Myth, Memory, Trauma: On Rethinking versus Repackaging the 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.

Structurally, the book is organized into six chapters. Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the great confusion it unleashed among its various audiences are addressed in the first chapter, thus providing the starting point for the analysis. The chapter describes the drafting of the speech, its unorthodox dissemination, mixed reception, and the subsequent attempts of the party leadership in 1956 to make sense of the speech by coining a general line on “the cult.” The second chapter discusses the ideological “freeze” of the late 1950s, which originated in the Central Committee in response to the Hungarian Revolution. The freeze is shown through a record of debates at two institutions: the largely anti-Stalinist Moscow Writers’ Union and the more conservatively inclined department of party history at Moscow State University (MGU). The chapter describes how the writers and historians at these two institutions reacted to the new “anti-revisionist” message emanating from the party leadership. In the process, they had to deal with anti-Stalinist “revisionism” in their own ranks, notably the Krasnopevtsev case at MGU in 1957. Albeit with much improvisation, both institutions displayed a remarkable “sensitivity to shifts in the party line” (p. 76). Ultimately, because that party line itself was so confused and shifting, the freeze did not really provide any satisfactory answers on how to interpret Stalin’s legacy.

The third chapter addresses the continuing interpretive oscillations between 1957 and 1964. It shows first the leadership’s attempts to employ images of Stalin and his time in order to keep up the regime’s legitimacy and international authority, and then the resumption of a radical attack on Stalin’s legacy at and after the 22nd Party congress (1961). The chapter’s evidence comes from editorial discussions about the new 1957 textbook of History of the USSR, proceedings of and reactions to the 22nd congress recorded in party archives, polemics about the government-initiated renaming of cities and places named after Stalin, notably Stalingrad, and the post-1961 rewriting of history textbooks, which now marginalized Stalin’s image. The chapter suggests that, although his image was significantly compromised, and discussions about 1937 began in print more openly than ever before, the participants in all those debates also displayed “pragmatism and moral relativism” (p. 101). As a result, although there was no way back to a full-scale re-Stalinization, the “pragmatic shifts in Stalin’s image also . . . muddied the moral clarity of the judgment passed on him and his cult” (p. 128).

The fourth chapter addresses “narratives of 1937” in Soviet literature of the early 1960s, when such narratives began to make their way into print. Among the literary texts discussed are Vera Ketlinskaya’s It Is Not Worth Living Otherwise, published before the 22nd Congress, and a few texts published in its wake – such as Anatolii Nikul’kov’s In A Frenzy, Yuri Dombrovskii’s The Keeper of Antiquities, and two plays: Nikolai Pogodin’s Black Birds/Loyalty and The White Flag by Kamil Ikramov and Vladimir Tendriakov. The chapter examines discussions in the party leadership, the Moscow Writers’ Union, and the editorial boards that preceded and accompanied those publications. To an extent, it also draws on readers’ responses to some of those texts (notably to Ketlinskaya). Polly focuses on the writers’ attempts (again tightly regulated at multiple administrative and editorial levels) to find a certain balance for the 1930s between the ostensible optimism of socialist construction and the tragedy of repression. This chapter somewhat steps away from the political pragmatism observed previously. Its conclusion is, rather, that despite all the attempts and the regulation from above the balance failed to materialize.

The fifth chapter discusses some of the literary polemics of the 1960s about logical connections between 1937, Stalin’s regime of unlimited power, and the Red Army’s tragic defeats and losses at the start of World War II. Mostly this chapter focuses on the war prose of Konstantin Simonov, notably his two novels, The Living and the Dead (1960) and the sequel People Are Not Born Soldiers (1963). To me this was the most interesting chapter in the book. It considers, on an archival basis and in greater detail than in other chapters, Simonov’s own approach to his oeuvre. In particular, the chapter shows the writer involved in a productive dialogue with his readers, many of them war veterans. The chapter finds Simonov, as well as his audience, oscillating between the idea of Stalinist terror as an irredeemable tragedy and their desire for a certain redemptive quality in the war – even despite the impact of terror and Stalin’s negative role. The oscillations are especially visible in Simonov’s own intense editing of his texts, an effort strongly influenced by the resolutions of the 20th and the 22nd party congresses. Simonov emerges here as an interesting (although historiographically familiar) case of a Soviet writer who genuinely tried to reconcile his memories and beliefs with the party line. As to his readers, while they largely accepted the “bitter truth” about 1941 and 1942, their attitudes to the terror and to Stalin appear in the chapter as very diverse and to some extent also dictated by the clichés of Stalin’s time. Ultimately, the chapter suggests that for Simonov and his readers the wartime tragedies, even with the added emphasis on 1937, were incorporated into a new but still redemptive “myth” of the war as nationwide “heroic martyrdom” (p. 210). Parenthetically, I may note that this emphasis on moral redemption was by itself not new and not quite of Simonov’s making. Similar motifs are visible in Grossman’s The People Immortal (1942) and For the Just Cause (1952), Nekrasov’s Stalingrad (1946) Kazakevich’s The Star (1951), or even Bubennov’s White Birch Tree (1947) – indeed in practically all influential Soviet war prose and poetry.

The final sixth chapter focuses on the revived, although intentionally moderate, veneration of Stalin by the new Brezhnev leadership. The new trend, which marginalized and eventually almost obliterated from print any direct mentions of the mass violence under Stalin, began in the mid-1960s and culminated in the 1969 Pravda article on the occasion of Stalin’s 90th jubilee. As the chapter argues, this article coined the terms for a new, extremely reticent approach to the Stalinist past in Soviet media. Before it did so, for a few uneasy years the literary-political establishment experienced some more fluctuations on the issue of terror, while literary journals continued to publish (with increasing difficulty) a few sophisticated works addressing the problem. Among the texts mentioned in the chapter are Rybakov’s Summer in Sosniaki and Baklanov’s July 1941. Other texts failed to appear in print, such as Bek’s New Appointment and Simonov’s memoir One Hundred Days of War. Increasingly, party leaders (and then editorial boards) began displaying a desire for “balance” and “optimism” in the coverage of the Stalin years, urging authors to “expand the usable past” (p. 240). At the same time, the chapter suggests that there remained a “constituency in favor of further exposure of the truth about terror” (p. 225). By the end of the 1960s, disputes about the Stalinist past froze at a rather unresolved stage. No complete re-Stalinization happened, or perhaps was possible anymore, and yet the emphasis in media representations of this past shifted toward positivity. The mass audiences, whose reactions are also mentioned in the chapter, seem to have responded to these shifts with equal ambiguity, some displaying moral revulsion against the legacy of the terror, Stalin, and the cult, others more receptive toward the new trend. The chapter, and the book, ends on this note of ambiguity, with the conclusion mentioning further uncertainties that awaited the public treatment of the Stalinist past in the future.

Among the strengths of the book are its broad coverage and impressive effort at integrating several complicated political and cultural contexts. Every historian knows how difficult it is to weave together various threads of evidence into a coherent narrative. Polly performs this challenging work successfully. She describes the reasoning and decision making of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev leaderships in their approaches to Stalin’s legacy, as well as discussions in the literary realm: in print, in editorial boards, among censors, and to some extent (mostly in the chapter about Simonov’s World War II prose) reactions of ordinary readers to publications on this issue. The book restores an interesting chronology of those publications, especially in the early 1960s, showing in detail the fluctuations and confusion through which party leaders, authors, and editors went in assessing the Stalinist past. Polly discusses numerous authors and literary texts – some of them well known, such as Dombrovskii’s brilliant The Keeper of Antiquities, others more obscure or practically forgotten, such as those by Nikul’kov or Pogodin. A valuable aspect of the book is precisely this extensiveness of scope. As a result, the reader gets a sense of how pervasive and important the theme of the Stalinist past was for contemporaries. The author shows not only the high mountain peaks and landmarks of literature (in fact, some landmarks receive little attention, such as the publications by Solzhenitsyn and Ehrenburg, supremely important to their contemporary audiences when it came to the assessing Stalin’s time) – but also depicts a broader, uneven political and literary landscape in which the landmarks stood. Among the specific themes covered, the discussion of literature about World War II in its connections to the terror issue is especially detailed and interesting.

At the same time, this book left me wishing for an analysis of several more issues. Rethinking of the Stalinist past – if we talk precisely about rethinking, as the title has it – was an intensely subjective process for everyone involved. The mass violence and human tragedies of this past had touched upon the life of practically every individual who participated in any subsequent discussion of them. And so, it would have been helpful to approach this topic through a more detailed analysis of subjectivity and biography, the trajectories of life and thought embodied in texts. It is important to examine what motivated human beings – political leaders, writers, editors, or readers – in taking stances on the past. In the chapter on Simonov’s World War II prose we do see the writer and his readers involved in an intense, experience-generated and mutually instructive dialogue about connections between the wartime tragedies, the terror, and Stalin’s persona. Besides this chapter, however, there is little of such biographical-textual analysis in the book. In other chapters, readers’ responses to literary texts are mentioned, but mainly without such attention to what motivated the readers and writers – who they were and why they might have written or said things they did. For the most part, what we see in the book are institutionalized discussions of the Stalinist past, polemics about it in various office settings, be they political or literary/editorial.

As a result, what the reader largely gets from the book is not so much a story of “rethinking” of the Stalinist past, as, rather, a story of its “repackaging” in various institutional contexts. Institutions, composed of individuals with vested interests acting publicly, operate primarily on the basis of political pragmatism. Therefore, an emphasis on institution-generated evidence risks leading us to the conclusion that it was indeed pragmatic considerations – political expediency, career advancement, self-preservation, etc. – that determined people’s attitudes to the problem of the Stalinist past. The book does not explicitly make such a conclusion, nor does it directly discuss the nature of its diverse evidence (say, KGB reports and stenographic records of party or editorial meetings as opposed to sources of personal origin) as a research problem. However, implicitly the analysis does produce an impression of political expediency guiding various representations of the Stalinist past. The word “performance,” occasionally applied to expressions of individual views (e.g. on p. 112), is indicative here.

Political pragmatism was surely common in Soviet society, as in any other. At the same time, and the evidence quoted in the book does show that, individuals who approached the formidable themes of the Stalinist past in the 1950s and 1960s by far not always performed on grounds of expediency. Very often they spoke and wrote with great emotional investment, in direct defiance of the authorities’ viewpoint and quite contrary to pragmatic considerations. I may add that such defiance became a trademark of individual self-expression during the Thaw. The defiance and the emotional investment are palpable in the many quotations available in the book. It would have been helpful, then, to analyze the meanings of this defiance and this emotionality. Without such analysis the book creates a dissonance between the variety of recorded opinions and a certain (perhaps inadvertent) privileging of the Central Committee as the main generator of language and values to which the rest of society ostensibly deferred.

Meanwhile, the old Soviet joke about “fluctuating together with the party’s general line” was accurate only to a limited extent, as the very existence of the joke proves. Even if one were to focus on the fluctuations, what should perhaps indicate that something else was going on behind the scenes is the promptness (noticeable in the quoted evidence) with which many individuals jumped at the opportunity to express previously illegitimate views, as soon as those became legitimate. The opinions, then, must have existed previously, having taken long non-linear trajectories shaped by ethical and biographical reasons. Complex intellectual life in Soviet society existed and did not necessarily depend on the leadership’s changing rhetoric. How to analyze this intellectual life is an important question. I would say that without a close analysis of subjectivity one cannot see what motivated people to take certain ethical and rhetorical stances.

A focus on institutionalized evidence makes it difficult to analyze not only the complexity of ideas and language but also their evolution over time. The broader questions involved here are quite important. Was there an evolution of consciousness beyond the shifting rhetoric? Did the texts and their discussions produce a lasting effect on how people came to view themselves vis-à-vis the past and the present? Did individuals begin to formulate their own ethical, political, and historical agendas? Did they do so in their own words, independent of media scripts? If such changes happened (and my own evidence has led me to conclude that much of that did happen during the 1950s and 1960s), then how and why did the changes happen? Why did people follow a certain intellectual trajectory?

The next question to ask, then, is how do we measure the relative impact and significance of the various interpretations and verbal formulae which people advanced to describe the Stalinist past? How influential, in the long run, was Ketlinskaya as opposed to Solzhenitsyn? I would venture to say again that without consistent attention to individual subjectivities in relationship to language it is not possible to answer this question and the others mentioned above. I would have appreciated, in other words, a deeper analysis of where the authors and their audiences came from – biographically, ethically, and linguistically – and where they arrived in the end. A mixture of pragmatism and confusion, which produced the interpretive fluctuations, is shown quite well in the book. But while evolution of institutional rhetoric and intellectual evolution are related to each other, they are not one and the same. The multitude of evidence from the Thaw years makes it possible to study both of these important processes.

To move more specifically to language, the book describes effectively the oscillations of the fledgling “party general line” and its impact on representations of the Stalinist past in literary institutions and in print. I only have a few questions about the terminology, which the various contemporary Soviet or Western media (as well as individuals) applied to this past, and which appear in the book. Among these terms are “1937,” “sincerity,” “truth” (“half-truth,” “lies”), “Leninism,” “liberalism,” “narodnost’,” “partiinost’,” and a few others. What does it mean, for instance, that the peak date of the terror, 1937, came to be used so often (and, by the way, continues to be employed today) to designate the massive violence of the Stalin years? In fact, the book, by showing those very fluctuations of meaning attached to this past, indicates quite well why the numerical designation might have become preferable to some other term involving a value judgment. And yet an explicit analysis would have been helpful. “Leninism” is another example. What exactly did “Leninism” mean to those who used the word? Did Leninism ever exist, did people believe it had existed? The same is true about “liberalism” and “liberal,” the terms often applied (usually by Western observers) to the Soviet context and especially to Novyi mir. In the meantime, neither the editors of the journal nor its readers ever viewed themselves as liberals, nor did they fit any definition of classical liberalism. “Sincerity” and “truth” are even more important and complex examples that require analysis. In the chapter on Simonov, and in the section about Baklanov’s July 1941 (pp. 216-225), there is an interesting discussion of a wartime truth of losses and defeats in connection to 1937. At the same time, “truth” was a pervasive metaphor in all literary and artistic polemics of the Thaw. Why was this notion, and the others mentioned above, employed, and what did each of them mean to contemporaries? None of these Soviet terms was, or is, unproblematic. Each was a complex entanglement of meanings, and each deserves a detailed analysis, through which it would have been possible to acquire a better sense of society’s intellectual evolution. I wish the book paid somewhat closer attention to this language.

Here as well let me mention another term that figures in the book: “usable past.” Although, as Polly shows, various Soviet officials and authors indeed tried to “use” images of Stalin and the terror to their advantage, what the evidence implicitly suggests is that the Stalinist past turned out to be precisely not usable. I quite agree with Polly that Dombrovskii’s The Keeper of Antiquities presented a “radical challenge to Soviet and Socialist Realist principles” (p. 165). However, Dombrovskii was not an exception. The entire theme of the recent mass violence presented such a radical challenge. Elsewhere I argue that the terror proved too large of a problem for the Soviet officialdom, media, and socialist realism to handle. Ultimately, it was precisely the inability of most of the media not only to explain but even to describe the twentieth-century mass violence that undermined both the vocabulary and the ethical authority of Soviet mass persuasion. Given this record of propagandistic failure, it would have been helpful to analyze the applicability of the term “usable past” to the Stalin epoch.

Perhaps one last observation. Rethinking the Stalinist past was and is to a great extent about formulating opinions of the terror, the tragic losses of World War II, and the interpretations of Stalin’s persona. However, rethinking the Stalinist past goes beyond that. Ultimately, it is about reexamining the entire system of values that made the historical tragedies of the twentieth century possible. These values were cast in their purest form in Stalin’s time, but they had emerged earlier. In fact, it was those values that had made Stalinism possible, including the terror, the criminal blunders and neglect of human life during the war, and the veneration of Stalin. Rethinking the Stalinist past then was, and is, about a re-evaluation – at the very individual, personal, subjective level – of the entire history of the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1950s and 1960s, this mental process involved rethinking the Revolution and the Civil War, rethinking the plight of the peasantry in the 1920s and 1930s, rethinking the relations between Russia and the West, rethinking citizenship, social inclusion and exclusion, and ultimately rethinking the very language and logic that produced the enormous amount of violence, hatred, and suspicion which the people of that country inflicted upon one another. This process involved rethinking, and ultimately discarding, the linguistic uniformity that had taken shape under Stalin. The crisis of this uniformity manifested itself well before the Secret Speech. At least as early as 1953-54 language emerged at the front and center of Soviet public culture as a foremost problematic Stalinist legacy, well before Stalin’s own image did so. Rethinking the Stalinist past was a process of how each individual came to terms with his or her own life experience of the recent historic cataclysms in the context of the language and moral framework of the epoch. Ultimately, it was about how, eventually, that language and that moral framework evolved into something else. It seems to me that the book would have benefited from examining some of these issues more closely.

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