From Timeless ‘Stagnation’ in Amsterdam to … Germans in Afghanistan?

The last few days have contained some of the best and worst of what attract people to the discipline of history. Saying you’re interested in ‘transnational’ history or multi-archive research can sound very sexy at a cocktail party in Palo Alto or Princeton, sure, but it’s another thing altogether when you seem to be spending days on end crammed into English, Dutch, and German buses to be ferried to brutalist airports and train stations, only to find that your train is delayed. In an effort to pack light and avoid getting zapped by EasyJet’s fees for baggage, you cram all of your stuff into a backpack, but quickly find that ‘spring’ in northwest Europe often means … overcast skies, biting winds, and rain showers, and all you have is your one rainjacket.

Dutch trains: ... must ... destroy ...

Other times, though, living this life means sitting through not interminable seminars, but rather whole series of enlivening discussions from scholars in fields different from your own, but that end up adding perspective to your own project. It means shared conversations over wine and tasty Belgian cuisine at chic Dutch restaurants. Less glamorously, it means – after you’re frustrated because your train has been delayed once again – finding your favorite kind of German yogurt, taking in the sun, and chowing down as you admire the Cologne Cathedral that towers over the train station, one of the hubs for rail transport in western Germany.

I write from the middle of a kind of research and presentation blitzkrieg: a conference on the ‘stagnation’ period in the USSR (more or less, the years 1964-1985) that took place in Amsterdam and a short trip to Koblenz, Germany home to the archives for the Federal Republic of Germany, aka West Germany. Mostly for my own sake after a long day of travel (no less than four delayed or cancelled trains as I tried in vain to make my way from Amsterdam, the hub of the Dutch rail system, to Koblenz, a city on several German main lines), but also for any readers – historians or otherwise – keeping up here, what follows is a brief reflection on what I’ve just done, and what I’m about to do.

As conference organizers Artemy Kalinovsky (a professor at the University of Amsterdam) and Dina Feinberg (a PhD candidate at Rutgers) noted in their opening address at the conference, we use this term, ‘stagnation,’ to describe a period in which a number of things did indeed appear to slow down, stop working, or not go as intended in Soviet institutions and society. The rates of economic growth slowed down. The average age of Communist Party leadership at almost every level (All-Union as well as provincial) increased from about 55 in the early 1960s, to close to 80 by the early 1980s. The USSR was perhaps too buoyed by post-1973 rising oil prices to embark on the cruel, but in some sense necessary, structural reforms that post-industrial Western economies were able to undergo, to continue growth: cutting of the welfare state, laying off factory workers, shutting down factories entirely.

But, as many of the papers (including my own, on Soviet development economics during the period) underscored, it wasn’t, of course, as if nothing was going on in this period. A number of papers from across disciplines gave a much richer topography of the period than I’ve seen in any periodical or book before. Some of my personal favorites: Victoria Smolkin-Rothcock, a professor at Wesleyan University, gave a paper on Soviet atheists, a group that in spite of being well-organized and having its own magazines and institutions, ran into the fundamental fact that religion, even in the officially atheistic USSR, was not going away. Her discussion of how Soviet atheists tried to create and/or contribute to a non-religious ‘Soviet culture,’ as well as the clashes of atheist intellectuals (who often had chairs in things like ‘Scientific Atheism’ but wanted to do real sociological work on religion) with institutional mandates underscored some of the themes of the conference; here, as in other areas, we had an ‘activist society’ (atheists trying to come up with some new agenda for what non-religious life would look like in Eurasia) combined with a ‘stagnant state’ (adherence to the old rhetorics of militant atheism when these were clearly not going to get the job done).

Other papers, like those of Steven Harris, of Mary Washington University. focused on competition between Aeroflot and Pan Am during the 1970s; while Aeroflot splintered into dozens of ultra-dangerous ‘Babyflots’ after 1991, the fact that Pan Am went bust at almost the same time as the Soviet Union, never to return – while Aeroflot made a booming comeback after restructuring makes us rethink some aspects of a triumphalist, ‘End of History’ narrative to 1991. Some of the lessons that Aeroflot learned in a monopolistic environment might have unexpectedly done it well in a post-1991 world, whereas the global, liberal internationalist symbol of Pan Am was ironically unable to cope with deregulation and terror incidents linked with the open, fluid ‘one world’ ideology it stood for. Papers like these remind us (in a salutatory way, I think), to zoom out from a specifically Soviet or Russian history lens when we look at stagnation topics, and try to situate some of the institutional changes going on in the USSR in the broader context of the ‘shock of the global‘ of the 1970s. Comparing how and why Soviet institutions did or did not cope with structural changes in the global economy after 1973, as compared to their American, German, Japanese, or Chinese competitors, might tell us more than frameworks skeptical of transnational history.

Still, here’s a thought: why the term ‘stagnation’ as opposed to a perhaps more evocative ‘timelessness’? One image that remains stuck in my head after this conference is a scene from the 1982 film Flights in Dreams and in Reality. The main character in the film, an architect working at a dreary firm in a midsize Russian city, is about to turn 40 years old. He’s decided to cheat on his wife, and he has it planned to leave work early to meet her. He goes to the office, and sees if anyone has remembered his birthday – they haven’t – which prompts him to announce it, and demand some kind of recognition for the accomplishment. He mentions that he needs to ‘pick his mother up from the station’ and leave early, and while his colleagues consider what would be an appropriate response or gift on their part to their coworker, the man looks out the window of the office, onto a child roller-skating in the street outside, going around in an endless circle on his skates.

As the scholar who introduced this film sequence to us, Andrei Shcherbenok, emphasized, what we see here is one of the recurring concerns in Soviet culture during these years. Time is passing by us, linearly, in this world. We age. We turn 40. Our spouses begin to tire us, and we want excitement. But even in spite of time continue to pass in a linear fashion, we remain somehow stuck in mid-life cycles, both longing for a childhood that we can’t return to while also having an ill-conceived sense of what it would be like to be truly old. We try to impose on this sense of circularity new shocks – an affair, a journey, eccentric hobbies – but the sense of ‘timelessness’ (bezvremen’ie) still haunts us. As conversations with some of the literary scholars in the room taught me, while very few of the texts from this period – literary as non-literary use the term ‘stagnation,’ much of the literature and film is redolent with this vocabulary of time passing by with nothing to mark it, timelessness, and the sense of being stuck midstream in life without anyway to jumpstart old age or return to childhood. And I wonder: while it’s important for us not to get too moored down in postmodern discussions of literature and film at the expense of looking at economies and governance, would not ‘timelessness’ be a better descriptor for this period? The ageing of cadres meant that governance was ‘timeless’ in a sense, and the attempt to maintain extensive growth, full employment, heavy industry, etc. also might be described as ‘timelessness’ in the sense of not wanting to recognize secular economic change, even in a decade that we now look back upon as one of the major shifts in economies in the last century. Just a thought.

Kickin' it in glamorous Koblenz, at least until Easter weekend ...

I’ll keep those thoughts floating around in the back of my head this week as I make the hike to the Koblenz Bundesarchiv, the West German equivalent to the East German archives I worked in last summer. Here I’ll be looking at the files of 1960s-era West German development projects in Paktia, a province in remote eastern Afghanistan. There, German development workers attempted reforestation projects, ran agricultural education programs, and implemented food-for-work programs for the local populace, too. There are obvious parallels to today’s crisis in the region, as Paktia suffers from massive unemployment, hunger, and Taliban activity; but for historians, it’s not only that that’s interesting, but also the story of how West Germany used ‘development’ as a policy arena to make itself relevant in the world again after the Holocaust, and the challenge to Bonn’s legitimacy in the form of the East German state. Increasingly in the 1950s and 1960s, as the ‘Third World’ gained in importance for Western actors, Bonn tried to play up its ‘decolonized’ status (Germany was stripped of colonies after World War I) and its money to burn (West Germany in the 1950s had levels of growth similar to China today) to carve out a niche on the global stage, even for a demilitarized German state no longer able to seriously make a ‘grab for world power.’

I have no idea of what to expect tomorrow, but it’s always good to go into archives open to being surprised. That’s part of the excitement of why we do this all, no? It might take you, as it did me today, six hours to get from Amsterdam to Koblenz. But if therein lies a journey not only from canals and flatlands to wine valleys and fortress-studded hills – and from the ‘timelessness’ of stagnation to, I suspect, ex-Nazis on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border … well, that’s why we got interested in history in the first place. That, for me, and the German yogurt.

Bauer vanilla yogurt with chocolate balls inside: surely no country capable of producing such tasty yogurt coud ever do anything evil.

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