Cuneiform and Clay Tablets — the Only Thing More Cumbersome Than 3 x 5 Cards for Taking Notes

Cuneiform tablet

This month marks the 70th anniversary of what, when I was studying there from 1966 to 1968, used to be called the Russian Research Center. Today, this modest corner of scholarship at Harvard University is known as the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and it is housed in a much newer, grander building than the well-worn structure I remember.

I’m writing not to discuss the Center’s history or conduct a tour of the scholarship it has produced over the years, subjects with which I am only superficially acquainted. Instead, I want to write about a particular aspect of the role the Center played in my career.

To begin, I must first acknowledge two wonderful scholars there under whom I studied, historians Adam Ulam and Richard Pipes. Part of the Center’s two-year master’s degree program in Soviet area studies was the requirement to take, in addition to a range of lecture courses, two seminar courses, each of which required participants to write a major research paper. I signed up for the seminars led by Profs. Ulam and Pipes.

Adam Ulam

Prof. Ulam’s seminar was on the history of Soviet foreign policy. An affable, easy-going man, he allowed us to pick our own topics. Having long been interested in the off-beat, I chose as my subject the question of how Mongolia became the Soviet Union’s first client state, or satellite, back in the period 1921–28, two and a half decades before the USSR created a necklace of satellite states in Eastern Europe after World War II. In the introduction to my paper, I admitted that one of my reasons for choosing this topic was simple “curiosity — also called the spirit of academic inquiry — about obscure places and events.”

I found abundant resources in Harvard’s fabulous Widener Library, one of the world’s largest.1 The research required to produce this paper consumed quite a few months, and it was only in the second semester of my first year that I finished pulling my voluminous notes together and completed a 66-page analysis of what had happened and why.

Richard Pipes

My paper for Prof. Pipes, the next year, was on an assigned topic — the role in the Bolshevik Revolution of the district soviets (councils) that had sprung up around Petrograd following the abdication of the czar in February 1917.After studying the available minutes of these councils and other original sources, I concluded that the overthrow of the Provisional Government on Nov. 7, 1917, was not — as the Bolsheviks portrayed it — an uprising in whose organization these grass-roots representatives of the soldiers, sailors and workers of the city played a key role. It was, as historians now universally acknowledge, a coup d’etat plotted by a small group headed by Lenin. As Leon Trotsky famously put it, “Power was lying in the street, and we picked it up.”

Doing the research required for these papers, then weaving the many facts and threads from my notes into two coherent studies required a huge effort. It was a tremendous slog going through many disparate documents, zeroing in on the most relevant information, taking handwritten notes on 3 x 5-inch cards and then sifting through all the material I’d gathered and synthesizing it into coherent papers.

It’s occurred to me that one of the few note-taking techniques more frustrating than using 3 x 5 cards would be the clay-tablet-and-cuneiform technology of the ancient Sumerians.

While I was doing all this research and writing, I was also thinking about what I would do upon completing my degree. Many, if not most, of the other students in my master’s program were planning to go on to doctoral study. However, once I was enmeshed in the first of my two papers, it became clear that a Ph.D. thesis would make the research and writing I was then doing seem almost trivial. The thought of going for a Ph.D. was a nightmare.

So then and there I wrote off a Ph.D. and a life in academe. I would need to find another path. As it turned out, the path that led to where I am now was not remotely apparent to me at the time. Instead, after getting my master’s degree, I moved forward one step, one opportunity at a time on what proved to be a meandering but fascinating journey into an uncharted future.3

Along the way, among much else, a funny thing happened.

Around 1980, I discovered word processing, the computer application that is at the heart of the writing and editing I do now. And I eventually realized that the kind of work I’d done at the Russian Research Center would have been far simpler if I’d had the help of word processing software. Actually, this realization hit me only several years after I’d already moved from typewriters to computers. Up till then, although I’d been writing, I’d had little occasion to do research.

At a certain point, however, I got interested in a local political campaign and wanted to help the candidate. However, I knew my talent for writing could be of more use than stuffing envelopes or working the phones. So I went down to campaign headquarters, talked with the communications director and got an assignment: Ghost write an opinion piece for the candidate for publication in the newspaper.

To back up the points I’d need to make, I had to do some library research. When I got home with the handwritten notes I’d taken, I typed up the information I’d found and then, in organizing my thoughts, saw how easy it was to drop individual bits of research — facts, statistics, quoted words — into the piece I was developing and move them around in a way that would best strengthen the argument I was making.

It was an “aha” moment. I was using a technology that would have made writing my master’s degree papers infinitely easier. It’s made me wonder ever since whether I might have continued my studies and pursued a Ph.D. if I’d only had access to this fabulous tool — computer word processing — which I now use every day.

The answer, I suspect, is that I might well have opted to go for a Ph.D. But that’s only a partial answer, because I feel lucky to have had the experiences I did along the path I’ve followed. I feel much happier now than I suspect I would be if I’d earned a Ph.D. and, in all likelihood, remained in academe.


  1. Quoting from the introductory section of my paper: “Actually, for such a seemingly obscure subject, there is an amazing wealth of material available. … There is considerable literature on Mongolia in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian — articles, books, pamphlets. Some have been translated into English and there are quite a few secondary works in English … based on the primary sources. … The 40th anniversary of the Mongolian revolution in 1961 produced a spate of books … by Soviet publishing houses, including a collection of revolutionary enactments from the years 1921–1924 translated from the Mongolian. Two other highly useful primary sources are the protocols of both the Third Congress of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and the first Great Hural of the Mongolian People’s Republic (both in 1924), which are available in both English and Russian. … Finally, there are a number of books written by travelers who were in Mongolia in the 1920s.” One of these traveler’s books (Chinese Agent in Mongolia by Ma Ho-t’ien, in English translation) included this memorable quote: “Formerly, most Mongols lived in a stupor and died in a trance” — a reference to the abysmal state of Mongolia’s social and economic circumstances in the first two decades of the 20th century, when, thanks to the tax-free status of the country’s lamaseries [Buddhist monasteries], “an estimated 40 percent of the country’s men were lamas [monks]. … The lamas were not completely idle, however. … In spite of their vows of celibacy, lamas of all ranks managed to spread syphilis around so thoroughly that the population by the beginning of the 20th century was on the point of declining.”
  1. Later Leningrad and today, once again, St. Petersburg, the city’s original name, bestowed by its founder, Peter the Great, to honor the saint for whom he was named.
  2. My professional journey: Peace Corps service in an Indian village, work as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Information Agency (which gave me the experience of living and working in Brazil, the USSR and Japan), transition into public relations, and then, finally, another transition into my current writing and editing work.


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