Meet Dr Oleg Beyda, Hansen Lecturer in Russian History

In 2022, Dr Oleg Beyda was appointed Hansen Lecturer in Russian History. Dr Beyda’s research focuses on the post-revolutionary Russian diaspora, with a particular emphasis upon their experiences of the Second World War. History alumnus Noah Ellis sat down with Oleg to discuss his research and his approach to teaching.

Your research focuses upon the experience of Russian collaborators with Axis powers before, during and after the Second World War. Their identities, I rather suspect, are some of the most complex of that period and remain fraught to this day. Can you tell us a bit more about your work?

Well, in fact that’s only one part of my scholarship.

In general, I prefer to think of myself as a social historian, specialising in the dynamics of collaboration with the Axis powers during the Second World War. A natural focus in this context is the occupied USSR, plus Russia in exile. My first book, The French Legion in Hitler’s Service, 1941–44 (2013) (in Russian), however, focused on the experience of the French collaborators.

All this merges seamlessly into my expertise within the field of Soviet history. As you can see, my research interests are a kaleidoscopic affair, with all three elements – the Soviet Union, war and society, and Russia in exile – connected to one another.

When we think of the Second World War, we tend to think in terms of nations, and to assume that a person’s position in the war was determined by their national identity. One of the things that your work shows is how much more complicated things were when it came to collaborators from non-Axis countries.

Throughout my research on collaboration with the Axis powers, I was always intrigued more by the angle of why things happen, and why people behave the way they do, rather than by the history of military formations per se.

The issue of ‘not what, but why’ is especially prominent in the social history of the war. Why did people choose to cooperate with the invading or occupying power? The number of possible answers might seem discouraging, or even overwhelming. With the German occupation of the Soviet Union, tens of millions of people found themselves in the Axis zone, which translates into tens of millions of answers to the question, ‘How did you survive under the Germans?’ And it’s these answers and this human behaviour against the global backdrop of the war that continue to fascinate me – be it the cases of émigrés in Europe, or Soviet prisoners, or a woman doctor barely surviving the occupation, or the whole phenomenon of military collaboration. I look at both the individual fates and the group dynamics. Collaboration in Europe and in the lands of the Soviets remain an understandably contested issue, and this makes it all the more tantalising to me.

The most challenging thing about the fates of collaborators is that there is no one single answer for their motivation.

Some years ago, I was working on the case of Hans Beutelspacher, an urbane chemist, an émigré from the early Soviet Union, who became a Nazi and then a mass murderer.  After the war, he seemingly smoothly went back to being a lauded researcher, even a convivial colleague of other Soviet scientists. An article on his fate, penned together with my colleague and friend Igor Petrov (Germany), has recently seen the light in a journal published by the University of Valencia.

What do cases like this tell us about the humanity within us and about what its limits are? Grappling with these problems led me to a paradoxical thought: the lack of coherent answers might itself be the answer. Later, this idea developed into what I now call ‘chaos theory’ – and here we need to go off on a theoretical tangent, and a wide one.

Our imagination of the past is imperfect. We’re all prone to idealism and simplification and that leads to imperfections. When we think about the past, we tend to imagine the actors in question as rational creatures. Alas, this is just one more common ingredient in a cocktail of stories mixed for our pleasure.

In reality, people are deeply irrational beings. They labour under forces that mute their rationality, forces like emotion, routine, ideology, what have you.

More importantly, humans change. To give you just one example: all Soviet prisoners of war – and a huge proportion of the Soviet collaborators were recruited from prisoner of war camps – faced a drastic choice, especially in the winter of 1941–42: wither away from hunger and die or take a chance to avoid a grim fate — say, join the local police, become a German auxiliary, from whence you might be able to cross over the frontline (or not). People did undergo changes of heart in the war in general. It would be wrong to try to offer absolutes. People thought more on a tactical, immediate level.

There was, of course, also the political dimension and the very real grievances from the pre-1941 era. Over the two decades prior, Soviet power willingly created many of its own enemies. The destruction of all the private freedoms — of speech, movement, political affiliation, religion, press, and so on — guaranteed there would be a social backlash come any major military crisis. One way we can approach Soviet collaboration with Nazi Germany is that it was a case of Soviet disaffection, with the drive to survive and other more prosaic factors woven into that.

Now we can combine these two insights together: people are irrational; and many of the reasons why they act are invisible. The outcome of this is what I call “chaos”. Everyone labours under this chaos and it affects every facet of our lives. It makes for an unpredictable constellation of actions and reactions. All the humans who have ever lived, who live and who will live in the future – all of us operate in a space of utter uncertainty. But they live with this, and they adapt.

This uncertainty is as inescapable as gravity – you can’t see it, but you labour within it.

A page from the original memoirs of Vladimir Kovalevski, former White Russian officer and Spanish Blue Division volunteer, and disaffected veteran of five wars in total. His World War Two story lingered in an American archive for 70 years, before being discovered by Dr Beyda in 2016. Since then, Kovalevskii’s memoir, co-edited with Xosé M Nuñez Seixas, has been published in three editions (Spanish, Russian, and recently in English). Source: Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.


The English edition of Kovalevskii’s memoirs, edited by Xosé M Nuñez Seixas and Oleg Beyda.

So what are the implications of this uncertainty when it comes to approaching history?

We very often forget this all-ruling uncertainty. We want the past to be logical ­­– but it isn’t. During the war, a time when, more than ever, chaos was king, people embraced their human nature all the same.

They had passions, they made mistakes; they loved and hated; they daydreamed; they were lazy, or they worked hard; they fought diligently, or not so much. Much of this never makes its way into the history books; mundane details are often excluded from the clinically cold realm of the ‘rational past.’

But these characters, these generals and nurses and prisoners, were not static figures. Their future actions and ways of thinking and perceiving the world were not forever etched in stone by past actions. It was a system on the move, and thousands of minuscule daily details pushed their daily decisions one way or another.

Everybody who was alive during the war was part of a global process, so enormous that it was beyond their grasp. And don’t forget that uncertainty: nobody was able to tell the future. The war was a profound, systemic global crisis, of which everybody was a part.

A single logic for events, pushing actions one way or another, is simply not plausible. Does that mean that we give up as academics, that generating knowledge about this history is impossible? Not at all.

We just have to include this factor into our calculations. We must remember the chaos. People in situations of crisis are prone to tactical, spontaneous action. So why do people take up arms, say, or support one or another belligerent side? There are an enormous number of factors at work: private choice, private will, group dynamics underlying fundamental conditions. Even in peace time these are things we know all too well.

The pure types, the kind of person who always stubbornly stays the political or personal course no matter the consequences and who defies the world around them, are very rare – so rare that they stand out, and we tend to remember them.

The chaos everybody swims in does not mean, however, that human idealism, heroism, or hatred are null and void. That chaos is just another factor we need to remember when we are trying to understand the past and people’s motivations in the past.

The war was not just a war between the Axis powers and the Allies; it was a battle between multiple identities – some forming, some yet to be cast. And at one level the war itself is just a backdrop for these archaic and newly forged identities clashing in a chaotic space, the results of which influenced and continue to influence our present and future.

Formal portrait of Russian Liberation Army (ROA) officer, 1944, Denmark. The ROA, or the Vlasov Army, was an auxiliary formation recruited from the Soviet prisoners of war to fight in the German army. ROA was never a unified body since the Germans never trusted their Soviet collaborators. Source: Løgstør Lokalarkiv (Denmark).

At the University of Melbourne you are the Hansen Lecturer in Russian History with a particular focus upon the Soviet Union. What do you find are some of the unique challenges in teaching that history?

Of course, we could approach them as ‘challenges’, i.e., ‘difficulties’, or we could perceive them as an opportunity for some benevolent academic introspection.

I welcome complexity, and rarely is there as much of it as in Soviet studies.

One of the first messages I convey to students is that when we talk about the Soviet Union, we are not talking about ‘Russia’ and ‘Russians.’ This is a popular lingering misconception in the Anglo-American world. Remember, we said people like to simplify – it’s normal.

But here at Melbourne we value intellectual involvement. After all, we’re talking about, in the words of historian Stephen Kotkin, a civilisation in its own right; and we’re talking about a multitude of different peoples, nations, languages, and cultures. We’re dealing with the history of an enormous region, that encompasses Eastern Europe and beyond — a vivid, compelling and often very tragic tale.

For the educator, this demands accuracy. With a multitude of voices and sources, finding a sense of balance is vital.

It’s a choice about what to emphasise as well. History is to a large extent imaginative and subjective, hence it’s important to make it captivating and alive. In my teaching I strive to set up the ‘anchors,’ if you will, so that past events speak to the students on their own and have meaning.

Most Australians have little or no connection to the region, so one educational task is developing that spark of human connection. Beyond that, I try to stress to our students that everything we study carries a lasting echo. The past is forever, and events are globally connected with thousands of historical bridges. Nations are in constant ongoing conversation about themselves.

My hope is that in my class students learn to see the value of a past that is always shifting our present and setting it up for the future. I like to say to my students that ‘history is worth it’ — maybe this could even be a motto for our cause of enlightenment?

Taking into account the current seismic crises, the war in Ukraine, and the sense of an ongoing political earthquake, mastering knowledge of the region’s past is paramount. After all, Russia and, by extension, the Soviet state is front and centre of the world news.

From a 2021 article by Oleg Beyda and Igor Petrov, published by the Illiberalism Studies Program at George Washington University.

Multiple theses could probably be written on the ways in which Putin’s invasion has changed the study of Russia and the Soviet Union. On the surface, it would appear that attitudes to Russia’s place in the world, past and present, have changed a great deal. When it comes to teaching, have current events complicated the ways in which the history of the region is taught?

This is a hugely important question, so please allow me a more lengthy answer! It is difficult to evade tired truisms when discussing the current catastrophe.

I have no doubt that these theses you mentioned will be written. The current global crisis, and the war in Ukraine as one of its terrifying hallmarks, will be debated for many years going forward.

The war in Ukraine will define the writing of post-Soviet Russian history from now on. That process of reinterpretation has already begun, with deeper layers of the past now being perceived through the present war. If three decades of post-Soviet Russian statehood culminated in the invasion, then what was the meaning of those years?

Is it the fault of one man who built a system for himself? Or did the system promote a man that represented its collective interests best? Or did this man identify, nurture and tap into a society that had been cruelly trained and conditioned by the Soviet century, and then galvanized with resentment in the post-Soviet years?

Is it the long echo of 1991, the postponed conflict that always breaks out after the disintegration of a state? You can certainly see how these questions, still unanswered, pose hefty challenges when we come to teach and research the region.

The most prominent debate concerns the decolonization of Slavic studies and Eastern European history in general. I won’t rehearse the key arguments from this still ongoing discussion here. As with many academic debates, the final product will be different from anything we might envision at present.

Suffice to say, I can say with a certain humble satisfaction that in our teaching here at Melbourne, we have always paid particular attention to a multitude of perspectives from that region of the world. This was a deliberate choice made long before the open hot war of 2022. For now, there is a lot of interest in this region. Likely this interest will continue.

Here’s where another issue lies: it is the question of ‘What to do with Russia?’ No matter the political stalemate with this country, which some have already dubbed ‘Cold War 2.0’, and no matter how this awful war ends, realistic, detached calculation tells us that the country will not disappear.

This means there will be some amount of interaction with it (or lack thereof) and engagement with Russia’s past will continue. In practical terms, we must be ready to usher in more Australian-trained specialists on Russian, Soviet, and Eastern European studies.

The old timers remember that after 1991, there was an open season in Soviet studies, with the re-invigoration of all related topics, but a dead season in terms of socio-political interest in that sphere (‘Who needs it now?’). Global academia made this mistake once, and I wouldn’t like to see it repeated.

To some extent, this disconnect carried on through to 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. Then, suddenly, the region and Russia was again centre of attention, but there was a shortage of expertise.

A challenge is that beyond all the region’s current relevance, it is important to maintain a balance. For all the bloodletting, Eastern Europe has a rich history, which demands finesse beyond simply offering information relevant to current affairs.

Maintaining this balance of practicality matched with approaching the region knowingly, grasping how its people see the world around them and training our students in this spirit is one of my personal tasks.

Dr Oleg Beyda completed his PhD in History at the University of New South Wales in 2019. He is widely published in both Russian and English. In his current role as Hansen Lecturer in Russian History, he teaches the subjects Total War: World War II (HIST20060) and Stalinism (HIST30076). He is a member of the Faculty of Arts Research Initiative on Post-Soviet Space. His next book, Beyond the Siege of Leningrad: One Woman’s Life During and After the Occupation (forthcoming with Central European University Press in February 2024), introduces the memoirs of Evdokiia Vasilievna Baskakova-Bogacheva, a Soviet doctor and émigré to Australia, who survived the occupation of Pushkin (near Leningrad, now Saint-Petersburg) in 1941–1943. 

Noah Ellis completed his Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in 2021, specialising in Soviet history. 

The Hansen Lectureship in Russian History is generously funded by the Hansen Trust.