Publication Date

September 1, 2012

Perspectives Section


Nikolay Koposov to Be Visiting Professor at Johns Hopkins University

Readers of Perspectives on History may recall that the Russian scholar, Nikolay Koposov, described (in his essay, “'The Armored Train of Memory': The Politics of History in Post-Soviet Russia,” published in the January 2011 issue) the deteriorating political climate in Russia and the increasing control of historical thought. What Koposov did not report at that time were the personal consequences that he and his family experienced because of his defense of freedom of historical thought and expression: he and his wife lost their jobs and had to emigrate. Sadly, his story is being replicated many times throughout Russia for those who dare to contest the “history and memory politics” being deployed now by the Vladimir Putin administration.

Nikolay Koposov is a truly international scholar of the highest standing and repute. He is the author of eight books on French and Russian history and a huge number of articles. He was a directeur d'études associé at the École des hautes études en sciences socials in Paris and also has been a Fellow at the Max Planck Institut für Geschichte at Göttingen, as well as at the University of Kent, and sits on numerous boards at institutions throughout Europe and Russia.
After 1989, Koposov worked with the Soros Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Mellon Foundation and in collaboration with Bard College to establish the first liberal arts college in Russia, Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in St. Petersburg, of which he became the first dean. His aim was to introduce and sustain genuinely free scholarship and teaching in Russia and to reconnect that country with European and American scholarship in general through the organization of conferences, invitations to scholars and the like, in all of which he was enormously successful.

However, approximately three years ago the climate for this sort of openness in Russia changed drastically. The Russian government authorities attacked the Memorial Archive (which houses testimonies from those imprisoned in the Gulag, something on which Koposov's wife, Dina Khapaeva, has written extensively), removing its computers and disks, and ultimately returned them only because the action stimulated a great deal of international protest, including from the AHA. The Putin administration also proposed a series of "Memorial Laws" seeking to control the expression of historical opinion, making any attempt to revise or criticize the history of Russia during World War II (for which, read Stalinism) subject to fine and/or imprisonment. Although the laws have not yet been enacted, Putin did set up a commission to review historical publications with the aim of monitoring and censoring those critical of Russia, in particular of its Stalinist past.

Nikolay Koposov was one of a handful of Russian scholars who spoke out publicly in defense of free historical thought and writing, publishing articles in Russia and in Pierre Nora'sLiberté pour l'Histoire (Freedom for History) in Paris. Recent reports appearing in the New York Times, theChronicle of Higher Education and similar publications confirm the worsening situation for free speech and thought in Russia today. Indeed, just two days before the time of my writing (July 23, 2012), Putin signed a law that requires NGOs receiving funds from abroad—primarily human rights groups—to register as foreign agents with the Ministry of Justice. When the U.S. State Department expressed “deep concern” about the law, it was rebuked by Moscow for “gross interference.”

As a result of his public gestures defending freedom of historical thought, speech, and writing, Nikolay and his wife, Dina, lost their jobs at Smolny. They had been invited to spend time at the Collegium for Advanced Study in Helsinki, Finland, having been granted leave in order to accept the invitation. Just before their departure from Smolny for Helsinki, in July 2009, Sergei Mironov, the chair of the Council of Federation of the Russian Parliament, assessed the work of both Nikolay Koposov and his wife Dina Khaepava, in an article in the Parliament's official newspaper, citing their writings, although not naming them specifically. Their work was deemed to represent a danger to Russia's national security. Once out of the country, they were fired from their positions at Smolny. It seems fair to conclude that because of their engagement in public debates and defense of academic freedom and freedom of expression, they had (and have) little chance for returning to a normal professional life in Russia.

Unlike the situation of a growing number of scholars and human rights workers in Russia and elsewhere in the world, their story has a reasonably happy outcome, if one can say that of scholars forced to leave their homeland. Dina Khapaeva was recently appointed chair of the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech and Nikolay Koposov will be a visiting professor in the history department at Johns Hopkins University during the academic year 2012–13.

At a time when schools like Harvard University have been forced to reduce the number of scholars-at-risk annually offered year-long positions due to lack of funding, history departments and universities throughout the country need to join in the effort to provide help. As the Harvard University web site succinctly puts it: "The solidarity of American universities towards scholars facing persecution has been critically important at various junctures in world history. Today the threats to academic freedom are more varied and geographically dispersed but no less intense." The benefits to American educational institutions of so doing was amply demonstrated during World War II, when scholars of the caliber of Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Kantorowicz were brought to this country and changed the face of American scholarship. As historians, we need to heed this call to step up to history.

Gabrielle M. Spiegel, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, was president of the AHA in 2008.

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