Lewis Siegelbaum and the consolations of history

From time to time, many of us sense that our ancestors can guide and protect us. Such a feeling is a comfort.

But can you read their messages? Historians console themselves that they possess the professional apparatus to help you out.

Another consolation for historians is the guilty pleasure of reading their colleagues’ autobiographies. Lewis Siegelbaum, who has recently published Stuck on Communism: Memoir of a Russian Historian, has been one of the leading historians of the Soviet Union for four decades. Like everyone else in the field, I have been reading his articles and books — and they are legion and distinguished — since I was an undergraduate, and assigning them in turn to my own students.

Born in New York in 1949, and serving for many years as a professor at Michigan State University, Siegelbaum has spent his youth, career, and now retirement trying to reconcile his commitments to communism, history and Russia. This complex and very personal interaction is the theme of his new book, which often challenges and contextualizes what history can really achieve. For Siegelbaum, the solution has sometimes been to retreat into what seem obscure scholarly topics — exhibitions of peasant crafts in late-imperial Russia, Soviet truck drivers — while articulating his own vision of a century and more of the Russian past.

Lewis H. Siegelbaum (website of Michigan State University: https://history.msu.edu/people/faculty/lewis-siegelbaum/)

He seems to have remained committed to the past as a human being, not just as a scholar. ‘Transcending the limits of one’s own experience in the present space one occupies seems — and for as long as I remember has seemed — the best way of coping with mortality,’ he writes. ‘Connecting with people who came before us — their artifacts, their cultures, their words — radically expands our sense of who we are, and what we are capable of.’

As with everything else he has written, Siegelbaum offers his readers things with which to agree and disagree. I am sure that cultivating a sense of the past and respecting the individual dignity of our ancestors on their own terms is an imaginative and intellectual accomplishment. I believe too that it’s within the reach of most of us. Using this accomplishment to help one deal with mortality is another matter, though. Facing mortality might require a focus on the present rather than a retreat to the past.

Siegelbaum knows this, of course. His autobiography is an irresistible page-turner with an ambivalence at its heart. For all his tireless commitment to the past and the historical profession, Sieglebaum left me wondering how idiosyncratic and limited the consolations of history might turn out to be.