Good News from Gelendzhik, from William Taubman

Sep 01, 2004

"Good News from Gelendzhik"

by William Taubman


Earlier this summer I taught at a summer school on "The End of the Cold War and Contemporary International Security," in the Russian resort town of Gelendzhik on the Black Sea. Although thirteen years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, the school was the first fully post-Soviet gathering I have attended. What I saw of the town of Gelendzhik was equally surprising and encouraging.


Founded in the nineteenth century as a military outpost on the Black Sea, Gelendzhik long aspired to become a major resort. But a friend who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979 recalled the "resort" as "nothing but dirt and dust." Instead, I found a clean, sunny town on a large bay tucked between the sea and foothills of the Caucasus. A beautiful promenade with a whitewashed balustrade and red paving stones (all recently built with the help of donations from local businesses, a city official told me) stretches ten kilometers along the water. Lovely small hotels and restaurants offer friendly and efficient service to mostly Russian vacationers (since the town is only now thinking of building a world-class airport) who look for all the world as if they belong to what Russia has for so long lacked and desperately needed--a real live middle class.


Soviet era academic conferences were notorious for their ideological tension, for the clear limits to what could and couldn't be said, for their forced, artificial conviviality. At earlier post-Soviet gatherings, Russians no longer feared that political misspeaking could bring official punishment, but their ingrained caution persisted, reinforced by fear of the unknown in an unstable, unpredictable time. This summer the discourse was natural and unforced, sincere and direct. This mood may not seem revolutionary to Westerners, but that is the point: for the first time in my forty years of visiting the former Soviet Union, the sessions were virtually indistinguishable from those in the West--except that those in Gelendzhik were more interesting.


The unusual trio of co-sponsors of the summer school was itself a sign of change. Virtually all Soviet conferences I attended were held in Moscow. Our host in Gelendzhik was the Kuban State University in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar. Reaching beyond Moscow was one of the aims of a second sponsor, the National Security Archive, a private organization in Washington that collects and publishes declassified documents. NATO was the main target at many Soviet conferences. This time, the NATO Information Office in the Russian Federation was itself the third co-sponsor.


American and Russian professors on the summer school faculty were equally non-doctrinaire. A Russian offered the most lucid, balanced analysis I've ever heard of Soviet and American images (such as George F. Kennan's in the late 1940's) of how the cold war might end. A barrel-chested former Russian general blasted not only the American invasion of Iraq, but the Soviet Union's Afghan war, and Russia's war in Chechnya. All three were doomed by the incompetence of those who launched them, he charged, but Russia, he continued sadly, must fight on in Chechnya lest the separatist contagion there threaten Russia itself.


"We do indeed feel entirely free," a Russian professor told me over dinner. "We no longer need to calculate what we can and can't, what we should and shouldn't, say." The former general couldn't have taken part in such a gathering ten years ago, he admitted, let alone speak as freely as he did, not just because he was still in the military then, but out of habits of mind that persisted after the USSR was gone.


Summer school "students," graduate students and young faculty from provincial Russian universities and former Soviet republics, were also outspoken. At last year's session, I was told, they still hesitated to challenge their teachers. This year, when Russian and American faculty assumed the cold war was over, and so tried to discuss when and how it ended, several students retorted that cold war was still on. They pointed to recent NATO expansion up to Russia's very borders, When the NATO Information Office's young American representative defended that expansion, I half-expected the session to revert to old-style mutual recriminations. Instead, it dissolved into laughter in face of such a strikingly post-Soviet situation: Russian and American professors in agreement, Russian students hotly divided, NATO's spokesman gallantly trying to do his job while still playing the role of genial summer school host.


Among the uglier features of post-Soviet life have been ethnic conflicts, such as in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan over which the two former Soviet republics have been warring for years. When a young Armenian and a young woman from Azerbaijan debated the issue at a summer school roundtable, the Russian chairman begged both to be polite and tolerant, but he needn't have bothered. Their exchange was a model of how to discuss an explosive issue calmly and rationally. Their fellow students, Russian, Ukrainian, and Uzbek, posed helpful, clarifying questions offered with a wonderful mixture of humor and irony.


An American professor recalled that during the cold war her American students read 20th century Russian literary works not available to Soviet readers. Summer school students politely let her know that they had long since caught up, citing authors from around the world, including Americans, whom the professor herself hadn't read.


Much of news from Moscow these days (less than fully free and fair elections for parliament and president, closing down of liberal media, hounding and even arrests of President Putin's opponents) isn't good. Muscovites assume that the situation is worse in the provinces, which are far poorer than the capital and more susceptible to authoritarianism. Perhaps next year's school will reflect these trends. For the moment, what I saw and heard in Gelendzhik offers hope that the post-Communist transition to a better society may yet succeed.




William Taubman, who won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Nikita Khrushchev, is professor of political Science at Amherst College and Chairman of the CWIHP Advisory Committee.

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