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?
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!
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
I should start by admitting that I read an early version of Polly’s book proposal and manuscript a few summers back while sitting under an umbrella on a Lake Michigan beach. I was enthusiastic then about Polly’s project, so it is a special pleasure to see the final result, even if the locale for doing so–my windowless office on campus–is decidedly less inspiring than where I first encountered Polly’s project.
While I was working my way through Myth, Memory, Trauma, I happened upon Vladimir Sorokin’s recent piece in The New York Review of Books. Sorokin argues that late-Soviet and post-Soviet Russians have been far too passive in confronting the Soviet past: “All those Party functionaries who became instant ‘democrats’ simply shoved the Soviet corpse into a corner and covered it with sawdust. ‘It will rot on its own!’ they said.” The result was the eventual restoration of Soviet and even Stalinist ways under Vladimir Putin: a cult of personality that makes savvy use of digital and popular media, a campaign against “national traitors” that recalls 1937, and a carefully calibrated rejection of Western values that once again presents Russia as an uncorrupted “Third Rome.” At least in Ukraine, Sorokin argues, the recent “Leninfall” (a translation of leninopad, the toppling of statues) indicates a more cathartic and complete reckoning with the Soviet past.
Let me begin by thanking Steve Barnes for inviting me to comment on Polly’s book. I am glad that this blog provides such a valuable opportunity for informative discussions of new scholarship in our field.
The book is based on extensive archival research, and it presents a broad overview of discussions about the Stalinist past in Soviet high politics and public culture, mostly the literary world, between 1956 and 1969-70. Because the concept of the “Stalinist past” is very vast, it is worth delineating first what the book considers under this rubric. Mainly, the Stalinist past is epitomized here by three of its crucial phenomena: Stalin’s cult of personality, the terror (designated in the book by the date ‘1937’ and mostly referring to the peak phase of repression in the late 1930s), and the tragic blunders and losses of human life during the Second World War, which many in the Soviet literary world of the 1960s came to blame on Stalin and the effects of the terror.
It is an honor to be asked to discuss Polly Jones’s Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-1970. This masterful analysis of the response to de-Stalinization is meticulously researched and powerfully argued. There are two things in particular that stand out about this important work. The first is the messiness of its tale and the second is the way that Jones uses the idea of narrative to understand the ebb and flow of de-Stalinization.
Jones problematizes the conventional timeline of two waves of de-Stalinization: the first through the Secret Speech and the second through the removal of Stalin from the mausoleum. While both of these key moments came “from above,” Jones shows the complexity of the space in between them by examining the reactions of Soviet leaders, Soviet intelligentsia, and ordinary letter-writing citizens to the dilemmas of how to move forward while somehow acknowledging both past traumas and the role of Stalin in the successes and failures of Soviet history. The diversity of approaches and the range of public opinions that Jones uncovers on this issue is truly stunning. This outpouring of opinion about what should be remembered and memorialized also stunned leaders at the time who realized that both the powerful de-Stalinizing critiques of the Soviet system and the equally powerful defenses of Stalin were challenges to the current Soviet leadership. By describing this complexity and messiness, Jones has reshaped our understanding of social dynamics of the Khrushchev era.
The second element of the work that I’d like to emphasize is Jones’s focus on narrative. The leaders and writers of the Khrushchev and early Brezhnev eras were trying to construct a story about Soviet history that would have popular resonance and that would sustain the legitimacy of the Soviet Union going forward. As a result, trauma that was not narrated within an optimistic frame of heroism or ultimate redemption through the victory in World War II was seen by critics as particularly dangerous to the Soviet project. Yet a narrative that glorified Stalin while completely ignoring the suffering that he caused was also seen as dangerous because it might offend victims and call forth dissent. Thus the leaders, writers, editors, and readers engaged in a common project to shape a narrative that would acknowledge victims while celebrating Soviet achievements, that would recognize Stalin as leader while admitting his mistakes. These negotiations swung back and forth over the time period from 1953 to 1970 resulting in the publication of both powerful anti-Stalinist works and moderate pro-Stalinist tracts. By 1970, the bland, middle of the road “both bad and good Stalin narrative ” had triumphed because by being “on the fence,” this narrative prevented extreme reactions from both sides. It could then be safely repeated over and over again. Jones’s insights here are particularly powerful and engaging.
My opening question for the author is this: in the introduction to the book, Professor Jones discusses the debates about Soviet subjectivity, but in the conclusion, she does not return explicitly to the question of what her findings about complexity and negotiation over Soviet narratives reveal about this debate. I would like to know more about her thoughts on this issue.
For this edition of Russian History Blog’s “Blog Conversations,” we have gathered a distinguished group of scholars to discuss Polly Jones’s new book, Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-1970 (Yale University Press, 2013). Having devoted our blog to a discussion of The Stalin Cult two years ago, it seems only fitting that we discuss Soviet attempts to cope with that cult and other difficult aspects of the Stalinist past in the first two decades after the dictator’s death.
Generally, we have thought of this “thaw” primarily through through the lenses of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, the removal of Stalin’s body from the mausoleum after 1961′s 22nd Party Congress, the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and a few other notable works in the journal Novyi mir, only to have the “thaw” undone by Khrushchev’s ouster in favor of Leonid Brezhnev in 1964. Jones draws on a wide array of sources and intellectual approaches to paint a more complex and more interesting picture of Soviet approaches to the Stalinist past during and even after the Khrushchev years. Continue reading
History is being blithely tossed about these days by everyone from Vladimir Putin himself to Sarah Palin and John McCain. What is the real story? Is there a real story?
To answer that question, I invited two eminent historians – well, one historian and one historically minded political scientist, Serhii Plokhii and Mark Kramer, both of Harvard, to speak at MIT on this exact situation. They spoke on Monday (3/17), the day after the Crimean Referendum and the day before the Russian President’s speech. Continue reading
Posted in Cold War, Crimea, Current events in the Putin Era, Nostalgia and Memory, Post-Soviet Russia, Russia in World History, Russian History in Popular Culture, Teaching Russian History, Transnational History, Ukraine, Uncategorized, World War II
Tagged Crimea, History, Mark Kramer, MIT, Putin, Serhii Plokhii, Ukraine, UPA
[Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Jeff Hardy of Brigham Young University. Jeff has previously been a guest of Russian History Blog in our Gulag-related blog conversations. See his previous posts at Russian History Blog here.]
Let me preface this post by disclaiming that I am not an expert on Ukraine, let alone Crimea. I have lived in and done archival research in Kyiv, and I teach the history of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, which includes plenty of material on Ukraine. But my specialty is the Soviet Gulag in the Khrushchev era, not anything having to do with Ukraine per se. My hope with this post, therefore, is only to offer a few personal anecdotes of how Crimea was viewed in the late 1940s and 1950s.
So why was I in Kyiv doing research? Quite simply, because it’s virtually impossible to access Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) records from 1960 onward, and I wanted to tell the story of the Gulag up to 1964, when Khrushchev was deposed. That led me to do research in Tallinn, in Vilnius, and in Kyiv. Tallinn and Vilnius, of course, were beautiful cities with remarkably open-access secret archives. Kyiv, while also beautiful, presented some more interesting archival experiences, a few of which touched (barely and briefly) on Crimea. Continue reading
Just a quick follow-up to my earlier post about Scalar, an open source web authoring tool produced by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, of which the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities is a member.
We’re trying out teaching with it this term in the History Department, and are creating a tutorial–“Scalar for Historians”–to aid with these efforts. Feel free to use it, and I’d love to hear any suggestions or about other experiments with Scalar.
Are we hosting the Summer Research Lab this year at Illinois? You bet! As in each of the previous forty years, we look forward to seeing researchers of all disciplines and career stages here in Champaign-Urbana, to participate in workshops, consult with our famed Slavic Reference Service, and work in our fantastic library collections. Have a project you want to start (or finish), but don’t have the money to go to Russia, East Europe, or the FSU? Or have the money to go to abroad, but actually want to get some work done? Join us! Here’s the CFP: more info below the jump.
It seems obvious that President Vladimir Putin has chosen to issue the recent amnesties of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Maria Alokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and probably the Greenpeace 30 as a way to generate good will on the eve of his great personal project, the Sochi Olympics, into which he has invested enormous amounts of money and effort. With the amnesties (and his successful intervention in the Syrian civil war on 9/11 of this year), Mr. Putin is almost certainly hoping to create good will to offset the harsh criticism and threats of boycott he has received in conjunction with the Olympics. Yet this amnesty has a long history in Imperial Russia, one well worth examining. Continue reading
Posted in Current events in the Putin Era, Historiography, Imperial Russia, Post-Soviet Russia, Teaching Russian History, Uncategorized
Tagged amnesties, Nystadt, Peter the Great, PussyRiot, Putin, tsars
Last month I wrote about a great new collection of posters by the Soviet artist Koretsky. The publisher, The New Press, very kindly offered a free copy to be won in a prize draw. On the blog / facebook page we had almost 30 entrants and using a random number generator we found a winner: Aisling H. Congratulations, Aisling – I’ll be in touch!
The continuum of images in Asif’s last post attests to the emergence of a distinct visual vocabulary of space flight long before it became a reality. It is not coincidental that the first of these images is from Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita, a 1924 film that enthralled moviegoers but left official critics scratching their head. In “Imagining the Cosmos,” Asif situated the film’s ideological complexity as well as its striking visuals within an astonishingly diverse network of early-twentieth-century cosmic enthusiasm. Here I would like to think about a different set of relations between cinema and the cosmos, based not so much on modes of representation but rather on the fundamental convergences between the process of making movies and the “co-production of imagination and engineering” long before space flight became a reality. The interface between engineering and imagination underlying the very apparatus and materiality of the cinematic medium — which becomes particularly visible in special effects — links the history of Soviet space culture with the spectacular pre-histories of its future projected on the big screen. Continue reading