Campus Conversations – Tyler Lega with history professor, Dr. Ken Slepyan
[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Welcome to another Campus Conversation. Discussions with Transylvania University faculty highlighting their interests, passions, and pursuits. Here is Tyler Lega.
TYLER LEGA: This is another Campus Conversation, and I’m your host, Tyler Lega. And with me today is Dr. Ken Slepyan. A little bit of a quick background about Dr. Slepyan.
This will be his 22nd year at Transylvania University. He received his bachelor’s at Williams College, his master’s and PhD in history at the University of Michigan. Some of his research deals with the Soviet Union and Russia, modern European history, the Holocaust, and war and society.
Some of the awards that Dr. Slepyan has won have been the Bingham Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Charles Revson Fellow from the US Holocaust Museum, and a grant from the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. And to get started today, if you can talk about some of the reasons why you were so passionate about your field of study.
KEN SLEPYAN: Well, that’s a fairly long story. I’ll try to keep it short. When I was coming of age in the 1980s, the Soviet Union, of course, was the major enemy of the United States in the Cold War. And so I was interested in it from the perspective of trying to know one’s enemy. That’s what first got my interest in Russian and Soviet history.
And since that time, I’ve realized things are a little bit more complicated than that. But that was the primary reason for it. And if you just look at the Soviet Union itself, it’s a fascinating place where the Soviet leadership tried to create a utopia. And obviously, it did not work.
But trying to understand that society and what the leaders were trying to do and how people reacted to this, and how they lived their lives, I just found absolutely fascinating in that context. So that was the primary reason for my interest in the Soviet Union.
But my actual research is on World War II. And focusing– my first book was on the Soviet partisan resistance, the guerrilla resistance against the German occupation. And that was fascinating to me because here you had people who were fighting against this occupation on the one hand.
But they’re also fighting ostensibly in the name of a regime which was also quite brutal. Almost as brutal as the Nazis were. Some people would say more. I wouldn’t agree with that, but very close to it.
And so how do you have people fighting against one brutal regime while being associated with another? And how the partisans, the guerrillas thought of themselves and thought about what they were doing in the relationship to the Soviet state, I found that quite engaging.
My current research now is looking at everyday life in the Soviet Union during the war. That is, how did people under occupation live their lives just trying to get by? How to get a job, how to get food, how to negotiate working under Nazi control but, at the same time, still trying to appear loyal to the Soviet Union, if that was something they wanted to do. So that’s what I’m currently working on. And it’s a kind of extension of the earlier work that I was doing.
TYLER LEGA: Moving forward. One thing I know Transylvania University is very proud of is its study abroad program. And I know that you’ve taken many students abroad. And if you could speak to what those trips have been like, where you have gone, and what the actual classes were composed of.
KEN SLEPYAN: Well, a couple of times, I went with another Transy professor, Paul Jones in the religion program, where we were part of a broader group going through Poland looking specifically at the Holocaust. And very often, that was done in conjunction with a class that I teach on the Holocaust. So the students going had classroom knowledge of it. But then that’s not the same thing as being on-site and actually being able to visit camps like Auschwitz or Majdanek, and seeing that through your own eyes, and understanding what it took to create something like that. So that’s been one set of courses.
The other set of courses have been done through the Kentucky Institute for International Studies, which Transy is affiliated with. And here, the places where I’ve been have been– Ukraine, Lviv in western Ukraine, and in Poland, Krakow and Warsaw. And there, the courses I’ve been teaching were also World War II and the Holocaust.
But again, giving students a sense of what the war was like in places where they’re not really familiar with to get a different view about the war. And being on-site– again, it’s the same thing as I said before. It’s one thing to read about this stuff in the classroom. It’s another thing to actually see it, and see it for yourself, and get a sense about what people’s lived experiences were like.
But with the KIIS courses, it is important that students not only be in the classroom and learn that way. That’s very important. But it’s also important getting an understanding of the places where they’re at.
So walking through, say, Krakow in Poland, or Lviv in Ukraine and seeing how people live. Going to the cafes, going to restaurants, going to museums. That may not be directly related to the classroom, but it is part of broadening one’s experience and understanding the world that it’s not all about– the world cannot be defined by going to Fayette Mall in Lexington. But that seeing how other people live their lives, that’s also part of the broadening experience.
So it’s a combination. It should be a combination of yes, hitting the books and doing that stuff, but also living and getting a sense about how other people see the world and live through the world in their locations.
TYLER LEGA: One thing that you mentioned to be very important was the aspect of students taking time to broaden their lives. So that leads me to one question I have for you. And how has your research or your study of history helped to broaden your life?
KEN SLEPYAN: It gives you a chance to take yourself out of yourself and put yourself in the shoes of other people, which helps put your own life into context and into perspective. One of the things that history forces us to do is, while we’re supposed to maintain a critical distance and understand the past as objectively as we can, you also cannot appreciate what people themselves have experienced without trying to understand and to have some sense of empathy even if you don’t agree with their worldview. You may be studying people you find particularly heinous in their views. But nevertheless, you have to be able to put yourself in Lviv, and say, how did they see the world?
And so it forces you to take a step out of yourself and say, yeah, there are other perspectives out there. I don’t agree with them. I don’t like them. But you got to understand that they’re there. And so from that perspective, research is very important for taking yourself out.
And also, humbling yourself a little bit so that you understand that, yeah, whatever tribulations you may have going on in your life, some other people, it could be extraordinarily different. And it makes you wonder about yourself. Could I have survived in the kind of environment they’re dealing with? And what kind of choices would I have made?
It’s very easy to say with certainty that one is going to do something from the comfort of one’s own home. It’s another thing when you’re confronted with the reality. And history forces us to ask those questions. Not only about other people, but also about ourselves.
TYLER LEGA: More recently, you’ve just published a new textbook, The Soviet Union and Russia, from 1939 to 2015. So if you could just give a quick outline of what that book looks like, that would be great.
KEN SLEPYAN: Sure. Well, this book was actually co-written by me and my wife, Karen Petrone, who’s a professor of Russian and Soviet history at the University of Kentucky. So we wrote this jointly. And it’s part of a series that Oxford University Press has called Pages from History.
And the idea of the series is to tell the history of a particular event or place through primary documents. And you use the primary documents to narrate various events, things that have taken place. And our job is to select the documents and to write the transitions and put them in context.
So what this is is using primary documents, a history of the Soviet Union from the eve of the Second World War, through the war, through the end of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, through the transition from the end of the Soviet Union to Russia and the Yeltsin years. And we end up with the Putin years. At least until 2015.
TYLER LEGA: Now, you did say that you collaborated on this book with your wife. And that’s a really, really cool thing. You are both Soviet Union scholars. And now you’ve gotten to come together for the first time and really sit down and produce a written text. If you could go a little bit further into what that process was like.
KEN SLEPYAN: Yeah. We’ve got a lot of jokes about that. Well, if you can survive this, you can survive anything. And it really was a very, very pleasant process. Sometimes, we would do it so that one of us would write the chapter and take the primary responsibility for selection of documents. Somebody else would then take another chapter.
But then once we did that, we would then both go over the documents. One of us would take primary responsibility for editing it, but then we would both take a look at it. And the same thing would go for the transition pieces. And then after having gone through that for a chapter, we then proceed and go to the next.
But there were times when we’d also have to set up meetings. Well, OK, we’re going to meet at 9 o’clock in order to do this. Because otherwise, daily life got to be– was the way it was. So sometimes, it seemed very, very businesslike that way. But we were all doing this from writing from the home.
And so it was– we’ve always talked about Russian history. The kids don’t necessarily always appreciate that. But this was a chance to do so at a professional level. And that really actually was quite enjoyable.
TYLER LEGA: There are hundreds of books on both Soviet and Russian history. So how does this textbook fill the knowledge gap between those?
KEN SLEPYAN: The way most textbooks are done, either they’re done as straight textbooks with very little– occasional box, say, with the primary source in it. But pretty much a kind of didactic narrative from the author telling you what exactly has happened. Or they might be collections– more rarely in the case of Russia and the Soviet Union– but they might be document collections with very little narrative attached to it– just here are a bunch of documents.
And so this book in a way is in between that. We use the primary sources to tell the story. But we wanted to choose primary sources that would provide discussion.
In other words, we may be sending up a particular kind of narrative. But the sources themselves are ambiguous enough and interesting enough, we think, so that you could take this into a classroom and say, let’s read this source. And OK, the narrative may tell us one thing, but how can we look at the source? What else does it tell us?
Because when we set up the writing for the context of it, we wanted to provide students with the guidance to be able to analyze a source but not to provide answers, so that the students themselves can look at the sources and say, you know, this tells us something about Soviet society, or this provides an insight into the way gender relations existed, or values about nationalism, or things of that sort. So we really wanted to be a book that students could use to analyze, to discuss, to engage with, rather than just simply reading it saying, OK, I get it now.
TYLER LEGA: Your book is heavy on primary documents. And that leads me to my next question, which is, one, what were the different types of documents that were included in the book? And two, what was the selection process for whether or not you were to include them in the text?
KEN SLEPYAN: Well, actually, there are a variety of documents. So a lot of them are memoirs. Some of them are diaries of various kinds. There are a lot of visual sources. Others are government reports and that like.
But what we wanted were things that a student could read and a class could discuss. So there had to be something interesting about them that wasn’t just simply a straight-on report that you’d look at and say, OK, that was nice. But say, if it’s a meeting protocol, or something like that, there had to be something about the protocol itself that would say, why would they discuss this? Why would this be part of the protocol?
Something that you could, again, engage with as conversation. So that became one of the most important criteria for selection. Can this be focused for discussion?
Second, was it an important document? So for example, there are certain documents which you practically have to have. So when Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 condemned Stalin at the 20th party congress of the Communist Party in 1956, that’s a founding document of the Soviet Union. That’s a critical document for condemning Stalin’s crimes. So we had to have that.
The problem there was his speech went for four hours. So we had a word limit. We had to find what we thought were the most important parts of the speech that lent themselves also to discussion and include that. So that became one of the issues that we had for selection.
TYLER LEGA: If you could speak to the process of finding these documents, were they documents that you had to travel for? Were they documents that were mainly online? What was this process like?
KEN SLEPYAN: A lot of these could be available online, especially the later documents. So there’s no chance of getting anything archival, say, on the Putin administration, except if there had been some kind of leak of information. So we have a document, for example, from WikiLeaks from 2008, 2010. But most of this stuff, particularly in the latter period, was online.
A lot of it were documents that we were already familiar with from other aspects. And we said, oh, yeah. That memoir would be really great to include in this because this person’s perspective on, say, the death of Stalin was really important.
So some of it was stuff that we could find online. Others of it were things that we were already familiar with. And then still others, you said, well, I’m not really familiar with this area. We need to go and start looking around. And so that might involve reading other histories, checking bibliographies, things of that nature.
TYLER LEGA: A final question for you is, what are you hoping this book accomplishes? Not only for the scholar, the student, but also the casual history buff?
KEN SLEPYAN: Well, this is probably not so much a book for scholars. It is a textbook. But my hope is– and what both of us had this in mind when we were writing– was we wanted something which would engage students and help them understand the Soviet Union and Russia not as something either far away, or monolithic, or cliched, or stereotyped, but to really understand that the people in the Soviet Union, real people. And they have lives, and dreams, and desires, and fears, like we all do. And to try and understand Soviet and Russian society beyond the headlines, and to really engage with it. And so that was the first goal.
The second goal, again, to have a text which could be used in the classroom. And both of us test drove chapters in our classes at UK and at Transy, and used that feedback as a way to say, well, OK, this worked, this didn’t, to help produce it. Both of us in fact dedicated the book to our respective students, because they did play such an important role– and they may not have known it– but in helping us to shape the book.
TYLER LEGA: Well, thank you, Dr. Slepyan. It was an honor to chat with you today. And one more time for those of you at home, his new textbook coauthored by himself and his wife is The Soviet Union and Russia, from 1939 to 2015. And that is all that we have for you today. This is Tyler Lega signing off.
SPEAKER 2: You’ve been listening to another in our series Campus Conversations, discussions with Transylvania University faculty.