Chaotic Transitions from War to Peace
Dr Filip Slaveski is a DECRA Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute, working on a project looking at the transition from war to peace in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Empire in the wake of the Second World War.
For months out of every year, you’ll be able to find him deep in the archives in Russia or Ukraine scouring over government documents from the 1940s and 1950s.
“My research has always been fundamentally about war and its consequences,” Dr Slaveski said. “The physical damage of what war does to people’s bodies, and societies, structures and economies, and how that damage can continue long after the guns fall silent to shape and limit the possibility of transition to ‘peace’, whatever peace may mean.”
“I’m trying to understand how parts of the Soviet Union rebuilt after the Second World War, at a time when the vagaries of war continue to plague that society many years after its official end, and when local governments, state governments, central governments have very different ideas about what reconstruction means.”
The consequences of the Second World War for the Soviet Union took time to fully emerge, according to Dr Slaveski. The human losses of the war having far-reaching effects for the capacity of the Soviet Union to recover and rebuild.
“It was a war that was fundamentally directed against civilian populations, and for the first time really in modern history, there was a deep sense that exterminating large sections of the civilian population was an essential war aim rather than a consequence.”
“Close to 30 million people from the Soviet Union died during the war, and if you can image what those kind of losses would do to a workforce and its capacity to recover – the war might have officially ended, but in many ways the violence continued for many years in the forms of mass population transfers, mass famines and physical violence.”
The relevance of his research to the contemporary problems facing the international community is not lost on Dr Slaveski, but he’s careful not to rely too much on the lessons of the past to inform our actions now and into the future.
“The question that I ask in my research is, ‘How do societies restructure and rebuild in the aftermath of war?’, and that’s a perennial human question that continues to be relevant across parts of the world, particularly of the developing world and the Middle East today. The relevance or importance of history and the past is there.”
“Yet in any attempt to apply insights from specific case studies to others and more contemporary ones as is often the case, it’s important always to be very mindful of the specific uniqueness, irregularities of these different areas of research.”
“To paraphrase an old Russian saying, ‘History doesn’t teach you anything, it just punishes you for not paying attention’.”
“To paraphrase an old Russian saying, ‘History doesn’t teach you anything, it just punishes you for not paying attention’,” Dr Slaveski said. “So despite the attention we give history, the question is still whether we give it the right attention, drawing the best conclusions we can to inform our understanding of the past and the present. That’s the challenge that we face as historians.”
“History is the most human of the humanities,” he said. “The type of history that I study, looking at how we commemorate our dead as a species, across cultures, across time, understanding why people were killed in their masses and the impact it had on their societies. These are fundamental interrogations, not only of the past but of ourselves and our humanity.”