Sherry 21 July 2015

Jonathan Sherry

Andrew Mellon Fellow & PhD Candidate in History, University of Pittsburgh

When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies?

It was the classic literary critiques of “totalitarianism” which first brought me into the world of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; the works of Zamyatin, Orwell, Koestler, and Victor Serge. I was fascinated and somewhat tormented with the question of how such great revolutionary hopes could lead to such sterile police regimes. It was at this point, early in my undergraduate education, that I immersed myself in the battles of Soviet historiography of the age of so-called “revisionism” in order to attempt to make sense of it all. Here my object of study was “Stalinism”, which I came to understand as a rather pliable term to which a broad variety of meanings have been ascribed, ironically not unlike its supposed opposite, “Trotskyism”.

How have your interests changed since then?

The affinity and passion that Orwell, Koestler, and others shared for the Spanish Civil War turned my interested decidedly towards the phenomenon of communism in Spain, and in particular, the Soviet presence there in 1936-1939, which coincided with the Soviet mass repressions and show trials. Here, I claim, the lived experiences of many intellectuals who went to Spain had a profound influence on emerging critiques of “Soviet totalitarianism”. The lives of George Orwell, Franz Borkenau, and others, in a historical sense, are one significant part of the story of western anti-communism and broader critiques of “totalitarianism”. I also found that the historiographical disputes over the Spanish Civil War resembled Soviet debates, marked with av similar communist – anti-communist frame, as Francisco Franco carefully constructed the myth of the Communist invasion of Spain to justify the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of rojos (reds) during the war, and the ensuing forty-year dictatorship. With the opening of Soviet era archives in the 1990s and the continuous release of materials in Spanish archives, both of which shed new light on the Spanish debacle, it is a very exciting time for historians of the Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War.

What is your current research/work project?

My current research looks at the wartime Spanish Republican government’s attempts to assert its legitimacy and impose discipline through a process of judicial state-building and political trials, and the Soviet role in this process. I use various levels of analysis, local, national, transnational, and international, to examine the extent to which Spanish, Soviet, and broader European imperatives shaped the politics of the Spanish Republic during the civil war, and in particular its legal-judicial apparatus. Here my objects of study are the Republic’s Special Espionage Tribunal and its prosecution of the anti-Stalinist POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), long considered an extension of the “Stalinist show trial” abroad.

What do you value about your ASEEES membership?

ASEEES provides an excellent opportunity to network with a large, interdisciplinary group of researchers. It is the central point of activity for the study of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, the Soviet and post-Soviet world. Its conferences are unique opportunities to maintain scholarly connections with researchers of Soviet history, which complement my network of contacts in the field of Spanish history and the transnational and global history of the Spanish Civil War. 

Besides your professional work, what other interests and/or hobbies do you enjoy?

I spend much of my free time writing music and playing classical guitar. I am also an avid hiker and camper, having summited peaks in the Austrian Alps, the Carpathians, the Sierras around Madrid, and of course the Appalachian mountains of my home state of Kentucky. Perhaps the hobby that I am most dedicated to, though, is intensive training for endurance races, the most recent of which was a triathlon on the Black Sea coast near Constanța, Romania.

 Pictured: Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) brigade training in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. Note George Orwell (far left).
Source: Public Domain