Professor Geoffrey Swain
Professor Geoffrey Swain
- Emeritus Professor (Central and East European Studies)
Professor Geoffrey Swain took his undergraduate degree in Russian Studies at the University of Sussex and then studied for a PhD at the London School of Economics under the supervision of Professor Leonard Schapiro. Before coming to Glasgow University in 2006 to hold the Alec Nove Chair in Russian and East European Studies, he worked at University College Cardiff, the BBC Monitoring Service at Caversham, and the University of the West of England in Bristol.
Professor Swain has written extensively on the history of Russia and Eastern Europe during the twentieth century, focusing most recently on the following themes: Latvia during the first years of Soviet rule; Russia during the Civil War; and the career of Josip Broz Tito. He is happy to supervise research students interested in most aspects of the history of the communist period in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
There have been four stages to my research career. These are roughly chronological in order, although I have returned to topics from time to time. I studied for my thesis at the LSE under the supervision of the late Professor Leonard Schapiro and all my early publications relate to that interest in the pre-revolutionary labour movement in Russia . This project involved archival study in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and was mostly written up during my time at University College Cardiff. The theme of these publications, most notably Russian Social Democracy and the Legal Labour Movement, 1906-14, is to explore what might be called the twin elements of Bolshevism, for Bolshevism represented both a commitment to revolutionary, rather than reformist, socialism and an organisational system based around discipline and central control. At its most succinct, my study of the Russian labour movement between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions showed clearly that while politically active workers supported Bolshevism as revolutionary socialism, they were far less attracted to Bolshevik attempts to impose centralised control. In 1914 Russian trade unionists backed Bolshevik slogans, but refused to accept Leninist discipline.
My interest in Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe more generally stemmed from my time as a report writer for the BBC’s Monitoring Service at Caversham. During those years there were two dominant stories in Eastern Europe: the martial law crisis in Poland and the quiet disintegration of Yugoslavia after Tito’s death. For a while the Monitoring Service was the only source of information about events in martial law Poland and I worked on this story alongside other writers and editors, analysing not only the crisis itself but the build-up to it and its aftermath. Events in Yugoslavia , however, were my unique concern, and it was because of this interest in the unravelling Tito system that, upon taking up my post at Bristol Polytechnic, I decided to research into the origins of Tito’s independent road to communism. That ambition was fulfilled in two major articles, based on archival research in Belgrade funded by the British Academy which explored the limits of freedom that Tito won for himself in the immediate post-war years. Essentially, I argued that Tito won for himself virtual autonomy in domestic matters in return for absolute loyalty in foreign policy; he then misjudged signals from Moscow relating to the possibility of Greece joining a Balkan Federation. At the heart of this foreign policy debate lay a dispute about differing roads to communism. This Yugoslav research enabled me to write a new interpretation to the first decade of communist rule in Eastern Europe, which was developed in Eastern Europe since 1945, and was the basis for an invitation to write a biography of Tito, a project currently underway.
Research into Yugoslav history became increasingly problematic as that country descended into war, something which coincided with an invitation to write a volume on the Russian civil war. In the event I wrote not only this volume - The Origins of the Russian Civil War was awarded the Alec Nove prize in 1996 - but a second book Russia’s Civil War and a series of articles on the theme of the Russian civil war. The aim of all these publications was to re-establish the Russian civil war as a three-way contest, one fought not only between Reds and Whites, but also between Reds and peasant socialists or Greens. This involved the rediscovery of the role played by the Socialist Revolutionary Party in 1918, written out of history by both victorious Bolsheviks and vanquished liberals alike, and their heirs, who organised sporadic peasant insurgencies even during the fighting against White generals, and then staged widespread insurrections once the generals were defeated. The invitation to write a biography of Trotsky followed logically from this work, and my account of his life was the first to give proper coverage to his time as Commissar for War.
My interest in modern Latvian history arose from my work on the Russian Civil War and the role played in that conflict by the Latvian Riflemen regiments. Visiting Latvia led to contacts with Daugavpils University where the History Department proved very interested in my work. Increasingly I became interested in Daugavpils itself and the unique experience of that town during the Second World War as it experienced Soviet annexation, Nazi occupation and Soviet re-annexation. All of the Baltic States suffered this fate, but the experience of Daugavpils was unique. The town had an extraordinary ethnic mix – a thriving Jewish community, a Russian Old Believer community, and its unique Latgalean catholic culture – as well as the social extremes of an industrial proletariat and poor peasantry; this was the tinder for an explosion of ethnic and class violence which both communists and fascists sought to ignite. My book Between Stalin and Hitler: Class War and Race War on the Dvina, 1940-46 was partly inspired by meeting Professor Iosip Šteimans of Daugavpils University: a young Jew in Daugavpils in the 1930s, he had been on the fringes of the communist youth movement before Soviet annexation, became a Young Communist in 1940, fought with the Red Army and returned to Daugavpils in 1944 where he investigated the local holocaust before becoming a university lecturer in Marxism-Leninism - I asked myself, would I, in his circumstances, have done the same. My most recent Latvian research has been into those “national partisans” who at the end of the Second World War looked to the British to support their resistance to renewed Soviet occupation.
Current Research Project
Re-educating Latgale Youth: the Komsomol and schooling in Soviet Latvia, 1944-1959
3 year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, 2008-2011
Swain, G. (2009) Between Stalin and Hitler: Class War and Race War on the Dvina, 1940-46 (2nd Edition). Series: BASEES/Routledge series on Russian and East European Studies. Routledge: Basingstoke, UK. ISBN 9780415546041
- Central and East European Studies, Level 1
- The Russian Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921, Honours
- Stalin and Stalinism
- Thematic Issues in Russian, Central and East European Studies
- Research Methods for Studying Russian and Central and Eastern Europe
Able to comment for the media on:
The history of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.