Interview with the Russian Region Expert Karel Svoboda

Understanding historical events through the personality of their actors brings new perspectives, says Karel Svoboda

An interview with Karel Svoboda - the author of the publication of Autocrat and his Era: Russia and the Revolution of 1830-1831, awarded in the framework of a competition of high-quality monographs of Charles University, on his book, on the way of exploring the history and importance of scientific distance.

Karel Svoboda

Before we get to the topic of your book, can you briefly introduce what is the scope of your research interest?

Primarily I treat a Russian foreign policy. Recently, I have been rather shifting to the area of its economic impact. In general, I can say that I am concerned with the factors crucial in framing a foreign policy, what tools are used for this, and I demonstrate it on the Russian example.

So I examine what tools are used to influence the decision-making process of the states, that is, what tools the particular power applies to influence the decision that the influential state will take. This is not an exclusively Russian affair. The tools such as granting a loan depending on whether a state is loyal or not are used by all the world powers. Here I examine how these tools are used, in what situation, how effective they are, etc.

What has just crossed my mind in this respect is the current hot-button issue of economic sanctions against Russia.

Yes, that's a good example. It is clear that in this case sanctions are not aimed at achieving a result in the short-term perspective - such as the return of the Crimea to Ukraine. Then the question arises of their effectiveness in the long run and also their symbolic aspect - for example, the declaration of a statement “This is not right.” But I'm not just exploring the negative aspects, I'm also looking at how a certain superpower has a long-term influence on its satellites through investments, what it expects from them, loan conditions, etc.

This year your book Autocrat and his Era: Russia and the Revolution of 1830-1831 was warded within a competition of high-quality monographs of Charles University. What is its main goal?

I tried to explain as accurately as possible what everything is taken into account and affects the decision of the main actor of a major historical event - in this case, the Tsar Nicholas confronted with the Polish uprising and events in the years 1830-1831. What aspects were important to him and to the then Russia's representatives, and which were, on the contrary, secondary. It was very interesting to follow and to discover what even a relatively absolutist ruler had to take into consideration, that is even a person who, actually, is formally not really limited by anything. Yet, as the book shows, his sphere of competence was surprisingly quite narrow.

What particularly caught my attention in the annotation of your book is the fact that when describing the events you start from an individual, from a particular person, not from an event itself. I wonder what such an approach requires, how did you proceed in the writing process?

First of all, this simply entails a bit unsurprisingly long hours and weeks of studying archive materials - the contemporaneous press, personal writings and other documents. At the same time, I try to empathize and understand in detail the individual, his way of thinking, what he experienced in a given situation and what he had to consider. In short, such a work is created by simply reading a lot. In the Slovanská knihovna (the “Slavonic Library”), which harbors a Russian press of the time, I almost became part of the inventory (laughs).

What do you think is the most important in such a detailed study of history in terms of a particular person?

There is a great deal of such things. However, the basic prerequisite for such an approach is impartiality - avoiding judging the actions of that person. On the contrary, I try to understand these actions in the context of a particular situation. I have to say that it is good that in case of my book the event was almost 190 years old and so the distance is more reachable.

Also, it is important to say that even such sources as personal notes or letters have to be approached critically. We must bear in mind that a person always tries to look better than he actually is, even for himself - and therefore, for example, in his own diary as well. And then I confront these sources with other sources and so on.

Was it difficult for you to keep this distance?

It was very difficult. With such a detailed work on - one can say - the main hero you will inevitably embrace some attitude. Moreover, there is a very fine line between trying to understand some personality and feeling affection for it. However, this also belongs to my goal of conceiving the book differently. If I wrote another diplomatic history, it would be just one of many books on this subject and would bring nothing new.

Did it happen to you that in the course of a writing process you had to adjust the original plan due to different findings?

Of course. The topic is alive and evolves during the writing process. The notion of setting the goal and nearing it through direct ways, unfortunately, does not often correspond to reality. In the area of historical research there are basically two approaches to the creation of a scientific work. Sometimes it is being compared to Beethoven and Mozart. While Mozart had everything planned in advance and then he just wrote it, Beethoven was the exact opposite - he often corrected and rewrote his original work. I’m rather the second case.

Why did you actually choose the figure of the Tsar Nicholas?

My original motive was certainly the fact that he has such a bad reputation. In literature, he is primarily depicted as a gendarme of Europe, a man who executed the Dekabrists, curtailed the original Polish freedoms, and in 1848-49 he greatly interfered with the European Revolutions. Then there are authors such as Pushkin, who defended the Tsar and his steps.

You know, even though my book is about the past, it raises questions that we are still addressing in relation to Russia today. You ask how it is possible that what we perceive negatively is perceived positively in Russia, as - for example - the aforementioned topic of the Crimean annexation.

Can we say that you are trying to understand the Russian mentality?

I try to avoid the concept of mentality. My endeavors do not follow this direction, however strange it may sound in the context of what I'm examining. As I said, I examine a personality and his decision-making always in the context of one particular event, I do not try to pass general judgments. So I do not call it understanding of the mentality, but rather the attempt for a different point of view, from the position of the other side. For example, the Polish uprising - the way the Russian public perceived it at that time was that Poland had received considerable advantages from Russia, for which Poland “paid back” by the rebellion. And suddenly you are faced with two different perceptions of one particular reality.

Did you encounter anything that surprised you while studying contemporaneous material?

I was surprised how the then-Russian leadership took public opinion into account when involved in a decision-making. We're still talking about the absolutism system. Nevertheless, the Tsar’s ministers were thinking of what could cause riots or what would be at least unpopular. It was also surprising to me how much influence the minister of finance had on the Tsar’s decision-making.

Could you please name an example?

Among other things, it also clarified for me a somewhat marginal theme in relation to my work, which is the issue of the railroads expansion in Russia. In Russia, the railroads did not occur much later than in other countries. But their expansion across the country took much longer, thanks to the minister of finance who was opposed to it. You are telling yourself he was a smart person who was also against such a progressive step. So, you search for what logic he applied.

Russia is a very large country. Covering it by railroads would be a big and costly project, beyond the financial possibilities at that time. In addition, the roads throughout the territory were in a very poor condition. Building railroads would be inefficient, as they would not cover the entire area, and - on top of that - in the winter they would be paralyzed by snow drifts. On the other hand, it was possible to repair the roads all over the territory for the same funds. And suddenly you can see that two hundred years ago people’s trains of thoughts were not much different from today. In retrospect, we can say today that this may have been a mistake. But we are already saying that through the knowledge of future development.

One last question. Is it possible to say that it is through understanding the motives of particular historical personalities that the path leads to a greater understanding of historical events?

It’s the very basis. In order to properly analyze one’s reactions, it is necessary to first understand that behavior. I can simply condemn someone and say he’s stupid because he made a mistake from a retrospective point of view. As an example, we can mention Stalin, who long rejected the news of a possible attack on the Soviet Union by Germany. But when condemning him, we tend to forget that besides this information he was confronted with at least the same amount of news that warned him that the West would try to drag him into the war with similar information. And suddenly you understand the information noise in which such a decision-making takes place. And then you view the acts of this or that person differently.

Finally, I would add that in the course of research you often find out how many historical events happened in history by mere coincidence, misunderstanding, or simple sloppiness. It will give you a certain amount of skepticism also to the current efforts to find conspiracies behind everything. But that would be the topic for several more interviews.

We are looking forward to another interview. Thank you kindly for this one.


The interview was led by Jakub Říman, spokesperson of FSV UK


A photo by: Nguyen Phuong Thao