The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part IX: The Historian’s Confession

I could probably put this post off for another two weeks while I go a bit further into the story of the cheesemaster’s cheeses, but I’m eventually going to have to confess something so it may as well be now.

Well, perhaps confession is too strong a term. Or at least, I can start not with the confession, but instead with another story, or maybe a series of nested stories about the process of research. In a way, it starts with my time at the archives last summer, when I started exploratory research for a new project about Gatchina. My topic when I set off for the archives was really that broad—just, Gatchina, the palace, and Gatchina, the town. This rather vague idea started when I went to visit the palace, a bit on a whim, in July 2011. It wasn’t a complete whim; at that point, although I was primarily doing research for my soslovie book, I already had in mind a future research project on Empress Maria Feodorovna, Paul’s wife and widow, mother of Alexander I and Nicholas I. As I look back, I can’t remember exactly what set me off on that path, if it was something specific I’d read, or just the culmination of a number of references. A bit out of this general interest in that empress and her times, I’d visited Pavlovsk and Elagin Palace on earlier trips, and this time, I took the elektrichka out to Gatchina on a gorgeously sunny summer afternoon.

Gatchina Palace: view of the White Room, one of the grand 18th-century rooms


I was immediately smitten by the palace. Part of this has to do with the excellence of the museum display there, which really captures three distinct periods of the palace’s history. The central block of the palace houses grand eighteenth-century rooms that are all about opulent, imperial display of power and wealth.

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part VIII: The Other Things He Left Behind

Before I get to the fate of the cheeses, I want to take a post to talk about the other things Tinguely left behind. The archival file includes two inventories of Tinguely’s private property, virtually identical. The first (ll. 6-7) follows closely on the inventory of livestock and cheeses I talked about in my last post. It lists the property in precise detail:

  • silver table spoons — 5
  • silver table forks — 5
  • silver ladle with a wooden handle — 1
  • silver shoe buckles — 1 (presumable one pair)
  • shoes, old, leather, mens — 1 (pair)
  • kamzol (a jacket or jerkin), black satin, old — 1
  • breeches, black satin, old — 1
  • frock coats, cloth, old — 3
  • kamzoly, various, worn out (vetkhye) — 3
  • shirts with cuffs — 9
  • cloth — 1
  • silk stockings:
  • — Black pairs — 2
  • — White pairs — 2
  • linen towels — 7
  • mirror, small — 1
  • handkerchiefs, cotton, worn out — 2
  • breeches, suede/doe-skin, old — 1
  • jacket with sleeves, for work — 1
  • chairs, simple, worn out — 4
  • cow hides, untanned — 2
  • goat hides, untanned — 12
  • boots, leather, warm — 1
  • boots, cold, pairs — 2
  • pans, copper — 3
  • pot, copper — 1
  • frying pans, iron — 2
  • dishes, porcelain, pale yellow — 5
  • bowl, the same — 1
  • harnesses, old (?) — 2
  • saddle — 1
  • fur coat, bear, Polish, covered in camlet (a kind of cloth), old — 1
  • featherbeds — 2
  • pillows — 4
  • blankets, fabric, old — 2
  • blanket, flannelette — 1
  • iron-bound chest — 1
  • gun, old — 1
  • various written documents and а copy of his passport
  • And his own livestock and fowl:
    • pigs — 5
    • goats — 3
    • rams — 1
    • ewes — 1
    • bull — 1
    • geese — 20
    • ducks  — 15
    • chickens, Russian — 18

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part VII: The Things He Left Behind

Tinguely’s death, as sudden as it seemed to be, wasn’t one that had to be solved. It’s true that the exact circumstances of his death were a bit uncertain, but none of the later investigation ever seemed to suspect foul play. Despite this, the file about his death in the archives of the Gatchina town administration runs to nearly a hundred sheets of paper, including additional investigation by provincial authorities. Why so much? What were the questions that attracted so much attention? The major issue turned out to be not the circumstances of Tinguely’s death, but rather the provenance and later fate of the things and people he left behind. There were issues with his personal property. There were issues with the students and others he in principle employed. And in particular, there was one major question that took up much of the archival file: who owned the cheeses Tinguely left behind?

The first documents in the file emphasize the central role that things played in the story of Tinguely’s death. Nearly the first document is a report dated August 14, 1799 (RGIA f. 491, op. 1, d. 365, l. 4) from the local zemskii ispravnik (a rural police official), Collegiate Assessor Delin, and the head of one of Gatchina’s administrative units (an ober-amtman), Titular Councillor Unge. In the report, the two men presented the Gatchina town administration with lists of the property Tinguely had left behind. (A side note: this document makes the official court telling of the finding and identification of the body a bit more confusing. According to that document, the body was discovered on August 8, a first report was sent on August 10, and only on August 22 was there a formal report identifying the body. Clearly, though, the body must have been identified well before it was formally reported on.)

The first list (RGIA f. 491, op. 1, d. 365, l. 5) describes the things Tinguely left behind in a professional capacity. It was divided into two sections. First: “the kazennyi (state or treasury) livestock, cheese and other things that were in Tinguely’s control, according to the students living with him.” This state property was:

  • Milk cows (Russian): 64
  • Bulls (breeding): 2
  • Nanny goats: 3
  • Billy goats: 1
  • Cheeses, Swiss, fit to consume, fresh rounds: 10
  • Unfit to consume or broken rounds: 58
  • Big copper pot: 1

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Dear Stephen Cohen: I Love You; I’m Sorry; You’re Wrong

Steve, I hope you don’t mind an expression of affection from an admirer of a certain age. We’ve never met, but I’ve known you my entire professional life. I came into the field as a Stanford undergraduate in 1987, scared to death of nuclear war and hoping to do whatever little I could to prevent it. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, taking a course in arms control from David Holloway and sitting in the back of Alexander Dallin’s huge Soviet history class as he filled the board with notes and encouraged students like me to enter graduate school because looming retirements promised to make Soviet studies a growth field (ah, the perils of prognostication). It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that my first contact with you was in that liminal zone between political science and history that you and Dallin and Holloway occupied so forcefully. I eventually trimmed my sails more clearly in the direction of history under the tutelage of Nancy Shields Kollmann and Terence Emmons, but you remained a presence.

And there you were again in graduate school! Sheila Fitzpatrick assigned Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution in her demanding seminar and assigned me the task of reading and reporting on the recently published stenographic reports of Stalin’s attack on Bukharin at the February 1937 plenum of the Central Committee. I’m still standing, so I suppose I passed that test, but only with an assist from you. In short, you were a central intellectual figure of my youth, and those people always hold a special place in one’s heart. Thank you.

I found out only last week that you have been subjected to humiliation by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), an organization that I belong to. As a voting member, I bear some responsibility for the actions of the board I helped elect, and so please let me say, from the bottom of my heart: I’m Sorry. I know that others in our organization feel the same way. I’ve read a copy of your January 13 letter to “The ASEEES President, Executive Committee, Board of Directors and All Interested Members of the Association,” which is circulating in samizdat form and will link to it here (or upload it in full if you wish) if and when you want it to be published. It is a painful piece. More than a hundred of us have joined together to append our signatures to a letter written by David Ransel that expresses the shock and outrage felt by those not only in our cozy area studies community but more broadly across academia. We do not understand how the academics on our board could turn up their noses at the generous grants to graduate students proposed by the KAT Foundation simply because your name (and that of your mentor Robert Tucker) was attached to the prize. Continue reading

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part VI: Palace, Villages, Town

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve thought a lot about Tinguely’s long-distance travel—of the ways he moved around between Switzerland and France, and then of how he might have made his way to Russia. It turns out that there’s just as much to say about the areas much closer to where he died.

Topograficheskaia karta okruzhnosti Sanktpeterburga. St. Petersburg: Voenno-Topograficheskoe Depo pri Glavnom Shtabe ego Imperatorskogo Velichestva, 1817.

Detail from Topograficheskaia karta okruzhnosti Sanktpeterburga. St. Petersburg: Voenno-Topograficheskoe Depo pri Glavnom Shtabe ego Imperatorskogo Velichestva, 1817; from a zoomable version of the whole map available through the Harvard University Libraries.

First of all, there’s the question of what it means that he was hired on to work for the palace administration of Gatchina. Gatchina meant multiple things. First, there was Gatchina palace, the one built by Grigory Orlov and given by Catherine to her son Paul in 1783. Then, there was the village of Gatchina (more normally Gatchino at the time we’re talking about) which abutted the palace grounds (the palace and village are circled in red on the map, and if you have an hour to spare definitely click through the link in its caption to look at the map in closer detail). And then there were the many smaller villages (20 according to the manifesto, but more according to other sources) that were considered to be part of the larger estate. In other words, figuring out where exactly Tinguely lived and worked during his time in Russia is more complicated than simply noting that he worked at Gatchina.

In some ways, the identification of Gatchina with the palace alone is the most narrow of the possible definitions. After all, the palace, as complicated a place as even just it was, was the smallest part of the larger lands. At the same time, however, it is also among the most powerful of those possible definitions. The alphabetical index to the (first) Complete Collection of the Laws of the Russian Empire, for example, files everything to do with Gatchina under the heading “palaces” rather than under any of its other possible classifications that could apply to it. And the governance of all these lands and places fell under the jurisdiction of the palace, and eventually of the Ministry of the Imperial Court. Only during the reign of Alexander III did jurisdiction over Gatchina, the former court village, move to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which had jurisdiction over virtually all similar inhabited spaces). So the records of the palace administration are heavily intertwined with all the histories of these various villages, from Gatchina itself down to the tiniest ones.
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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part V: Twists and turns

I initially planned this post to focus on the lands around Gatchina proper where the cheese master lived and worked. But then I started following up on a couple of comments made about the last post, and suddenly I’d written 1000 words. So, instead of the lands around Gatchina, here are more thoughts about trade routes, the French Revolution, bull-running (!!) and being an old Russia hand.



After I posted about the last entry in this tale on Facebook, I got a couple of comments that I felt like I had to investigate. Did I really think, Alexander Martin asked, that the cheese master had traveled to Russia along that long overland route I mapped out, or would he have been more likely to travel up the Rhine, and then enter Russia by sea? It’s a good question, and one that I certainly can’t answer for certain. I suspect, though, that the overland route is indeed the one that Tinguely traveled, for several reasons.

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part IV: The Cheese Master’s Documents

The archival file from the Gatchina Town Administration that records the case of the dead cheese master includes three official documents—only three—that attest to his life before and during his tenure at Gatchina. Two of the documents give a sense of how he might have ended up in Russia. First, there is a passport given to him in 1790: “François Tingeli de Marcens au Canton de Fribourg en Suisse de la paroisse de Nuirens conduit quatre vaches, et deux chêvres a Besançon.” Second, there is a letter from the Marquis de Froissard-Bersaillin, attesting that he bought an excellent cow from one M. Tinguely.

Places in France and Switzerland mentioned in Tinguely's documents (map from

Places in France and Switzerland mentioned in Tinguely’s documents (map from

These two documents already give us a sense of Tinguely’s world before his arrival in Russia. François Tinguely (I’m choosing to use that name for his time spent outside Russia, as it seems to be the variant that has best survived as a surname) was from the village of Marcens (now Marsens, and indicated by the red diamond on the map), in the canton of Fribourg in Switzerland. His work, as indicated by these documents, was in the trade of cows and goats. This reference only makes it clear that he traded in dairy-producing livestock, not that he made cheese, but given his place of origin (Marsens is in the district of Gruyère, home to the most famous of Swiss cheeses), it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that he might also have been involved further in dairy production.

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part III: The Emperor and the Palace

Grand Duke Paul in 1774

Grand Duke Paul in 1774

The Swiss cheese master was an employee of the palace of Gatchina at the time of his death. He’d been hired just a couple of years before, at a time when Gatchina—both the palace and the village—were undergoing some significant changes that had to do with its owner, the newly crowned Emperor Paul, the supposed “crowned psychopath,” the most autocratic of Russian autocrats whose intemperance got him murdered and replaced by his angelic son.

Paul was actually a far more complicated figure, as even those who were very critical of him admitted. According to one such account, “he was really benevolent, generous, of a forgiving temper, ready to confess his errors, a lover of truth, and a hater of falsehood and deception, ever anxious to promote justice, and repress every abuse of authority, especially venality and corruption.” Such a paragon of virtue ought to have reigned long and well. But the same author goes on: “unfortunately, all these good and praiseworthy qualities were rendered useless to himself and to the empire by a total want of moderation, an extreme irritability of of temper, and an irrational and impatient expectation of implicit obedience.”  (“Reminiscences of the Court and Times of the Emperor, Paul I of Russia, up to the Period of his Death. From the Papers of a Deceased Russian General Officer. Part I,” Frazer’s Magazine (August 1865): 236-237) Continue reading

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part II: A Taste for Cheese

Why was a Swiss cheese-master (or perhaps a Swiss-cheese master) working for the administration of Gatchina in 1799? There are (at least) two ways of answering this question. The first has to do with the development of a taste for cheese—and by this I mean a taste for aged cheese, not for soft fresh cheese—among Russia’s elite during the eighteenth century, and a corresponding concern with the Empire’s finances.

While Russia had a long tradition of milk products and soft cheeses, cured cheeses came into fashion during the eighteenth century as imported luxury goods. Peter the Great supposedly preferred cheese to sweets as a dessert (and loved Limburger above all others); by the start of the nineteenth century travelers and others described imported cheeses as common parts of the culinary world of Russia’s nobility.  So wrote Theodore Faber as he described St. Petersburg: “The cheese of Parma is an indispensable need in all kitchens; one never serves the Macaroni of Italy without adding in its perfume.  Nothing is more common than that article.  A housewife speaks of her supply of Parmesan, like in Germany one would speak of the supply of onions or of parsley.  The cheeses of England, of Holland, of Switzerland, are the ordinary dessert.” 1

At least among the elite, this might not have been much of an exaggeration. Household records from noble families of the time suggest that they regularly spent significant sums on imported cheese. A register from the Vorontsov family lists a round of Parmesan, a tin of Stilton, a round of Swiss cheese, and 20 funts (more than 8 kilograms!) of “English Chester” cheese in the household stores. 2 They also suggest something else—that a housewife was less likely to speak of her supply of Parmesan than her husband might have been. Parmesan might be used in cooking, but the other cheeses appeared primarily as part of the zakuski table, the display of pre-dinner snacks presented separately from the main meal, and part of the man’s world. In the records of the Golokhvastov family, most cheese purchases appear in the account books of the man of the house, not in the general kitchen expense accounts. 3
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  1. Bagatelles.  Promenades d’un désœuvré dans la ville de St.-Pétersbourg, vol. 1 (St.-Pétersbourg: L’imprimerie de Pluchart et cie., 1811), 181-2.
  2. RGADA f. 1261, op. 2, d. 668, l. 14 (it also listed 200 bottles of olive oil, 6 bottles of tarragon vinegar, 20 funts of mustard powder, and 5 poods of coffee)
  3. RGADA f. 1264, op. 1, dd. 169, 294, 305
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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master. Part I: The Body

On the morning of August 8, 1799, the peasant Pavel Spiridonov found a dead body on the road near his village. And he found not only “a dead male unknown body,” but close to it a saddled chestnut horse. What had happened, and who was this man?

Spiridonov was the local sotskii or “hundreder,” a peasant constable or guard, and he immediately turned to the zemskii sud, the district-level land court, for help. The district doctor and a district police officer by the name of Krivoshein were called in to consult. The police officer reported that they found no signs of violence on the body. The doctor gave more information about the state of the corpse: the man suffered from gangrene (антонов огонь) caused by “frequent consumption of spirits.” The doctor also reported that the death had been “sudden,” a fact that suggested that this chronic (over-)consumption of alcohol likely caused the man’s death. The exact mechanism of that death was still unclear. Was the man riding while drunk, and as a result fell off the horse, killing himself in the process? Or had he had some sort of attack caused by the gangrene or the drink, died, and then toppled off the horse’s back?

The horse wasn’t talking, but at least these reports suggested that there had been no foul play in the man’s death. As a result, the only task left was to identify the body. This, however, was no simple matter. Spiridonov, as the village constable, would have recognized any local man. This man was no local, nor was he recognized by anyone in the area.

The only thing that was immediately apparent was that “this unknown man was probably of moderate means (из людей посредственных).” The proof of this was his clothing: “a dark green flannel overcoat, a coat and waistcoat of coffee-colored cloth, white linen trousers and a fine cloth shirt.” No other personal items were found on the body.

This kind of detailed description of clothing was a normal part of identifying dead bodies. Once local newspapers (Gubernskie vedomosti) were established in many provinces at the end of the 1830s, they often featured notices of “found dead bodies” in need of identification. Descriptions of the bodies focused on where they had been found, and to a certain extent on their physical description—their facial features, height, and hair color. But perhaps because those physical descriptions were often made difficult due to decomposition, the notices most of all focused on the clothing and possessions of the dead bodies.

The report from the land court is unclear on how exactly identification was eventually made. Presumably the clothing helped, as did the fact that the man was only recently dead (though death in August was not ideal for identification purposes). Whatever the process was, it took some time. The body was discovered on August 8, and a first report was sent to the governor’s office on August 10. Only on August 22 did the head of the court, Kruze, present a report identifying the body: he was indeed no local, but instead a master cheese-maker named Tengli (or Tingeli or Tinguely), by birth Swiss, and before his death working for the palace administration of Gatchina, one of the many imperial residences outside St. Petersburg.

This identification solved the problem facing the lower court. But who this man was, how he got to be there, and what he left behind, remained questions for those who dealt with the aftermath of his death, still to be uncovered.

(RGIA f. 491, op. 1, d. 365, ll. 39-39ob)

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On beards

Beard types, from

Beard types, from infographics/1236527

With a post title like that, you might not be surprised to hear that I am lecturing on Peter the Great tomorrow. I always wondered a bit how his beard tax worked in practice, and I was a bit thrilled to see an example of it at work in a file when I was doing research on my book on soslovie.

On first glance the file (RGADA f. 742, op. 1, d. 493) is a straightforward one: in July 1749 the Kursk merchant Nikifor Prokofiev Rastorguev petitioned the Kursk magistracy, asking to be released from his status as a merchant in order to enter a monastery. He promised in his petition that his son would take over his business (and his taxes and duties). The case went smoothly; in February 1750, the Kursk town starosta reported that the town society agreed to free him, and the magistracy finalized its positive decision in May.

This was all normal. What wasn’t normal was an incident report from the Kursk governor’s chancellery regarding Nikifor Prokofiev’s unlawful facial hair.

In January 1750–after Nikifor Prokofiev had petitioned, but before his petition had been granted–he was spotted by a local official “at the bazaar in a beard and in unlawful dress.” Called before the chancellery, Nikifor Prokofiev did indeed turn out have “beard and whiskers unshorn and unshaved” and to be dressed in “a fur, a caftan, a Russian shirt and with no tie.” This was counter to the laws then in force, which stated that anyone unshorn and dressed in Russian clothing was suspected of Old Belief and thus liable to prosecution.

Nikifor Prokofiev had an explanation for his dress: he was getting ready for his entrance into the monastery, and was not and Old Believer. The beard (and dress) was premature, but not as unlawful as it could be.

There’s no more follow up on this incident in this file; the letter from the Governor’s chancellery seems only to have spurred the Magistracy to follow up on the original petition. I was still glad to see it, though, because it gave a new angle to this initial moment. The beard tax always provokes a bit of laughter–the idea of a beard tax token (look! you can buy your own beard-tax token replica bottle opener!) seems so particularly silly. But realizing that even decades after its initial institution, a guy could get hauled in for questioning because of it (even if with no ill effect this time) made it seem a bit less silly and a bit more serious.

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The Ebola Czar and American Czars in General (Open Thread)

So the NY Times is proclaiming that Obama is thinking about creating an ‘Ebola Czar‘.  One of the oddities of the modern American world, indeed, is a love of the idea of a “czar”: almost any time a major public issue arises (war, drugs, health care, urban policy, Katrina, Ferguson) there are calls, often completely unironic and bi-partisan in nature, to create a ‘czar’ to govern that issue.

Why does a putatively democratic, constitutional, secular order–which generally celebrates itself as the republican Rechtsstaat incarnate–feel the need to constantly call for the invention of a figure who by definition rises above all representative institutions and laws, and does so by “God’s grace”?  I have always found this odd but insistent echo of Russian history in U.S. life to be baffling.

How do Americans understand the concept “czar”?  Does it match what we, as historians, think about the meaning of the concept? (And here I recognize that not everyone may agree with what I just said about tsars, to use the more standard scholarly spelling.)  What explains the particular hold the image of “the czar” has on the modern American political imaginary?

I thought I would open a thread here on this question.  Any thoughts and discussion?

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Just in Time for Teaching (English Language Sources for Russian History)

There may be a few teachers out there working on syllabi, as well as students and other researchers considering topics in Russian history.  For decades, the great Anthony Cross has helped scholars discover the corpus of English-language testimonies about Russia and the Soviet Union.  I’m pleased to note that his latest, comprehensive bibliography has just appeared, under the title In the Land of the Romanovs: An Annotated Bibliography of First-hand English-language Accounts of the Russian Empire (1613-1917), from Open Book Publishers in Cambridge.  The entire text is freely available on-line, in a Wiki edition.  Paper copies can also be purchased on demand.

Authoritative and well-annotated, it provides a huge body of accessible sources for teachers and students to mine.  Thank you, and congratulations, Professor Cross!

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Article Review: William G. Rosenberg, “Reading Soldiers’ Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I,” American Historical Review 119, no. 3 (June 2014): 714-740.

In this post, I’m hoping to use the Russian History Blog platform to explore a different form of scholarly communication – the article review. Articles are of course reviewed all the time, but normally anonymously and with the aim of assessing their suitability for publication. After publication, however, authors are lucky to get more than a few lines of comment in a fellow scholar’s work or glancing attention in a footnote. A happy conjunction of forces – finishing my own large project and then opening my latest issue of the American Historical Review to see an article by Bill Rosenberg on a topic I’ve thought a bit about – allows me to do one now. Continue reading

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Myth, Memory, Trauma – Untidy Thoughts

Having re-read the various posts on Polly’s book, including her latest entry – which assembles comparative cases in order to highlight what was and wasn’t distinctive about Soviet memory of the Stalin era – I think it might be useful to point out a number of issues that have gone unremarked or unresolved in the discussion so far. While I don’t expect all questions or areas of disagreement among us to be resolved, I do want to push back a bit against the current tendency in the humanities to generate a multitude of individual theses and anti-theses, but to leave unfinished the work of debate and synthesis, which requires discriminating between stronger and weaker arguments. Or, to put it another way, we often seem to conclude our group discussions with questions, ambiguities, and divergences at the expense of answers, testable hypotheses, and syntheses. Of course posing a good question is the indispensable first step in any intellectual endeavor. One of the hallmarks of a good question, however, is its ability to facilitate a good answer. Continue reading

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Myth Memory Trauma–What De-Stalinization was not

De-Stalinization has often been defined in terms of what it was not: not as complete and aggressive as de-Nazification (though Stephen Cohen has argued that the Soviet Union came close to its own Nuremberg trial in the early 1960s); not as determined as the later German Vergangenheitsbewältigung; not as far-reaching as de-Leninisation (or indeed, the preceding few years of de-Stalinization) in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though these have been the main points of comparison in writing about the ‘thaw’, others might easily be added to the list, especially given the ‘memory boom’ of recent years. De-Stalinization also wasn’t a process of ‘truth and reconciliation’, of the type still unfolding in post-Apartheid South Africa; and it wasn’t a process of lustration, such as occurred in many, though far from all, parts of Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

If we are going to draw these unflattering comparisons, with their emphasis on the ‘bad faith’ of the leadership, their lack of true repentance or commitment to confront the culprits of the past (including their own guilt), we should also pause to consider what else de-Stalinization was not. It was not the decades of uncomfortable near-silence about a difficult past, as explored by many historians of post-war Germany, by Henri Rousso in his classic study of post-Vichy France, by Tony Judt in his masterful overview of dysfunctional post-War European memories, and further afield, in recent studies of the systematic silencing of the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina. Far less was it, at least in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, a complete failure to confront historical wrongs in public, political discourse: for all that ours is an age of ‘memory wars’—to use Alexander Etkind’s term—many battles to expose the truth about the past still never reach the public domain, or remain marginal to it, as is arguably true of the history of empire in my own country.   Continue reading

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Myth, Memory, Trauma – Coming to Terms

In his initial post, Denis Kozlov mentions a number of keywords – key, that is, to public discourse during the Khrushchev era as well as to Polly’s wide-ranging analysis of that discourse – and calls for “closer attention to this language.” The terms he has in mind include “1937,” “sincerity,” “truth,” “Leninism,” “liberalism,” “narodnost’,” and “partiinost’.” In contrast to Polly, I read Denis as asking not for these terms to be defined a priori, but rather for us to pay closer attention to their shifting meanings and usage over time. If I understand him correctly, Denis is calling for a Begriffsgeschichte of the central terms of de-Stalinization. If so, then I would endorse his call while pointing out that, as Karen Petrone noted, Polly’s book focuses on narrative more than on the shifting meaning of individual words. And her attention to narrative produces handsome returns: as Polly shows in one of my favorite chapters of Myth, Memory, and Trauma, Simonov and other authors “reinvented the original master plot of the Soviet novel, seeing the war as an obstacle (albeit on a much larger scale than those of the 1930s production novel), whose overcoming attested to the strength of national character” (210). To write a Begriffsgeschichte would be to write a different book, based on a different kind of research. Continue reading

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Myth, Memory, Trauma – Soviet Exceptionality?

Like Ben, I’m inclined to think that, comparatively speaking, the “memory work” of the 1950s and 60s in the Soviet Union was distinctive. I’m struck, however, not by the constancy of the gardener, who’s always tending to memory’s blooms, but by the inconstancy of the gardener, who keeps changing his mind about what needs to be watered and fertilized, what needs to be trimmed back and uprooted. This is very different, I think, from postwar West Germany and united Germany, where after an initial period of reluctance, the state sought very aggressively and successfully to make Holocaust remembering central to a new German identity. That is not to say there were no sacrosanct elements in the Germany’s wartime past, as there were in the Stalinist past. It took longer, for instance, to acknowledge the crimes of the Wehrmacht than the SS, longer to grapple with the Sonderweg conception of the Holocaust than with idea that genocide was the product of a few deranged Nazi leaders. Rather, the trajectory of memory in postwar Germany is characterized by fewer reversals and u-turns, fewer contradictions and ad hoc refinements than in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s. It is simply impossible to imagine Konrad Adenauer denouncing Hitler in the spring of 1956, then emphasizing Hitler’s achievements during the summer and fall. But this sort of schizophrenia was part and parcel of Soviet politics in the 1950s and 60s.

I’ll be curious to hear what Polly makes of the distinctiveness of her study.  Is there a parallel elsewhere, marked by similar vicissitudes, for the “memory work” that occurs in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s? What were the longterm implications of the Soviet Union’s tortured attempts to come to grips with its Stalinist past?

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Myth Memory Trauma–Narratives and Subjects

I would like to offer heartfelt thanks to all the participants for taking the time to read my book so carefully and to comment so insightfully. It is a cliché, but in this case a true one, that all of the people involved have inspired me for many years with their own work. In some of the comments, indeed, one can recognise their distinctive approaches to the post-Stalin period, which have shaped and stimulated my own, rather different approach. To Denis Kozlov and Ben Nathans, for example, who ask why the book does not examine questions of intelligentsia and dissident writing and identity respectively, the easy answer would be that your work does, and very well too! However, these questions about coverage raise more substantive issues about the ways in which past and more recent historiography have conceived of the ‘thaw’ and de-Stalinization, which my book aims to rethink. In the following, I explore these issues further, clustering around the two main themes that run through the blog comments so far: narrative and terminology; and subjectivity.


In the discussion so far, I am struck by the number of synonyms and metaphors for de-Stalinization. Not that this should be a surprise: the period, after all, was named (albeit somewhat misleadingly, as Steve Bittner and Miriam Dobson have argued) after an ambiguous literary metaphor. Here, Ben Nathans develops metaphorical thinking furthest in his vivid account of the ‘constant gardening’ of Soviet public memory, while Steve Bittner describes the ‘delicate surgery’ of cutting away the most shameful aspects of the Stalinist past while leaving the body politic intact. Other terms used in the discussion so far include memory ‘management’ and ‘re-packaging’, the latter proposed by Denis Kozlov as a corrective to my title’s broader term, ‘rethinking’. I do not disagree with any of these terms, or their implications, and some in fact capture my intentions at least as well as my own terms: they all imply, correctly, that I am above all interested in the manipulation and control of ‘official’ or ‘public’ memory—and, as Steve Bittner says, with its inevitably only partial success. What motivated me to write this book was a growing impatience with the narrative of de-Stalinization as a spontaneous return of the truth about the past after Stalin’s death, with at most a brief catalytic function assigned to the party’s discourse of de-Stalinization. Continue reading

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Myth, Memory, Trauma – The Constant Gardner

When reading Polly Jones’ stimulating book on Soviet memory of the Stalin era, I found myself thinking about two other works that helped establish the memory of collective trauma as a distinct field of humanistic inquiry: Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and Saul Friedlander’s edited volume, Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (1992).  Both explored the challenges of depicting liminal experiences – the First World War and the Holocaust, respectively – in a variety of fictional and non-fictional genres.  Both can help us think comparatively about what Jones calls the “memory work” undertaken by the protagonists of her book.

Seen comparatively, perhaps the most distinctive if unsurprising feature of the Soviet case is the role of the Party-State as constant gardner in the field of memory. Whatever the season – thaw or freeze – the gardner is there, planting, cultivating, pruning, weeding. The gardner has a diagnosis for all the ills that beset the garden: the cult of personality. The gardner has a device to ensure that those ills never reappear: socialist legality. And for those who tell the story of the garden’s ills, the gardner knows the correct idiom: Socialist Realism. True, weeds keep coming up, and it’s increasingly difficult to discern the garden’s layout, but no one can overlook the presence of the gardner.  Continue reading

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