Celebrating ASEEES: Reflections on the 1990s

As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of our organization’s founding and the 50th Convention, we take time to reflect on our history through the eyes of four AAASS/ASEEES Past Presidents.

Click here to read "Reflections on the 1980s"
Click here to read "Reflections on the 2000s"
Click here to read "Reflections on the 2010s"

Marianna Tax Choldin is Professor Emerita, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was the AAASS Board President in 1995.

I venture to say that everyone reading this issue of NewsNet knows the significance of the 1990s—for the world in general and for us as scholars in our field in particular—but some of our colleagues are perhaps too young to have lived through that amazing decade as adults. So for our younger readers, let me introduce the decade by writing that the 1990s were nothing short of amazing. (To our older readers, who experienced the ‘90s as I did, please choose your own favorite fevered adjective: stunning, shocking, mind-blowing, or something more up-to-date. You cannot possibly be too dramatic.)

I’ll use myself as an example of an older reader. I was born in 1942, in the middle of World War II, experienced the beginning of the Cold War and the McCarthy era as a school girl, and came of age at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s as a college and graduate student at the University of Chicago, a member of the post-Sputnik generation. Many of my classmates and professors were émigrés from the Slavic and East European world. I studied Russian language, literature, and history from ancient times to the Soviet present. In the late 1960s I became a Slavic librarian, joined what was then AAASS in the mid-‘70s, and in the ‘80s, having finished my PhD, I became a scholar of censorship in Russia and the Soviet Union, which I remain today.

Through my first 30 years in our field, although I was an optimist, I never doubted that the world of the Soviet Union and its neighbors was here to stay, although by the mid-‘80s I certainly saw cracks in the edifice of that world. By that time I was traveling to Russia increasingly frequently, but I confess that I didn’t see the end coming. I was overjoyed when the Berlin Wall came down, but that was Berlin, not Moscow. It wasn’t until I found myself on a cruise ship sailing between Moscow and St. Petersburg, giving lectures to a group of tourists as we sailed into the August 1991 coup, that I was jolted into conceding that the Soviet Union might not last forever. I expect I’m not the only one of our colleagues who, if they are honest, might admit that they didn’t see it coming.

Then came the 1990s. What we saw and experienced was both thrilling and scary. As scholars we thrilled to the open doors of archives, to the revelations of library spetskhrany, to the racy, bold satire on TV, and to an unfettered press. But we reacted with unease to unbridled corruption, to intolerance in parts of the Orthodox Church, to an economy that wasn’t growing, to nationalism on the rise, and to a widening gap between rich and poor. We were annoyed by Western “experts” who knew exactly how to fix the broken countries of Eastern Europe but knew nothing about those countries; and by earnest and enthusiastic but ignorant missionaries who filled the flights I took to Moscow, on their way to “Christianize the Russians” without knowing that they had been Christians for hundreds of years. My own experience was in Russia and the former Soviet Union; other colleagues reported similar signs, positive and negative, in other parts of the region.

Our AAASS conventions in the mid-‘90s were vibrant, full of energy and a strong feeling of excitement. Colleagues from the region began to take their places on panels and roundtables; their detailed reports of life on the inside as it had been often left us breathless. Joint research projects between them and us were born. (For example, I partnered with a Russian colleague to organize a groundbreaking exhibition and conference on imperial and Soviet censorship.) We were invited to participate in conferences all over the region, often held in places where foreigners had been unwelcome until very recently

But optimism was salted with disturbing questions. How would the changes affect our work? I’ll never forget a scene at one of our conventions during that period. A colleague who specialized in the German Democratic Republic and I were waiting for the hotel gift shop to open so we could buy the New York Times (available then only in print, of course, in those long-ago times when dinosaurs roamed the earth). He peered anxiously at the headlines, then turned to me and said, mournfully, “There goes my country!”

By the mid-1990s not all of our initial questions had been answered. How would we define our academic areas on a newly-drawn map of the world? Would our access to archives and to specialists change for the better or become worse and perhaps dry up altogether? And at home, would our government and the foundations that had supported our scholars since Cold War times lose interest in our part of the world? Would our funding dry up? Would Americans, never very interested in foreign languages, eliminate our languages in high schools and colleges? These possibilities were sources of great anxiety in the mid-1990s, and still are today, as they no doubt will be tomorrow.

It’s interesting to look back on the subjects of our convention panels in 1995. Opening the program at random, I find “Imperial Russian Politics and the Muslim Question” and “Changing Political Elites and Movements in Post-Communist Societies,” as well as “The Poetics of the Contemporary South Slavic Historical Novel” and “Contemporary Issues in Russian Education”—a nice mix of old and new—and that is as it should be. Some scholars were using newly accessible sources to continue their study of topics of enduring interest, while others were turning their attention to problems of the moment, new issues: both “The Politics of Porcelain” and “Mass Political Behavior in Post-Communist Countries.” And as always, our librarian colleagues were reporting on the current state of access to everything we need—“Access and Archiving of Electronic Resources for Slavic & East European Studies” —to keep the scholars who depended on their help informed about resources. With the changes our field had broadened and deepened, a good thing for any field, and a wonderful thing to experience at a convention.

From dozens of conversations in the coffee shop, on the escalator, and in the meeting rooms I recall an energy, a sparkle that wasn’t there in the 1970s and 1980s, my own first decades attending our conventions. It wasn’t that we weren’t into our work with enthusiasm back then; of course we were, but it was different. We talked then mainly among ourselves, because there were few others to talk to. (Younger readers, remember that in the old days visitors from the region were rare, and too often the visitors were accompanied by minders.)

From the late 1980s on, and especially after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, we talked to, and with, a vastly expanded circle of people, both our colleagues and ordinary people in the regions we studied. Travel in both directions increased dramatically. In my presidential address I wrote “With support from IREX, various Soros Foundation programs, and my own university.... I began to travel much more frequently to the region. Counting my trips, I’m amazed to find that since 1987 I have traveled seventeen times to Russia, three to Hungary, and once each to Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine.” From the number of colleagues, members of this association, whom I saw in various hotels and airports (once, purely by chance, I even shared an elegant box with one at the Budapest opera house), I know I was not the only one moving around at a crazy pace. It was an exhilarating, exhausting, and ultimately life-changing time for many of us.

Those years of the mid-‘90s are unforgettable. Some of us, I’m sure, looked at what was going on behind the scenes in our region and realized that trouble was brewing, that the streets were not paved with gold and the Moscow River was not flowing with milk and honey. But I, the eternal optimist, focused on the positive. Yes, I told myself, there are problems, lots of them. But the prospects are so bright! Surely we can believe that better times are coming! I’m still an optimist today, believe it or not, but I have to work at it. And I am so glad that the new AAASS—ASEEES—is with us now, still encouraging study, still hosting annual conventions, still bringing us together. Keep it up, please!