EDWARD WALKER: «Old divisions made during the Cold War era have stayed in place because there are no easy alternative ways to divide up the world».

Natalia Laas: Could you say a few words about yourself?

Edward Walker: My father was a diplomat. I was always interested in public affairs in general and in global affairs and international relations in particular. I grew up abroad for much of my life. So politics was a part of everyday discussion in our family dining room.

I began my graduate career in 1984 with a Master’s program at the School for Advanced International Studies in Washington. That was a year before Gorbachev came to power, and it was already clear that change was looming in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev died in 1982, Andropov died two years later, and Chernenko died the next year. So it looked like the USSR was ready for reform and that some kind of major generational change was going to take place. I also took a course on Soviet political history with a professor, Bruce Parrott, at SAIS that made me even more interested than I already was in the topic.

It was really just that, not a deep cultural background in the Slavic world or in Russia, although my father’s first post was in Yugoslavia, from 1949 until 1951. My parents used to speak Serbo-Croatian with each other when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were saying. At any rate, it was not culture but politics that drew me to Soviet studies, with a particular intellectual focus on the ideological underpinnings of the regime. I was intrigued because it was such a different place and the greatest ideological challenger to Western liberal democracy. I was fascinated by the “Great Experiment,” especially since the regime seemed to be on the verge of some kind of major change.

Natalia Laas: But did you consider the Soviet Union as an experiment?

Edward Walker: I did. Of course, in some ways all regimes are experiments. All regimes make claims that are tested against experience. But it happened to be a very dramatic and different experiment than the liberal democratic experiment in this country.

Natalia Laas: Say a little bit about your training in political science and Soviet studies.

Edward Walker: I did my undergraduate work at Harvard and took a few classes in Soviet and Russian history and Soviet foreign policy. So I had some background at the undergraduate level when I started my graduate work in 1984. But I had had a different career, running a small business in Washington DC, for six years after I graduated from Harvard in 1977, before starting in on my graduate work.

When I started the Master’s program at SAIS, I thought I would focus on international relations and security issues, but I became interested in domestic Soviet politics, and I decided to change directions. I finished my program at SAIS in 1986 and decided to get a PhD in political science. I elected to go to Columbia for the Ph.D., where I was from 1986 to 1992. My dissertation was on the origins of perestroika, on why perestroika began. I deposited it in December of 19911. The entity I was writing about disappeared almost on the same day that I deposited my dissertation. Actually, to be more precise, it was not deposited in December, it was submitted for final approval by my committee then. Between the time they approved it and when I deposited it in May 1992, the one change I had to make was to replace “the Soviet Union” with “the former Soviet Union”.

Natalia Laas: What was the reaction of the committee? You were the first to cross this line from the Soviet Union to the former Soviet Union.

Edward Walker: They did not reread the dissertation after approving it in December, which was before the final dissolution, so I really don’t know the answer. But I looked forward to the challenge of following all the drama that was likely to continue even after the Soviet collapse. A new drama was unfolding that I was sure would be fascinating. But there were people of the older generation who felt like the things they had been studying all their lives had suddenly disappeared, and it was difficult for them.

Natalia Laas: Was it some kind of a psychological crisis?

Edward Walker: For some, I suppose, it was. It was professionally unsettling, particularly for the older generation. Not for historians, but for political scientists or people who specialized in Soviet economics. They had to find something else to write about, and they had to embrace a different kind of theoretical apparatus.

Natalia Laas: Could you describe the milieu at Columbia at that time? I know your adviser was Seweryn Bialer2. How about him and other people at that time?

Edward Walker: At that time Soviet studies was very strong at Columbia. The Harriman Institute3  had a lot of prominent scholars associated with it. Back then, I would say, Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley were really the three places that had the best reputations for contemporary Soviet studies.

Natalia Laas: And you were affiliated with all of them.

Edward Walker: Actually, yes, that’s true. I went to Columbia because of The Harriman Institute and because of the large community of scholars there. That was the primary reason, although there were also family reasons. We had Wednesday or Thursday lunch lectures every week at the Institute. There was a big room on the 13th floor of the International Affairs building, the building where The Harriman Institute was located, and my recollection is that every week there were at least fifty people in the audience of those lunchtime lectures, and sometimes there were a hundred or more.

Obviously the Soviet Union was an object of enormous interest during the Cold War and especially during the Gorbachev period. It was a fascinating place to study, and it was a place of great interest to the academic community and the general public. The level of interest in that part of the world has since diminished, for obvious reasons.

Natalia Laas: Can you distinguish anybody who was very influential for you intellectually?

Edward Walker: I admired Seweryn Bialer, and I thought his book “Stalin’s Successors” was very good4. But probably the person at Columbia who influenced me most was a political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, who was an Italian comparative political scientists who specialized in democracy, party systems, and concept analysis5. He definitely had an intellectual influence on me. I took a course on methodology with him as well as one on parties and party systems. He was a very rigorous thinker and an interesting and charming man.

In that period the person whose work on the Soviet Union I liked the most was a political scientist named T. H. (Harry) Rigby from Australia6. His article on the mono-organizational society was very influential7. He also wrote a lot about patron-client relations, and he was in general a very interesting and imaginative scholar, and a very nice man as well. I admired his scholarship before I met him, but I met him when he came to Toronto as a faculty advisor for a weeklong graduate training session around 1990. He came all the way from Australia for that one week. I got to know him then, and corresponded with him some afterwards. Of the people writing on the Soviet Union at that time, his was the work I enjoyed the most and felt was the richest.

I had a lot of intellectual influences in my life. I took a series of economics courses when I was in the Master’s program at SAIS, and they had an important influence on my intellectual outlook. I was particularly interested in the history of economic thought, which related to my interest in the Soviet Union because I thought that the Soviet Union was fundamentally about economic organization − social ownership of the means of production, Marxism, and so on. It was essentially an anti-capitalist system.

Natalia Laas: My next question will be about the names these Soviet studies had. I know that you contributed to a collection of articles on Sovietology8. What do you think?

Edward Walker: Well, the important thing to remember is that was no discipline of Sovietology or Soviet studies. The disciplines were political science, anthropology, history and so on. When you started your PhD program, you applied as a political scientist, just like you do now. But there were these centers, like our institute’s community here, that brought scholars from different departments together to study a particular region, like the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Of course, every discipline has its own professional associations as well, like the American Political Science Association, but area programs had and have their own professional associations, which in our case used to be called the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies(AAASS) and has since been renamed the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES).

In other words, Sovietology and Soviet studies were not disciplines and were not the primary identities of most scholars at the time. Rather, the field was a loose collection of people that had a common interest in Russia, the Soviet Union, or Soviet-type regimes, like those in Eastern Europe and the communist world broadly-speaking, like China, Vietnam, Cuba, and so forth. The broader field was sometimes called communist studies, or comparative communism. Sovietology tended to connote a particular focus on the Soviet Union, whereas Kremlinology implied a focus on high Soviet politics. Sometimes people would contrast Sovietology with other kinds of Western writings on the Soviet Union that were less focused on Soviet politics or the Soviet Union as a regime type. The term “Sovietology” tended to imply a narrow focus on politics, and that was even more true of the term “Kremlinology.”

Natalia Laas: Sometimes this term Sovietology is used as an offensive one. I encountered such facts.

Edward Walker: Yes, to certain extent that was true even at the time when I was doing my graduate work. Particularly “Kremlinology” was said to be very narrowly focused, like watching smoke signals or studying medieval theology. “Sovietology” also had a rather negative connotation as being narrow, but not as much as “Kremlinology.”

Natalia Laas: Now we need a term to mark somehow these US studies on the Soviet Union. Is the term Soviet studies the best option?

Edward Walker: I think it is the most neutral one. Sovietology does have a negative connotation now. Or you might say: “Western scholarship on the Soviet Union.” That is also accurate and perhaps a little more value neutral.

Natalia Laas: Now quite many institutes use the expression “Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies” in their names. Slavic is rather expected because you have a long tradition of studying Slavic languages. But does it mean for you Eastern Europe and Eurasia? What countries and regions do you include in it and why?

Edward Walker: The first point to make about this is that all geographic areas are arbitrary to one extent or another. Is Libya part of Africa, the Middle East, or both? The same is true of Asia – what are its borders? Why stop at the Urals going west? Is Vladivostok part of Asia or of Europe? It may be one thing geographically but something else culturally. All these regional categories are unsatisfactory in certain ways. They are not scientifically precise in the sense of using consistent criteria to distinguish geographic regions for all purposes. That is true in some ways for states as well. States have political boundaries, but those boundaries invariably are products of history and usually of warfare, population movements, and the arbitrary outcome of particular historical events. But at least with political boundaries there are actual borders that you can point to. With broad geographic areas that is not the case. Likewise when one talks about the South or the Mid-West in this country – there is always an arbitrary element in bounding those regions. And the way you decide to bound an area will be different depending on the questions you are asking.

When we renamed our institute, we wanted to emphasize that the core of the institute’s regional orientation was the Slavic world – Slavic languages and literatures, at the center of which is Russia. But even the Slavic Department at Berkeley does not focus only on Slavic languages and literatures. It teaches non-Slavic ones as well, like Hungarian and Armenian. That, too, is a product of a certain history – Armenia has been considered part of our geographic area because it was part of the Soviet Union.

And what to do with Central Asia? We can’t have an endless proliferation of regional institutes. Every region can’t have its own area institute because it would negate the purpose of the area studies system, which is to bring together a collection of scholars who work on a particular region, a group that is large enough to form a significant intellectual community. Regions like Central Asia just don’t have enough scholars here at Berkeley to warrant an institute with a regional focus. So should Central Asian studies be lumped with East Asian studies, with South Asian studies, or with Slavic studies? In practice, all three institutes share the region. The Institute of East Asian Studies does not tell the Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies: okay, you don’t touch Central Asia, it is in our area.

But the truth is that the old divisions made during the Cold War era have stayed in place because there are no easy alternative ways to divide up the world. I would venture to say, however, that that will change at some point. We may see a change, for example, with respect to Europe and European studies. How long does it make sense to keep Hungary in the Slavic Institute, and Hungarian language classes in the Slavic Department? Is there any Slavic connection? There are certainly some good reasons to continue to study the country in the context of our region – the post-Communist connection, to some degree geography, institutional legacies, cultural legacies from the Communist era, and so on. But at some point those factors will become less important and regional conceptualizations are likely to change, bit by bit.

It is the same for the naming of the Association of Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies. Basically, it is a title that tries to incorporate all of the areas that used to be a part of the Soviet Union and the “Eastern Block,” so to speak. But the Communist and Soviet legacies are going to become increasingly less important over time, I suspect, and it will eventually make less sense to treat all these countries as part of a common regional area.

Natalia Laas: But the “Eurasian” component is the most striking for me. Have you ever faced any misunderstanding from Russian scholars?

Edward Walker: No, not really. We had something called the Central Eurasian Studies Program here for a while that focused on the former Soviet Central Asian states, and also Mongolia, Buriatia, and that general area. Obviously, it is important to remember that the terms “Eurasia” and “Eurasianism” have particular meanings in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. But for us it was not an ideological construct, just a geographical one.

I am not saying that it might not happen, but I never experienced any particular confusion over the term. How many Russians actually think we are embracing or specifically studying Dugin’s Eurasianisn based on our name?

Natalia Laas: You have mentioned a very interesting thing about area studies. I had the impression that Soviet studies were very strong in the period of Cold War not only as a collection of scholars from various fields, but as a certain type of scholarship within US academia.

Edward Walker: I always thought that the argument that area programs were products of state engineering and American government policy during the Cold War was overdrawn. There is some truth for sure. There was some government support for area studies that goes back to the 1950s, which was driven by government concerns about promoting knowledge of the adversary. Basically, the reasoning was that the country and the government needed to know their enemy – as suggested by the title of David Engerman’s book9. But they also needed to know more about the outside world in general.

We are a huge continental country, and we were and still are quite parochial because of that. For the most part English here is the language of public discourse, and Americans are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages (other than Spanish to certain extent). That reinforces American parochialism. And that is true as well for other big, continental countries, such as Russia, China, and India. A large part of the federal governments’ effort to promote area studies, particularly Soviet studies, was driven by a desire to mitigate that parochialism.

But there were good reasons within the academy as well. What has been happening is natural for scientific disciplines, to use the word “scientific” broadly. They were become increasingly specialized, focusing on ever more narrow fields. But there was a perception that narrow specialization in the social sciences should be resisted to some extent, and that there were many advantages to multidisciplinary comparative work that asked big, not narrow questions – for example, regime type or regime change questions. So what better way to bring a collection of people together in a multidisciplinary framework than around some kind of cultural or geographic construct? It was not just the Soviet world that developed regional professional associations. South Asian studies, Asian studies, African studies, Latin American studies, all of them developed communities and professional associations around the same time.

Natalia Laas: What do you think about national historiographies nowadays? In other words, do we have American national historiography on the Soviet Union, or British, or Australian?

Edward Walker: Well, focusing on the English-speaking world, I doubt there really is something like an English school, an American school, an Australian school, or a Canadian school of Soviet studies. When I was taking courses on the Soviet Union, I didn’t consider whether the author was English, American, or so on. It is a little different for French scholarship, which was perhaps a little different from scholarship in the English-speaking world. And that was probably also true of German scholarship as well. But in the main, there weren’t coherent “schools” in Western countries. Different intellectual styles, perhaps, particularly with regard to writing, but not coherent schools.

My sense is that most American scholars didn’t read much secondary literature that wasn’t in English or in Russian if they happened to be a specialist on the Soviet Union. That was less true for historians, and if you were a specialist in Eastern Europe you had to learn German, and perhaps French, as well as one or two regional languages like Polish or Hungarian. There were also some American scholars who focused on the Soviet Union who had not just Russian, but also a secondary language from the USSR, like Ukrainian.

Natalia Laas: Could we put it as an English-speaking scholarship on the Soviet Union?

Edward Walker: I would rather put it as Western scholarship. There were French and German scholars who were a part of the English-speaking community of specialists, some of whom were translated into English and some wrote in English.

Natalia Laas: What is your opinion about the totalitarian approach?

Edward Walker: I wrote a paper about that and the controversy over the concept is a part of my dissertation.

Natalia Laas: About bureaucratic totalitarianism, as far as I know.

Edward Walker: Yes, the term I used to conceptualize the Soviet regime during the Brezhnev era was bureaucratic totalitarianism. Sometimes academic fights are about the needs of the moment. You turn an issue into something you can fight against because it is easy to frame arguments that way. So I understand the virtually unanimous criticism of the concept that was prevalent when I began my graduate work. But I thought much of that revisionist criticism of the concept was silly and exaggerated, and the critics turned it into something that it wasn’t. A lot of the earlier historiography on the Soviet Union, a lot of the literature written by people like E. H. Carr10  or Isaac Deutscher, was generally sympathetic to the Soviet project, and much of that literature was terrific. Basically, they were leftist who hoped socialism would prove a success. So I thought that the later claim by revisionists that most Western scholarship on the Soviet Union was anti-Soviet and hostile was an exaggeration. But I also thought it made sense to take a broader view of the Soviet experience and consider, for example, social history, and to be more nuanced in our understanding of the Soviet Union, to look beyond ideology and major political struggles at the top.

All of that was fine. What I objected to then and now is the view that the Soviet Union was simply a run-of-mill authoritarian regime, or a run-of-the-mill modernizing state, like any other. On the contrary, I thought, and think, that Soviet-type systems are a distinct regime-type. The way used to explain it was as follows. During the summer of 1975, when I was still in college, I travelled by train from France to Spain when Franco was still alive. I was going from a well-established democratic country in France into a still authoritarian country, Spain, but I really didn’t notice that as a traveller – there was no obvious, visible difference between the two countries tied to politics. Of course one noticed the different languages and cultures, but not different political system. If you studied the politics of the two countries, if you looked into their civil liberties, political freedoms, elections, and so on, you would know that one country was democratic and the other was not. I am not saying that democracy doesn’t matter – it does. But for everyday life of the average Frenchman or Spaniard, it didn’t really matter very much.

If you flew from Spain to Sheremetevo airport in Moscow, however, you would be immediately aware that you were entering a different world. Even at the airport, you would sense that Soviet socialism was a different kind of authoritarianism. I don’t care what word you use, but the word that came to be used by many to characterize that regime type was totalitarian. And the part of the concept that I agreed with the most was the implication that what you had was something like a total state, at the root of which was state ownership on the means of production and the central planned economy. I also distinguished between mobilizational totalitarian regimes, like the Soviet Union during the Stalin era and Hitler’s Germany, and bureaucratic totalitarian regimes, like the Soviet regime and most of those in communist Eastern Europe during the Brezhnev era and after. Since the regime banned almost all market transactions, and the state owned everything and controlled the entire economy, albeit not always very effectively, you were in a different world. You were in a country with a state that penetrated all corners of social life. Of course, not all corners equally, and you had private life, so-called kitchen society, and maybe even elements of an embryonic civil society. But authoritarian Spain was much closer to democratic France than it was to the Soviet Union in 1975, even if Spain was clearly authoritarian.

Natalia Laas: I know that you were several times in the Soviet Union before 1991. What were your impressions?

Edward Walker: Yes, I was there a number of times. The first time I was there for language training at the Pushkin Institute, I think in 1988. We lived in an obshchezhitie. Perestroika was already well on its way at the time, and there were many demonstrations going on, some of which I went to.

When I try to convey to American students how different the Soviet Union was from a place like Franco’s Spain, I tell the following story. The first summer I was there, I went to interview somebody. The interview took longer that I thought it would. It was summer and the day was long, and I was walking back around 9.30 with very little traffic on the roads – unlike, for example, Madrid on an average summer evening. And I realized I didn’t have any food at the obshchezhitie so I thought I should get some food at a grocery store on my way back. But I immediately realized I couldn’t. All grocery stores were closed, and there were no 24-hour stores and no restaurants open where I was or near the dormitory. The only restaurants that were open, as far as I knew, were in the inner town, and if I wanted to eat in one of them I would have to go all the way into the center of town and try to get into one of those restaurants. But I also knew that you were supposed to have a reservation, which was always difficult to arrange, and if you didn’t have one, you could only get in if you bribed the person at the door. And then you would go in and get a menu, and there would be thousands of things on the menu but they would have only three items available, none of which was very good. And it would be expensive as well. So I decided to just go home and go bed without dinner.

The point is not that this was a great hardship. Rather, the point is that it was such a different kind of circumstance in everyday life. In what a city in the world other than the North Korea could one walk home at 9.30 pm and not be able go around the block and find something to eat, something cheap, something somewhere?

Natalia Laas: There are many discussions about the Soviet Union as an empire. What do you think about this?

Edward Walker: I actually wrote an article about that11. I understand why people like to call it an empire, but I don’t think it is particularly useful characterization because I think it is misleading in implying that the Soviet Union was unusual in being large and ethnically diverse. It is a pejorative term, and in that sense it is no different than the term totalitarianism. My view is that the Soviet Union was “totalitarian,” at least as I define the term, but it was not an empire as that term is normally used.

Natalia Laas: Are you referring to politicized connotations of the “evil empire”?

Edward Walker: When you call something an empire it is almost always negative today. If it is the British Empire or Chinese Empire you are referring to, perhaps not so much. But if you call the United States an empire, it is definitely meant to have a negative, pejorative connotation. My challenge to anybody who insists on calling the Soviet Union an empire is: In what ways was the Soviet Union an empire that Nigeria isn’t an empire today, or India isn’t an empire today, or China isn’t an empire today? Each is made up of a huge number of very diverse communities, none of which chose to be part of those states through some kind of democratic referendum. Each also contains ethnic minorities who probably, given a choice, would vote to secede in a referendum. To call the Soviet Union an empire is just a way of saying that was big, diverse, and non-democratic. That is of course true, but it is true of many other states as well.

Natalia Laas: How about the national issue in the Soviet Union? For a long time US scholars associated the Soviet Union predominantly with Russia and other nations were seriously neglected. In titles of books you used “the Soviet Union”, but, frankly speaking, we had information only on Russia.

Edward Walker: That was generally true. It was less true for some scholars, but generally true for most American scholars and very true for the general public. Basically, people would say “the Russians” when they meant “the Soviets.” And they would say “the Russian Embassy” meaning the Soviet Embassy. The “Russian army” is going to invade...

Natalia Laas: Georgia.

Edward Walker: I meant back then, in the Soviet period.

Natalia Laas: Oh, I see. It is just my irony. Do you know this case when Russia invaded Georgia some people thought they are coming to the US state, Georgia?

Edward Walker: Oh, yes. At any rate, back then it is true that there was little appreciation for how diverse Russia was.

Natalia Laas: When did you realize that there were the other nations in the Soviet Union and that they were important too?

Edward Walker: I knew that all long. But that does not mean that I anticipated the intensity of the nationalist mobilizations of the Gorbachev era. I will tell you a story. I remember walking down the street in New York with Seweryn Bialer, I would guess, in late 1988. And I remember saying: Professor (we were more formal back then than now − I didn’t call him Seweryn until after I got my PhD). I said: Professor, this whole thing is unraveling. God only knows what will be happen. I hope people in Washington appreciate that we are moving into terra incognito and that we have no idea what’s going happen. It can turn into a massive and unbelievable disaster. And he responded that that is what he had been trying to convey to Washington policymakers for some time.

I didn’t say “Yugoslavia and nuclear weapons,” of course, because Yugoslavia had yet to unravel, but that was what people were worried about. So fairly early in the process we were discussing how things could spin out of control. As I said, I was interested in the ideological underpinnings of the regime, Marxism and the application of Marxism, central planning, the total state, and so on. And I had this deep belief that any effort to transform the centrally planned Soviet economy into a market economy would be incredibly costly, fraught with a risk of social and political chaos and turmoil. If the regime started to marketize, huge numbers of workers were going to loose their jobs and enterprises were going to collapse as pressures came to bear from the global market place. I expected that the economy would collapse and that that might in turn precipitate a very dangerous regime collapse.

But I certainly did not expect that the national question would become such an acute issue. And it was around that same time, in 1988, when we in the West began to understand the importance of the national mobilization in the Baltic republics and the ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus.

If you look at Bialer’s book, “Stalin’s Successors,” he has a discussion at one point about the parts of the former Soviet Union that, if the regime ever started to reform itself seriously, and in particular if it tried to liberalize the political sphere, could degenerate into violence and ethnic conflict, and he mentioned in particular the Caucasus. So it was not that we were completely unaware of the underlining tensions. But I do think like most people focusing on the Soviet Union did not expect nationalism to become such an acute problem for the regime. The economy of course was also a crucial factor, but nationalism was at least as important in bringing the down the regime and destroying the Soviet state.

I remember thinking at some point, maybe after Nagorno-Karabakh turned violent: okay, the regime is reforming itself but it is not just economic problems that is driving change, and the national question might well produce a lot of violence and also challenge the center.

Natalia Laas: While reviewing your recent publications I have noticed that you try to focus exactly on those problematic regions like Chechnya or Nagorno-Karabakh12. So, you are shifting the attention from Russia to the contested areas of Eurasia, aren’t you?

Edward Walker: I didn’t have any general plan to re-orient the focus of my research after my dissertation. Ethnic conflict wasn’t a particular interest of mine during my graduate work. If I had ended up in a different place and under different circumstances, I might have focused on something else, like post-Soviet political economy. But because I was here at Berkeley, and because violence is both dramatic and worthy of people’s attention, that is the direction I took. But I could very easily have gone in a very different direction.

After September 11th, I had a certain luxury. I am not regular tenure-track faculty, which has the advantage of allowing me to study what interests me. One of the dramatic developments in the past twenty years, and one of the things that scholars didn’t expect, is the salience of religion in politics, including in the United States. We have witnessed the rise of the religious right in American politics. There has also been a dramatic growth of Evangelical movements at the expense of more traditional mainline churches, as well as the emergence of so-called mega-churches. And there is also, of course, the rise of political Islam and Islamist militancy.

I became increasingly interested in Central Asia in part because of 9/11, but also because we received a series of grants for Central Asia. So I focused on Central Asia for a while, and also on religion and religious politics in the former Soviet Union. I wrote a piece on contemporary Islam in Russia, on religion and its relationships with ethnicity, and those kinds of topics13. So it was where my interests took me.

Natalia Laas: If you have had a choice to select one book which is very important from your field, which would you choose?

Edward Walker: That’s hard. I think that people in the region should have a realistic picture of Soviet history, and particularly of the darker sides of Soviet political history. So, some of early books on the Stalinist period would make for useful reading, like Conquest’s “The Great Terror”14.

Natalia Laas: His other book was translated into Ukrainian.

Edward Walker: Which one?

Natalia Laas: “The Harvest of Sorrow”15.

Edward Walker: Personally, I am a liberal, in the old sense of the term liberal, and like most liberals I have a very skeptical attitude towards nationalism and ethno-nationalism particularly. I always wished that people in the Soviet successor states would framed post-Soviet history as a reaction against the Soviet experience, but not against Russia and Russians.

Similarly I thought Russia itself made a mistake in not constructing its post-Soviet history as anti-Soviet. I think the Soviet Union should have been framed, correctly in my view, as an internationalist project in which many non-Russians were involved. But it didn’t happen. Now the Russians are committed to the other position, which is that Soviet history is Russia history. You see it all the time. Gorbachev was told: You lost the country for us. It would be much better if he had been told: You liberated us from these aliens; you liberated us from those who did horrible things to us Russians. Stalin, Beira, Ordzhonkidze were Georgians, and many Bolsheviks were Ukrainians, from the Baltics, Jews. They were certainly not all ethnic Russians. That does not mean that the Russians were not involved, obviously, but it was not, in my view, a “Russian” project. Again, it would have been much better to say: It was a Marxist, or Communist, project, we don’t embrace it; it was done to us. We Russians did not impose the USSR on other peoples, it was the Bolsheviks, and we are all complicit. But that is not the way it turned out.

That’s why I have reservations about “The Harvest of Sorrow” – it has an anti-Russian tone to it. The argument is that the Ukrainians were targeted because they were Ukrainians, not because they were peasants who resisted collectivization particularly fiercely. And the suggestion is that it was done to them by Russians, which I think is not correct.

I don’t know why I singled out “The Great Terror”. I probably should have recommended a good book that captures in a balanced way the overall history of the Soviet Union, not just during the terror. I would also say the book should consider the extent to which Stalinism was a likely, or even highly likely, outcome of the attempt to put Marxism or Leninism into practice. It was obviously a product of Marxism and Leninism to some extent, and the actual experience of building Soviet socialism was very bloody and coercive, and profoundly illiberal. But there is the important question of alternative paths after Lenin’s death.

Natalia Laas: What is your prediction for Russia?

Edward Walker: In a first place, any prediction I make is a probabilistic one − the way I think is in terms of probabilities. But I don’t see how Putin can last for two more terms in power. The problem is the weakness of the legitimizing narrative that the regime is based on, and what Gorbachev used to call “the gap between word and deed.”

Natalia Laas: And how about Ukraine?

Edward Walker: I don’t follow Ukraine very closely. I wrote a piece that is based on a talk I gave several years ago, a survey of where the different post-Soviet countries were twenty years after the Soviet breakup16. I pointed to some important anomalies, outcomes that people would not have predicted back in 1991. For example, why is corruption in Moldova so high and GDP per capita so low despite the country’s proximity to Europe?

One anomaly is Ukraine, particularly the Ukrainian economy and GDP per capita. Russian GDP per capita is roughly three times higher Ukraine’s. People argue that the reason is that Ukraine doesn’t have energy and is dependent on Russia for oil and gas. That is certainly part of the explanation, but I think it is inadequate. That’s not the only reason. Poland does not have much oil and gas, but Poland’s GDP per capita is higher than Russia’s, let alone Ukraine’s. I think that is a puzzle that invites explanation. My impression is that the economy in Ukraine is really bad, corruption is high, and the political situation unstable. So why is Ukraine is such bad shape compared to its neighbors to the west and east? On the other hand, Ukraine also gets considerably better scores than Russia on civil liberties and democracy.

The paper was just a snapshot of current outcomes and a review of some obvious surprises. There is a lot of variation, not just in economic outcomes but also in political scores, in corruption, in political economy, so a ton of variations from relatively similar starting points. To explain all this variation is going to be an interesting and important challenge for social scientists for a long time.

Natalia Laas: Thank you very much!

April 3, 2013, Berkeley
Commented by Natalia Laas

Edward Walker (born 1954) is an Associate Adjunct Professor of the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and Executive Director of the Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies since 1993. He received his PhD from Columbia University in 1992. He is the author of the book Dissolution: Sovereignty and the Breakup of the Soviet Union (Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

  1. Dissertation: “Structural pressures, political choice, and institutional change: Bureaucratic totalitarianism and the origins of Perestroika”.
  2. Seweryn Bialer (born in 1926) is an emeritus professor of political science at Columbia University. He was the director of Columbia’s Research Institute on International Change.
  3. The Harriman Institute is one of the first academic centers in the United States devoted to the study of Russia and the Soviet Union. It was founded at Columbia in 1946 as the Russian Institute. The Institute was renamed the W. Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union in 1982, then as the Harriman Institute in 1992.
  4. Bialer, Seweryn. Stalin’s successors: Leadership, stability and change in the Soviet Union. – Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. – 312 p.
  5. Giovanni Sartori (born in 1924) is an Italian political scientist. He served as Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University from 1979 to 1994 and was later appointed professor emeritus.
  6. T. H. (Harry) Rigby (1925–2011) was a professor of political science in the Research School of Social Science at the Australian National University in Canberra. He was a founding member and first president of the Australian Association for the Study of Socialist Societies (now the Australian Association of Communist and Post-Communist Studies).
  7. Rigby T. H. Stalinism and the mono-organizational society // Stalinism: Essays in historical interpretation / Ed. by Robert Tucker. – New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. – P. 53–76.
  8. Walker, Edward. Perestroika and Sovietology: A post-mortem // Beyond Sovietology: Essays in politics and history / Ed. by Susan Solomon. – London: M. E. Sharpe, 1993.
  9. Engerman, David. Know your enemy: The rise and fall of America’s Soviet experts. – Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. – 459 p.
  10. Edward Hallett Carr (1892–1982) was an English historian, diplomat, journalist and international theorist. He is the author of 14-volume history of the Soviet Union, which is tilted “A History of Soviet Russia” published from 1950 onwards.
  11. Walker, Edward. The long road from empire: Legacies of nation building in the Soviet successor states // From Empire to Nation / Eds. by Joseph Esherick, Hasan Kayali, Eric Van Young. – Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. – P. 298–339.
  12. Walker, Edward. Dagestan and the stability of instability in the North Caucasus // Russia in the new century: Stability or disorder? / Eds. by Victoria E. Bonnell and George W. Breslauer. – Westview Press, 2001; Walker, Edward. No peace, no war in the Caucasus: Secessionist conflicts in Chechnya, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh // Crossroads and conflict: Security and foreign policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia / Eds. by Gary Bertsch, Cassady Craft, Scott Jones, and Michael Beck. – Routledge, 2000.
  13. Walker, Edward. Islam, territory, and contested space in post-Soviet Russia // Eurasian Geography and Economics. – 2005. – Vol. 26, no. 4. – P. 247–271; Walker, Edward. Islam, Islamism, and political order in Central Asia // Journal of International Affairs. – 2003. – Spring.
  14. Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin’s purge of the thirties. – London, Melbourne: Macmillan, 1968. – 633 p. The Ukrainian translation: Конквест Р. Великий терор: Сталінські чистки тридцятих років / Пер. з англ. Н. Волошинович та З. Кораблінової. – Луцьк: Терен, 2009. – 800 с.
  15. Conquest, Robert. The harvest of sorrow: Soviet collectivization and the terror-famine. – New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. – 412 p. The Ukrainian translation: Конквест Р. Жнива скорботи: радянська колективізація і голодомор. – Київ: Либідь, 1993. – 383 с.; Конквест Р. Жнива скорботи: радянська колективізація і голодомор / Редактор В. Гребенюк, пер. з анг. Н. Волошинович, З. Корабліної, В. Новак. – Луцьк: ВМА «Терен», 2007. – 456 с.
  16. Walker Edward. Twenty years on: What we thought then, what we know now // Two decades of development in post-Soviet states: Successes and failures / Eds. by Sergiu Musteaţă, and Ludmila Coadă − Iasi Publications, forthcoming September 2014.