Myth, Memory, Trauma – The Stalinist Past and the Post-Soviet Present

I should start by admitting that I read an early version of Polly’s book proposal and manuscript a few summers back while sitting under an umbrella on a Lake Michigan beach. I was enthusiastic then about Polly’s project, so it is a special pleasure to see the final result, even if the locale for doing so–my windowless office on campus–is decidedly less inspiring than where I first encountered Polly’s project.

While I was working my way through Myth, Memory, Trauma, I happened upon Vladimir Sorokin’s recent piece in The New York Review of Books. Sorokin argues that late-Soviet and post-Soviet Russians have been far too passive in confronting the Soviet past: “All those Party functionaries who became instant ‘democrats’ simply shoved the Soviet corpse into a corner and covered it with sawdust. ‘It will rot on its own!’ they said.” The result was the eventual restoration of Soviet and even Stalinist ways under Vladimir Putin: a cult of personality that makes savvy use of digital and popular media, a campaign against “national traitors” that recalls 1937, and a carefully calibrated rejection of Western values that once again presents Russia as an uncorrupted “Third Rome.” At least in Ukraine, Sorokin argues, the recent “Leninfall” (a translation of leninopad, the toppling of statues) indicates a more cathartic and complete reckoning with the Soviet past.

Of course, Polly’s work suggests that Sorokin might look to the more distant past, to the Khrushchev and early-Brezhnev periods (1953-70), for reasons to be optimistic about Russians’ ability to grapple with the dark chapters of their history. During these years, Soviet citizens of all sorts actively confronted the Stalinist past by writing letters to authorities and to the print media, by debating Stalinism and its legacies in party cells and classrooms, and by putting their own memories and experiences to paper. Moreover, they did these things in ways that defy simplistic scholarly representations of the thaw as a period when Soviet citizens, newly freed from their shackles, enthusiastically set about discrediting their former oppressor and dismantling the pillars of Stalinism. For instance, Polly shows that Manichaean thinking survived well beyond the death of Stalin, especially among the most ardent proponents of an unrestrained historical reckoning. Invoking the same Stalinist rhetoric of vigilance and unmasking, many of these persons called for a new round of purging and punishment, albeit against the orchestrators of previous rounds. “De-Stalinization was in many respects a quintessentially Soviet process,” Polly writes, “shaped by Stalinist and Leninist precedents” (p. 3).

Nonetheless, Sorokin’s article raises questions about whether there was a proper way to conduct what Polly terms “memory work” (which involves both remembering and forgetting, and which refers to the interplay of official and popular memories) in the Soviet Union after 1953. Do we gauge the success of memory work by its result–the permanent and total discrediting of Stalinism, which is what Sorokin demands? Or do we gauge the success of memory work by the way it occurs (which is the central focus of Myth, Memory, Trauma)–ideally through an unrestrained and robust debate between political authorities and society? One of the primary strengths of Polly’s work is its comparative aspect, as it draws on a scholarly literature on memory in postwar France and Germany. Yet in these cases, as well as in post-apartheid South Africa, the primary target of memory work was an evil ideology and its disseminators and collaborators. In the Soviet Union the target was epiphenomenal, Stalinism, but never in its entirety. The ideological core, Marxism-Leninism, was exempted from such reckoning, at least on the official level. Much of Soviet politics and culture after 1953 breaks down precisely in this way: how to excise from the Soviet body politic the heretical and destructive aspects of Stalinism, on the one hand, while all the time preserving what was authentically Leninist and Soviet, on the other? This was a delicate surgery, to be sure.

Here I wonder if Polly is not more pessimistic than Sorokin. In her view, this was simply an impossible endeavor, so the result was a mishmash of ad hoc policies and half measures that never fully came to grips with the evils of Stalinism, but never destroyed the body politic either. In this regard, the memory work that followed Stalin’s death was both success and failure.

I will end my initial post with a minor observation.  Like Karen, I was taken with Polly’s attention to narrative, not only in places where one expects to find it (such as fiction, the focus of the final three chapters), but in party decrees, speeches, and so on. Is this a disciplinary bias? I would be curious to hear whether Polly thinks she approached her project differently because she came at it from the field of Russian literature and language. For better or worse, Polly’s collaborators in this book discussion are historians. What do we, as historians rather than literary scholars, miss when we write about the thaw and de-Stalinization, about remembering and forgetting, about Novyi mir and Ivan Denisovich?

This entry was posted in Myth, Memory, Trauma. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook