How the Russians View Abraham Lincoln

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William G. Shade is Professor Emeritus of History at Lehigh University. He served as the Nikolai V. Sivachev Distinguished Professor of American History at Moscow State University (a Fulbright appointment) in 2003 and has subsequently lectured, each year since then, at different institutions in Moscow. He is co-editor, with Vladimir V. Sogrin and Victoria I. Shuravleva, of Abraham Lincoln: Lessons of History and the Contemporary World which will appear in 2010.

Everyone who will read this knows that a year ago on February 12, 2009, we honored what would have been Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.  The many American celebrations have been noted in these pages, and even in a paper at the recent AHA annual convention in San Diego.  I have been told that there where also commemorations in other countries, and I personally took part in one that I think Americans would find most interesting.

On February 18th and 19th, 2009,  Moscow State University for the Humanities (RSUH) hosted an international conference, which was originally called “Issues of Democracy and Unity in the Light of Lincoln’s Heritage,” but eventually evolved into “Abraham Lincoln: Lessons of History and the Contemporary World.”  It brought together scholars from the United States and several universities in the Russian Federation.  That in and of itself was amazing, or rather it might seem so to Americans who know little about the Russian fascination with our history.  The program featured presentations—including formal opening remarks—from 30 Russians and 14 Americans.  The Russians came from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Volgograd, Orel, Kursk, Arkangelsk and Salavat, Bashkortostan, an administrative district in the Urals.  The conference was concluded by a roundtable discussion, “Inaugural Addresses of Abraham Lincoln Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Barack Obama in Comparative Context,” conducted by graduate students from the RSUH and Moscow State University.  This was the result of a semester cooperative project and was commented upon by two leading Russian historians from different universities than the students. 

There was, in addition to the contributors, a relatively large audience of Russian students and teachers.  All the seats were filled and people stood in the back of all the sessions.  However, since there were parallel sessions on the first day, no one was able to hear all the papers or see all the fireworks when Russians argued with Russians and Americans argued with Americans.  In general, it went like any academic conference in the United States, complete with muffled dissents whispered among members of the audience.

One of the salient aspects of this Moscow conference was not that it was so international, but that it was interdisciplinary.  This is a result of the fact that Russian Studies in the United States involves historians, political scientists, students of literature and linguists, and that the same can be said of American Studies in Russia.  The conference was organized under the auspices of the American Councils for International Education by Irwin Weil, Professor of Philology at Northwestern University and honoris causa of  RSUH, and Marina R. Kaul, Professor of Philology at RSUH. 

The fact is that Russians are extremely interested in American history and are fascinated by such men as Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln.  However, I have been in conferences and published in Russian journals where Russian historians have presented papers on FDR, Truman, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton.  One journal asked me to publish a lecture that I had given on George W. Bush.  They are, like most other Europeans, enthralled by President Obama. 

Most Americans do not understand that there are more American Studies programs in Russia than any place in Europe outside of England.  In a bibliography of 2002 and 2003 articles and books on U.S. and Canadian history by Russians published in the leading American Studies journal, “American Yearbook,” there were 160 titles.  Don’t run to the Internet to get a copy – all the articles are in Russian.

Today, Russian kids grow up learning English listing to our music and watching our movies.  In Moscow, they can get not only BBC and CNN, but also Comedy Central and Jon Stewart.  So, when they come to the United States, Russian students know things about us that American kids will never know about them.  While television is controlled by the state, it is not all ideological.  They have talk shows about women and things like Animal Planet and the History Channel. 

My eight year experience teaching in Moscow at six university programs, and even a prep school for the superrich of Russia and Eastern Europe, tells me that most Russians actually like the United States, and that their teaching of American history is not anti-American.  It is basically a bit out of date, influenced by progressive historians like Charles Beard, and neo-progressives like Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Richard Hofstadter.  It is less truly Marxist than simply economic determinist.  Thus, one of my friends is writing on the effects of the UAW on American social democracy and he has gone to the Walter Ruther papers at Wayne State University in Detroit.  They are not trying to play the game from a distance.  Practically every Russian historian I know has taught in the United States and has American friends and colleagues.  The Fulbright program goes both ways.

Russian college professors (they use different terminology) and students are interested in American history and write it fairly well by our standards.  They tend to like high political history and not do much social history -- even when studying their own society. There is, however, some modest women’s history—there are more women historians in Russia, relatively speaking, than in the U.S.  But on my first visit there, one student wanted me to help him with the Anti-Masonic movement in the 1820s and 1830s.  One of my own students did his Ph.D. dissertation on Henry Clay and American recognition of the Latin American republics, another was writing his dissertation on the GI Bill, and another wrote hers on the Social Security program.  I have been at conferences when Russians lectured on the domestic policies of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

The Russian interest in American Studies often includes a good deal on American literature.  At the Lincoln conference at RSUH there were comparative  papers on Lincoln and Dostoevsky, Lincoln and Tolstoy (as well as Jewish writers), and Lincoln as portrayed or used by science fiction writers, but there was also one by a Russian on Southern women writers before the Civil War—few of whom I had ever heard.  We can always learn from other people.  We can learn from the Russians.

Of course the Russian view—if there is only one, which I doubt—is quite different than that of American historians, but it is no more hostile than that of the late Howard Zinn, whose best selling textbook  has been translated and is used in most Russian schools.  One of my Russian friends at Moscow State has her students read Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., as their text.  She is also a great fan of both Jefferson and John Quincy Adams.  Her latest book is on democracy and nationalism in early American foreign policy.  She is an expert on the Monroe Doctrine and her students read Dexter Perkins, and in her lectures and forthcoming books she relies on much more up-to-date literature.

Of course, she like all professors at the time, was a member of the Communist Party and a fierce Russian nationalist.  But then her grandfather was in exile with Stalin and the first Ambassador from the Soviet Union to the United States.  At that time her father was a teenager and attended Sidwell Friends School.  Eventually, he became the Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations.  There he represented his country, but if he ever had a real hostility to the United States, which I doubt, it was mitigated by his weekly tennis matches with Andrew Young.

When I attended and contributed to one of the two conferences on the 200th anniversary of Russian–American relations, she gave one of the four papers on John Quincy Adams, who was the first American Minister to Russia.  Only one of those was given by an American, my friend Lynn Parsons, and he was the most critical of Abigail’s son.  My own view is that Russians deal relatively even-handedly with American history and are generally pro-American.  I am sure that sounds odd.  Sure, they root for their own international athletes and have their own understanding of “spheres of influence.”  Perhaps we are what the nineteenth-century Europeans called “peripheral peoples,” those beyond the European metropole living in the “wheat growing nations.”  They feared that one day we would rule the world. 

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Jim Cooke - 2/22/2010

Like the Russians, I have sometimes "feared that one day we would rule the world." In the 1920s, for example, President Calvin Coolidge noted: "If England was in our position she would take charge of civilization for the benefit of humanity with in forty-eight hours." Some of our subsequent presidents have seemed to lack Coolidge's restraint.
Two years ago, it was my great and good fortune to visit Russia in the persona of John Quincy Adams. Our State Department sent me to mark the Bicentennial of the diplomatic relations you note.
I'm an actor of solo history (one-man shows) and JQA is one of my characters. Perhaps I'm outstanding in my field? In any case: I have many fathers and yet more mothers in the same field.
"John Quincy Adams: A Spirit Unconquerable!" presents John and Abigail's eldest son in the last decade of his illustrious life. I - or rather "we" - were sent to Russia on a ten-day four- city tour; most often I was performing for English speaking students; sometimes JQA's words were translated. I was astounded by the genuine curiosity exhibited. It seemed to me that they had a much richer background in American History than their counterparts here. I know! I know, I was in some of their best schools but I've been in some of the best schools in this country, too.
At the Chekov Theatre in Moscow I talked about the performance of solo history and of the other characters I portray -- Daniel Webster, Edward Everett & Calvin Coolidge. Solzhenitsyn was then still living - and, I recited Coolidge's "Vermont is a State I Love" suggesting it might explain why their great novelist had once chosen to live for a time in the Green Mountain State.
In closing, I must note that my friend Lynn Parsons does not seem to me overly critical of JQA. I find him fair and even-handed.