The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, yet the chorus line of the right can’t seem to forget the verses they learned during the Cold War. At the global level we have a series of ex-Soviet specialists working for Bush taking their hawkish instincts into the realm of Middle East politics. Bin Laden, aka Dr Evil, has been transmogrified into an equivalent of the Soviet Union’s ever present totalitarian threat and all the old verities of conflict with communism have been slid across to the “war on terror”. Tragically, such flabby thinking has seen tactics and approaches designed for one problem proving disastrous when applied to another.

Here in Australia a naive and polemical triumphalism about the Cold War resurfaces continuously among the usual suspects, and the facts are rarely allowed to get in the way of the psychological need to score political points. Occasionally one experiences this personally and its surreal and anti-intellectual bias becomes particularly vivid. Such was the case on Monday when TheAustralian ran a feature on one of a series of conferences held at Melbourne University last week.

Given the headline, “Fellow Travellers Tales”, and with a gratuitously misleading lead, “Australian intellectuals who raved about the Soviet Union get the kid-glove treatment at a Melbourne conference”, Imre Salusinszky proceeded to spin a tale about a conference he didn’t attend.

I read this piece with equal measures of amusement and disgust. Disgust because, as I was there and he wasn’t, it’s clear that, as reportage or intellectual commentary, his article was often misleading and cheap polemic. Amusement at the irony that it would seem the falsification of history remains a preoccupation of at least some aging cold warriors.

The facts – scholars from institutions such as Harvard, the University of California, Chicago and Oxford came together with local academics to share research and analysis on a number of aspects of Soviet studies. Their work was based on extensive archival research in Russia, the United States and Australia. The conference was made possible courtesy of Prof Fitzpatrick’s generous use of a prestigious American grant to fund a series of conferences in her original home town of Melbourne. Amongst other things, this provided a wonderful opportunity for younger scholars from the US and Australia to meet together in the presence of senior and pioneering figures in the history of Soviet Studies.

In his piece, Salusinszky was apparently unable to dredge any pro-Soviet apologetics from the papers presented and instead took recourse to quotes from reliable, and non-academic, stalwarts of right wing polemic in Gerard Henderson and Peter Coleman. Neither of whom were there either, not surprisingly since neither are scholars nor experts in Soviet studies. If Imre had been in Melbourne, he would have experienced nuanced discussion of the context and extent of fellow travelling that took place in Australia, and even some analysis of why and how certain people and organisations remain preoccupied with it. That these papers were not “soft” is even illustrated by the fact that the very quotes Salusinszky produces to condemn fellow travelling come from the papers presented at the conference!

If he had been there, he also may not have been so loose with the facts. In particular he wrote of civil libertarian Brian Fitzpatrick that there was “no evidence” he had suffered discrimination in his career. He would have heard that in fact Fitzpatrick was constantly denied an academic position and lived and died in comparative penury. But also that the reasons for this were complex, not red and white. Likewise, he would have heard that Manning Clarke was removed from teaching Australian diplomats due to allegations about his politics, and that even post-mortem, there was a fatuous piece of censorship in recent times when Foreign Minister Downer intercepted and cancelled the delivery of Clarke’s six volume A History of Australia to the Australian embassy in Washington.

Overall Salusinszky’s article was disturbing because it constituted neither a faithful report on, nor an intellectual argument about, the matters that were under debate. In this case Imre’s tired, fundamentalist rehashing of his articles of faith had no more place in a major newspaper than it would have at any serious academic gathering. After all, one thing the Soviet experience taught us was that history should be reported with a view to what actually happened, not with a view to what best serves our prejudices.

A program of the Conferences can be found here.

Anthony Phillips is based at the Contemporary Europe Research Centre, University of Melbourne. He has research interests in both Soviet studies and Australian politics.

Peter Fray

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