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.