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.

Nonetheless, since the work we do as historians and literary scholars cannot even begin (much less flourish) without attention to words and concepts, I would like to add one item to Denis’s list of keywords, a term so central to our thinking about the subject of Polly’s book that it is often hidden in plain sight: namely, “de-Stalinization.” I have not systematically studied the origins and history of this term – as one should for a proper Begriffsgeschichte – but my hunch is that its provenance is distinctly Western and that it did not enter the Soviet lexicon until the 1970s, that is, after the period covered in Polly’s book. I also have the impression that it emerged in the West shortly after 1956 by analogy to “de-Nazification,” the policy-oriented term that had dominated Western discourse about the presence of the past in (West) Germany before it was eclipsed by the more consciousness-oriented “mastering the past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung). While Western commentators spoke of “de-Stalinization,” in the USSR the favored formula remained “the struggle against the cult of personality and its consequences” (борьба против культа личности и его последствий).

Historians are not obliged to limit themselves to the terms employed by their protagonists. We would be crippled if we did. But we do gain from close attention to those terms, and to the various forms of distance between them and our own. Does it matter that while we use the term “Stalinism” to signify a real existing system that took shape between 1928 and 1953, Soviet citizens during that period employed “Stalinism” to designate a body of thought, as in “Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism,” and after 1953 abruptly ceased using the term almost entirely? Does it matter that we talk about “de-Stalinization,” while most people in the Soviet Union after 1956 spoke of “the struggle against the cult of personality”? It seems significant to me that in the Soviet context the problem was defined in terms of a cult, that is, a form of religious worship. While this perspective predates Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” it was the speech that put the term “cult of personality” on the rhetorical map and made its Marxist lineage explicit (Marx used the term in an 1877 letter to Wilhelm Bloss, a German Social Democrat). If the adoration of Stalin was essentially religious, then in the Soviet universe it was automatically backward, and the struggle against it automatically progressive. (Incidentally, this is one reason why I mentioned in my previous post Siniavskii’s The Trial Begins and Daniel’s Atonement: both attempt to capture the cult-like thinking of the Stalin era). If the adoration of Stalin was essentially religious, then it could be understood as a “leftover” of the pre-atheist era, rather than an outgrowth of Soviet socialism itself.

“Cult of personality” is one way to translate kul’t lichnosti. Another is “cult of the person” or “cult of the individual,” renditions that highlight Stalin’s sins against the principle of collectivism and his contempt for collective leadership by the Party. Thus, whereas “de-Stalinization” was associated in Western usage with the process of “de-Nazification,” in the USSR the “struggle against the cult of personality” had an entirely different set of historical associations.

How might any of this matter for Polly’s arguments about narratives of the Stalin era? I don’t mean to make a fetish of terminology, but it seems to me that the specifically Soviet meanings of “kul’t lichnosti” may have helped shape – and constrain – the narratives that are the central concern of Myth, Memory, and Trauma. Is it possible, for example, that the virtually obligatory search for redemption in accounts of the Stalin period was conditioned in part by the religious understanding of what went wrong during that period? Might the post-1956 shift in emphasis from Stalin’s leadership in the war to the heroism of the Soviet people reflect how criticism of the “cult of the individual” breathed new life into the ideal of collectivism?

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