Seminar with John Gaddis

Seminar with John Gaddis

28 May 2020

May 27th, an academic and methodological seminar was held online with Yale University Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner John Gaddis, a historian globally famous for his research on “Grand Strategy” and the Cold War.

The event gathered remotely lecturers, researchers and students from MGIMO, Moscow State University, the RAS IMEMO, the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, Tambov State University and the European University in St. Petersburg. The discussion was moderated by the University’s Vice-Rector for Graduate and International Programs, Dean of the School of International Relations Andrey Baykov and the Dean of the School of Government and International Affairs Mikhail Troitskiy.

Opening the seminar, A.Baykov introduced J.Gaddis, highlighting for the audience some of his most striking scientific achievements and thanked the American guest for his participation in the event. In turn, Professor Gaddis expressed gratitude to MGIMO for the opportunity to interact with Russian colleagues and gave a short introduction about the word “Zoom”, noting that it refers not only to modern communication technologies, but also to history.

Indeed, historians in their research “zoom in” to focus on specific moments of the past and “zoom out” in order to understand the context of the problem they are studying. J.Gaddis noted that this applies to his own academic work as for many years he devoted himself to the study of the Cold War, which was a “medium-level zoom”, then he zoomed out with his study of Grand Strategy. The guest also spoke about his experience using Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace” to teach freshmen about the lessons of the Napoleonic Wars, the general atmosphere and the perspectives of those living at that time, including Karl von Clausewitz, one of the key writers on modern military science.

The audience was enthralled by the speech of the American guest and many participants contributed to the ensuing discussion. Professor I.Kurilla of the European University at St. Petersburg spoke about the differences between historians and political scientists and underlined the importance of the lectures by J. Gaddis published under the title “The Landscape of History”. The Associate Professor of MGIMO Igor Istomin added to the discussion on history and political science, to which the American colleague answered that it is impossible to completely set them apart from each other, as both use the same sources and the cooperation of researchers on both sides benefits the development of science as a whole. As for methods, political scientists widely use case studies, which J.Gaddis regards with suspicion.

Another topic discussed was the objectivity of history. M.Shibkova asked J.Gaddis how lecturers can eliminate the bias and teach students history objectively. Professor Gaddis replied that history is unstable and evolves with the disclosure of new archives, documents and with the development of new technologies, while objectivity is only an unattainable ideal. Professor G.Baranovsky, Professor at MGIMO’s Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia, expressed his disagreement, noting that emphasizing the lack of objectivity of history can have unforeseen consequences. The Professor of the MGIMO Department of History and Politics of the Countries of Europe and America, V.Pechatnov, agreed that saying objectivity is an illusion is too pessimistic.

The Head of the Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia at MGIMO, B.Martynov, cited an extract of J. Gaddis’s work where it is said that the Cold War could have had worse consequences, and asked why this didn’t happen. The Professor of the Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia, V.Degoev, referring to the 1997 book “We Know Now: Rethinking Cold War History” asked the guest whether six years after the end of the Cold War it was too early to analyse it. J.Gaddis admitted that the Cold War is a historical period that remains a mystery but noted that we know little more about it now.

The Associate Professor of MGIMO’s Department of Oriental Studies E.Koldunova asked about how politicians use history to their own ends and the Professor at Yale University replied that politicians are split into those who use history and those who read it. J.Gaddis told a life story about how he was unexpectedly invited to the Oval Office of the White House by US President George W.Bush to discuss his book, and how this had an influence on some of the decisions later made by the presidential administration, as the former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoirs. In response to a question by T.Shakleina, Head of the Department of Applied Analysis of International Problems at MGIMO, about the modern world order, J. Gaddis responded that it was a “cold war without capital letters” and remarked that the next generation of historians will find it a challenge to adequately qualify this period. J.Gaddis also engaged in an exchange with Associate Professor E.Romanova about the absence of faith in a specific ideology nowadays.

As the seminar came to a close, Professor J. Gaddis expressed his opinion about how history teachers impact the life of their students, noting that teaching history is about helping young people prepare for independent decision-making when confronted with uncertainty.

The seminar is available for viewing on MGIMO Facebook, Vkontakte pages and on the MGIMO YouTube channel. In less than a day, the video has attracted over 2500 viewers.