In this episode, Samuel P.N. Cook interviews Yanni Kotsonis Ph.D., a history professor at NYU, about how story influences history as well as modern life. Yanni goes deep into how centuries old storytelling has moulded society’s reactions to events and perceptions of others. Sam and Yanni will explore story as a tool of inspiration in modern times, they will dig into how a single narrative can create purpose and unite civilisations.
Guest: Samuel P.N. Cook and Yanni Kotsonis Ph.D.
Date Added: Mar 2, 2018 9:14:56 PM
Length: 83 min
Podcast moments that will matter to you:
Introduction To Special Guest Dr. Yanni Kotsonis
How Storytelling Built The Modern World
What History Actually Is
The Power Of Story
Use Stories To Develop A Purpose In Life
How To Create Stories That Unite Societies
How Stories Feed Our Humanity
Sam: [00:01:16] Hello again, podcast listeners. This is Sam Cook, the host of the StoryMatters podcast. And I'm back for another episode today with one particular interview I've been looking forward to since I started this podcast. And, it's a bit unconventional compared to potentially some of the other episodes we have in the past but, as you'll see, very central to my thought process on storytelling.
[00:01:41] So, Yanni Kotsonis is a professor of history at New York University where I went to graduate school and studied in preparation for my time to teach at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 1994 and studied under the great Russian Studies Department at Columbia which had some really famous names that I heard of - Dr. Wortman, Mark Rife, and others who really wrote the classic historical text that most Russian historians studied in the United States and in the English speaking world.
[00:02:23] And the reason I brought Yanni on today was a story I'm going to have him help me recreate of a particular day in graduate school where I think it was probably one of the most profound intellectual insights that I ever received or, let's say, Yanni helped me realize with his skillful teaching in the history department which really fundamentally altered a lot of my thinking around my life, actually, not just history but my life and how I approach things, in general, are related to stories.
[00:02:59] So, I'm going to let Yanni come on here and say hello before I just wax on too much about that incident and we'll jump right into it together. So Yanni, thank you very much for taking the time to join us on the podcast.
[00:03:15] Well, Yanni, I remember the day very clearly and I'm just going to jump right in and recreate it because I think you, probably, let's say as a former teacher now, I've seen it where you have a lesson that you deliver quite well and, you have some powerful reactions, let's say, from the students. But I remember, we were studying in a... I can't remember the exact name of the class but we were studying an article about recreating the myth of the Russian Revolution. I think it was 'Reimagining October' or the 'October Revolution' or something. And it was a Russian historian who was writing about how the October Revolution in 1917 where the Communists took over - the Bolsheviks took over - power.
[00:04:09] Was this mythical event in Soviet history, which people really did not see at the time, the "myth", as it became.
They did not see the events for what it was. It was actually a very small event in a very bloody time.
[00:04:27] But the importance to that event began to grow over time to the point where everyone in the Soviet Union had reimagined or imagined themselves into that story. And I'm going to let you deliver that scene again because I want to have you deliver it in your own way. And then, I just wanted to share the reaction that created in my thinking and my thought process around history in line. So, Yanni, please do justice to what I just tried to explain.
Yanni: [00:04:58] So the Bolsheviks took over some government buildings in 1917. That's pretty all the idea. There's this small armed band - sailors, soldiers, Red Guards, factory workers - led by the communists, Trotsky in this case. And they took over the Telegraph. They took over the Ministry of Finances. They took over the Winter Palace where the Provisional Government was staying and holding its meeting.
[00:05:22] And now, the place had really collapsed by that point. This was October 1917, or November by the new calendar. The place was really a mess. There wasn't really much resistance to what they are doing. Best we can tell, they walked through. They tried to enter the front door of the Winter Palace. They got turned away so they were on the side door and it was open. They went upstairs. They arrest the person in the government and said, "It's over. It's a revolution." And that was it.
[00:05:45] Well, the real work in later when they had to fight the Civil War to hold on to not only that but also the whole territory of what used to be the Russian Empire. But they thought that they didn't win the event, you know. You can't go around and say, "We walked into this undefended building with minor resistance and carried out a world historical transformation almost by with no action." So over time, they began to put together recreation - it's what they call them. Sort of reenactments are what we call them - reenactments of what's supposed to have taken place on October 1917.
[00:06:18] So of all the things that have taken place on that day of October 1917, there's people falling down, breaking their legs. There's people getting frozen, waiting in line for rations, because there weren't many rations. They said the one that really mattered was that one. That event. And so they would have already from 1919 and all the way up to 1927, these massive reenactments each with a different inflection about that event on October 1917.
[00:06:43] Now, they knew that it wasn't this world historical mass participation event. But they wanted to make their own regime meaningful and give it that founding myth. Every regime has some sort of founding myth. The United States is the American Revolution closely followed by the American Civil War. The Canadians have Confederation. The English have-- well, you choose but it would be 1688, most likely. The French have 1789 and the Soviets wanted theirs. And that was going to be the October 1917.
[00:07:12] So, what was recreated in the subsequent reenactments wasn't really what had happened in 1917 and they knew that they weren't really reenacting that or recreating it. What they were really doing was giving it drama. So they started showing massive and massive people on the streets and a massive people in the buildings and there was gunfire. Excitement! Yes! Storming!
[00:07:32] Until finally, this event became what's known as the Storming in the Winter Palace just like the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution. And it had to be heroes and these heroes tend to be workers and sailors and communist leaders, men and women.
[00:07:47] And the part of the way they achieved this was to hold these official evenings of memory as what they call them. Remembrance evenings. And in these remembrance evenings, they brought together the people who would be directly or indirectly involved in those days in October and told them to remember what it was that they have done in 1917. Where were they on that day, in other words? So that was already the first leading question.
[00:08:12] So, they're signaling to the person they're speaking with into this little seminar gathering. They're signaling that if they want to give themselves importance, they have to associate it with October 1917. The other things that you did were not central. This is the central point - where were you in October 1917? This is what's done and also to the events. You know, think of The Blitz. Where were you doing in the London Blitz? What did you do? How-- Were you happy? "We laughed and we cried" and that kind of thing. Where were you during at the moment in Kennedy's assassination? Where were you during the attack on the Twin Towers? All of these events. So, each of these things that we're doing is we're saying, "This was the important event we're telling here."
[00:08:52] And if you want to be remembered and you give yourself some significance and importance here, otherwise, dreary life, you can make yourself important by inserting yourself in that narrative.
[00:09:00] There was this historical event. There was this storming of the Palace. There were these great exchanges taking place. Is the world or yourself important? You too can be important if you join into it.
[00:09:10] So I see these conversations unfolded. The participants could say, "Yeah, I remember that day. It was cold. I couldn't find fuel. I had to go out and break up some furniture, laid it on fire in my stove or in my fireplace. I've got some water. I have some weak tea because tea was scarce. Didn't have bread again and had to go wait in line. And then later on in the day I went to Winter Palace when something just happened and I joined in the looting of the wine cellars, which is of course what did happen."
Sam: [00:09:39] Lots of wine was drank. I heard.
Yanni: [00:09:40] Oh yeah. Oh yeah. It was-- I'm sure it was fun. I mean, some of the vintages the Romanovs had, you wouldn't believe it. So there is, you know, sampling French vintage wine. The people would-- The leaders of the groups would remind them 'cause this committee of the party called the history of the party - committee in the history of the party - they remind them and said, "Yes but what about the storming in the Winter Palace?"
[00:10:05] And so the first reactions were, "What storming in the Winter Palace and when we took it over?" They said, "Well, weren't there a lot of people there?" And you say, "Yeah yeah. There was, you know, 40, 50 of us walking." And said, "No no. I mean, wasn't this really symbolic of a mass movement?" And you say, "Yeah yeah. Of course, it was symbolic of a mass movement." "And weren't you leading that mass movement?" which is better than not leading a mass movement. So, "Yeah yeah. It was a mass movement." "So is it fair to say that this was a mass storming?" And say, "Yeah yeah. Of course, of course."
[00:10:31] Now, part of what they are telling you is that if you don't agree with the narrative that you yourself could be plunged into insignificance, meaning you can talk about all you want about the wine cellars but we're not going to publish that part. We will publish you if you tell us about the better narrative which is about how justice was triumphed over injustice. How history is being created. How the inevitable was becoming practice. If you tell us these things then we're going to publish you and they get published on. You're going to become part of movies. You're going to be seen on the screen.
[00:11:02] You know, can you imagine the fame that would go with that? And also just significance. You leave and get some extra rations later on in the '20s and in the '30s if you're considered to be what's called an old Bolshevik - meaning you belong to those Bolshevik Party before October - and if you're one of the people who would actually fought at the Winter Palace. So there are all sorts of reasons why you should join in this.
[00:11:21] So, for the point of view of the participant, you know, it's not a matter of being honest or dishonest but what kind of story makes sense. So all in all, in the end, the story that makes sense is the one that you're given and you enriched by becoming a part of it. So you become significant and the story becomes significant. The board becomes this mass participation in the story itself.
[00:11:42] So the real storming of the Winter Palace if you want to know, you'll go on to Google, ask for footage of the storming of the Winter Palace, and you see lots and lots of versions of it. And it's really good old footage.
[00:11:54] Now, if you're making a documentary and you want to show footage, if it's black and white and silent, then it's probably authentic so you put it on your documentary. But there's not the real footage of the original storming of the Winter Palace and there is really no regional storming of the Winter Palace.
[00:12:09] What you're going to get is one another reenactment. That culminating reenactment was Eisenstein's film "October" from 1927 - ten years later - which is the footage that most people will look at. Now, this storming of the Winter Palace. It took place 10 years after the storming of the Winter Palace.
[00:12:27] So what does this tell us? You know, so is this a lie? Ahm, no, I don't think it's a lie. I don't think it's a lie.
[00:12:33] I think it's giving people meaning within certain coercively enforced boundaries or also, in another way, giving them incentives to become part of that story. Meaning, join in the story. We all agree that it's true. We have balance in ways that are plausible. And you'll be given significance and immortality.
[00:12:53] And so think about, you know, the American Revolution - the myths that surround the American Revolution - it was originally a taxed rebellion. It did become a revolution. And it did become the serious project and it did become something very real. But at the time, it was a series of minor rebellions. It later became a revolution.
[00:13:09] Now, you can't go on afterwards and say, "Listen, we threw out the British because we don't want to pay our taxes." That's not quite it. But, you see, "We threw out the British because we wanted participatory government because we wanted consents to the government. Taxation was only a part of that." If you say that there were all these dramatic moments like you know, not firing 'til you see the reds of their eyes, or is it the whites? Stories about, you know, what was it? The Boston Tea Party which wasn't quite a part of that but, anyway, we made it a part of that. Stories about...
[00:13:41] Then you of course-- You had some problems because the early history doesn't quite fit. So what about the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War as we call it in Europe? You know, there you have these same revolutionaries in certain cases fighting for the British. How do you explain that?
[00:13:56] Well, it's hard to explain. But somehow, these two become part of this revolutionary narrative of something. And you're going to find people torturing and so as to figure out "How can I make a crooked line straight".
[00:14:07] So that's what we do. We take crooked lines because that's what history is and we straighten them out. Everyone's happier that way. It's more pleasing.
Sam: [00:14:18] Well, that's... You're putting me back in memory lane because as I was sitting there, the inside I had and-- I don't know if I shared this with you at the time but I came into your office and told you. It was, "I think," and my insight from reading Russian history and watching a great man in history work was that, "history is actually made by people who imagine a narrative before it happens."
[00:14:47] And I think one of the reasons the Bolsheviks who by no right should have been successful in this struggle for power post the fall of the Tsar, the reason they did was Lenin was a phenomenal storyteller. He was a gifted storyteller who got people to buy into something almost before it happened.
[00:15:06] And what I saw in Iraq, working with General McMaster, who's now happens to be the national security adviser for President Trump, was he told a story before it had actually happened which is to the tribal leaders, "You will become, you know, you will--"
Yanni: [00:15:24] It's the awakening. Yeah.
Sam: [00:15:25] Yeah. "You will join us because it makes sense and it's the best thing for your family to let the government of Iraq stand up with the support of Americans and then we'll leave." And he just told them, I think, a very credible story with a bit of humility saying, "Hey, we did make mistakes. We started off not doing the right things. And the only reason we're here is to fix that." And I think Lenin had a similar gift and it's very interesting to see that President Obama, when he got elected, he told a story that got him elected president because he had not a huge resume compared to most people who'd run and win. "So I run and won that office." [00:16:05] And I think the story... Actually I was studying at NYU at the time when I observed that election. I think the story that he told that Americans wanted to tell themselves - about themselves - was, "Hey, we're not racists anymore. We have a post-racial society." And, obviously, there's some debate as to whether that's actually true but a majority of the electorate wanted to believe that.
Yanni: [00:16:32] I think that's right. I think that's right. And listen, you know, you're touching on something really important. There's nothing wrong with stories. There is nothing wrong with stories which aren't quite exactly what happened. Because, part of what we're doing is we're looking at history or even current events, as you say to yourself, with regard to Iraq and the Sunni awakening, what we really want is for people to feel that they can be satisfied with what they're involved in.
[00:16:57] So you take the details, you know, from a Sunni's point of view. You know, you could say, "Well, this is treason - working with the Americans. They just invaded our country. Look at what they've done." But if you give them a story that makes them feel valorized, they're empowered, that there's some justice to what they're doing, then it gives them reason to do what it is that you want them to get.
[00:17:16] So, stories are necessary. It's what we do all the time. Any president - Obama - would be a big example 'cause he was such a departure. But any president has to tell his story, including the current one, about, you know, "This is who I am. This is how I got to be who I am. And here's a story I need to tell you about how the country can also be great in a way that I am now." You know, we can disagree, as I do, or with many aspects of this, but it is part of the storytelling. I think you're absolutely right. It's generally what we just call a narrative. You know, "Can I situate myself in something that does make sense to me?"
[00:17:51] So, let's say, you take another guy like, you know, in current American politics, let's talk about something controversial. I don't know. Let's say that you were against the government insurance policy - the Affordable Care Act. We can't just say that "I don't want to help poor people". You can't say that "I don't want to pay taxes to help it". You can't say that, you know, "I'd rather make money as a doctor and become a gazillionaire rather than accept Medicare fees which are small and would make my income only reasonable. I want it to be unreasonable". You can't say these things. It's that just, "We just want to say when you say is we were looking, and, you know, some also would've believe it and others believe it". And, you know, it's a focus of debate.
[00:18:30] It's not about medical coverage. It's not about your right to have medical coverage. What this is really about is individual liberty. Period. And "I need to tell you a story about how this is part of the individual liberty". Then you can have a debate. And then you can get your point across. But you can't just say, "I'm greedy."
Sam: [00:18:45] Yeah. It's got to be something that's believable and respectable in some ways to have a conversation about it and one of the things... There was a fantastic article in The New York magazine. I can't remember which magazine. It wasn't in the United States talking about how health care was the last civil right and that it had not been extended to poor, mainly minority communities, and the overall story versus maybe some of the deeper motivations behind denying it were quite different. And that was quite an eye-opening article for me - digging beneath the stories as it were.
Yanni: [00:19:26] Yeah. Yeah, the New York was good at that. Sam, you're beginning to make me think you're a voting Democrat but we won't go there.
Sam: [00:19:33] I'm living in Europe and let's say that Europe's a very interesting contrast to where I grew up. You know, I obviously grew up in the States but... You know, all politics aside, Yanni, the current president-- Wait. All politics aside and then I talk about the current president. To not judge either way, I think we would both agree that he was a far better storyteller than his opponent because he drew probably the simplest straight line ever in the history of, probably, American politics saying, "America used to be great. Now it's not and I'm going to make it great again."
Yanni: [00:20:14] Oh yeah.
Sam: [00:20:15] And he did it in such a simple form. And it was amazing to watch because I remember watching all of these policy positions by Hillary Clinton and they all made a lot of sense if you actually took the time to read it but people don't like that.
Yanni: [00:20:27] No. They didn't have a story. You're absolutely right. And listen, I'll be one better on you. So, during that campaign, it was frustrating because here you have the one candidate saying that "You really are suffering economically. You really are insecure. You really are being screwed over. And here's I'm going to fix it". Now, the fixing part is the part that-- But at least he was saying "You really do have reason to feel screwed. Whereas, the other side, in this case, Clinton, was basically saying "Everything is fine. All we have to do is love each other". And loving each other is not good policy. That's, you know, that's good manners. That's-- You know, I don't see how you're going to form a government around love. Whereas, the other side which is the Trump's side, "No, you're right. You are being screwed. And here's the solution." The other one's saying, "You don't have a problem."
[00:21:13] And as I remember, for me, a big moment in that campaign was when Hillary was trying to ward off the left wing of the Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders. And do you remember a lot of Democrats, you know, they were calling for a fifteen per hour minimum wage? And Hillary Clinton couldn't bring herself to agree to a 15 dollars an hour. She thought it was too much. And she said something like, "$10," I think, and then compromise at $12 or something like that. And I think, "Really? You know, here you have people slaving away to two shifts, three jobs, and they try to feed their families and pay their rents and, you know, it's all sorts of parts of the States. And you don't want to give them that extra three dollars an hour? Are you kidding me?"
[00:21:50] And there's when they begin to realize that here's someone who's, you know, wonkish, probably who has come out of polity detail. I disagree with her. But most of all, she really gives no one a reason - a lot of enough people reason - to want to join her. In the end, it just became wonkish, meaning "Let's all look at the same time." The other one was saying, "You're right. You're screwed and you're right."
Sam: [00:22:15] Yeah. And it's just amazing to me to see that she was married to such a gifted storyteller and it just never was over into the election.
Yanni: [00:22:26] Yeah. Yeah. No, I think there's a lot to which she was saying.
Sam: [00:22:30] Well, Yanni, one of the things I noticed when you gave that talk in class and this is I think where it was really powerful. It was, I think, you had to pick a lot of jaws off the floor when you said the following line, "You think you're historians but history is simply fact-based fiction."
Yanni: [00:22:50] Yes.
Sam: [00:22:50] And I think you heard a lot of people's feelings when you said that. And why did you say that and why do people get so offended when they hear such things?
Yanni: [00:22:59] Well, I'll tell you why. Because the reason why I said it, which is also what if I would offense people, is that there's just an understanding or an assumption the historian is like a judge adjudicating - good for the evidence, weighs it, decides which facts are plausible, which ones make sense, which ones can bear the scrutiny of proof, basically, and then writes the story objectively based on information. And I've never thought that that's what history is. We're selling ourselves short if we say that.
[00:23:30] History, from my point of view, is indeed sifting through the information, trying to figure out what's plausible, making or drawing reasonable conclusions about what you've seen in terms of what has some veracity and what doesn't. So there are certain things which just didn't happen that go wrong.
[00:23:45] Other things it did happen. We can show that it did happen. But that's only half the story. I mean, that's of the technical side of what we do. More importantly, what we do is the next step which is that we take this information knowing what actually did happen and we can actually say, sort of, corresponds with the evidence and to tell the story that we think should be told. And those stories aren't necessarily about the past. Those stories are also about the current day. So when I look at, you know, some projects that I might be writing about, I always have one eye on the evidence at that time but also the other eye on how it might appeal to our readership today - of historians and non-historians as well.
[00:24:24] So, what I'm actually doing is I'm using my imagination at that point. And I'm saying, "These are things that are implied by this evidence. Here are the stories that you can say on the basis of that evidence." Now, none of what I'm saying is wrong. None of it would go against the evidence if it does and I'm just wrong. So if I've made a mistake there then that's fine. I'll correct it. But what I'm trying to do is to say that you can extract from any historical situation, usable story, or what people call "a usable past".
[00:24:52] So, for example, you and I can have a conversation about the Korean War and we can say all sorts of things. We can talk about military unpreparedness followed by achievement on the American side or the United Nations. We can talk about strategy. We can talk about defending against communism. We can talk about spreading capitalism. All these things are true. But you can tell other stories too and there are unlimited numbers of stories you can tell.
[00:25:18] So that was the first fighting force that was not segregated if I'm not mistaken. We can tell the story about that as well. That's also true.
[00:25:25] We could talk about World War II, about the vets who went off and fought in various capacities from all races but segregated - segregated barracks, segregated fighting forces, and whatnot. And we can say, "Yeah. Here they were, fighting for freedom which they were - defending liberty and democracy which they were. But there's huge contradiction of these very same soldiers - if they were not white, they went back to segregation afterwards. That's also a story which is true.
[00:25:49] And so I can look at it and you can talk about the Second World War as an example of, you know, a fundamental injustice underlying what cause and was just. Compared to the Korean War, we can say "This is basically a just war fought in a just way with the right civil rights policies". I can then have a story talked to the story and say I can extrapolate something else from that - Government is important in changing social reality, which the Korean War did. Government is important in giving everybody health care which the army does. Government is important in the sense that it equalizes wages, gives opportunities to people regardless of race, color, or creed, and nowadays sex as well. And these things are important roles that the government can play.
[00:26:34] Now, it wasn't always clear at the time that everyone understood during the Korean War that they're participating in a huge civil rights overhaul. But we know that this was true now. And we can look back and we can say, "Well, this is what they can extract from it." Was it entirely true and factual? Yes, but it also takes some imagination on my part to extract from that conclusion.
Sam: [00:26:57] And Yanni, why do historians get so offended by that - let's call it a - demotion to the legal profession rather than I think the highest art in the world which is storytelling?
Yanni: [ 00:27:11] Yeah. That's a good question. So not all historians get offended. A lot of them would agree. But particularly historians would go out and speak to the public to get public lectures and so on. Both they and their publics want to hear that this is truth that they've been giving of. That's what they want to hear. And, you know, I can go out and say, "Yeah, I'm here to tell you truth." I think I'm more honest and maybe more useful if I come out and say-- or the historian comes out and says, "This is fact. All these things I'm telling you are fact. We have the evidence I can tell you that this is a fact, as it was to other things which are false."
[00:27:43] Now, the historian may feel better but the audience also feels better. What they're getting at that moment is a quick gratification or confirmation, in other words, that they're hearing something which is true. I'm more useful to them though if I go out and tell them "What I'm giving you is a very elaborate interpretation and I'm telling you a story based on fact. Now, what I want you to do when you listen to me is to think - to think about what's possible, to think about what's not possible in the particular moment, to think about what's plausible, to think about in terms of the present based on the past." That's what I want people to think about and then to free their minds.
[00:28:16] So, why should I feel constrained to say that because it was like that in the past, we should always be that way in the future too which is implied when you just say it's fact? I think that's-- We're smarter than that. And we're more useful when we raise it in those terms.
Sam: [00:28:39] And Yanni, I just... I really was taken by your ability to when people got offended by that truth or, let's say, that principle that you taught that you were able to explain it in such eloquent terms and it really calmed a lot of people down. But I think the way this relates back to us today is people used to say information is power. But now I think the deluge of information makes it almost counter-productive to consume.
Yanni: [00:29:14] Yeah.
Sam: [00:29:16] Yeah. And now more than ever, in an age of information overload where information is cheap, I dare say free or almost worthless, that people cling to and crave story more than ever. And I think we're seeing that right now in current politics which politics and policy is simply the first draft of history. And it's a battle for the story and you see how quickly historians try and start telling the story right as it's happening, or, sorry, politicians.
Yanni: [00:29:45] Yeah. Yeah.
Sam: [00:29:45] The current president being a great example.
Yanni: [00:29:48] Well, I think you're right. I think you're right. So, I mean, I think you put it in a really nice way which is to say overloaded with information, we forget what its purpose is. And what I'd like to see happen now in American politics but also in all walks of life is to be able to not somewhat simply quantify the information, give us these really stolid understanding of "This is reality. This is what we do. We can count it. We can prove it" and so on and so forth, but to tell us why it matters. And that's where these things are going to be fought in one - to tell us why it matters.
[00:30:21] So people I'd like to see making the case for, you know, better wages, medical coverage, a more different kind of foreign policy, you know, still with American preeminence with conducted differently. They're having problems and I get frustrated watching them and even participating in some of these things. I get frustrated because they seem to have forgotten what the purpose of the information is - it's to produce good results.
[00:30:48] So we always have to remind ourselves what is it we want to achieve here. It's not simply winning but it's, you know, what would make for a better future, for better humanity, who would make for a better world order, who would make for a better America. That's why we're studying the information. If we forget that, then we threw the information out there and someone else would tell a story - one that we didn't say we want to tell. But we surrendered our main tool which is to take information and put it into an argument.
Sam: [00:31:18] Yeah, and I think that from the listener's perspective, the power here for this, I think, broad historical principle is bringing it back to your own life. We have the ability.
[00:31:31] And I tell this story, Yanni, inspired by your example, I would have the cadets - you would come up every year and give a great guest lecture to the cadets - and they always greatly enjoyed hearing here and you talk about such things. And I remember starting the first day of history class with a simple exercise. "Please tell me your story about why you're at West Point." And, they all had very neat stories. Very very inspiring. I mean West Point's obviously a great place to say you're from and people are quite proud of you when you go there - family and friends. And you become quite proud of yourself when you're there and especially when you first start-- Oh, I was teaching the first year cadets and they'd all tell me, "Oh, my grandfather was in World War II or my father's a military officer. I want to follow in his footsteps," and all kinds of heroic reasons. And I tell him at the end that they'd all committed a violation of the West Point honor code which can get you kicked out and said, "We're all going to go turn ourselves in for lying." And the jaws dropped because they were young and they just finished basic training so it wasn't like they knew me. It was the first day of class and I was this major who outranked anyone they dealt with.
[00:32:50] And I said, "The reasons you're here are far more complicated than what you've admitted. Some of you, your father was absent or abusive, or some of you, your mother was distant or overbearing or your brothers beat you up as a child or maybe a combination of all three of those things. And then, this happened or this big life event happened or..."
[00:33:12] You know, there's one cadet told me, one that I mentored very closely, when it really got down to it, he got in trouble and he had to get a mentor from one of the officers to vouch for his, let's say, reformed ways. And as we were talking about why he was motivated to do the things that he did, he admitted he had a problem with authority and one of it stems from watching his father walk out after, you know, beating his mother for the last time and walking out of his life forever. And he never went to his father's funeral. Never even communicated with him and said, "I never wanted," from that time on, "to be powerless again in my life. I was never going to surrender to that power."
[00:33:52] And I think the reasons we do such things, especially going to West Point which was not a normal place to put yourself through, are quite complicated and even unknowable to ourselves especially when we're going through it. Maybe upon reflection. I did reflect many times throughout my life as to why I did what I did. And I think only upon reflection and a bit of introspection can you come close to a useful explanation of why what you did is what you did.
Yanni: [00:34:20] Yeah, it's also, you know... It's also trial and error. So, in areas big and small, we come out and we say, "Well, you know, this is why I want to do something or this is what happened when you're describing yourself." And you try to earn an audience and you begin to notice when they glaze over and when they're more engaged. So you hone it.
[00:34:38] So for example, you know, you start to take West Point example. So, but you also take anyone applying for college but let's take the West Point example. The West Point example is, you know, there are these reasons and they're probably true. Patriotism? I think it's probably true. Wanting to fight for your country? You think the best way to do it is by military means? That's probably true. Leading men and women into battle is probably also true. But it's also, you know, the luck that the senator nominated you for that slot that you are in. It's no luck that you were-- You did very well in particular kinds of classes and they liked you. All sorts of things coming to it including careerism and that's perfectly fine.
[00:35:17] But if you did just say these things, it's not going to get you very far. It doesn't have drama. It doesn't have cause. It doesn't have an ideology to go with it. So, by the same token, and knowing applying to college who has even half-decent college counselor knows pretty quickly what to write in her college applications. So, you're probably not going to say, or the least they shouldn't say, "I go to apply to college because I know my income will be substantially higher when I get a degree than if I did not have a college degree." Now, this is actually true. And if you don't know it, then you should really get yourself educated.
[00:35:54] On the other hand, you can't see it as one would apply to college. There has to be some kind of cost. By the same token, you know, just about every college has this space where you have to fill in - your volunteer work and your extracurricular activity. Until how many times have you seen these college applications? You know. "I serve people at a soup kitchen", "I volunteered for the homeless", "I did AIDS volunteering, all those falling at abode nowadays", "I did--" you know, any of these things - the usual things. And this becomes almost meaningless, on the other hand necessary, because you can't not have things in extracurricular areas, a little repeat, which is sort of, you know, it's truthful. You probably did volunteer.
[00:36:36] Did you do it really because this fundamental urge to help your fellow human being? And in some cases, was it also a performance? Yeah. Was it also career rest? And very often, yes, you know. But we learned from a young age how to represent ourselves.
[00:36:50] Well, in my case, you know. God! Rags to riches. I can tell you stories about coming to this country with nothing on my back but my hopes in a suitcase. And look where I am now. I'm a professor at a major American research university.
[00:37:04] Yeah, it's kind of true. It's kind of not true.
Sam: [00:37:07] The question really is what's useful for you and what serves you and those around you too? And one of the questions I posed to marketers-- Because the listeners in this podcast, Yanni, believe in the power of story to help people reimagine their lives. And...
Yanni: [00:37:27] Yeah.
Sam: [00:37:27] People like you well know from working at an educational university - research university - New York University, the one I went to, which thankfully the government paid for, is quite expensive. And people put themselves out quite a bit in why did they make that decision.
[00:37:45] Well, the admissions process for New York University has sold them on a better future. "Your life will be better with a degree from this fine institution because of all the history, because of these professors, because of the diploma that you're going to hang on the wall and people will look at it when you come into the office and respect you more because of it. And the more money that you're going to make as a result of it. And the prestige and the history and all these things that... You know, Spike Lee, and the film school here." And it's all kind of wrapped up in this mystique. And--
Yanni: [00:38:19] "Let's get Lady Gaga".
Sam: [00:38:20] Yeah, exactly! And when you buy that degree... And one of the reasons I'm really passionate about this is I help authors, experts, you know, sell their consulting services and they're not selling into the degree like NYU. They don't have the advantage of NYU's admissions process where people are literally applying to give you money which is brilliant marketing but they are doing the same thing which is inspiring people to invest in their own education, which when you value your own education because you pay a sufficient amount of money for it - you show up, you take it seriously...
Yanni: [00:38:57] You'll be surprised.
Sam: [00:38:59] Exactly. Well, I think student loans managed to dis-remove people a little bit from the consequences of payments, let's say. But I think most people, who it's-not-their-parents'-money, we might distinguish between that and their own, do take it seriously when they pay for it. And because they take it seriously, they show up. They do the reading. They generally show up to class and sometimes turn in the papers and graduate. And even then, when you have all those barriers where you have all those hoops to jump through, a lot of people still don't do which is enormously frustrating as a coach or a professor or a mentor. But that's really the-- I think the human condition is people are willing to pay a lot just for the hope that they'll follow through on something.
Yanni: [00:39:52] Yeah. Yeah. Listen, you know, a lot of these stories also, you know, the plain old careerism and the practical things that we're talking about. Those are all true.
[00:40:00] And, you know, inviting people to apply for college and explaining to them directly or indirectly, that means that you cannot win an application when it was simply "I want to make a lot of money" or... That won't do it. Right? But we all know that that's part of it.
[00:40:16] Well, we are teaching and studying at the same time which is, you know, "Try to think for a moment that, you know, even though you have all these pressures, you just go out and make money at any cost."
[00:40:24] So the dream nowadays is not to go into diplomacy. It's not you went to the government. It's not you went to academia. The dream nowadays is to go into work on Wall Street or a startup or something like that and make oodles of money.
[00:40:35] That's fine. That's fine. That's the reality that we face. But by signaling to them that their applications have to include certain kinds of things which are more about maybe helping their fellow human beings, maybe creating honest institutions of business or something like that.
[00:40:50] Whatever it is that it might seem your statements, it has to be about more than just themselves. So, by having them write these kinds of college applications, we're also training them in a way to say that it has to be about something bigger than you are. You have to be a part of something. You have to see yourself as part of something. So you've done yourself a purpose and again, as you said in the very beginning, "Narratives serve purposes."
Sam: [00:41:11] Is it useful?
Yanni: [00:41:14] You mean the narrative?
Sam: [00:41:16] Well, just in general, you know, is your story useful? Is the process of making people tell stories around the aspiration of serving a higher good useful? And I guess you're arguing it would be and I'd probably agree with you.
Yanni: [00:41:32] I think it is useful. I think it is useful. Now, mind you, our definitions of what's useful have changed over time. So, we used to have a lot of students coming in and say, "You know, I really want to go into public service and change that." Let's say the last person to do that was someone like Obama. And good for him, right?
[00:41:50] Now, our definitions of useful, it really depends on if you're applying to a business school. You might say, "I want to create more productive work environments." Now, I don't really know what the hell that means. And I worry sometimes.
[00:42:03] Because they're more productive that tends to mean lower wages, less securities from the point of view of the employers, you know, so... But you know, still, we can have a conversation or something about bigger than yourself. And then we talk about if that bigger thing is worth while and then we can debate it. Not you and I but I'm saying the public in general.
Sam: [00:42:21] Yeah. And I think the big point here that you're bringing out and I would agree is we all know the reality is much more complex and complicated and less virtuous than the stories that we tell.
Yanni: [00:42:37] Yeah.
Sam: [00:42:37] But what would life be like if we didn't tell these stories to ourselves?
Yanni: [00:42:41] Well, you'd be stripped down to the bare banality of existence. Now, banality is part of existence. But we aspire to something more than just the banality of our immediate environment in our little lives. If we say that we're part of something then we, ourselves, become bigger.
Sam: [00:42:59] And I think that's really what holds society together. If you look at countries that have stayed together and the purpose of society and governments is to provide something useful for citizens and that social contract is a monopoly on violence. Government controls violence to the point where it's generally given out rarely and, hopefully, fairly when it is. And that's not always the case. But it also protects citizens from each other and that since evolved due to the European State Competition as I learned in NYU into much more complicated sophisticated systems on taxation and delivering services like health care and all kinds of other things which is actually your specialty.
Yanni: [00:43:49] Yes, sounds right. Sounds right. Yeah.
Sam: [00:43:52] So... Well, let's go in a little bit to that. How did governments serve society with the stories that they tell that are not at all close to true?
Yanni: [00:44:01] So you mean just outright falsification?
Sam: [00:44:04] Well, the myth-making that we spoke about at the beginning - the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Storming, the Bastille. And how does that serve the people that are asked to believe these tall tales?
Yanni: [00:44:16] Oh so, most of the modern events - the big ones that we're talking about and the small ones - you know... So we talk about decolonization and also some parts of the world - those mere events they commemorated. The Russians are now claiming that they have independence since 1991. Others will say, "But we were independent from you." And they're saying, "No, we're independent from you," and so on.
[00:44:34] So, you know, we can debate these things but they always evolve around the same issue which was, you know, "If you can accept this context, the scene that was created out of this mess - the American Revolution or the Russian Revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Greek Revolution," good God. You know. Any of these. "If you can accept these things, then you're going to be given a space where you are worth something. You're empowered. You have a say. Because just about everyone nowadays is a citizen of something. And as a citizen of that something, a country for the most part, you have certain claims to make. You can demand better. You can be involved in the conversation not only by voting but also just by talking to your neighbors, talking to your classrooms, talking to your peers and say, 'OK, if we all agree that the United States,' for example, 'is a space of liberty and freedom, then let's make a go of it. Let's actually make it a space of better freedom and better liberty.'"
[00:45:35] So we agree that the United States was founded on these principles. We understand that it wasn't perfect and we've been trying ever since to make it more perfect, as the phrase has it. So, let's do it. Let's make a go of it.
[00:45:50] So, the myth is very useful to all sides in contemporary American debate with the same thing that's true of, you know, France. We said that we're going to give liberty and individual rights to everybody. And so we started off just with white men then we expanded it to some not-so-white-men. Finally, we expanded and it took a while, but we expanded it to women as well. And, we're still struggling in France. I mean, French people are still struggling to make it real because it has some real truth-comings.
[00:46:16] So, let's talk about liberty. Let's talk about what civic republican is in the means. Have we make it scissored? We're not segregating certain people to the suburbs and leaving them there. No one cared about them until they have the next riot.
[00:46:30] Those kinds of things. Those kinds of things. The myths serve a purpose. They give us all a shared space where we can have our debates.
Sam: [00:46:38] And I think that brings us back to the old myths that we have in our life that we tell ourselves and we know they're not totally true but if you can believe it, you can start to, as you say, manifest it.
Yanni: [00:46:56] Yes. Yes. Yes. So in effect what we're doing, you know, even if we have certain doubts about certain myths... So, you know, again, let's go back to the American Revolution.
[00:47:06] I imagine most of your listeners know something about the American Revolution. They may be Americans themselves, right? So all of us who live in the United States hark back to that founding moment in 1776 - the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. We all hark back to that.
[00:47:22] Now. It made certain claims. And over time those claims appeared less full and less realistic because we changed our definitions of who should belong to the nation. So it begins again with property-owning white men but it had this capacity to constantly grow and expand and encompass more and more.
[00:47:42] So over time, we told that story of the American Revolution. We said it sort of naively in the beginning because, then, women came forward and they say, "Well, what about us?" African-Americans, "What about us?" Native Americans, "What about us?" So we had to tell a different story about how we did make it more real - far from perfect but more real.
[00:48:04] Now, all of us at that point were served by those founding myths. Meaning they think that people actually did say and we consider it to be formative of this entire project which is the United States. They actually did say them so we're holding them to their own words or we're holding each other to our own words. And then we can debate how exactly we go about doing this.
[00:48:23] So the Europe that you're experiencing right now maybe should conclude you a long time ago that if everyone really is a citizen then they certainly have the right to exist. Meaning they need a decent wage. They need medical coverage and they need shelter. They need food on their table. So the government, because the group presents the whole people, because everyone is worth something in this country, because they're members of this polity, because they're members of this nation, everybody's worth something. So, we have to guarantee the basic needs of existence and subsistence. And that was the European Welfare State.
[00:48:54] The United States has a much more tortured path to that. Although, you know, FDR did introduce social security which is hugely forward. Johnson did what he could with Medicare and Medicaid - a huge leap forward as well. They're under threat, biting in the long run that they are going to prevail, because the argument will be "If you're an American then you have the right to exist. You should not be worrying about being bankrupted by your hospital bills or being thrown onto the street when you can no longer afford your rent." So, the myth serves a purpose. I use it every day.
Sam: [00:49:32] And it's really powerful, I think, that keeps people whether or not you support the current occupant of the Oval Office which the last two presidents, unfortunately, for America, either side that you're on, you probably were quite upset on both sides because it was a stark divide of the perception in the stories both sides have been telling about the other. And those stories I would submit are not useful. And one of the great concerns I have about the digital age is I see a decline in the quality of the stories and that shared space between political parties in the United States and I think we're also seeing that in Europe.
[00:50:18] And actually, this brings me back to the original reason I know you in the first place is the eastern part of Europe has a very interesting history related to story and imagination that... You know, Yanni, one of the things I tell Europeans is, "You know, I come from the greatest myth-making society in the world - the United States - and, I'm really surprised and I think quite heartened by how well Europe is doing in a lot of things and then yet how little credit they get for it because they have no narrative around the European Union in storytelling. And you have a Russian tsar - Tsar Vladimir or President Putin - who is a gifted storyteller with not nearly, I think, the set of facts on the grounds that the European Union has. And you can see the difference between the, well, clash of stories about that each side tells about itself. So, President Putin does a great job of pointing out the hypocrisies and the holes in Western society which are hard to deny. Every society has it."
[00:51:40] And they have no response. As far as I can tell from a historian and a political observer, a very weak response.
Yanni: [00:51:45] Yeah.
Sam: [00:51:46] And it's really amazing to watch.
Yanni: [00:51:49] I see what you mean. I see what you mean. I mean I would take the conversation in a different direction when it comes to that issue which is that, you know, the Russian regime has been involved in a process - we've also been involved in for a long time - which is try to reduce the level of security for the population. And this is not just a Russian thing. This is a West European thing and it's an American thing as well, you know - cutting back on benefits, cutting back on wages. Wages have been stagnating all across Western Europe and the United States since the 1980s as you know. And after a while, people get fed up.
[00:52:24] Now, what would these regimes do in each of these cases varies but they all come down to the same thing which is trying to avoid the key issue? And so Russia, Western Europe, and the United States are engaged in the same process of trying to tell their populations "Listen, things are good even if you don't think so". So, the European Union that you spoke about and I think you're right has lost some of its narrative and I think it's mainly because it's lost some of its raison d'être which is supposed to have been raising standards of living all across the European Union.
[00:52:54] And now we're in a moment, which is also characterized the United States and also characterizes Russia, saying "Well, you know, some people get left behind, we really don't care. It's not our responsibility." So the reaction comes in various forms of what we call generally populism. But not all populisms are the same but a crushing of the center in political orders all together.
[00:53:16] So, you know, you have these 'right man' movements who are arising in Eastern Europe especially but not only - all the other former Soviet Union - people are really struggling. And they take it out in weird ways but they didn't have parties to tell them, "Listen, you are struggling because you should be demanding better things as a citizen and the European Union can help you with that." Instead, they're blaming the European Union, blaming their fellow citizens, and in the process, you know, not a lot of change takes place. The argument has to be had again, you know - as citizens, we have certain rights and that includes material. That includes material. It's not only about civil rights. That's as true as the United States, by the way.
Sam: [00:53:56] Yeah, and it's fascinating to see the facts on the ground versus the story.
Yanni: [00:54:01] Yeah.
Sam: [00:54:02] In one side the facts on the ground are quite good but the stories are bad and on the other side, I think, it's a little bit of the opposite.
Yanni: [00:54:17] Yeah.
Sam: [00:54:17] And it's really fascinating to see the difference.
[00:54:19] Now, Yanni, one of the things that I really respect about the discipline that you helped me understand history to be is comfort with uncertainty. In fact, this embrace of the fact that you will never get close to truths, you will cite counting to infinity. You can keep counting but you're never going to get there. And, the dependencies and history of one little thing affecting the other and the fact that you can never go back and replay it, there's no testing of historical fact. There's no counterfactuals. It's really quite humbling.
[00:55:00] And I remember graduating from undergraduate at West Point thinking I pretty much had most of history figured out. And then leaving graduate school with a professor like you and John Chavela and Jane Burbank and Fred Cooper and all those great historians realizing how little I actually knew about any of this stuff. And how do you deal with that?
Yanni: [00:55:27] Uncertainty, it's... I think most people look at uncertainty meaning not having the final piece of information. They look at that as a shortcoming or as a danger about staring into a void. 'Cause just when you thought you got it right, you find out that there's some doubt cast on it or there's more to find out and this is not a complete answer to the question you had in the first place.
[00:55:46] And I tend to look at it differently, it took me a while. And it's really the hardest thing to teach to graduates and undergraduates. And it's this - that really what we're engaged in is movement and forward movement, understanding better, and always expecting that once we arrive somewhere, it's time to move on to the next place. And this is a never ending process. And it's actually what makes it all fun.
[00:56:10] So, never looking at anything is final. Even your death is not final. Because in the stories, it will start about who you were in your life, you affect somebody. You're recorded somewhere. You come up in some sort of reference even after you're death. So it's never over. We're always going to the next one.
[00:56:29] So, when you arrive from point A to point B, you immediately begin to start thinking "How do I get to point C?" And sometimes you don't even know what path is going to fall. "It was not ABC. It's A. And I don't even know if I'm going to be in the alphabet by the time we're finished. I may end up with the numerical system." There's no certainty in that but that's actually what's fun.
[00:56:49] Now, people that I have known, you know, in the modern world especially, I mean not too much about the historical figures I've studied, that people around me now are always looking for that final piece of information and they're frustrated when you tell them "It's not final there. I'll tell you a story and disregard it."
[00:57:05] A relative of mine who bears my last name was saying he reaches a certain age. I mean, do many people do this when they reach a certain age? And they say, "Well, you know, I want to find the origins of my family. It's what everybody does! They do the DNA research. They do ancestry.com and things like that. But people have been doing this for ages, you know. Where does my family come from? Where does the name come from?" Which I found sort of interesting with as the years went by, I found sort of less interesting. So that person said, "Well, you know, here's our last name. It's a Greek name." Some people say it comes from Albania. Some people would say it comes from North Africa. Who knows where it comes from? Because of the way it's situated, that's Greece. It could come from anywhere which is true of any country. You know, if you say you are English and you're looking for genetic origins, you're not going to find them because every English man and woman came from somewhere else. Never mind the Americans.
[00:57:59] But there is no initial gene pool which is, then, transformed over time. People have also their gene backgrounds. When people say, "Oh, I look into the DNA and my family comes mainly from Italy and Germany." What they really mean to say is that the gene investigations company drew a line at a certain point in time and said any gene that exists in the year 1700 is Italia. But they never asked what happened before 1700.
[00:58:27] Are you with me?
Sam: [00:58:27] Yes.
Yanni: [00:58:28] So, this relative of mine said, "Well, I went through an archive in the port of Patras which is in the Peloponnese in Greece and I got this old document which dates to 1770. And there, our name is written in Latin characters in Italia." And he says, "It's not Kotsonis which sounds very unique to a modern Greek speaker. It's Kotzolani, with zed." He said, "Ergo, we're Italia."
[00:58:57] And I said, "Yeah. What it means is that that name one way or another had an Italian inflection. So it could have been to the Italian conquerors who were always around. It could have been the Italian merchants. It could have been Italians who settled in Greece. It could have been people from Greece who went to Italy and took on that name and that's fell in because there was no national language at that point. But even if you find out that that family member came from Italy, where do the Italians come from?"
[00:59:24] So then the person then told me, "Stop! I can't do this anymore!" And went ahead and wrote a memoir. And then that's fine. That's fine.
[00:59:33] But the question still stands, where do the Italians come from?
Sam: [00:59:36] They came from Greece originally.
Yanni: [00:59:39] What's that?
Sam: [00:59:40] They probably came from Greece originally and where did the Greeks come from?
Yanni: [00:59:43] Exactly. Exactly. Because we know that the Greeks who were writing in the year 400 B.C., for example, knew that they were the product of previous migrations and invasions. So even the Greeks came from somewhere. But that's true of everyone.
[00:59:56] There's no such thing as an innate German or an innate Italian. They probably call themselves by tribes and religions and language groups and so on and they came from all sorts of places. But the question still astounds. Two questions.
[01:00:07] One of them: Do we really need a starting point? And the answer to me is "No. You're never going to get there."
[01:00:14] And the other one is: Why do we care? Why do we have this need for a certain kind of certainty that we know that we came from that place? Right? And these are...
[01:00:22] Now and so Americans talk about, you know, "Where are you from?" Well, in my case, I would say, "Well, I'm Greek and Scottish." Because there is actually a Scottish ancestor. But I know that the Scots came from somewhere else. I know the Greeks came from somewhere else. I know that's not satisfying.
[01:00:38] It's much more interesting to think about all the waves of invasions and movements and all these things that actually make it interesting so we can keep investigating and keep learning. I don't need a final answer.
Sam: [01:00:48] Yeah, just deepening that understanding and understanding you're never going to get your story right. But can you always make it just a little bit more useful and meaningful?
Yanni: [01:00:59] Well, that's it. So, you know, in some ways, it is interesting. So, if I wanted to understand what citizenship can I hold legally, then it really does matter where my ancestors came from. And for that purpose, it matters. And I can also be involved in a Greek international culture. I can be involved in American national culture. I can be involved in Scottish national culture. All legitimately. All legitimately.
[01:01:18] So it does have a purpose there. I enjoy it too! You know. I plunge into it, "Ah! I'll be Greek today." I go to the kind of red wine. I drink wine. I tell stories in the Greek style and so on and so forth. But then, I could plunge into American society and talk about American politics and about, you know, the television programs and the podcasts and all these things. And I'm into American culture.
[01:01:39] All are perfectly real. It really depends on what context there.
Sam: [01:01:43] Well, Yanni, it reminds me of NYU again and I miss those days where I had time to think a bit more.
Yanni: [01:01:50] We miss you, Sam.
Sam: [01:01:52] Well, thankfully, the podcast gives me an excuse to talk to really brilliant people who give me a chance to think and also by extension the audience can live vicariously through these great conversations which have informed some of the work we're doing.
[01:02:12] Yanni, one last topic I'd like to cover with you is I never ever imagined as an undergraduate living in Poland. In fact, even when I came to Poland, I never even imagined I would stay here and if I hadn't had dinner with a girl that I met who invited me to come visit her and she said, "Would you ever consider living in Poland?" And this was after I asked her if she'd ever consider living in the United States. And she said, "No, of course not. I wouldn't live in the United States." And I was shocked and I said, "What do you mean you wouldn't live in the United States? It's the greatest country on earth!" You know, I just finished my service in the army so I guess I was a bit clouded by that and said, "I loved Poland. I would never leave." She said, "But did you ever consider living in Poland?" I laughed at her and said, "Why would an American move to Poland?" And then a few months later, here I was.
[01:03:04] And, you know, it had nothing to do with her. It was not that we had dinner and fell in love or anything. We had a nice conversation. But I went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum during that trip and I was so incredibly inspired by and moved by the stories - very rich meaningful stories - around that uprising which is very much alive in the political debate here in Poland. Some survivors of that uprising are still alive.
[01:03:31] A cadet, a former employee of mine, Alex Yael Kowski, who's now serving in the United States Marine Corps, grew up in America but his father was Polish and was an American Air Force officer and he used to go to a house where his great-grandfather was executed. And on the day of the uprising beginning when all Warsaw commemorates it, with a moment of silence, he would go after that ceremony and have drinks and wouldn't make it to work the next day.
[01:04:07] So these stories are very powerful and I think the reason I moved to Poland - people ask me all the time - "What is your story? Why are you in Poland?" Then, I like this grossly oversimplify to make it sometimes funny, sometimes useful, and the honest answer is probably a mix of the great Polish tech scene developers and designers that I noticed when I came here but also personal, too. I mean, I'm-- I do really really like girls from this part of Europe and I also enjoy vodka so there's many different complicated reasons why I'm in this part of the world but this story is useful for me and sometimes I like telling different parts of it depending on the company and whether I want a serious reaction or a funny reaction or mixture of many.
[01:04:58] But in all seriousness, the side I'd like to touch on, we actually are just announcing our live event in 12th to 14th July here in Warsaw, Poland. It's going to be storytelling, or sorry, StoryMatters Live - the first one that we've run. And we're going to be inviting guest speakers. And people are wondering what on earth is going on in Poland and more broadly in this part of the world. I've also do business in Ukraine.
[01:05:26] So, when I was in your class, Yanni, I was studying this from an intellectual academic standpoint and didn't know that many people from this part of the world, certainly didn't know any Poles and knew a few Russians and Ukrainians. Why did you pick this part of the world to study? And what was your... Well, just, why do you find it so interesting? Because I'm trying to inspire people who are considering traveling out here or just to see the business opportunities - why they might consider this part of the world? What's going on here that's special?
Yanni: [01:05:59] Well, I'm not sure if I can help you but I can tell you in my case and then I can tell you what I think might inspire others. But in my case it was pretty straightforward which was that I knew that as I do history but I didn't know what kind of history. I mean, what was going to be the next boom.
[01:06:15] So this was the first half of the 1980s as an undergraduate. And as doing history, I tried Scandinavian history whose interests in German history whose interests in Greek history. A little narrow. I was familiar with it already.
[01:06:27] I wanted something different. And then someone told me, "Well, listen, you know, communism - the origins of communism. Surely that's important." And I began to think and as I-- Well, look, you know, we've always studied Russia, at least in my lifetime, as communist but Russia was also Russian. And I'd like to know more about how communism and versions of socialism came into being this way in this place.
[01:06:52] What made it possible? How could it happen there? And what kind of communism and socialism did they produce because there was nothing inevitable? Nobody knew what communism would look like. No one knew what socialism would look like. So, they had to invent it as they went along.
[01:07:04] So, for me, it became this much larger investigation of this question of why Russia and why this kind of socialism as opposed to another kind of socialism. And, you know, increasingly over time it became, you know, why did socialisms become a joke? You know. Or also why did socialism become such a failure in this place? Why do you give a bad name to all socialisms?
[01:07:25] So these became my interests. So having deciding to do history, I ended up gravitating toward that history. I started learning Russian, went to an immersion program, started taking courses, and then went to graduate school.
[01:07:36] Now, what's interesting about it is that learning about any other country opens your eyes to how particular your own country is. Meaning, you know, I'll give you negative and positive examples.
[01:07:51] So, if you live in the United States, you call up your... I don't know, your cell phone company and it turns out that if you want a decent cell phone coverage, if you want this many data, bytes, or whatever, just many minutes of speaking and all that, you have to pay, let's just say, a hundred dollars a month or two hundred dollars a month as the case may be depending on what kind of-- And the phone is going to cost you like six, seven, eight hundred dollars.
[01:08:18] Should we take that to be normal? And then you go to Europe and you say, "Wait a minute. In Europe they actually regulate these things and they have proper competition. So the price of these things will always be lower."
[01:08:27] So this means that you begin to look into this, "Well, why is it lower?" It's a combination of things. You have real competition. They have regulations. They have caps on what they can charge and so on and so forth. So a different reality is possible.
[01:08:39] Now that's true of any country. It makes you rethink. But, more than that, when it comes to Eastern Europe, things happen in a big way there. We're talking about massive revolutions, you know. So, take the American Revolution. The American Revolution overthrew a king and introduced a republic but it maintained all these institutions we associate it with Britain - a certain kind of constitutionalism, based on written, private property, individualism, slavery, all these things.
[01:09:07] Whereas the Russian Revolution, got rid of a monarch, then got rid of that republic, and introduced a whole scale of refashioning the entire society. I don't think it was possible to do that anywhere else at that time in Europe. How did it come to pass? Why are so many more things possible in certain regards? Why does it seem like although we look at it as places with not a lot of freedoms historically? In fact, as an individual walking around and acting, you can do all sorts of things you might not be able to do back home. It's a paradox, to me, worth looking into.
Sam: [01:09:41] And, Yanni, I am acutely aware of living here now - the difference between theory and practice and experience and seeing these stories not just be academic debates but sources of political narratives that can be quite tense. The argument in Poland over Solidarity's history of it's usefulness, of it's, let's say, veracity and in the way that it had been told that myth that I think was very useful for Poland's transition from communism but how much of it was true versus how much was obviously told in certain ways for certain reasons. And you look at Ukraine the same way - what's going on with the national narrative there. Russia's story about Ukraine is that it's there's no such country in Ukraine. Story about Ukraine is that there is such country and it's actually older than Russia's history and those are competing narratives.
[01:10:48] And, you know, to see all of that and then visit the Baltic States, Estonia and Lithuania and Latvia and they have little stories in there. The Lithuanian Basketball team and its role in the last Soviet victories and then the establishing their national identity after the fall of communism.
[01:11:07] I mean, it's just the richness of the stories and the way that they interact and the arguments of them is... I like to say that living in this part of Europe is like being in Disney World for a historian. It's just hard to match when you love this stuff and it excites your fancy and gets you going.
[01:11:31] And I always used to tell cadets, "Don't study history because I tell you to. Study whatever subject makes you intellectually come alive and learn and grow," as you said.
Yanni: [01:11:42] Yeah. Yeah.
Sam: [01:11:44] You can tell stories around mathematics. You can tell stories around Physics. You can tell stories about anything. In fact, sciences need the best stories to make complicated things simple.
Yanni: [01:11:54] Yeah. That's why they need historians to tell them how to make themselves as historians.
Sam: [01:11:57] Well, Yanni, last question. I'm just curious and I have my theories. Why are there so many good technical workers? Why is it human capital pool in this part of the world so rich and consistently Ukrainian and Polish developers outperform on any skills test and productivity? And this is a place where smart tech companies are coming. Some even live here like myself to work with the developers.
[01:12:28] Do you think it's the fact that the languages here are just so hard and take so much decoding or is there something in the Soviet science technology STEM curriculum? What is going on here historically that's produced this amazing talent pool?
Yanni: [01:12:47] Well, so historically, there's negative and positive reasons.
[01:12:52] The positive reason is that the Soviet Union and the East Bloc poured resources into education, like, pour them in in a way that hardly anyone did. So it's not just that they poured money into the way that for instance American Ivy League schools pour money in or Oxbridge, Sorbonne, extensively in that way. You're pouring money in from the beginning - beginning in kindergarten. So it's that education was accessible to basically everybody and they taught them intensely.
[01:13:19] So there's a huge pool of people to choose from 'cause all of them had a very good background in mathematics, the humanities, as the case may be depending on what they were emphasizing. And so they gallerized it, and if you did well in mathematics, you'd go very far in life. You can go into rocket science. You can go into planning, and, you know, as the case may be.
[01:13:37] So, there is a tradition. There's a real reason why they did so well and some of these traditions continued. I mean they still do finance education. They're having their crises and the cutbacks. But generally speaking, you still have the benefits of communism basically, you know - mass education and good education - in a way that a lot of Western countries could never keep up 'cause they're never willing to commit those kinds of resources. So that's a positive reason. And we still see the after-effects.
[01:14:05] There's a negative reason which is that these are all countries, which for the most part, have been sort of, let's call it, resource rich and capital poor. What I mean is that there were a lot of human beings. There were a lot of schools that the state could pay for 'cause they didn't have to worry about spending too much. These were state-owned. Sure, there are a lot of universities. There are a lot of schools - very good, paid for, again, you know, 'blank check'. But they didn't have the kind of capital and applied science that they needed in order to make money off of it. And to mobilize resources in other words into building a new kind of factory, to innovate into a new kind of technology, and this is always their weakness.
[01:14:47] So what they have is people who are extremely good and extremely smart but not many places employ those smarts and their talent. So, it's as if their system is remarkable and better than many others, on the one hand, which is it that they train people.
[01:15:01] But it's worse on the other hand because they don't have a place to employ them and to use them. So you're going to find the typical case. You've got the East European software engineer, the East European innovator who goes and gets a job somewhere in Western Europe or China or United States. I mean, they end up in Silicon Valley.
[01:15:20] So, why the Silicon Valley had so many foreigners coming in on those special visas? Because you can't find enough of Americans to do it.
Sam: [01:15:28] So it's, say, over-investment in human capital with underinvestment in the capital, in general, to create companies and demand to employ such resources.
Yanni: [01:15:44] I think that's right.
Sam: [01:15:45] Wow, that's a great economic lesson for me from an economic historian. And I'm glad I asked that question. And the other thing that I think I've really learned and appreciated living here is there's a certain amount of grits, I guess, and hard work and determination to people who have lived through so much.
[01:16:07] I remember reading Don Snyder's book 'Bloodlands' and Mark Mazower's excellent books on World War II and now recently I'm listening to a Russian history podcast about everything that's gone on. And as I go to the war museums in Ukraine and Poland, I'm just floored by the amount of the sheer loss of life that both of these countries endured and were able to come back from. It's quite a remarkable story and inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time.
Yanni: [01:16:40] Yeah. Yeah.
Sam: [01:16:42] And they struggle a lot with the stories here because they're much more painful to tell.
Yanni: [01:16:47] We do, too. We do, too. We're all sort of in their stories.
Sam: [01:16:55] Well, Yanni, I can't thank you enough for taking a moment to go down memory lane about the history and a topic I miss and need to spend more time with. As a tech company founder dealing with product development and software developers and training my team, I wish I had a bit more time for history so it's great to reconnect with you and I look forward to changing my own story a bit and reconnecting with history a bit more because I think this is fun.
[01:17:26] Maybe I'll even do a regular history podcast one of these days when I get to...
Yanni: [01:17:30] You should. You should.
Sam: [01:17:33] ...interview historians smarter than me so I can have an excuse to study.
Yanni: [01:17:39] Well, it's a part of history. But yeah. Okay.
Sam: [01:17:42] Yeah. Well, I guess I could give all of them a platform in exchange for getting to listen to some great ideas and history. All of the... And, a quick last vignette I want to wrap this up with Yanni.
[01:17:54] I remember applying for NYU and I was in Iraq, and, for listeners, I think one of the most powerful things that if you could take any lesson from any podcast or video that we put out is the power to reimagine your own personal story. And I had a small disappointment around getting into graduate school. It was Yanni who was head of NYU at the time or the Russian Studies Center, which I think now is the Jordan Center.
Yanni: [01:18:24] Well, they're two separate things. I hated both of them.
Sam: [01:18:26] Yeah. And so, basically, he ran the Slavic Studies Department and also now the Jordan Center which is a specific Russian Studies Department, I think, together. I don't know the exact relationship. But when I was applying at Columbia University where Yanni had graduated from, had the premiere reputation for Russian Studies in the United States for forever. That was the place you went and I applied for Columbia. And I even remember reaching out to Mark Mazower and some really great people there. And I think I'd gotten some positive vibes and I was so, let's say, confident or lazy because I was going to Iraq or overconfident because I only applied to West Point in undergraduate and happened to get in. I said, "Oh, I'll just apply for Columbia."
[01:19:17] And I remember, with panic, realizing that they hadn't accepted my application. And the reason behind Columbia was twofold. One, Russian Studies Department. Two, I wanted to live in Manhattan. I always wanted to live in New York City and the army was going to send me to graduate school.
[01:19:33] And I remember asking my little brother at the time, James, who the company's named after, now, my late brother, had to help me out and he put together my application for me while I was in Iraq for NYU. And it was quite rushed and I remember corresponding with Yanni.
[01:19:52] And to my great surprise when I got to NYU, I realized that NYU had quietly built an amazing Slavic Studies Department under Yanni's leadership with Fred Cooper and Jane Burbank and also, obviously, Yanni. But then, they had someone else come in who was from Columbia, Richard Wortman, who taught intellectual history of Russia which he was so famous for. And he guest-taught me twice at NYU and I never would have had the opportunity to study under him had I gone to Columbia. I think he was the last Russianist who left.
[01:20:28] So actually I would have had no quality education compared to what I got at NYU. I'm sure Columbia would have figured it out but the number of people I got to interact with in the department that you created, Yanni, I think, definitely, I got to give you the credit for being the builder at NYU as I saw it at least.
[01:20:50] It was quite amazing and I tell the story for two reasons.
[01:20:52] One, Yanni, thank you for what you did at NYU for that department and teaching me this wonderful undiscovered part of the world I've never even considered living in. And now I'm making my life and my company here which is James Cook, published as James Cook Media.
[01:21:09] And secondly, if you ever think that something comes up in life is a setback, you just simply change the facts or the way you privilege the facts on your story and make it into a good thing. And I let that Columbia thing go in and out of my ego. And, obviously, I was a bit hurt by it but moved on and New York University and that being, I think, one of the more formative experiences of my life.
[01:21:39] And there's been so many instances in life where I just remember what Yanni taught me in graduate school about the power to reimagine story which is something I'd already been thinking about and listening to from other people. But I think he did the best job of really crystallizing that for me to make it a very useful and real tool. And then just hearing that again tonight about everything from personal life to politics and history, it's just been a privilege, Yanni, to hear that and--
Yanni: [01:22:06] Well, you're really really kind, Sam. These are really nice things you are saying. We've tried very hard to do well and I'm glad you've got something out of it. But it's really good of you to say these things.
Sam: [01:22:17] Yeah, and I hope you can give this to your graduate students, those who are in NYU now. I think this would be quite useful. And, hopefully, this is useful for historians and policymakers. All kinds of people. That's the thing I love about history. It's the applications for it are endless. I like to say it's the most useless and useful degree in the world.
Yanni: [01:22:41] I think that's right. I think that's right.
Sam: [01:22:42] Well, Yanni, it's been a pleasure. And finally I'd like to thank the listeners for this podcast, StoryMatters podcast, your feedback that I've received from e-mails and Facebook messages and a few even iTunes reviews which are greatly appreciated because it helps get the word out there, are really what keep us going. I would love to hear from you about how you enjoy this podcast.
Also, the StoryMatters Live event that I just have announced, would love to hear your thoughts on that if that sounds interesting to you.
[01:23:13] Who knows, Yanni, hopefully, you're in the summer. Maybe you can swing by to that. It'd be great to have you.
Yanni: [01:23:17] Wonderful.
Sam: [01:23:19] And, thank you again for completing another episode and if you have any questions, please send them to us. If you got any suggestions, also please send them to us. If you have great things to say, please put it on iTunes so more people can hear about this podcast. And we'll see you on the next episode of the StoryMatters podcast.