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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.2 (2005) 255-258

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A Letter from Marc Raeff

Readers of this column may recall that in the last volume of Kritika we began an interview series, with the goal of presenting discussions with figures of special interest to the field. It was with a series of questions for such an interview that we contacted Marc Raeff, Bakhmeteff Professor of Russian Studies emeritus at Columbia University. Professor Raeff began by explaining why he could not answer our questions but in the course of doing so wrote an interesting and instructive response. In place of the interview originally planned, we reprint this letter (except for slight excerpts) with his permission.

Marc Raeff is one of the most influential and prolific historians of imperial Russia in the world. He defended his dissertation at Harvard in 1950 under the direction of Michael Karpovich.1 His major works include books on Mikhail Speranskii; the Decembrists; the origins of the Russian intelligentsia; the well-ordered police state; state and society under the old regime; the Russian emigration; political ideas and institutions; and many other topics.2 A full bibliography of his works until 1987 can be found in the 1988 Festschrift in his honor.3 His most recent publication is in the current issue of Kritika.

The questions we asked were the following: (1) How do you evaluate the state of the field of imperial Russian history today, both institutionally and [End Page 255] in terms of its thematic focus? What do you think would be the most fruitful avenues for future inquiry from the next generation of historians? (2) Does post-Soviet Russia's overall development affect your thinking about the longue durée of imperial Russian history? What does a deep historical perspective tell us about the course of post-Soviet Russia? (3) Has the "opening of the archives," in your view, substantially changed the direction of research on imperial Russia? (4) What do you make of the "patriotic" turn in Russian historical scholarship after 1991? (5) How has the field changed over the course of your career? The first item listed in the bibliography of your works compiled in 1987 by Edward Kasinec is a review published in 1946. You must have a very interesting perspective on the postwar history of Russian studies, about which relatively little has been written. Do you care to share any recollections with us today? What aspects of the history of the field do you think are most important for Kritika readers and future historiographers?

Here is what Marc Raeff wrote in response.

* * *

Since receiving your good letter about a week ago I tried, repeatedly, to write out an answer to the several questions you have asked. I must confess that I must give up the effort. In the terms you have put them I feel incapable of saying anything of substance.

How can I evaluate the field of imperial Russian history when I have long stopped following the literature, both Russian and non-Russian, whether monographs or journals? Is such an evaluation even possible in principle? I doubt it, for the field is both too vast and protean—as I think it should be. For that reason, too, I believe strongly that the future of any historical field depends—and should depend—exclusively on the accidents and vagaries of individual historians' interest, curiosity, and so on of the moment. For example, who can foresee the twists and turns of a historian's interests? Each aspect of research is often in some way connected with earlier work—but would a scholar have foreseen the particular turn it would take each time? Since no period, no set of events, is ever exhausted by historians, how can one presume to determine a "fruitful" direction? It all depends on the imagination, insight, and broad background of individual scholars. At least, such is my credo. Planning, as you well know, was the undoing of the Soviet system. Why expect it to be different in...


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