David Szakonyi for “Renting Elected Office: Why Businesspeople Become Politicians in Russia” (Columbia University)

Szakonyi’s brilliant dissertation explores why private businesspeople run for political office in Russia and the consequences of those choices for Russia’s political and economic development. Using a sophisticated quantitative analysis of an original dataset on thousands of regional legislative candidates and firms, as well as dozens of interviews conducted in three Russian regions, Szakonyi argues conclusively that businesspeople run for office when they believe that lobbying alone will not protect their interests. Moreover, he explains that winning office results in concrete material benefits for the businesspeople’s firms, in particular through increased access to public procurement contracts.

This well-written and clearly argued dissertation demonstrates that in Russia, as elsewhere, businesspeople have exploited public dissatisfaction with “politics as usual” to insert themselves into political positions and engage in predatory rent-seeking. It also illuminates the ways in which the Putin government and the United Russia party have used regional legislatures to bind economic elites to the regime and allocate spoils to insiders. However, the dissertation also suggests an empirically-grounded way out of this circle of corruption. It reveals that politically empowered firms benefit less from elections when they face strong economic competition in their regions. The dissertation thus concludes that strengthening state institutions to prevent excessive industry concentration could reduce the appeal of directly seeking office for firms, as could public service reform to enforce transparency in public procurement and regulation. Szakonyi argues forcefully and convincingly that the best way to curb corruption among businessperson politicians in Russia is to empower their direct economic competitors.


Leah Goldman for “Art of Intransigence: Soviet Composers and Art Music Censorship, 1945-1957” (The University of Chicago, 2015)

Leah Goldman’s dissertation, “Art of Intransigence: Soviet Composers and Art Music Censorship, 1945-1957,” makes a distinct contribution to our understanding of censorship by showing just how much more it involved than regulators approving or forbidding compositions. Focusing on composers of art music, in particular opera, during the late Stalin (Zhdanov) and early Khrushchev period, Goldman depicts elaborate forms of self-censorship and pre-censorship group monitoring in the Composer’s Union. She describes forms of collaboration between composers and censor (who as a group overlapped in education and activities with the composers themselves) so elaborate that censors can be considered co-authors of the finished works. The work is a model of deep, meticulous, and wide-ranging research into multiple Soviet archival and published primary sources, displaying effective strategies of analysis that can be brought to bear to understand Soviet cultural politics. Along the way, the work develops deeply researched case studies to illustrate the complex interactions among power, ideology, culture, and material or economic incentives. 

In so doing, the dissertation demonstrates how ostensibly collegial and professional forms of artistic collaboration (some adapted from pre-revolutionary traditions) often turned coercive and, as the intelligentsia protected itself from political crackdown, suppressed innovation and enforced a conservative aesthetic. What is amply described as a deeply dysfunctional, unpredictable system within the censorship bureaucracies turned artists and professionals into highly skilled players of the games of maneuvering and self-defense—but also made them into supplicants and preemptive censors of their own output. Instead of depicting individual artists facing an all-powerful state, therefore, the work reinforces the notion that the intelligentsia and its practices in culture and politics formed an enduring cornerstone of the Soviet system. These findings are applicable to other cultural and scientific fields as well as to our understanding of cultural politics in the Soviet context more generally. Finally, Goldman argues, the material here suggests how we must expand our understanding of censorship itself to encompass such phenomena as peer review, professional self-monitoring, and group shaming. The case of Stalinism was distinctive in that it tightly paired this “constitutive” censorship with more frequently recognized forms of “regulative” censorship, blurring the boundaries among the individual author, the professional group, and the state.


Masha Kirasirova for “The Eastern International: ‘The Domestic East’ and the ‘Foreign East’ in Soviet-Arab Relations, 1917-68” (New York University)

In this dissertation Kirasirova effectively goes beyond the traditional focus of “Russia and the West” and contributes significantly to opening up a relatively uncharted field of study for the Soviet period: “Russia and the East.” At the centerpiece of this work is the Soviet construct of the East in the realm of ideology and culture, on the one hand, and practices and institutions, on the other. Although both are shown to have drawn on the pre-revolutionary Russian legacy, the concept of an “Eastern International” was coined in 1918 by the Bolshevik intellectual Konstantin Troianovskii, later head of the Near Eastern section of the Comintern, paving the way for Stalin’s 1925 “bifurcation” of the Vostok into domestic (socialist) and foreign (exploited) components. The master theme of Kirasirova’s work is the “longevity and ideological resilience” of this construct, and, above all, the significance it assumed as it became entrenched in an entire range of Soviet agencies and institutions located in Moscow: the Communist University for the Toilers of the East, the All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad, the Moscow Institute for Oriental Studies, and a number of others. Kirasirova’s “Eastern International” affects the ways we look at Soviet nationalities policy, Soviet Orientology (vostokovedenie), and the guiding ideas and practices of the Soviet multinational state—both inside and outside its borders. In addition to the work’s international and transnational dimensions; the study makes an important and innovative contribution to the study of Soviet politics and ideology in the tradition of Tucker and Cohen.

Particularly noteworthy are the wide array of archival sources, including an impressively large number of Russian and Arabic materials never before utilized. The research included documentary sources and interviews in Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and the US. The study also takes an ambitious and unusually expansive chronological sweep from the 1920s to the 1960s. In telling the story of how “eastern” cadres, foreign communists, activists, students, artists, and film-makers interacted with Soviet institutions and key politicians, experts, and functionaries, the work is able to capture an important dimension of lived experience in the interaction of the two “easts” with one another and the Soviet center. As it demonstrates the significant, if circumscribed agency of Moscow-based Central Asian “mediators” and a wide range of key players in Soviet-Middle East relations, the work elaborates a Soviet cultural mission that in some ways proved more resilient than the political one. While the evolution of the bifurcated East in Soviet history is shown to have taken many twists and turns, especially in the era of decolonialization, the Cold War, and Thaw, the leitmotiv of “Russia and the East” is explored throughout with sophistication and depth. This dissertation has the makings of a significant book.


Maria Rogacheva, “A History of a Town that Did Not Exist: The Soviet Scientific Intelligentsia in the Post-Stalinist Era.”  (University of Notre Dame)

The dissertation deals with an important but little-known topic, the formation of closed science cities in the Khrushchev era.  The regime’s intent was to mobilize scientific talent for projects related to Soviet military and related research by concentrating scientists in new closed cities.  Rogacheva examines one such city in detail, Chernogolovka.  Tracing the history of this single science city from its creation under Khrushchev through the Brezhnev period, the dissertation paints a rich and nuanced portrait of the living conditions, political outlook, and mentality of the Chernogolovka’s scientific community.  Rogacheva makes a convincing argument that the young scientists who participated in the establishment of Chernogolovka were motivated by a mixture of ideals and career considerations.  They rationalized their privileged status by their identification with the regime’s support for science.  Rogacheva combines archival study with deftly handled in-depth interviews with a number of the scientists who worked in Chernogolovka. She does not over-generalize but she skillfully paints a collective portrait of a social experiment that was both a scientific collective and a real human community. The dissertation lies squarely in the tradition of research practiced by Robert Tucker and Stephen Cohen. We believe that it will make the basis for a significant book and salute Dr. Rogacheva and her committee on a superb dissertation.  


Michael Westren, “Nations in Exile: The ‘Punished Peoples’ in Soviet Kazakhstan” (University of Chicago)

The committee members have agreed to award the Tucker/Cohen prize for 2013 to Michael Westren for his dissertation, “Nations in Exile: The ‘Punished Peoples’ in Soviet Kazakhstan, 1941-1961” (University of Chicago, 2012). We find it a mature and comprehensive account of the deportations of the suspect Soviet ethnic nationalities to Central Asia during World War II. Westren draws effective comparisons among the affected groups, and identifies the three major phases in the deportation process: the decision to deport, life in exile, and the return to the home regions. Westren makes a convincing argument that the basic motivation for the deportations was the leaders’ fears that these nationalities were insufficiently imbued with Soviet values and loyalty, rather than being an act of genocide directed against peoples based on their ethnicity. A particularly impressive element of the dissertation is the treatment of the exiled people’s lives in Kazakhstan. Westren does not try to impose a single causal argument on the study, but demonstrates the interplay of multiple actors and influences. He also effectively grounds the wartime deportations in the broader history of deportations of entire peoples in Europe before and during the war. Revealing multiple connections among Soviet state policy, wartime exigency, and the complex realities of a multinational society, the dissertation is a significant contribution to the literature on Soviet history and politics. We salute Dr. Westren, and his advisor, Sheila Fitzpatrick, on an excellent piece of research.


Jeffrey S. Hardy, “Khrushchev’s Gulag: The Evolution of Punishment in the Post-Stalin Soviet Union 1953–64” (Princeton University)

This richly conceived and researched work focuses on the bureaucratic politics surrounding reform of the Gulag system under Khrushchev. Hardy shows how the question of incarceration was re-imagined and restructured by paying equal attention to the various forces- political, bureaucratic, economic, public opinion and debate that pushed policy toward change and retrenchment. In so doing, he covers in detail the practice and results of reform and counter-reform in various regions over time. The result is a new vision of the Soviet penal system that moves away from the widely held images projected in dissident literature and older historiography of an unchanging and harsh Soviet camp regime to a more nuanced picture that fully embraces the dilemmas of post- mass incarceration societies, and particularly the Soviet Union in the wake of de-Stalinization. He shows, for example, that public desire to keep criminals off the streets, so to speak, often resulted in successful pressure to counter what was perceived to be soft line penal reform that either made camp life too comfortable or even broke down the very fact of incarceration. Ultimately, Hardy reveals the difficulties of changing the culture of incarceration not only in Russia and he deserves great credit for placing this problem in a broad comparative context that includes the United States.


Eleanory Gilburd, “To See Paris and Die: Western Culture in the Soviet Union, 1950’s and 1960’s” (UC, Berkeley), and Ora John Reuter, “The Origin of Dominant Parties” (Emory U)

Gilburd raises the timeless question of Russia’s relationship to the west in strikingly new and subtle ways. This work considers the manner in which the “west”, that is western culture, entered the Khrushchev era Soviet Union and indeed was appropriated and internalized and made Soviet in ways that transformed the western imports into part of Soviet culture and identity themselves. This original conception is worked out in several vividly articulated and massively detailed case studies, each one based upon extraordinarily deep sources (archival, textual). For Gilburd, Soviet exposure to the west was part of intra-European cultural traffic. The Soviet Union of the late 1950’s and 1960’s was an integral participant in the cross-Atlantic and pan-European circulation of ideas, sounds and texts. She highlights the emergence of exchange agreements and cultural pursuits as integral to Soviet daily practices. Ultimately the relationship between Russia and the “foreign” is expressed as a claim to ownership or disavowal. One of the authors’ most striking arguments is that Russian society took hold of the “foreign” and claimed Western cultural artifacts and phenomena as Russia’s property. The major case studies are cultural exchange agreements and “friendship;” the VI International Youth Festival in Moscow, 1957; museum-going (the European heritage of impressionism Rockwell Kent and Picasso); and translation and channels of literary transmission. This rich work provides new insights into Soviet identity and cultural dynamics and ultimately into politics in the broadest sense.

Reuter uses a full range of published sources and interviews to examine the large question of why dominant political parties emerge in some non-democracies and not in others. The dissertation focuses on post-Soviet Russia and the story of the post- 1991 failure of two ruling parties and, more recently, the emergence of a “successful” ruling party, United Russia. Deploying historical analysis as well as a rich conceptual model that views the issue as one of two-sided commitment between central leaders and other (usually regional) elites, Reuter shows that Russia’s ruling parties’ projects failed in the 1990s because regional elites were so strong that they would not link their political machines and fates to any ruling party project. By contrast, United Russia became strong after 2000 because elites were still strong enough to require cooptation, but not strong enough to defect from the ruling party. Data on Russian governors and regional legislators show that those with independent resources and political or economic power bases were more reluctant to join the dominant party. They only came around when benefits of membership outweighed costs of remaining independent. The dissertation also provides the first detailed account of the role of United Russia in Russia’s political system. The discussion of incentives and cadres is especially rich and provides much material to help assess the potential of democracy in Russia. Finally, the author examines the global context and data on all dominant parties in the world’s non- democracies since 1946. Dominant parties only emerge when neither leaders nor elites have a preponderance of control over resources. The model is presented with extraordinary clarity as are future research questions on the nature of dominant parties and democratization.


Oscar Sánchez-Sibony, “Red Globalization: The Political Economy of Soviet Foreign Relations in the 1950s and 60s” (University of Chicago)

Oscar Sánchez-Sibony’s dissertation has a persuasively argued original thesis about the Soviet Union in the era of the Cold War that breaks new ground in several respects. It starts by asking a very basic but somehow generally overlooked question about the Soviet Union’s role in international affairs, namely why its imprint on the world economy was so small despite its superpower status. Departing from the bi-polar paradigm that has dominated the historical literature on the Cold War, it creatively employs the framework and insights offered by International Political Economy (IPE) to advance three key arguments:

Soviet trade and aid policies were driven for the most part by pragmatic considerations that responded to opportunities as they presented themselves within the prevailing market-dominated system of global economic exchanges. Soviet trade policy under Stalin was autarchic by accident rather than intent, and after Stalin’s death, Soviet authorities had no intention of undermining the American-led post-war system of international exchanges on which they were increasingly dependent and from which they were convinced the country benefited.

After some initial expectations that it could hold its own in exchanges of industrial goods with western developed economies, the USSR reverted to exchanges more reflective of a developing country, supplying raw materials in exchange for technical goods. From the standpoint of the recently decolonized and developing countries of the South, the USSR represented a useful alternative to acquiescing in the US-dominated liberal trade order.

As in so many other respects, the actual day-to-day handling of foreign trade was prone to all manner of inefficiencies, bureaucratic games, and divergence from central dictates, the result of which was very little if any synergies between trading partners.

These arguments are advanced on the basis of archival materials from central state and party organizations that initiated and oversaw foreign trade, but also the extensive but comparatively neglected published literature produced by western and other economic observers during the 1950s and ’60s, and analyses of economic development strategies of individual trading partners. The results are richly rewarding, challenging both Russianists and historians of the Cold War to reassess their assumptions about the nature and limits of the Soviet Union’s “powers of attraction and influence.” “Red Globalization” has all the promise of a truly outstanding first book.


Mie Nakachi, “Replacing the Dead: The Politics of Reproduction in the Postwar Soviet Union, 1944-1955” (University of Chicago)

This is a brilliant dissertation with enormous implications for how we understand the effects of the Great Patriotic War on post-war Soviet society and especially gender relations, the continuities and discontinuities between the Stalin and Khrushchev eras, the relationship of professionals to those in positions of political power, and the capacity of ordinary people to maneuver within and even to effect change to officially imposed strictures. It is about the “politics of reproduction” in the sense that  power relations between state institutions and individuals as mediated by medical, demographic, and child welfare professionals had huge implications for whether and in what circumstances people procreated and raised progeny. The dissertation is expertly conceived, methodologically sophisticated, exhaustively researched, and written with admirable clarity. It analyzes the thinking behind population policies, the impact of the social catastrophes of the Stalin Revolution and the Great Patriotic War on fertility rates, marriage and divorce practices and policies, child welfare provision, and a host of other dimensions of reproduction politics.

The argument begins with the Marxist intellectual inheritance and political origins of Soviet pronatalism before the war, the war-time demographic catastrophe, and the “solution” to the crisis proffered by Khrushchev in his family law draft of 1944. It then proceeds to analyze the enactment and results of this law with all of its intended and unintended effects, and concludes with an analysis of the legalization of abortion in 1955. At its core, the work offers a highly sensitive portrait of gender politics following World War Two, one that carefully illuminates how the party- state’s particular pronatalism – from the ban on abortion to limiting contraception and reviving the concept of legitimacy – wreaked havoc on women’s reproductive health, on the relationship between women and the medical profession, and on the family structure. It thus underscores the failure of the state’s pronatalist policy to achieve its twin goals of encouraging births and providing sufficient material support to mothers and children.

Attentive to the multiplicity of issues associated with “replacing the dead,” Mie Nakachi’s dissertation displays a deep empathy for its subjects, exemplifies in every respect the best tradition of historical scholarship as practiced by Robert C. Tucker and Stephen F. Cohen, and promises to become a highly influential book on the politics of gender and of reproduction.


Benjamin Tromly, “Re-Imagining the Soviet Intelligentsia: Student Politics and University Life, 1948-1964”

Ben Tromly’s dissertation, ‘Re-Imagining the Soviet Intelligentsia: Student Politics and University Life, 1948-1964,’ is framed by a fresh and exciting conceptualization of the intelligentsia as a discursive category that both reflected and shaped how educated citizens understood their relationships to higher knowledge, to the party-state, and to each other during a period of transition. The fruit of imaginative and exhaustive research in Russian libraries and archives and thoughtful interviewing, it focuses on the trajectory of students’ intellectual identities at Moscow, Kiev, and Saratov universities from the late Stalin era to Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964. The dissertation systematically challenges conventional and oversimplified assumptions about such important historical issues as possibilities for autonomous socialization and sociability within state institutions as well as outside the state’s purview in the last years of Stalin’s rule, the role of the Komsomol, the seedbed of political “revisionism” and Ukrainian nationalism, the relationship of Soviet intellectuals to the process of de-Stalinization in eastern Europe, and what the Virgin Lands and other public works campaigns meant to students, teachers, and other intellectuals. Its astute blending of social and cultural approaches to the political history of the USSR exemplifies the best tradition of historical scholarship as practiced by Robert C. Tucker and Stephen F. Cohen and embodies the makings of an outstanding first book.

Honorable Mention

Edward Cohn, “Disciplining the Party: The Expulsion and Censure of Communists in the Post-War Soviet Union, 1945-1961”

Ed Cohn’s dissertation, ‘Disciplining the Party: The Expulsion and Censure of Communists in the Post-War Soviet Union, 1945-1961,’ is a highly detailed study of the shift in the way the party treated deviant behavior in the post-war era. Its central argument that the discipline system became less repressive but more intrusive after Stalin, that it increasingly concerned itself with such ‘private-life’ issues as family stability is based on exhaustive research in both central and provincial archives and employs both quantitative and qualitative indices. Replete with colorful examples and written in an engaging manner, the dissertation makes an important contribution to the rapidly expanding literature on the postwar and post-Stalin periods. Its conversion into a monograph is eagerly awaited.


Heather Diane DeHaan, “From Nizhnyi to Gorkii: The Reconstruction of a Russian Provincial City in the Stalinist 1930s”

Professor Dehaan’s doctoral dissertation, ‘From Nizhnyi to Gorkii: The Reconstruction of a Russian Provincial City in the Stalinist 1930s,’ explores the effort to turn ‘merchant’ Nizhnyi Novgorod, a well-known center of imperial Russian trade, into the ‘socialist’ city of Gorkii from 1928 to 1941, through a detailed reconstruction of urban planning during this period. The work is based on informed and meticulous research in Russian provincial and central archives, as well as in an ambitious body of relevant published sources. It is elegantly written and conceptually exciting. Many young scholars can do solid archival research; some can produce big ideas; but only a very few are as capable as Dehaan of bringing together the quotidian and metaphysical seamlessly, compellingly, and with such a high level of sophistication. ‘From Nizhnyi to Gorkii’ sheds fresh light, during the Stalin years, on such issues as evolving relations between the center and periphery, professionalization and identity formation, cities as places of lived socialism, the mobilization of pre-revolutionary rituals and ways of thinking in support of Soviet ideals, the role of pragmatism and inertia in socialist construction (or lack of it), and the complexities of state and local politics then. A truly original, distinguished doctoral dissertation, it provides a solid and altogether promising foundation for a genuinely important first book.