relatives. We had a wonderful visit with them. After my cousin died, the others later emigrated to the United States. They were violinists in Tashkent, they became taxi drivers in San Francisco. But, they were in San Francisco. Not a bad place.
Then, the most interesting thing happened. It is October 1964. We left Tashkent by plane, to go to St. Petersburg, to visit other relatives. As the plane was flying, it was brought down in Chelyabinsk, in the Urals. No explanation. We, as foreigners, were taken off the plane, and put in a room, and just left there for about six or eight hours. The other poor Soviets were milling around in the airport. Then we were put back on the plane, and went on to Leningrad, where we found out that Khrushchev had been removed, as head of the party and state, and that [Leonid I.] Brezhnev and [Alexei N.] Kosygin and others had come to power.
I remember going to my relatives and trying to find out what was happening. There was only, like, Swan Lake on the television; no news about anything. I thought to myself, “If only I were in New York, I could find out what’s happening,” but here I was in Leningrad, with no news. Complete news blackout. So I asked my older cousin, Tsolak, who was a wounded veteran from World War II. He had actually been in prison, before he was released to serve in the Red Army—for telling a joke about Stalin, by the way.
Q: Oh no [laughs].
Suny: I asked Tsolak, “So, what did you think of Khrushchev?” He said, “Svinya,” “He is a pig.” So, I realized, “Whoa, things are interesting here.” [Laughs] They did not like Khrushchev, and they were glad that he was gone. The interesting thing was, we were living with people who were Soviets, who would tell us everything. It wasn’t like they were so alienated, or so—this was their country, and they had lived in it, experienced it, suffered in it, appreciated it. Didn’t know other things, and were hoping things would get better. So, my whole attitude was that Homo Sovieticus, Soviet man and woman, were not liberal individualists of the American type, who lived in a regime that was alien to them, but were a different kind of subject, had a different subjectivity, which developed within Soviet society, and had positive and negative feelings about their own life, their experience, their leadership, etc. So it was a different experience. Partly from my own upbringing as someone who was sympathetic to the Soviet Union, and partly from the actual meeting of people who were actually living here, without being so confrontational with that reality.
Q: So, your sixth-grade report was correct. I mean, their life was not as bad as we made it out to be, I guess, as the U.S.—
Suny: Yes, of course. My sixth-grade report was correct. I am going to put it that way. Except we also know that in 1950, ‘51, things were pretty bad there.
Q: Yes, so by the time—right, right.
Suny: But, it is the positive, the negative, the yin, the yang, the grays—all of which we were trying to rescue, as young scholars who were about to experience this complex Soviet experience, without necessarily judging it always against a kind of idealized idea of American capitalist democracy.
Q: Right, right. So what else surprised you during this fall of ‘64 trip?
Suny: I already had a very good friend, Vahan Mkrtchyan—who is still alive, a wonderful, wonderful man—who had been on the exchange program, at Columbia. Vahan and his wife Lyuba came to Columbia. We met in 1962, ‘63, probably ‘63. He lived near me on the Upper West Side; we did things together. And he was a Communist. He was a party member. He even gave a lecture in Philadelphia about “Why I Am a Communist.” So I found him very, very sympathetic. He was, I would say, a true humanist and a true Communist. That is, he believed that this regime could help improve people’s lives, etc., and so forth.
After Leningrad, I had one night in Moscow before we flew away—that trip in October 1964— and Vahan, who was living in a communal apartment—had just lost his mother—in one room, with his wife and, maybe at that time, already, a child, his first daughter, Karina—took me to Red Square, and to [Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov] Lenin’s tomb. We saw all of this, and it was, for me, a kind of romance.
I think Vahan was also very influential in a funny way, because—maybe I better tell you this now, so I don’t forget it. Vahan—I once asked Vahan, probably the following year when I came back to the USSR, ’65, ‘66, from the exchange program. I asked Vahan, isn’t it true that the Soviet nationality policy is Russi-fying all of these people, and they are losing their nationality, and so forth, and becoming more like Soviet man? Vahan said, “No, you’ll see, when you go to Armenia—” and I had been there once, but, “—and you experience Georgia, that it is just the opposite. They are actually, in some ways, developing and enriching national cultural life.” And that, of course—
Q: Is your theory.
Suny: —is my thesis [laughs]. It is what I sort of introduced into Soviet studies that became, almost, a new paradigm, in thinking about the Soviet Union as the crucible of nations. Later, of course, when the Soviet Union collapsed, everyone sort of jumped on that wagon. Of course, they forgot what earlier scholars had said. But before the late 1980s there were very few people who appreciated the way the Soviet Union was making nations, rather than destroying them.
You had people like Robert Conquest who talked about the Soviet Union as the killer of nations, but you also had people like Teresa [Rakowska-Harmstone], who did appreciate, in her study of Tajikistan, that there was also a kind of nurturing of nationality—not nationalism, but nationality—in the Soviet project as well.
Q: Wow, so it has its roots that early in your—that is amazing.
Suny: Yes. This was—yes. And so, then I came back in 1965.
Q: And so this is different, because you are coming back as a student, you are living there—you are not a tourist anymore you are a visitor.
Suny: Right. So, I applied to the exchange program. We all had to go and do our work in the Soviet Union.
Q: So was it difficult to get a visa or to get access—? It was a [unclear]?
Suny: There was an official American-Soviet exchange program, the IUCTG—the Inter- University Committee on Travel Grants—and it was a treaty, and there were going to be some twenty-five or forty Americans going to the Soviet Union, and so many Soviets coming to us. You had to apply, and you had to pass a committee, and at one point—and you had to be careful about your project. Well, my project was about the Baku Commune, about Bolsheviks in Baku in the revolution, so the Soviets would be fine with that. In fact, people in the Soviet Union said, “Why are you interested in that? It is not interesting at all.” They were already sort of not buying this kind of revolutionary message.
But, I applied, and at a certain point, we were all sent to Bloomington, Indiana, to Indiana University, as a kind of orientation for this project, for going. When I was there, I was told to come separately, to have lunch with some people. So I was taken out of our group, and taken to this lunch, and there was, as I remember, Howard [D.] Mehlinger, who was at Indiana, some other people, and some other people I did not know. They started talking to me about, “What are you interested in, and where are you going? You are going to Armenia?” And so forth, and one person at the table suddenly said, “Do you know Vahan Ghazaryan?” And I kind of froze. Vahan Ghazaryan was an old Armenian Communist, who had gone back to the Soviet Union, whom we had met when I went with my uncle, the year before, to set up this dry-cleaning plant. I realized suddenly that I was being interrogated, and that whether I could go to the Soviet Union or not was going to be determined—remember, this is the Cold War—on the basis of my loyalty, or whatever.
I was a little upset about that, and I went back to Columbia. I went and met with Henry Roberts, who, as I mentioned, was either—maybe he wasn’t the director, but he was the director, I think, of the East Central European Institute. But he was in that whole milieu, and he was a wonderful man. I told him this whole situation. He said, “All right, I am glad you told me.” And Henry Roberts, who still had influence and power, because he had been in the government, etc., got me on that exchange, I am convinced. If you look at the introduction of the Baku Commune, there is a line, a cryptic line, about how without him, I could not have gone to the Soviet Union.
So we got through this, but you see how this was—and when I was in the Soviet Union, in that year, 1965-’66, many of my fellow students would go every day to lunch at the embassy. And they would talk to people in the embassy. Then they’d go back to the archive, or to whatever they were doing. I refused to do that. I thought, “I am in the Soviet Union. I should be doing my own work. I should be living in Soviet society, not collaborating with the U.S. government,” and so I was suspect to the Americans, and to some of my fellow students.
One time, when I was the mail distributor—I picked up the mail at the embassy, and brought it to my room, and then people were supposed to come in to get their mail, the Americans—a Soviet friend dropped in, a Russian boy. We were talking, and some of my colleagues were really upset and angry, and criticized me for having a local in the room when we were distributing— this is the kind of craziness there was. And I am loving the Soviet Union. I had a Soviet girlfriend, and I was having a good time. So, when I applied to stay again, for a second year, one, the Soviets agreed, and the Americans refused to let me stay. So I had to go home.
And also, there was one guy, Willis Brooks, I think it was, E. Willis Brooks, who was from North Carolina, who was reporting on us to the embassy. Yes. And we knew it. I mean, some of us ultimately realized it. I trusted him. I told him that I was being followed once by some police agents—I was really angry at the police. I stared at them, thinking, “Don’t you know, I am not an enemy of the Soviet Union. What are you following me for?” But they were checking on everybody there. I was running around the city, going to museums, rather than to the archive, the first weeks I was there. So, they were a little suspicious. I told this Brooks, and then he reported that to the embassy, and then I heard about it. So, there were these kinds of things. It was the Cold War days.
Q: And which city were you in?
Q: You were in Moscow, yes.
Suny: Then, in January 1966, I went to Armenia. I was the first official American exchange student to go to Armenia. My parents, my mom and dad, came to go with me. So, we are all going to go down, but—
Q: Had they been? Had they—?
Suny: No, no. Never. My father left Tbilisi, you know—
Q: As a child—
Suny: —as a child. My mother had never gone—
Q: —and your mother was born in the U.S., right, right.
Suny: Yes. So they were going to go with me. The poor folks—I had forced them to stand in minus thirty degree weather to see Lenin, on Red Square. My mother almost froze to death, but she did get to see Lenin. Then, we flew down. But, the boys from Indiana came as well— boys from Indiana is a sort of phrase which means the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], but it was not the FBI. But, this Mellinger, and maybe someone else—it could have been Robert Byrnes, but I am not sure. Funny how your memory goes. So two guys from Indiana accompanied me to Yerevan, because they wanted to check on this situation. In other words, I am still suspect in the eyes of this American committee that is running the exchange.
Well, we get to Armenia, and I speak Armenian, by this point, and they are sort of out of it. But, we sort of worked things out, and they left, and they let me stay there. But they were checking to see whether they were going to let me stay, on the American exchange, in Yerevan. My mother and father and I enjoyed Yerevan, and I was wined and dined. It was a real treat for everybody. I remember, also, one time, I was taken to a collective farm, and taken to the border zone, which is forbidden, to see Khor Virap, a famous Armenian monastery. And I realize that the guys who are with me are KGB [komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti] people. They are clearly—and they are giving me liquor, and I don’t drink much, and we are toasting each other. But they did not get anything out of it, and eventually, they lost interest in me. They must have said, “Well, he is no threat.”
There I was in Armenia in 1966 for three months, living in a dormitory, with mice, and two other people—one an American-Armenian, who went on his own, and one an Armenian from Ethiopia. I got to work in the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, which had all the newspapers of Baku, in 1917. So I had a treasure trove, and I wrote—collected the material. At the very end, they even offered me to work in the archive. But it was too late, and there was not much of an archive on Baku, anyway. It had been destroyed when the Turks invaded the city in 1918.
Q: So it sounds like you really enjoyed this year—
Suny: Yes, I had a great time.
Q: —both in Moscow, and then—
Suny: I loved the Soviet Union.
Q: Yes. What was the daily life like? You just briefly mentioned mice in the dorm. What were the conditions like? You are not on the Upper West Side anymore. Tell me about—
Suny: Well, in Moscow, it was the Moscow University building on Lenin Hillas, it was wonderful, because this dormitory had been built under Stalin—by German prisoners-of-war, by the way—and it was this edifice. We each had our own little room, connected to another room, so it was a kind of duplex. I shared that room with a Russian, Volodya Sogrin, who is now an important scholar, an Americanist, and editor of an important journal in Russia today. That was wonderful. He was a wonderful roommate. He told me, when we had to clean this room, and— unless you are an aristocrat, we would have to clean every once in a while, the toilet, and all of that. I am not an aristocrat. So we did very well, and I made a lot of friends. I loved Russians. They were so warm, and I just had a wonderful time. I wanted to immerse myself in Soviet society, and have Soviet friends—and I did—and not spend time with the Americans so much, because half the group, or more than half the group, was so critical, and so anti-Soviet, and so alienated by this society.
By the way, this year that we were there was later written up by Bill [William] Taubman, who was on the exchange, in his memoir A [The] View From Lenin Hills, so you can read—I have not read that in many decades, but he told the story from his point of view of that same year. We did not know he was writing that, but he did. He is a good friend from those years and before at Columbia, still is. So, daily life was wonderful—you know, you are twenty-five. Everything is fun then. You would get up in the morning, you would have a little breakfast downstairs—you know, you would stand in line carefully, because squeezing in line or butting in line was not permitted “Molodoi chelovek, vam ne stidno lezit’ v ochered,” “Young man, aren’t you ashamed butting in line like that?” There was a real sense of society, of rules. The Soviet Union was a very conservative society. There were lots of traditions, and conventions. There was no non- conformity in the 1960s. That would come later.
I was sitting on the subway one time, and I had my legs crossed like this, you know, akimbo, I guess it is called, or whatever. And an old woman, a babushka, came up to me, and slapped my leg, and said, “Molodoi chelovek,” “Young man,” “eto nekul’turno sidet’ tak,” “It is not cultural to sit like that.” “Eto gorod, ne derevnya,” “This is a city, not a village.” Now, you cannot imagine, Caitlin, in America, that some stranger, a woman, would have the right to discipline you, especially a foreigner, in that way, because you had done something nekul’turno, uncultured. But, there was a sense of what was proper and improper, and I appreciated it. I have used that story. I mean, that fact that it happened. I loved the fact that it was not so individualistic. It was not a cool place; it was uncool. But people still had this sense of collectivity, and of some kind of commonality.
Of course, the whole system was built on the fact that the Communist Party, and the leaders, were supposed to be concerned with the common good, not with individual well-being, or in profit, or advantage, but of making the whole thing work together. So, I mean, I am a socialist. I am not a Communist, I am a democratic socialist. I believe in socialism. I don’t think you can have democracy without socialism, or socialism without democracy. But I appreciated these aspects of the Soviet Union, that is, this idea that somehow, we all should be working toward some kind of common good. So, I loved it. I loved the simplicity; I loved the directness. There was a kind of brutality at times. People could be quite rough and brusque. But, yes. I miss it, in a way. I am sad that my students will never know it. They will study the Soviet Union, but they will never feel it in the same way.
Q: So you are engaging with Soviet society, you are immersing yourself in it. What were people’s conceptions there about America? Were you the first American that they had met?
Suny: Often. Often, you would be the first—Americans were very rare. They were incredibly interested in Americans. They had incredibly limited ideas about America. Remember, this is also the time of the Vietnam War. I, and others, were critical of the war. I remember playing ping-pong with Vietnamese students there, and thinking, “Boy, what terrible things we are doing to them,” feeling like I ought to apologize to them. I did not, but feeling that this kind of thing— and, in general, they were fascinated by Americans. People wanted to buy your jeans, or whatever. As an American, as a foreigner, you had privileges. You were in that society, you could do things, but you were also going to leave [laughs], and you had foreign money. You were getting a bigger stipend than the Russians were, and you could go to the Berezka, to the foreign valuta [currency] store, and buy things.
No matter what you did in the Soviet Union, you were breaking a law. The fact that I would go to this Berezka and buy whiskey, and liquor, and vodka, or whatever, with my dollars, and then bring it back and give it to my friends, that was probably illegal. I don’t know. Or, if people sold their jeans—I never sold any articles of clothing, or anything like that I remember. But, that would be a crime. You were speculating, or whatever. So it was easy to break rules. So, you are living in Soviet society, but you are not quite living in Soviet society, because you are a foreigner, you are protected in some ways, you are going back eventually, you are richer than everybody else.
Q: So you do go back after this fabulous year.
Suny: Yes. Wonderful year, yes.
Q: And then you are focused on your PhD, back at Columbia.
Suny: Right, yes. One thing I should mention is, while I was in the Soviet Union, ‘65-’66, Leopold Haimson, who had left Chicago—after a dispute over the hiring, firing, of Michael Cherniavsky left Chicago, and came to Columbia. He had not yet started at Columbia, but he had this year where he was in the Soviet Union. He was in the archive with us, and I became good friends with him. He took me once to the ballet, Cinderella, by [Sergei S.] Prokofiev and so forth. And so I got to know him pretty well. He was a fabulous character.
Q: What was he like?
Suny: Haimson was probably a little bit crazy, a little bit unstable, incredibly bright. He would sit in the seminar with his cigar dripping ashes on you if you sat too close. But he was a very good scholar, a very great critic of your work. He once told me, after I had written the dissertation, “Well, you should learn to write in English.” He said to me, something like that. I think I write pretty well in English, but he was very critical. So, I got to appreciate and work with him closely.
I would say, along with Garsoïan, Leopold Haimson was the father of this dissertation, of The Baku Commune, eventually. Now, I am not sure he ever read the final dissertation, because it was finished in 1968, during the Columbia revolt. He had a breakdown then, and was in the hospital, and came to my dissertation defense with two nurses. Arrived late, as I remember. So, he may not have actually fully read the final, final draft, but he was very good in earlier drafts, and in reading it, and helping me. Of course, there was no one better than Haimson on social democracy, the labor movement in Russia before the revolution, the Mensheviks. He knew all that stuff very well.
Q: Wow. So you meet, and develop a friendship abroad, and then come back to Columbia together.
Suny: And then come back, and take his seminar, which was a huge seminar, like fifteen or seventeen people, all kinds of people in that seminar, very high-level. Columbia was clearly the place to do Russian history, imperial history with Marc Raeff, and late imperial Russian history with Haimson. Now, there was not much Soviet history, yet. Sheila Fitzpatrick would come later, and help with that.
Luckily for me, I was there in the period when Haimson and Raeff were friends. They would later develop a rivalry, but it was still “golubchik moi,” “my dear pigeon,” and all of that, at the time, when I came back. That seemed to have gone through up to 1968. Maybe it was the Columbia events of ‘68—which I participated in, of course—which divided them. I am not sure, but they later became very hostile to one another, which hurt students, future students. But I benefited from their friendship, from their cooperation.
Q: So tell me about 1968 [laughs].
Suny: Yes [laughs]. So, I get back in ‘66, and the Vietnam War is going on, and we are protesting, and I am writing away for that year of ‘66-’67, and ‘67-’68. In ‘67-’68, I did some teaching; I was teaching as well. I was teaching what is called Contemporary Civilization, or CC, to Columbia undergraduates. That was my first real teaching experience, and it was a wonderful one. The students were extraordinary.
They were all men. It was Columbia College at the time. One of them was Philip [G.] Nord, who later became a very important French historian at Princeton. I think he is still at Princeton. Brilliant student. I had wonderful students; I loved them. I was trying to keep one day ahead of them. I am reading Plato, and then Aristotle, and then, whatever, Machiavelli, in order to teach this incredible course. But, it was a great success. I also taught a course, a more advanced course on memoirs, Russian memoirs and Soviet memoirs, which I should do again sometime.
So, I am teaching away there, and the war is going on, the Vietnam War. Then SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], and so forth, began in 1968 to occupy buildings, and so forth. I was generally a supporter of these events. Different faculty members—so I was half faculty, I still had not gotten my degree, but—had different armbands, red ones and white ones and so forth. I think I had a white one and a red one. I am not sure [laughs]. But red was really supporting the students, and white was, like, neutral.
I remember one time—I’ll tell you this story. Marc Raeff had just come back from Europe, for some reason. He had been doing research there. He comes, and Columbia is all in flames, and people are occupying buildings, the place is going crazy. He has a white armband. And we have to stand on Low Library’s ledge, to protect the students who are in there, occupying it—we are supposed to be neutral—from the jocks, and others, who were going to attack the library, and the students. So, we are standing on the ledge, and then there is a hedge. We were debating, what happens if a wedge of students goes through the hedge, and reaches the ledge. What do we do about it? This was called the wedge-hedge-ledge problem. Raeff was standing next to me, and we are talking, and I am trying to explain to him what is going on. He’s got his very European skepticism about all of this. It was very charming. Meanwhile, vegetables are being thrown at us, and landing on us [laughs], and all of that.
In any case, I could not defend my dissertation, because Hamilton Hall was occupied, and I was also standing guard there, in the very building where I am supposed to have my defense. Again, the jocks have come in to attack us, and we are trying to protect the students inside. I am arguing with these storm trooper-type blond, big—what do you call them—buff swimmers, they were, when suddenly, around the corner, from Harlem, comes a group of blacks. The jocks and all scatter, and now the blacks are standing in front of us. It was like Charles X Kenyatta, or something like that. They are standing there—so we are guarding the building. Then there are these blacks, and the jocks have sort of fled. One of these African-Americans turns to me and says, “What are you fighting for here? What are you doing here?” I explained, well, the students are against building a gym in the park, Morningside Park, above Harlem. This guy says, “Why don’t you want a gym? We want a gym.” I thought, uh-oh, false consciousness here—he does not quite understand the dynamics. But it was all of this confusion, and so forth.
I remember running from the police, and them throwing stuff at us, and tear gas, and all that. It was an image—I remember the Grateful Dead playing for us on campus. Yes, they were very politically active. If you left the campus, and you walked a few blocks away—as I would walk home toward 93rd Street—it was total quiet, no difficulty. I remember standing on the bridge above Amsterdam Avenue, and the police were coming to invade the campus, and yelling down to the police, “Don’t come—!” and them looking up and spitting at us. So I knew, ooh, there is going to be trouble. So, once they invaded, I ran quickly and did not get hit, but others got hit and bloodied.
Yes, it was a kind of wonderful event, you know [laughs].
Q: What was the attitude of the longer, more established professors, at the Russian Institute?
Suny: It was divided. People like Haimson actually supported the students, or tried to. There were others—Richard Hofstadter among them, and others—who were opposed. There were those who left Columbia because of these events. I think—oh, now I am forgetting his name too—Peter Gay, who went to Yale after that—a very famous French historian. Anyway, there were all kinds of responses. Faculty could move in those days. I mean, there were jobs everywhere, and these were prominent people. Some went to Yale, some went to Johns Hopkins, or whatever. Yes. But, it was a very divisive moment, too.
But there were wonderful people like—I never mentioned the name Alexander Erlich. Alexander Erlich taught Soviet economics. He was also the son of a famous Menshevik, of Henryk Erlich, who later would die in Stalin’s prison—a suicide, apparently. Alexander Erlich, whose brother, Victor Erlich, taught at Yale, was a wonderful man. We called him Saint Alex, because he was so kind and all. He supported the students. So there were different people, different ways of reacting at the time, on the part of the faculty.
Q: Wow. So, despite the state of the rebellion, you do eventually defend your dissertation.
Suny: In the summer of 1968, yes. Erlich was there—Dallin had gone to Stanford by that time. Alexander Erlich was there, Haimson came late, George—what was his name? I cannot remember. Nina Garsoïan. And it became a book. It was a book published, part of the Columbia series, by Princeton University Press: The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution. And I got a job at Oberlin from that book, too [laughs].
Q: Directly the next fall? Was that right away?
Suny: Yes, well, there were jobs in those days.
Q: That is amazing.
Suny: Yes, that is right; that is not like today. I had many offers. I remember in the spring and summer of 1968, people calling and saying, “We’d like you to come—no interview, just come.” “Well, where are you?” “We are the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.” I said, “Where?” So that was the end of that. Another one was the University of Santa Clara in California, which would be a great place. I said, “Well, tell me something about yourself.” They said, “We are a small Jesuit university.” I said, “I don’t think you want me.” “Why?” I said, “Well, I think I am to the left of you.” “Oh no, we are very progressive.” I said, “Not that progressive.” Which would be a mistake, probably, because the University of Santa Clara, which is in Silicon Valley, if I bought a house there, I would be a millionaire today.
Q: Yes, you would [laughter]. Undoubtedly.
Suny: But Oberlin was the best job at the time. I went out there, and I apparently wowed them. They offered me the job before I left campus, so I stayed thirteen years at Oberlin.
Q: And you liked it, too?
Suny: I liked Oberlin. I liked it in the beginning very much, because the students were very lively, and it was very antiwar, and progressive. Then it sort of turned in on itself, and the faculty became much more hostile one to another, as we had a reforming president that—that was a bad time. But I met Armena there—Armena was a student of mine, a young Armenian woman from Philadelphia. We married in 1971, and so we stayed—and she loved Oberlin. She was an Oberlin student, she went to the conservatory, she taught Suzuki piano there, we had our first child who lived—we only had him for two years, unfortunately, but he was with us there. So, yes.
Q: Did Oberlin in those early days kind of remind you of Swarthmore, at all? Was it a similar—?
Suny: Swarthmore, but more active, more political, yes. The antiwar movement was very active there. I was like the Red-in-residence. I was like the campus radical, because I had come from Columbia, and I was only twenty-eight, and I was close to the students. There were moments at Oberlin where I was the only one who could speak to the students, and get them to not occupy a building, or trash the bank, or something like that. The first year, the school—there was no end to the school year. The first three years, the school year never ended, because we never had final exams.
Q: Or a graduation ceremony, right?
Suny: Yes, graduation, because it was like—1970 was Kent State, and all of that. It was a very exciting time to be there, and they were wonderful students. Oberlin students of 1968, ‘69, ‘70, and so forth, were like graduate students anywhere else. Incredibly smart, incredibly hard- working, very politically active. Many of them went into union work. My friend John Lawrence worked for a Congressman, and then became Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff. We are still good friends. You know, all kinds of things. A really extraordinary group of people. But then I was there thirteen years, and by the end, it was less interesting, and more difficult.
Q: As you mentioned, you met your wife there.
Q: You were a very young professor when you started—twenty-eight?
Suny: Twenty-eight [laughs].
Q: [Laughs] That is really young.
Suny: Is it? That is good to know.
Q: It is young. You probably looked like one of the students.
Suny: Yes, I had to grow a beard at Columbia so I looked older. I kept the beard since then.
Q: Was that an accepted thing at the time, to—?
Suny: No. Oh, my goodness, no.
Q: Okay. I was wondering—if you don’t mind.
Suny: A very famous guy, Carey McWilliams Jr., had a relationship with a student whom he later married, a year before I came, or two years before I came, and had to leave the college, had to leave Oberlin. So, Armena and I were very discreet. She came to me and wanted to learn Armenian. I said, “Okay, but I am very busy. We will do a private reading course at nine in the evening at my place.” That probably would get me fired today, too. But, eventually we became really close. We went to Europe together, which also, her mother was not happy with. And then, when it was time to go to the Soviet Union again in 1971, we got married just before that, so that she could come with me. She went with me on the second exchange program that I was on, ‘71- ’72, where we were largely in Yerevan and Tbilisi. By that point, I was writing this book on Georgia, The Making of the Georgian Nation. Armena was an extraordinary person. She died four years ago, unfortunately.
Q: Was she also from Philadelphia?
Suny: She was from Philadelphia, yes. We went through the loss of our child, you know, in 1980, so we were very—yes, it was a wonderful relationship. We had two daughters later on, Sevan and Anoush, who are still with me. She was a very talented musician. She was the Suzuki piano teacher. She believed fervently in this method, and she was brilliant at teaching it. She had some strange ideas about eating, and so forth—became a vegetarian, then a vegan, then a raw food vegan, and so forth, which ultimately, I think, did not do her much good. She got a very serious breast cancer, in 2012. In March, we learned about it, and she died seven and a half months later. So I’ve had two big tragedies in my life, losing a child. And even more devastating was losing Armena. I still live with that one.
Q: I am so sorry. I can’t imagine.
Suny: I hope you never have to imagine it.
Q: It sounds like you guys had a good time together.
Suny: Oh, yes. She was amazing, because she would come with me. I mean, twice we went to the Soviet Union—1971-’72, ‘75-’76. After the first time, we flew to Japan, and she went to Matsumoto to study with [Shinichi] Suzuki, the piano teacher there. Then I went back to Columbia, and had a nice year, or a nice six months at the Harriman Institute, again. It was—I don’t know what you’d call a post-doc, or—you had a professor—
Q: This was in ‘72?
Suny: It would be ‘72, if I have all the dates right, yes. Then she joined me in New York, and then we went back to Oberlin, and then we went again in ‘75, ‘76—again, Tbilisi, Yerevan, maybe Moscow.
Q: How had things changed there in the ‘70s, versus when you were there in the mid-‘60s?
Suny: Oh, you begin to notice things. I mean, some of the same people—so I knew this Mkrtchyan family—Vahan had been an exchange student at Columbia and then a TASS [Tyelyegrafnoye agyentstvo Sovyetskogo Soyuza] correspondent. We kept up all these years. He was in New York, he was in Washington as a correspondent, back in Moscow, in Malta. He had been a Soviet person there. I had watched the differences as time went on. We were very close to Vahan’s sisters, Eteri and Seva in Tbilisi. You could see the beginnings of a kind of shift. They were becoming more critical in the ‘70s, especially the younger sister Eteri, who now claims she never was pro-regime, but I am not sure that is true. Seva was still a teacher, and was very pro- regime. Her father had been—the older man, whom I knew, Vahan—the older Vahan—had been a military officer, and had survived the purges, and was also very pro-Soviet, and a good Communist, and so forth. So I had all these different experiences. But you could see the degeneration taking place from the top, that is, intellectuals becoming more critical, people becoming more materialistic, in a way, and more ambitious in a kind of personal individualistic way. Things began to shift.
Then, of course, we lived in Georgia, and Georgia was more critical. Armenia was less critical. Armenia was more Soviet, because there’s the Turks over there, or whatever, and half of Armenia’s graduates go into other parts of the Soviet Union. Georgians stayed in Georgia, and they were more nationalistic. Armenians are very nationalistic too, but the Georgians—I remember one discussion where Georgians would say, “I think we can make it on our own. We don’t need the Soviet Union,” and that was surprising to me. That would be like the mid-’70s. So, they felt much more restrained by the Soviet regime. Armenians seemed to thrive more in it, and able to manipulate it, and use it for their own good.
Q: Very interesting. When you returned to the Russian Institute in ‘72, what has changed there since you left in ‘68?
Suny: Well, now Haimson was there, and Haimson was holding forth, and I was working with him in the Menshevik project, and things like that. A very good friend was there, Ziva Galili, an Israeli woman, who is now still teaching, or just about to retire from Rutgers. We became really good friends. I was beginning to think more and more about the way in which nationality had been created within the Soviet Union, and fostered by the Soviet regime. So I was moving toward this idea of the Soviet Union as a crucible for ethnicity and nationality, but I was working basically on this Georgia book.
That led me ultimately to 1980, when I went to Harvard—yes, went to Harvard, to the Russian Institute there to write this history of Georgia. And that is when we lost Grikor. Grikor died just a month and a half after we arrived. So it was almost impossible to work on Georgia, or go to the archives, or anything. I made a very good friend, Norman [M.] Naimark, who helped me get through a lot of these things, who was at Boston University. But he would work mostly at the Russian Institute—no, not Russian Institute, but the Harvard research center, or whatever it is called.
Q: Yes, the Davis Center.
Suny: Eventually the Davis Center, yes. That year, after Grikor died—Nina Garsoïan had asked me to come to Columbia, and give a series of lectures that would eventually be a book, on Armenia. I told her, after he died, “I can’t do it.” She said, “No, no, you should do it—this will be part of your therapy, to get out of this.” I did do it. I wrote these lectures and gave five lectures at Columbia, that eventually became a little book called Armenia in the 20th Century, that was later incorporated into another book, redone, called Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History. Thanks to Nina, that was a very good exercise, to give a sort of history of Armenia in modern times, and really investigate the history of Soviet Armenia, as well. Based, by the way, on secondary work, my own experience—no archival work, because there were no archives to look at.
Q: And so you went back to New York for that time, too?
Suny: I would go back and forth from—I guess we were in New York, too, at some point, there, because Armena was with me at those lectures. The very last lecture, I remember, the last lines of that last lecture, I was looking at her in the audience, and saying that Armenians live near Ararat. “They can’t choose the life they wish, but they do live the life they’ve been given,” something like that. It was talking to Armena about what we had already gone through as well.
By that time, Armena was already pregnant with Sevan. Sevan was born. And Sevan was this insistent child. You know, “I am here now, stop grieving. Grieving is over, mourning is over, take care of me!” She was this incredible life force. She still is. After Grikor died—Grikor died in 1980—I went six weeks later to Michigan, because they were planning this Armenian chair. I had been there in ‘77-’78—Grikor was born in Ann Arbor—then we went back to Oberlin for two years, and then I came to Harvard. At that point, Michigan said, “Come, we are going to make a chair here, but you have to give a job talk.” We had just lost this child—I was sort of half hallucinating, I remember. But I went, I steeled myself, and gave this talk. Apparently it worked well, and they offered me the job. And so in fall of ‘81, we went to Michigan. Thanks very much to Bill Rosenberg, William Rosenberg, who was a really good friend of mine at the time, who helped engineer this move to Michigan. And then, I started my next thirteen-year plan, which was thirteen years at Michigan.
Q: Thirteen years. How was Michigan, as a—?
Suny: Fantastic. Michigan is, in some ways, a perfect university. It is very democratic. The department is quite left, or liberal, or social democratic, or whatever—extremely supportive. I think, in many ways, I became a much better historian because of the colleagues and the exchanges we had at Michigan. Bill and I worked very well together for many years. Very important to me was a colleague, Geoff [H.] Eley, who does German history, who is a Marxist. Our whole friendship was built on Marxism and gossip, and so that was a very—
Q: [Laughs] That sounds like a good foundation.
Suny: Yes, it was, it was. He was very important in my development. We did a book together called Becoming National. Because by this time, in the ‘80s, now we were moving toward this constructivist view. There is some of that expression already in Armenia in the Twentieth Century. But developed as a theory, it comes after 1983, after Eric J. Hobsbawm’s book on nationalism. That was an important breakthrough for me, too, because as a Marxist, I was not so interested in nationalism. I thought of nationalism as a kind of delusion that covered over really social problems, and other kinds of causes for discontent. But, these works show how nationalism, yes, has a social basis, but it is also a way of imagining who you are, who others are. And you should not reduce culture to sort of social and economic causes, that culture is a kind of independent variable, that also has an enormous effect. By the way, that last thought first came to me from a graduate student, Susan Pattie, an anthropologist, who has been a very close friend ever since.
So, we were moving, both toward this constructivist view of nations, as not primordial, and not organic, but a product of human activity in modern times. That would come out very much in a book that I did in the early 1990s called The Revenge of the Past, which were lectures given at Stanford. That was an important breakthrough, because The Revenge of the Past was the first full expression of this thesis that nations were made within the Soviet empire, which then became influential with people like Yuri [L.] Slezkine, his article on the communal apartment, Terry Martin, and others, who would develop these ideas with real archival research, and so forth. Yes.
Q: Yes, let me get into the Revenge of the Past more, and the scaffolding behind it. It seems like very interesting timing that it came out so soon after the collapse—I was wondering if you could tell me the behind-the-scenes story of that a little bit.
Suny: Yes. It is interesting that that book should be mentioned, because that book is one of the ones that is really recognized at Columbia. I know that Al [Alfred C.] Stepan uses the book, and likes it very much. I think Jack Snyder might also like it. It is part of my move into political science.
Sometime in the 1980s, as the new idea about nationalism, that we now call constructivism, was developing, I became very interested in the social dimensions as well as cultural dimensions of the making of nations. Trying to place nations in history, rather than as sort of primordial givens, or organic natural occurrences—how, indeed, nations emerged in modern times, as a result of the activities of real human beings, who began to re-conceive of social and political communities in a new way. The first forays into that were in my work on Armenia and Georgia, and the ways in which these countries were transformed by the Soviet experience, so that—though Georgia and Armenia, of any of the Soviet republics, can trace some origins way back to early, ancient, even prehistorical times—the ways in which these conceptions of political community changed over time were for me very fascinating.
I had been teaching Armenian history, now, at the University of Michigan, since 1981. I found, in the teaching of that history, great difficulty in making a kind of organic, consistent narrative, because Armenian history went in all directions at once. Armenians were fighting each other; some Armenian principalities would join with Muslims against other Armenians. The facile, organic, nationalist narrative of Armenians all through time trying to create a nation-state did not seem to fit.
I remember, I was invited once to Venice, for a conference on Gli Armeni, “the Armenians.” I had read a book by a guy named [Maxime] Rodinson, Max Rodinson, which was about Jewish history, about the cult, the religion of Jews. He was disaggregating the history of the Jews from this nationalist narrative, which would lead, inevitably, to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Rodinson was a Marxist—I found all of this very congenial. I thought, “All I have to do is cross out ‘Jew’ and put in ‘Armenian,’ and we have a really fascinating story.” And so I gave this talk, which later became the introduction to a book called Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History, 1983, Indiana University Press. It was basically a story about how Armenians conceived and reconceived of themselves through time, from an ethno-religious community, to something like a modern nation-state.
So already, there, in the ‘80s, this idea was crystallizing, but it was not very well theorized, or thought out. I remember that the major paradigm in Soviet studies was that the Soviet Union was the prison-house of nations, that it was the destroyer of nations, that the Soviet project was about amalgamation, assimilation, Russification, Sovietization. I, through my living in Georgia and Armenia, really felt this was the wrong way to look at things, that in fact, there were many ways in which the Soviet project was about the making of nations—in a new way—Soviet nations, in the Soviet empire. At the time, I would not have used the words “Soviet empire,” but later, that would become apparent why that seemed appropriate to me, later.
I published an early article called “The Revenge of the Past” in New Left Review, which is a fine Marxist journal, published in London, by various types of Trotskyists. By the way, I was never a member of any group; I never joined any party. My father warned me during the Cold War, “Don’t join any parties,” so I never have had any sectarian association. I’ve always been—I think of myself as Marxist, but in a very vague, and maybe idiosyncratic way. So, that article actually appeared, in the early ‘90s.
Then I was invited by Norman Naimark, and Gail Lapidus, and some others, to Stanford, to give these lectures—at the time—so, it is 1990; it is the year before the Soviet Union collapses— about the creation of nations within the Soviet Union, which was already becoming a hot topic, because there was the Karabakh events, or the Estonian and Latvian resistance to [Mikhail S.] Gorbachev, etc. I developed, as much as I could, this theory of Soviet construction of nations, contrasting what Ernest Gellner had called this “sleeping beauty” notion of nations—that they had always existed, that somehow, then, in modern times, the kiss of freedom woke up this primordial nation which had always been there—with another concept which Reggie [Reginald E.] Zelnik—wonderful Reggie Zelnik, whom we lost—gave to me, called the “Bride of Frankenstein” theory, that in fact the nation is a construction, of pieces and so forth, and then is created by human hands in modern times.
Now, that is how that book began, these lectures began. Bill Sewell came to those lectures, and Norman Naimark came to the lectures, and others, Gail Lapidus. Eventually, they said we should publish them, and the book came out at Stanford in 1993. But the ideas, and all, were there before that. I would say—and I am proud of this—that that was a paradigm changer. This new paradigm, of looking at the Soviet Union as a creator of nations—as a crucible of nations, I think I called it—became very prominent in years after that, became the dominant view of looking at this. People forget that—they don’t always remember me as an author of that, but I don’t mind that. I think if I say “class struggle,” I don’t necessarily say “Karl Marx,” so—I don’t put myself in the same camp as him, but if an idea becomes influential, and floats out there, everyone can claim it [laughs].
Q: That is very interesting. And very big of you. So, this idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union was due in part to this nationalism—it really was a game-changer, I think. You were already giving that message before the collapse, so did people hear it as much then as they did after?
Suny: That is a good question. I did not think the Soviet Union would collapse. I sort of agreed with Alex [Alexander J.] Motyl that it cannot collapse, because the KGB, the army, the party will keep things together. What we did not realize is that a leadership would come to power under Gorbachev that would begin dismantling the actual sinews and skeleton of the Soviet Union, and make it possible for these national groups and others to ultimately end it. By the way, I was never for the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think it was a disaster. There, I agree with Putin. I think it would have been better if some looser, more democratic union had continued. I am for the European Union, and I am for that kind of thing. I think tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, died unnecessarily, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Tajikistan, in Karabakh, in Transnistria, and elsewhere. So, I wasn’t a fan of that.
Two things: first of all, in the book, I actually argue that not only are nations constructed, but class as well is constructed, that all of these kinds of conceptions of collectivities are there. The book very much makes an argument that class and nationality, both social constructions, often overlap, and that what we might see as a nation is actually much like a social group. So that Ukrainians tend to be peasants, Armenians were a kind of bourgeoisie, and so forth. Those elements also have to be taken into account. That part of the story is not recognized in general, or is not talked about. I also emphasize in the book the weakness of nationalism in the revolution of 1917 as well. That is, people in 1917-’18 did not vote for nationalist parties; they voted for socialist parties. So class was much more important in 1917.
Now, as you go into 1918 and into the civil war, the national elites were expressing nationalist ideas, and their understanding should not be collapsed into the people below them—then nationality and nationalism did become more important. And then Lenin would ultimately recognize the importance of nationality, create the Soviet federation, even promote national identity, in the Korenizatsiya, or indigenization program. So that was an important theme— again, a kind of Marxist argument, but one that would not resonate the way some of these other arguments did. People hear and read things in different ways.
I will tell you one interesting incident. The Soviet Union was collapsing. It was not that clear to everyone that it was collapsing, but in 1991—as the Soviet Union was really on its deathbed, but it was not quite anticipated yet—I remember having a debate on TV with Zbigniew Brzezinski. I was called by PBS, the McNeil-Lehrer Report, and they said, “Professor Suny, Professor Brzezinski is supposed to make an argument that the Soviet Union is going to collapse. Do you agree with that?” I said, “No, I think it will not collapse.” He said, “Good, we have a debate. Okay, we will put you on the air.” So they arrange this, and it comes on, and they first ask Professor Brzezinski about this. He says, “No, I don’t think it will collapse.” In other words, he was just writing a book about how it is going to collapse, but at this moment, he had doubts about it. I am caught, and I said, “Oh, well, I guess I have to agree with Professor Brzezinski.” [Laughs] So it was not much of a debate. Later, he did write a book about how it was going to collapse, but anyway, very few people really thought it was in the cards that it was going to collapse.
The next year, or sometime—I don’t have the chronology right—in March 1991, there was a referendum, you remember—Gorbachev organized a referendum about whether they should keep the Soviet Union or not. Something like seventy-six percent of the Soviet population voted for some kind of union, some kind of union of Soviet or socialist or whatever states. Six republics voted to not have this referendum—Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, and the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. But, they represented about eleven percent of the population, and the rest voted, and overwhelmingly voted to keep the Soviet Union.
Sometime after that vote—which was also reinterpreted, and was made sort of irrelevant by many of the commenters of the time—I was invited, for reasons I still can’t fathom, to appear and to discuss these events in the Soviet Union with Richard Pipes of Harvard, and James [H.] Billington, the Librarian of Congress at the time. We were invited to the Republican Senators’ retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia—an extraordinary event, right? This is like April or May of 1991. The first war in Iraq had ended, with a spectacular victory by the Americans. There was the Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, who would later become more notorious, and his wife, and others, and Senators, and all of this, and everyone was congratulating him on this victory.
We had this debate, and I remember Billington saying something like, “Gorbachev is not genuine, he is a stalking horse for the KGB, this is all not what we think it is, the Soviet Union is not really reforming,” etc. Pipes more or less agreed with this point of view. When it became my turn to speak, I said, “Well, I have to disagree with my distinguished colleagues here. I think the Soviet Union is committing suicide. I was there recently, in 1990, and the borders with Azerbaijan were open, and there were militias in the streets—it seems to me that there’s a kind of crisis, a real serious crisis, and that Gorbachev is in fact very sincerely a reformer. In fact, he may be undermining the very existence of the Soviet Union.” I had to leave quickly, because my wife had a high school reunion, and I had to rush away. I remember leaving, and Bob [Robert J.] Dole rushing around the table to thank me and congratulate me, and shaking hands with me, with his good hand, for this performance, and for being so forthright in saying this.
Well, it did not have any effect, of course, but several months later, the coup d’état took place, the putsch, so called. And basically, the Soviet Union fell apart, to my great regret. I am not one of those people who ever thought that that was a good thing. I guess I was in the same camp as the senior George [H. W.] Bush [laughs], who thought it was a bad idea that the Soviet Union should fall apart.
Q: I mean, beyond thinking that this was a bad idea, and a tragedy, how did the collapse—what was your reaction to that, professionally and personally?
Suny: Well, I remember—maybe it was that fall at the AAASS [American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies], in our Slavic association, saying, “You will regret that this happened, because after Marxism-Leninism comes Islamism-Hinduism. You are going to have fundamentalist religion. What other alternatives are there to the hegemony of American capitalist democracy and world domination? This is what you are going to get.” Of course, that was right. That is, there is no left anymore. There’s no Soviet Union, there’s no alternative to—I mean, is Putin an alternative to American hegemony? He is a very conservative type. So, we are in a very strange, one-dimensional world, in which there are not effective alternatives to globalized capitalism, and what I call bourgeois democracy.
My professional response was very critical, very unhopeful. Just at around that time, I was invited by the University of Chicago to come to be a political scientist at Chicago. I thought this was strange, I am not a political scientist. But, the Soviet Union was gone—
Q: You are a historian.
Suny: Yes, I am a historian. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Soviet studies had collapsed, people who had been trained as Sovietologists did not have much to do anymore. So I was hired by the political science department at the University of Chicago, which was an extraordinary experience. I love Michigan, but Chicago is like the only true university where nothing else matters but the life of the mind—as I was once told, by Keith Baker—there’s nothing in Hyde Park expect the life of the mind. It is a dreary place, the weather’s not good, it is cold, it is where hell freezes over, where fun comes to die, but intellectually, it is fantastic. I, at age—what was I then?—fifty-four—wait a minute, was I fifty-four? Yes, so it was 1994—was like a superannuated graduate student. I was learning this new discipline, and learning what rational choice theory is, and what path dependency is—things that I had never heard of before.
I had some wonderful mentors. A guy named Simon [D.] Jackman had just come—he is now at Stanford—who was a wonderful young political scientist. We’d go out to dinner together—his wife was in Australia, still—and I’d say, “Okay, so what is path dependency?” And then he would try to [laughs] explain it to me. So I was having a good time, and I was teaching a very popular course called “The Nation and its Others”—some sixty graduate students coming—and we were promoting this constructivist notion. I had to cut it down to thirty. I think it is still taught now, by Lisa Wedeen, another fine political scientist at Chicago. I stayed there eleven years, and commuted from Ann Arbor, which was not easy, and developed these ideas, and it was “The Revenge of the Past” as a talk that got me the job at Chicago. I gave it as a paper there. As they say, the rest is history. So I had a wonderful time being a political scientist for a while.
Q: That is kind of extraordinary that you could switch fields like that. I think, as you mentioned, there’s so many of—at Harriman, for sure, there was a certain identity crisis after the collapse, about did they miss it, and what this means now, and everybody feeling like perhaps the field was changing, or disappearing. And you went from being a historian to a political scientist.
Suny: Well, first of all, I believe that history is the queen of social sciences. I believe there’s no social science without history, and our problem in America is we don’t recognize the importance of history, and so forth. It is not just that history is the data for political scientists, or sociologists. It is a whole way of approaching reality, and complexity, and all the rest—and not letting the question and the methodology drive the research, but rather, to think of an interesting problem, how you can go about solving it, and grounding it in real, empirical work, as well as sort of more conceptual and theoretical approaches, etc.
So, I was trying to, in some way, stand on two stools—always a dangerous thing—with political science and history. Chicago was enormously supportive. That department was very eclectic. It was not the Stanford department, or what some other departments had become. It had a philosopher in it, it had an economist, it had people who were interested in anthropology. They had someone like Bill Sewell, who was a close friend, and we taught together. It was very tolerant of someone who did history, and was trying to think about these bigger questions of nation formation, etc. There were amazing scholars, always ready to talk to you about complicated questions, like David Laitin, Jim Fearon, John Mearsheimer, Stathis Kalyvas, and in history, I worked closely with Sheila Fitzpatrick and Richard Hellie. We ran a Russian Studies Workshop together for a decade and turned out a whole generation of fine scholars.
It was at Chicago, thanks to people like the Rudolphs, Susanne [Hoeber Rudolph] and Lloyd [I.] Rudolph, who work on India—or, worked on India. They are gone now, sadly—that the whole question of empire developed. I began to develop this idea of, what is the nature of an empire, and what is its relationship to the formation of nations? That became an essay called “The Empire Strikes Out,” which became part of a book with Terry Martin, who was one of our graduate students in history at Chicago. Later, the latest book, my last book, which has just come out a few months ago, in 2016—probably dated 2017—with Oxford, a book I co-wrote with Valerie Kivelson, my wonderful colleague at Michigan, called Russia’s Empires, in which we examine the concept of empire—when Russia became an empire, what it means to be an empire, is Russia today an empire—and tell the whole story, from the earliest days of Kiev, up to Putin— or from the primeval ooze to Putin—we call it, through this lens of empire. I think it is a wonderful book.
Q: Speaking of empire, you also have a chapter in the book, “After Empire,” in Mark Von Hagen and Karen Barkey—as well?
Q: So, I mean, the Harriman connection—I mean, in ‘97, you still—did you know Mark before, or—? We interviewed him—
Suny: Oh, yes, Mark and I had been friends for a long time. I love Mark; he is wonderful. And Karen, I met early on in a very funny and strange way. I was invited once to Princeton, by Natalie Zemon Davis, because the Princeton department had hired Heath [W.] Lowry, a genocide denier, to be the Kemal Atatürk chair, at Princeton. He was in Middle East studies. But Natalie Davis was very upset, because everyone thought the History Department had hired this person who denied the Armenian Genocide. So she organized a little workshop, and Karen Barkey came to that workshop, and we both spoke about the events of 1915.
Karen was very circumscribed, and not willing to use the word genocide. She has her own connections, so she is a wonderful scholar, and someone I learned from, and a good friend now. But she was being very careful at the time. It was a difficult time for Ottoman and Turkish studies. I was, you know, very—it wasn’t any cost to me. I was very forthright about the Genocide, etc. But we met there, and when we did this little conference at Columbia that became the book After Empire, there was a very fine scholar, a scholar of Ottoman history there—whose name is now escaping me as I try to think and talk at the same time, but it will come to me— Şerif Mardin—who gave a whole story of the collapse of the Ottoman empire, without mentioning the Armenians or the Genocide. I remember intervening in the discussion afterwards, saying, “I am your worst nightmare. I am an Armenian, and I think about these things,” and so forth. I don’t remember how that all worked out.
The other thing I remember about that conference was the wonderful critique of my paper— which I don’t think was one of my best papers—by Jack Snyder. Unfortunately—I must have taken notes, I don’t know where they would be. I take notes on everything. But he gave a superb critique, and I integrated some of that into the final published version, so it was better. But, I’ve always admired Jack. Since I was then, you know, at that time, a political scientist—reading his work on imperial overreach, and other aspects, the problems of democratization. I was very appreciative of his intervention.
Q: Well, you are on his syllabus a lot.
Suny: I like that, and I am glad to hear that. Yes.
Q: And then, so in 2005, I think, you go back to Michigan, right?
Suny: Right. I actually returned to Michigan as a visiting scholar in fall 2004. Chicago agreed that I could spend that year in Ann Arbor, then officially retire when I had reached sixty-five in September 2005. Thus, I retired and am still emeritus professor of political science and history there, as well as professor of history at Michigan. I am so happy to have that association, because I so loved the University of Chicago, and still do. But I actually physically went back in 2004 as a visiting professor at Michigan, for that last year that I was actually technically at Chicago, and began teaching. They came to me, and said, “Come back to Michigan, and we will give you your chair back in Armenian studies.” I said, “No, I don’t want to do that. I did that for thirteen years. I love being an Armenian, I am happy to be an ethnic Armenian, but not a professional Armenian anymore.” So they made a chair, a collegiate chair that became the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History, at—
Q: And Charles Tilly is kind of the expert on state building, right? I mean, the Western—
Suny: Yes, he was wonderful. And I knew him well when I first went to Michigan. He had these Sunday seminars with his wife, Louise Tilly that were just extraordinary. He was always a good guy and very supportive. I saw him just before he died, and we had a long conversation about our work, and his work, and his illness, and—he was a wonderful man.
Q: Well, what a great way to get back to Michigan, in a different way, but to still be there.
Suny: [Laughs] Yes.
Q: So, now, as the Professor of Social and Political History. So which department did you sit in?
Suny: I am in history, and I was in history as the Charles Tilly Professor. I was teaching Russian history. There were two Russian historians who were just leaving—Jane Burbank went to NYU with her husband Fred [Frederick] Cooper—and just after a few years, Bill Rosenberg retired, and left as well. So the Russian field was basically left to me; Valerie Kivelson, who did early Russia; Doug Northrup came and does largely Central Asia; later we would get Jeff Veidlinger, who does Russian Jewish history, as well as Olga Maiorova, who is in literary and cultural studies. So we built a very strong program. Bill was really the founder of that program, but later it developed. I do most of the more modern courses on Russian history.
Q: So are you then involved in the Russian center, CREES [Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies]—
Suny: Yes, CREES, we call it, yes.
Q: CREES, yes. So, tell me about that center, especially as it compares to someplace like the Harriman—it seems to be smaller, but maybe much more purposefully so—
Suny: That is a very good way, Caitlin, to put it, yes. Harriman has enormous resources that we don’t have. It is in the city of New York, with all of those kinds of things. But ours, CREES, is really much more centered on Russia, now Central Asia to some extent, and Eastern Europe. And has a whole very active series of programs, thanks to an incredibly energetic and creative woman named Marysia Ostafin—who is like the soul of that place—and Donna Parmelee, who worked there for a long time, and other people. It supports students, as an MA program, helps us organize conferences and lectures, etc. But it is, I would say, a smaller operation, but it also attempts to do all kinds of outreach as well. But we are talking about a city like Ann Arbor, 150,000, not a city ten times bigger, namely New York.
Q: That is interesting. I want to talk a little bit about nationality studies, and how that became kind of a field in and of itself, and the strengths and benefits of that. We talked to Alex Motyl about nationality studies a lot, nationality studies versus area studies—
Suny: Alex Motyl?
Q: J. Motyl, yes. And—
Suny: Someone I really like, very much. He is really more nationalist than I am. I am anti- nationalist, but I love Alex. I wrote a good piece for him on history and nationalities, for his Encyclopedia of Nationalism.
Q: Oh, right.
Suny: Really good—I like the piece. I use it a lot.
Q: He mentioned that. So, I would love to hear your story of nationality studies.
Suny: Yes. First of all, before the late 1980s, no one cared about non-Russians. Sovietology and Soviet studies was about the center, and the top—who was standing where on the Kremlin, on the mausoleum, and so forth. There were a few of us who were interested in the periphery. So right from Columbia, from day one, I was working on Baku, Georgia, Armenia, the Caucasus. And you had the field to yourself.
Q: So the concept was there to study, it just wasn’t—
Suny: Yes, I mean, the areas were there, but all the money and everything and interest was in the center, and in Russia. Very few people worked on Central Asia, though there were some really good ones like Greg [J.] Massell, who—I think he also has a Columbia connection—who wrote this brilliant book called The Surrogate Proletariat, about Central Asia. There were a few of us. We had the field to ourselves.
Most of the people who were working with non-Russian peoples, were what I call narcissists and nationalists. They were interested in their own people, and their own resistance to Soviet authority. There was a whole tradition of Cold War scholarship in the Munich Institute [for the Study of the USSR] that was denying any achievements of Soviet nationality policy. That was the dominant paradigm, the nation-killers idea. You can find that in the pioneering work of Hélène Carrère d'Encausse or Alex Bennington, Alexander Bennington—wonderful people who did wonderful work. But there was always this anti-Soviet, I would call, bias, to that work.
We were a different generation in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We were détentists; we had not experienced the darker days of the Cold War and Stalinism—I was just twelve years old when Stalin died— we were interested in better relations with the Soviet Union—that was our sort of politics—and to understand the Soviet Union from the bottom up, in all of its diversity and limitations, etc. We did not sense a Soviet threat. Actually, I always thought the Soviet Union was rather weak, and vulnerable, and therefore one had to appreciate lots of what it was doing as a reaction against the far greater power represented by the United States and NATO.
I think that is still true with Russia today. It is a weaker state—Putin spends about seven percent of what we spend on defense—that sort of lashes out, and tries to make itself felt, and make itself feel important. So there’s a lot of that there, too. And then, when these nationalities started to express themselves, and even rebel—starting with, I think, Karabakh, in February, March 1988, and the Baltic countries right after that—there was this rush of interest to, “What’s going on?”
I remember suddenly being called upon in the most bizarre way by all kinds of people: CBS News, PBS News, “Come and talk about Karabakh.” Canadian Broadcasting System. I remember one day, being at home at my mother’s house in Philadelphia, the phone rang, and she gave me the phone. It said, “Professor Suny?” I said, “Yes?” “We would like you to come to Washington to speak to us.” I said, “Well, who are you?” They said, “We are the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA].” I said, “Really? You want to speak to me? Do you know anything about me?” They said, “We know all about you.” [Laughter] All that stuff. So I said, “I see, okay.” So I went back to Michigan, and talked to my friends, and said, “What do you think?” Because we were all, obviously, resistant to the idea of working with the CIA and all.
I thought, wait a minute, I am an American citizen. The CIA has been listening to all these right- wingers all these years. Maybe I could sort of push them in a different direction. So I actually went there, and we got put in this room, in some kind of vault, and they asked us about this thing. Whatever I said to them, I always said in public. I have no access to any classified information, and I told everyone what I was doing as well, so I was completely open about it. The very first thing I said to them was—which they did not laugh at—was, “The Cold War must surely be coming to an end when the CIA asks a Marxist to explain the Soviet Union to them.”
Suny: You laughed. They did not laugh. I was always upfront. The one contribution I think I made there was, when I talked to CIA—and I even met with the director of the CIA, George what is his name, I forget now—Tenet —or the Foreign Service Academy, or State Department, or whoever—we had many conferences, and so forth—I think the one constant was I tried to explain to them this notion of constructivism, which I thought would be very valuable for the government to think about. That is, these struggles of Armenians versus Azerbaijanis, or Uzbeks against Kyrgyz, or whatever, are not primordial, deeply ethnically generated conflicts, but are the result of politics, and the way people imagine themselves to be. Therefore, though you can’t maybe get rid of them totally, you can reshape them. You might not be able to deconstruct totally ethnic enmities, but you can reconstruct them. I think that did have an effect. Later, when I went back to some of these places, it seemed like this constructivist idea had taken hold. As it had in the profession, social science, it had also taken some hold in government circles as well.
Q: So, you are getting these calls, and there’s this interest, for the first time, in these other nationalities, for shifting the paradigm a bit. Do you think there was a benefit to looking at it this way, and to understanding nationality studies with more depth, in terms of maybe the old model of Sovietology was more breadth, and how that worked?
Suny: Absolutely. I mean, you can’t compare what we knew about the Caucasus, or Central Asia, or Ukraine, or even the Baltic countries then, with the way we know it now. There was no field of Central Asian studies, really, just a few very good scholars. But now, this is a lively, incredibly interesting field. More importantly, even, than the study of all these nationalities in and of themselves was the idea that you had to connect the study of a nation—like Georgia, or Armenia, or Tajikistan, or whatever—to the larger imperial setting. It is not accidental that as empires in Europe disappeared—and the Soviet empire was one of the last ones—the study of empire became dominant, very powerfully, because now, you saw the cost of nationalism, and ethnic conflict, in ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and Karabakh killings, and this and that, and even genocides in Africa and elsewhere. So people began to rethink about empire. “Well, how did they survive for so long? And what was this idea of tolerating difference?” Whereas in ethno- nations, you’ve got to homogenize everything. And so empire became something, a kind of alternative—empire is not a substitute for nation anymore; it can’t be. It is about hierarchy and superiority of some people over others, and dominance. But it shows that people were able, in other, earlier stages of history, and other kinds of polities, to live together, to tolerate each other, etc.
Q: Interesting. Are you involved with the ASN [Association for the Study of Nationalities] at all?
Suny: I go there a lot, frequently. I’ve been on some committees—
Q: Jack was talking to us about that.
Suny: Yes. Yes. I mean, I think it is great, but if you did a history of ASN, you would see a history of how nationality studies has developed, from narcissistic nationalism, anti-Soviet, anti- Communism, to much more diversity today, and spreading the study from the Soviet sphere to the Middle East, to—there’s a huge number of papers given there on Turkey—
Suny: —which is one of the most interesting countries to be studying right now.
Q: That is interesting.
Suny: There’s one area you haven’t touched on yet. That is, I moved eventually to study genocide.
Q: Oh, let’s talk about it.
Suny: Yes, so [laughs] I think we have to.
Q: That is a fascinating—yes.
Suny: Yes, because you can see, so I wrote these various books and all of that, and a book, The Soviet Experiment, which is the top-selling Soviet textbook in America. But then, at a certain point, the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide—
Suny: —2015, was coming up. I had been long involved—I will not go into detail, because it is not part of our Harriman story—but, in something called WATS, the Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship. We brought Armenians, Turks, Kurds, and others together, to discuss the Genocide and its causes. There’s a good article on that in the AHR [American Historical Review], some years ago, about how this whole process took place. I think it is called “Truth in Telling,” something like that. As a result of that research and all, my collaborators, Fatma Müge Göçek, Norman Naimark, and I published a book called A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire, with Oxford University Press. Then my editor at Princeton, Brigitta van Rheinberg, and her husband, Eric Weizt, asked me to do a monograph. So for the anniversary, I wrote this book called "They Can Live in the Desert But Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, with Princeton, which actually won the [Wayne S.] Vucinich prize this year, at the—
Suny: —what is it now, ASEEES [Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies]—which I was happy to—my first book prize after eighteen books. I am very happy and proud of that book, and happy that I did that book. It is [an] attempt to understand why an imperial regime would turn on one of its subject peoples and attempt to eliminate it. And so I think it has a resonance for the study of other genocides as well.
Q: That is great.
Suny: One could talk about that a lot, but it is really not our topic today.
Q: I know, but it is so interesting. Could you just talk [laughs] about it a little bit more? Could we go there a little bit? I mean, I think—how has that book—? I mean, you’ve talked about the prize—but how has it been received as you go around and give these talks, and explain it to different—?
Suny: Yes. It has been well reviewed. It has been ignored by Armenians. Basically, it is too threatening to the orthodox interpretation of the Genocide that Armenians hold. It has been translated into Turkish and into Hungarian. I hope it’ll be translated someday into Armenian as well. Armenians in general hold the Genocide as a kind of sacred event, almost—like the Holocaust might be for many Jews—and you can’t tamper with its historiography. So, the standard view is that this was a terrible, horrible crime done by a vicious Turkish government against innocent victims, namely Armenians—they might mention the Assyrians as well. My view is, of course, not opposed to that, but holds that one has to try to explain these events—
Q: You find the nuances.
Suny: —and nuances, and complexities of it. I tried to use a concept called affective disposition, that is, the emotional worldview, the lens through which Turks—and Kurds to some extent, and certainly the young Turk government—viewed the Armenians, and constructed them in their own pathological imagination, as an existential threat to the empire. And therefore, it became rational—imperative, indeed—to eliminate them physically. That is the story that I try to tell in that book.
Q: It’s a powerful story.
Suny: It is. I think it is too, yes.
Q: Yes. Okay. Since you expanded into the political science field, I am wondering what you thought about what policymakers have gotten right, and what they have gotten wrong, about the Caucasus.
Suny: Yes, not only the Caucasus, but Russia, more generally, and the Soviet Union. Again, I would start with saying they don’t know history, and we are doomed to repeat ourselves over and over again—the same mistakes. Not understanding Vietnam leads to Iraq. Not understanding Iraq leads to Libya, and Syria, and God knows what else. So that is a big fault. Devaluing the necessity for expertise in these areas, for independent scholarship, for scholarship that is independent of the state—too many scholars, particularly, say, at a place like Stanford, are too closely involved with the government. They are ambassadors, or national security advisors, or whatever. They don’t have an independent stand, which is what I would value, vis-a-vis their own government’s policies, and a critical stand. They are much more organic intellectuals of the state, or of a particular political party, rather than critical intellectuals, like Edward [W.] Said, or someone like that, who confront the powers that be, and say that we have to question what you are about to do. We have that possibility in America. This is a tremendous advantage we have, that we are not necessarily tied to the state—that we have universities that are independent of government and business, and we have to be more critical.
I feel that we will continually get things wrong, as scholars and political scientists—nobody listens to political scientists, by the way. They’ve become so esoteric and removed from real politics that very few people pay attention to them, and that is also regrettable. But we need people who understand this area, this vital area, more than ever, I think. In general, from the Cold War, from Stalin through Gorbachev to Putin, regrettably, we have misrepresented and misunderstood Russia. It continues to the present time. Not understanding that a relatively weak state like Russia has its own imperatives, its own needs, its own interests in the area close to home. By pushing hard in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Baltic regions, to contain Russia, to keep it out of the world community, to restrict it and not let it join NATO—as, by the way, was once thought about seriously in the Clinton years—is a wrong-headed policy.
Now we see, with the need for Russia to negotiate with Iran, with the need for Russia in Syria— now they are acting on their own with the Turks—how important Russia is, and people have neglected it. The only good thing that might come out of this Trump administration is that he might be able to improve, a little bit, relations with Russia. But the official Russian expertise is saying, “No, we should repeat the old policies,” which have, in fact, isolated Russia, and kept it antagonistic to us.
Q: I want to talk more about current events, and the future. But first, I want to touch on something you mentioned. One of the themes we’ve been exploring in this project is the decline, or at least, the perceived decline—probably the decline—of academic influence on policy. Back when you were at Harriman, I mean, in the early days, was really like the golden age of collaboration between the government and institutes like Harriman. I wonder if you could just comment about how that has evolved. I mean, the CIA did call you, so, you know, [laughs] someone is listening and trying to learn sometimes, I guess. But do you feel like that perception, that decline is real, or it is just a different—?
Suny: If you took someone like Alexander Dallin, he worked with the government. He was a part of an interview project, and the Harvard project, and many other things. But he always was an independent critical scholar. Maybe he had to go out to the West Coast to maintain that stance, to put some distance between himself and the government. But that is one possibility; that is one model. The other model is that there are people who are too close to the government, and become part of the government itself. Brzezinski would be a model, Mike [Michael A.] McFaul would be a model, Condoleezza Rice. And they will lose that critical edge.
Now, I may be oversimplifying, because later, Brzezinski or someone else might leave the government and become a serious critic, as he did, of policies that they consider wrong-headed. Even Henry Kissinger—again, a scholar from Harvard, who did horrible things when he had the power to do them—takes a critical stance towards some of the attitudes of the establishment about Russia, taking a much more realistic stance. But I much more admire people like, say, John [J.] Mearsheimer, my colleague at Chicago, a hard realist, offensive realist, they call him. He can even be an offensive person, but I like him very much. But he is a hard critic, who takes a fiercely independent line. Or, my former colleague at Chicago, who is now at Harvard, Stephen [M.] Walt, who, again, has become a voice of sanity in some of the policies toward Israel, Middle East, and Russia, in recent years.
So, I put myself on that side, of critical intellectuals who are not anti-American, or necessarily pro-Russian, but are trying to take a critical, sensible stance toward the whole picture. That is the role I think that the Harriman Institute should play, and should be careful about becoming too close to government. It is very sexy, and very attractive, and very enticing, to have power, and to exercise power. It seems to me that there ought to be a place for these critical intellectuals, and we ought to preserve that.
Q: That being said, after the collapse and all of the implications thereof, the identity crisis at Harriman, a decline in funding opportunities, some people we’ve talked to have said that there’s like a lost generation of Russian scholars, Soviet scholars, who understand, who have the skills to engage, and explain, and that the training just hasn’t happened. They lament that loss, I think, pretty seriously. Perhaps because of these current events, that will be felt more acutely.
Suny: Yes. Well, you could say, Caitlin, that the Cold War was good for us, for our field, [laughs] and as long as there’s a perceived danger from Russia, then government, and institutions, and foundations will be willing to fund us. So, now they are worried about the Middle East, about terrorism, maybe China’s coming into it, and all of that, Islamism, but Russia will always be there. So, Putin is good for us, then—so Putin, and all he has done, the mistakes he has made, with Crimea, perhaps, or whatever, is good for our profession. But that seems a very shortsighted way to think about the future.
The United States is a great power. It is the only superpower. It thinks it has responsibilities all over the world. Well, it better take seriously those responsibilities, and better study carefully all the various areas with which it wants to engage, and with which it wants to eventually intervene. So, it seems to me we have an important position to play. Again, I would emphasize the necessary independence of the academy, and the critical function it can play, to warn people against imperial overreach, overestimation of your own power, national hubris—like we are the indispensable nation—those kinds of things.
Q: Fair enough. I am wondering how you’ve kept connected to, and also seen the Harriman Institute, from the outside, as an alum, and then as a professor at peer institutions.
Suny: Yes. I’ve always been treated well there. I always feel a connection to it. I haven’t been there for a long time, but there were many years that I went many times. You get busy and you get called to all kinds of parts of the world to do things. But I feel a special connection with Harriman, with what I called the Russian Institute, and with the people there, like Dick [Richard] Wortman, who is now retired, and—
Q: We interviewed him as well.
Suny: Yes, and there’s a new generation, that may not know me as well, and so forth, but it is such an extraordinary institution. Let’s face it; it is the most important center of Russian studies in America. It has rivals, or competitors, from Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan, Harvard, Yale maybe. But it is the primary place, and I am very proud to be an alumnus.
Q: Are you still—even if you haven’t been to campus recently—are you still in touch with your peers and your network of former classmates and alums?
Suny: Yes. I mean, I see and value Bill [William C.] Taubman very much. I am still very close friends with Ziva Galili. At conventions, I always run into people, like Barbara [A.] Engel or others, who were part of that whole milieu. We’ve lost some of them already; we are all getting older. But, we do keep in touch. That was such a unique experience in the mid and late ‘60s. We went through a certain experience, and learned things, and—Marty [Martin A.] Miller, with whom I was in Russia. He was part of that generation, though he was also a Haimson student, but he was a Haimson student at Chicago, not at Michigan. So, yes, we still meet and greet and so forth, yes.
Q: And then, finally, I guess, I just wanted to talk about—back to the current events situation, and, you know, Trump, and what you see [laughs] perhaps in the future, or what you—
Suny: Well, the election of Donald Trump is a disaster, an absolute disaster. I don’t think there’s any way you can get around that. I was at this museum, as I mentioned to you over lunch, recently, where there was the American paintings from the 1930s. There was a little film—you’ll see it when you go—of Franklin [Delano] Roosevelt’s inauguration. I thought—and I told my daughters this—my goodness, Franklin Roosevelt to Donald Trump. Donald Trump is going to stand where Franklin Roosevelt—he is going to live in the house where Franklin Roosevelt lived. The only word to describe what is happening to America for me, and to American politics, and American political culture, is degeneration.
We are moving—the trajectory is degenerate. It is degenerate for lots of reasons, but one of the great fault lines is that somehow this experiment, of marrying representative democracy with capitalism is coming to an end. It is very difficult to marry a certain form of capitalism—that is, neoliberal, unregulated capitalism that creates enormous inequalities in wealth, and destroys the social welfare safety net—with real representation, and people able to make educated and rational choices about politics. That is over. And if we don’t go back toward a more social democratic understanding of a politics, of the common good, in which the government attempts to increase democratic representation, rather than narrowing it—increases the social protections on people, develops education so people can make reasonable choices—those kinds of things, we are really in trouble.
Trump represents all the bad aspects, the most naked aspects of what has been happening for a long time. So we are going into a very dark period, I think. He will have some successes. He is a populist demagogue, and people like that—[Silvio] Berlusconi, [Juan] Perón, and others—do succeed for a while, and who knows how long he will be successful. But ultimately, it is to the detriment of the United States, and the wider world, it seems to me.
Q: What about the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship?
Suny: That may be one of his few successes, in the short-term, right? There is a rivalry, or a conflict, between a certain kind of American hegemonic politics, and Russian politics. Russia hopes to be, under Putin, a regional hegemon—that is, to have a dominant influence in its neighborhood—the former Soviet Union, at least, if not the Eastern bloc. The United States, seeing itself as the indispensable nation, has this notion of itself as a global hegemon. No one should resist us anywhere, and we should have our missiles on the borders of a weakened Russia, we should be training people in the Baltic countries, we should try to bring Georgia and Ukraine—as we tried, though failed—into NATO, which is inherently—as someone as intelligent as George Kennan warned—a threat to Russia, and it will perceive that. Russia will go off and find allies who also agree that American dominance, global dominance, is not good— namely China, Iran, maybe North Korea—an unsavory bunch, huh? Turkey—[Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s Turkey—and try to limit American influence.
That is the story of the near future. And Syria’s the first example of that. Iran, Turkey, and Russia, in the last few weeks, have basically offered a solution to the Syrian problem—not a nice one—keeping Assad, and keeping the Americans out. But that is the kind of world that Trump is going to inherit. How much of that he will accept, how much of it he will try to resist, how much he will try to change the policy, I am not sure. But I don’t see anyone in his administration who has a very enlightened vision of how we might deal with Russia.
I am in a real dilemma, because the Clintonites, and those people—who had this very negative view of Putin and Russia, and unwillingness to recognize their interest—and the Trumpites— who I think don’t understand the world, the complexities of the world—neither of these was a very good alternative. They did not present an alternative vision for the future.
Q: What do you hope for your students, now, at Michigan, as they continue to study, and what their future career—?
Suny: As a person of the left, I am an optimist. You have to be an optimist. Especially with young people. You don’t present them a world that is closed all alternatives. I am very optimistic about the new generation, who are far more tolerant toward minorities, toward gay rights, toward all kinds of things that the older generation has given up on. Okay, so the older generation, and the more traditionalists, and the more xenophobic people won the last election by default, because of the electoral college—not a majority of the population—they won the election, technically. But young people are more interested in social democracy, they are less hostile to socialism. The Bernie Sanders movement was an effective movement, in many ways pulling Hillary [R.] Clinton to the left. Hillary Clinton, herself, I think, was the most competent and promising alternative that we had—I was for her in 2008, against Obama, who I thought was wet behind the ears at the time. He turned out to be an extraordinary person in many ways. But, that is where we are right now, so my goal with my students is: think in a utopian fashion. Think of alternatives. Push for goals of greater social equality, social justice, greater democracy. That is where the future lies.
Q: Is there the same or similar level of interest in exchange—? I mean, you had these opportunities in the ‘60s and ‘70s to go the Soviet Union, and to really engage, and be a part of the community. Is there that same interest among American students today, and students in the Caucasus, and—?
Suny: Yes, absolutely.
Q: Yes, you think so?
Suny: Absolutely, and the opportunities on our side are greater. People go—like my daughter, Anoush—to Turkey learn these languages easily in a way that we could not do in my day, because of the Cold War, and because of the Iron Curtain, so-called, etc. When we give opportunities through Fulbright, or whatever—and these may end—to students in Russia, in the Caucasus, they eat these things up. They want to learn, they want to develop. Maybe an older generation has more resistance to, say, new ways of thinking about nationalism and nations, or the Armenian Genocide, or Russian policy, but not the younger generation. They are hungry for these things. I have had the great pleasure of teaching for the last three years at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was incredibly impressed by the students, and their interest in all kinds of questions, which are difficult to openly express fully in Russia, but in private, you can find out how open they are to much of the rest of the world, and how much they want to develop, and become part of that world.
Q: What is the Russia you see when you are there now, as opposed to the one that was in, you know, Leningrad—?
Suny: Oh, it is much freer, of course, and it is more diverse in many ways, and there are a lot of good cafés, and all those kinds of things, and Western things. I still love Russians; they are just the most wonderful people you can imagine. But at the same time, there’s a closing in. There’s growing nationalism; there’s growing authoritarianism. I don’t think it can last, I think the country is too diverse, and needs more freedom, more democracy, more openness to develop fully. But it is caught in a kind of dilemma right now, a kind of oligarchic state capitalism, with powerful people who are holding things together somehow. But a dangerous and unstable mix, I think, that may eventually lead to—either reform, or some kind of collapse.
Q: I just wonder, finally, what you think your grandfather and your father [laughter] would think of the state of the world now, if their values are still reflected.
Suny: My father did ask me, would there ever be socialism, and I said, not that kind, but another kind. So, I am still optimistic about that. My mother’s father—Avedis Kesdekian—my mother’s father, who came from Turkey, would always shake his head whenever we watched the news, and say, “I don’t know what is going to be this world.” He was always very dark about the future. He was one of those people who could not anticipate that African-Americans would have so much power and influence, or that there would be a president like Obama, or something like that. But it is the father’s side—it is the one who looked ahead, who was unafraid of the future, who looked for and appreciated diversity, difference, and novelty—that is the side that I think would be pleased with the way my career has developed, and my children’s opportunities are now available for them to develop too.
Q: Yes, your grandfather just spoke out against the purges, in [unclear]—
Suny: Yes, yes. Yes.
Q: Well, thank you so much—
Suny: My pleasure. Yes.
Q: Before I turn the recorder off, is there anything else you’d like to say?
Suny: No, I want to thank you, Caitlin, for a really good interview. I learned a lot about myself, and my [laughter] career. I am surprised.
Q: Oh good, I am so glad. It has been a real pleasure. Thank you for all your time today.
Suny: Okay, thanks. My pleasure.
[END OF INTERVIEW]