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.


Both Steve Bittner and Karen Petrone note the importance of narrative to the book, with Steve wondering if this is due to my literary background. No doubt this has something to do with it, but I (and indeed many of the historians who have rethought the thaw in recent years) am also influenced by the growing attention in Soviet history to narrative and discourse, in studies of Stalinist subjectivity for example, where the lines between literary and historical analysis have been blurred, if not erased entirely (as Eric Naiman has argued). For both these reasons, and probably others too, the origins of this project were largely ‘linguistic’: I was struck, on starting to read about the ‘thaw’ many years ago (when its historiography was much more primitive than it is now), by the fact that the term ‘cult of personality’ (kul’t lichnosti), so central to de-Stalinization throughout the 1950s and 1960s and so obviously unstable in its meanings, was often seen as a bland linguistic formula only intended to curtail debate and historical enquiry. It was certainly used like this at times, notably in the aftermath of the Secret Speech and in the Brezhnev era, but its meanings constantly changed, and with it, the possibilities for the textual and oral discussion that could take place under this broad rubric (the same, incidentally, was true of terms such as ‘Leninism’ and ‘revisionisim’, which is why I do not impose my own prior definitions on them, as Denis asks).


In focussing on the extraordinarily rich range of interpretations of this party discourse by Soviet citizens, and on the ways in which mainstream Soviet literature and ‘official’ history-writing then narrated the ‘cult of personality’ (as a matter of both obligation and opportunity), I do not mean to imply that party leaders were the most important generators of discussion of Stalinism (as Denis suggests), nor that the more familiar landmarks of thaw literature (such as the published works of Solzhenitsyn and Ehrenburg, of which Denis’ recent monograph on Novyi mir offers a definitive analysis, or the unpublished fiction that Ben Nathans suggests I include) were much less important. I think, actually, that all of us would struggle to come up with reliable indicators of social resonance (print-run, number of readers’ letters, or mentions in memoirs or oral history surveys all have major flaws), but I am willing to concede that on most measures, Ivan Denisovich was of more lasting cultural and social importance than most of the literature that I examine (Simonov comes closest, of the authors that I examine). However, my book also seeks to move away from only measuring the cultural and intellectual consequences of the literature of de-Stalinization (in which daring subject matter, such as the formerly taboo camps, or the extraordinary literary skill of a Solzhenitsyn might well have more dramatic effects than more conventional works, though radical works could also produce retrenchment and conservative backlash, as Miriam Dobson shows), towards a closer examination of the full (or fuller) range of the literature itself.  Where and how did the ‘cult of personality’ appear across Soviet historiography and fiction? How was the theme ‘managed’, and for what reasons (i.e. what dangers was it felt to contain? Steve Bittner’s post offers a pithy summary). Did even the most ‘standardised’ narratives play a role in the nationwide debate, even if in less sophisticated form than the discussions around Novyi mir?


It should be clear from this summary of my research questions that there would have been little sense in including in-depth study of texts whose editing, censorship and reader response have not only already been explored in depth, but also have until recently been conflated with the full extent of ‘thaw’ literature about Stalinism. Nor, given my interest in policing the boundaries of public memory and published texts, would it have been logical to examine works that never had serious hopes of publication, such as those (remarkable) works listed by Ben Nathans. This, again, is not to deny samizdat, tamizdat and dissident literature’s importance in the broader process of de-Stalinization (the point has already been amply proven in numerous memoirs), nor indeed is it to dismiss Nathans’ stimulating observation about deconstructing the binaries between Soviet and non-Soviet literature (on this point, I find Mark Leiderman’s distinction between Soviet literature and literature of the Soviet era useful as well). My hope is that, over time, studies of ‘dissident’, ‘liberal’ and ‘mainstream’ discourses of de-Stalinization—not just by Ben, Denis and myself, but many others too—can be placed side by side to build a fuller picture of the ‘thaw’ (and perhaps rename it!), rather than implying that one represents the most, or the only, significant development of the period.


This optimistic hope brings me, finally, to the question of subjectivity raised by both Karen Petrone and Denis Kozlov, and to a more pessimistic conclusion about the gaps in our knowledge of the period. Despite spending many years in the archives, I remain sceptical that we can gain a good sense of popular attitudes, and especially their change over time, from the available sources. Denis, whose book traces the kind of intellectual change that he would like to have seen in my book, argues there that letters to Novyi mir are detailed enough, individually, and numerous enough, collectively, to be able to trace deep cultural change across the two decades of the ‘thaw’. My sources—and perhaps this does speak to their less profound social resonance—usually offered only fragments of opinion, without the rich biographical context that one would ideally wish for, and almost never any sense of the correspondent over time. Theirs are voices that undoubtedly deserve to be heard—especially after decades in which the story of the ‘thaw’ centred on a small fraction of the liberal intelligentsia—but their motivations and wider worldview can only be guessed at. That said, my sources, like Denis’, do contain enough emotion and apparent ‘sincerity’ to suggest that participation in de-Stalinization was not only—or even most of the time—about expediency; equally, though, most citizens did not want to destroy the system in opening up the Stalinist past for discussion, and so were anxious—if not as anxious as the party authorities—not to let the discourse spiral out of control. Finally, my book does show that ‘defiance’ was a part of the story of this era, though in my view generated less by the disorientating process of de-Stalinization itself than by its curtailment in the late 1960s. This in turn raises the question of where—or whether, and in what proportions—this ‘defiance’ survived into late socialism, and thus what the most significant legacies of de-Stalinization ultimately were.

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