- Marketing Russian History
A specter is haunting Russian studies: the specter of money. Big money, serious money—sums on the order of $500,000. This is what a handful of Russianists collect as advance payments for book contracts with commercial publishers, contracts that the world’s most prominent literary agencies broker for them. More money follows in the form of royalties if the book sells well, yet more if the book is translated, and even more if it is turned into a movie.
Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily. There is nothing inherently wrong with a book that sells; indeed, there is a crying need for the kind of good popularization and inspired synthesis exemplified, for example, by James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe or the works of W. Bruce Lincoln.1 The productive synergy that is possible between popular culture and scholarship accessible to lay readers was recently on display when the success of Tom Stoppard’s theatrical trilogy The Coast of Utopia led to renewed public interest in Isaiah Berlin’s classic Russian Thinkers.2 There are, however, at least two major reasons to be concerned about recent developments when it comes to the writing of blockbuster works in the Russian and Soviet field. First, evidence is mounting that some of these recent works can be rife with dubious academic practices. It is not surprising that popular history should have broad appeal and address issues and concerns potentially quite different from academic monographs, but to be good, it must also pass scholarly muster. What is especially noteworthy about many recent mass-marketed works is that they are intended as cross-over studies, claiming to make major scholarly discoveries even as they appeal to a mass market. Second, in keeping with this attempt to have one’s cake and eat it, too, the last decade or so has witnessed a quiet transvaluation of values in which many university departments and administrators have started to prize mass-marketed trade publishing above traditional works of scholarship. [End Page 497]
One practice that may have troubling consequences involves the outsourcing of research by hiring teams of native scholars who scour the archives for finds, turning research into the extraction of “natural resources” that are refined (that is, interpreted) by the Western authors. Again, there is nothing wrong with a research team in and of itself; it is common in the social sciences. For example, Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia incorporated the work of three teams of researchers employed to seek out family archives and conduct interviews with surviving family members. Figes has written separately about this research effort, albeit without addressing any of its potential pitfalls. He has won praise from scholars for the research, although others have criticized how the evidence was interpreted and the originality of the analysis.3 Problems of a different order, however, arise when the author does not know Russian or other relevant languages well enough to conduct research independently. Antony Beevor performed an important service when, with the translation help of Luba Vinogradova, he commented on and made available in English Vasilii Grossman’s war diaries (zapisnye knizhki). John Garrard, however, has recently written about “the two weaknesses of A Writer at War: Beevor does not know the Russian language and must rely heavily on his translator, Luba Vinogradova; secondly, he uses (and often confuses) secondary material without attribution. The general reader will be unaware of both pitfalls.”4 Indeed, problems with source attribution are endemic in many widely distributed works of popular [End Page 498] history. Beevor, for instance, has no numbered notes at all, only commentary on sources in the back that is organized with reference to the book’s page numbers. Thus, says Garrard, “the reader cannot tell when Beevor’s use of a source begins and where it ends. The general public may not care; those whose own work is being paraphrased without attribution may take exception to this procedure.”5
All three issues—employment of native researchers, an apparent inability to speak or conduct high-level research with original documents in the relevant foreign languages, and a confusing if not untraceable...