Myth, Memory, Trauma – Soviet Exceptionality?

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?

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