So few Americans, especially undergraduates, had that experience. I spent four months at Leningrad University my senior year of college. I found out in December that I got selected. We were flown to Paris, where we had an orientation at the American embassy before arriving in the Soviet Union. It was pretty much two or three days of ‘Be careful, the KGB are going to try to recruit you. The people in the dorm are going to be all spies.’ It was so negative, like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way at all. It was far more complicated and interesting and fun. Those four months were life-changing.
I wouldn’t say it was easy — this was winter in Leningrad, which is near the Arctic Circle. It snowed day in and day out and there was very little sunlight. It was very dreary and we were supposed to have hot water twice a week. The food was pretty grim back then.
Living conditions: there were six of us in the room, and no bathroom in the room. The bathroom was down the hall, and the sink where we’d brush our teeth and shave was in another room, with cold water. The other thing I got is giardiasis, an intestinal parasite that is notorious and widespread in Leningrad. Several of us got it, and I was hospitalized for 11 days. Despite that, and despite shedding lots of weight, there were many, many positives. So that was my first experience. Then I returned as a Ph.D. student for 10 months on a full ride, and I’ve gone back 40-something times ever since, just about every year.
DTH: Did you ever have any trouble getting access to Russian or Soviet documents?
DR: My dissertation project, which was my first book project, was where I was the first American to study the Russian revolution outside of the capital city. I picked a provincial town, the town Saratov on the Volga River, and I couldn’t go there. It was a closed city. I got into my first archive in 1986. Before that, those of us working on 20th century history, we did not get archival access. What we did get were the printed materials, none of which exist here. Like loose papers from the times, published memoirs, rare books and collections. So we had enough to write certain types of books, but my city that I studied I couldn’t see. It was closed. I got there in 1990, when it was still a closed city, so I was the first American to come to this closed city since the mid-50s. I’m fluent in Russian, I’m a geeky historian who wants to sit in the archive but I became like a rockstar — on TV, on the radio, giving public talks, a couple a day sometimes, unprepared. It was really exhausting, but I got unprecedented archival access.
I went back the next summer, 1991, and I arrived in this provincial town, still closed to foreigners, the night before the attempt to lead a coup against Gorbachev and overthrow Gorbachev. So that week, I was under house arrest by the KGB in this provincial city, the only foreigner there. I wrote about that, I took advantage of that. I can’t say I was afraid, it was more like ‘Oh my god, what did I do now?’ They interviewed my family, like the N&O, The Daily Tar Heel, the local paper. They said, ‘We’re sort of fearful, but he’s probably thinking this is really exciting.’ At the time I did, because I was much younger and less into self-preservation. The irony was, the country had never been so open before, and that was the first time I had direct contact with the KGB. But after that, none. I had complete access to archival material throughout the 1990s.
But now, that’s changing again. I did an oral history on Soviet baby boomers. That was doing two- and three-hour interviews with graduates of a school in Moscow and a school in Saratov. I traced these graduates of a class of ’67 all over the world. Many of them had emigrated. I tracked them down and did these live-story interviews, which generated three and a half thousand pages of transcripts with which I wrote this book. When I finished that, I wanted to do something altogether new.
I'm now working on a biography of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Often, the personal papers of leaders are under lock and key for 50 years, 75 years, it depends. Remarkably, they released from the presidential archives 95 percent of Brezhnev’s personal papers, which is stunning. But they gave it to the main archive of contemporary history. Well, they can’t just give you access, because they have to catalog it and compile inventories. So it was closed to me. Then it opened up, and this was the most old-fashioned archive in all of Russia. It was open three days a week, and you couldn’t use a computer. You have to take handwritten notes. They finally let you photo-copy, but they would do it for you and it was like a $1.50 a page, so you thought twice. Then the archive closed. It’s a beautiful old building near the Kremlin, and it’s too expensive. The archive moved physically across town, and it still hasn’t reopened. I’m now waiting for my Russian archive to open, which I need in order to ultimately finish my book. In this case it’s a matter of both complicated access, right? No use of computers, not open every day. But also, it’s just bad luck, having to shut down and move.
DTH: As someone who knows a lot about Russia, do you have a favorite fact about the country or something that you think is most interesting about it?
DR: I will say this: most people who study foreign cultures find what they’re looking for. Those who study Russia, sometimes find much more.
DTH: Could you elaborate?
DR: If you take stereotypes with you, you’re likely to find evidence for them. I think that’s sort of true across the board. But I think the chances are pretty good that if you stay there longer, you’ll find much more. When people go abroad, they usually find what they’re looking for. In the Russia case, though, they might find even more.
DTH: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
DR: Russia is the largest country in the world. Its impact on world history is not only political and ideological, it’s also cultural. Russia gave the world an enormous amount culturally. That is not going to be diminished in any regard. It is a great civilization, a great culture that evolved differently for historical reasons, but it’s a culture that needs to be studied, understood and appreciated.