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Archival Research and Oral Histories in Sevastopol

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When I started conducting research for From Ruins to Reconstruction as a dissertation project, I simply wanted to research something that had never been done, in a period of history that was only starting to be examined, and in a city where no scholar had worked before. Quite accidentally, I ended up explaining why many years later Crimea would be in Russian hands. I finished writing the book in 2007 (published 2009), and seven years later “little green men” occupied the city I came to know and love.

Sometimes You Accidentally Predict the Future

I had not thought about cities having a biography before conducting archival research and oral histories and wandering the streets in Sevastopol, but moving outside of Moscow led to new questions and allowed me to conclude that the “postwar strategies of [Russian] identification forged an urban biography that has proved remarkably resilient into the twenty-first century. If Ukraine is to capture the allegiance of the citizens of its most naval important city, it would do well to learn from the postwar process of accommodation and agitation.” (193) The paragraph continues with a prescription on investment and cultivating local knowledge as was done after WW II. Kyiv didn’t, and Moscow took control in 2014 with little opposition from Sevastopoltsy.

Ask New Questions in New Places

I was one of a group of graduate students in the mid-1990s who, following scholars like Don Raleigh and Sheila Fitzpatrick, began to show that there was a great deal of value in moving beyond the 1930s and the archives of Moscow and Leningrad/St. Petersburg. Today this seems quaint as scholars embed themselves in regional archives all over the FSU and have chronologically shifted our focus through excellent studies on the 1950s-70s. It is the impetus to ask new questions in new places, which I learned from my mentor Richard Stites, that brings vitality to historical inquiry. Our field (and therefore our classrooms, too) has improved tremendously.

Photo: Karl D. Qualls (2004), Sevastopol, Ukraine.

Blaze a Trail in Archival Research

I had no previous work to guide me; postwar reconstruction was an uncharted field. There was gold in Moscow’s archival research that had not been touched: maps, drawings, protocols, budgets, photographs… there were boundless riches to explore. But in Sevastopol, I was the first foreigner ever to work in the municipal archive because the city had been a closed military city until just weeks before my arrival. I was reminded of this on a weekly basis when the militia stopped me, asked for my papers, and I then quoted the new law that allowed a 25-year-old American into a sensitive military city.

And You Might Just Reap the Benefits

In Sevastopol, new questions emerged because my sources were on the ground, not filtered through a bloated bureaucracy. Had I not worked in Sevastopol, I likely would not have come to some of my key conclusions, such as how the regime used agitation and accommodation in urban reconstruction to placate and educate the population in “localness.” More importantly, I would not have seen the power that local officials had in rejecting Moscow’s proposals for creating a memorial city out of the rubble. The chapter “Local Victory over Moscow” could never have been written. And the notion of local identification, which I developed into a claim that Sevastopol would always be Russian (even though it was still juridically part of Ukraine), would not have occurred to me.

Historical understanding, and a little serendipity, could provide deep knowledge to policymakers… if they would only read it.

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Karl Qualls is Professor of History and John B. Parsons Chair in Liberal Arts and Sciences. He has again chosen the path less trodden in his most recent book, Stalin’s Niños: Educating Spanish Civil War Refugee Children in the Soviet Union, 1937-1951, which has just been published by University of Toronto Press.

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