Post-Soviet Russia Russian History in Popular Culture

On the (Mis)application of Russian History to an Analysis of the Protests

Many of you no doubt know of the work of MIT’s Elizabeth Wood. She has turned her attention in recent years from Russian revolutionary gender politics and early Soviet propaganda trials to the cult of Putin in contemporary Russia. Wood brings the trained eye of the historian and gender studies scholar to the image of Putin created and propagated over the last dozen years.

Wood has just published a fascinating blog piece for The Boston Globe tying together her studies of Putin with an astute analysis of the protests in Russia. She also (rightly) takes issue with an ill-informed analysis of the protests by Paul Starobin that dredges up old literature and old stereotypes to dismiss the protests:

[A] longer view of Russian history suggests that what looks like a harbinger of democratic change can be better understood as something else: a familiar drama pitting the father of the nation against a flock of discontented children.

Starobin shows how political analysis by historical analogy can be used to provide an essentially ahistorical analysis of contemporary events. For Starobin, specific context does not matter nearly so much as some supposedly cyclical repetition of events attributable to supposed national characteristics rather than to particular and contingent factors that might shape historical events. Consider this bit of national stereotype masquerading as informed analysis:

Russian society has deep and abiding patriarchal roots, a legacy of its Orthodox Byzantine culture, in which the father — otets — is enshrined as the imperious (and infallible) ruler of the household. “Domostroi,” the 16th-century Orthodox manual for household management, promoted by both church and czar as an idealized expression of how Russians should live, calls for strict and unquestioning obedience of wife to husband and of children to parents, for the communal good of all.

Unsurprisingly, Starobin thinks essentially nothing has changed since, I suppose, Russia’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity. Stalin was nothing more than a Red Czar. Putin stepped in to fill a post-Soviet “leadership vacuum.” We’ve all heard this kind of garbage more than once.

Wood offers much more interesting (and truly informed) analysis:

I’d like to put forward another theory — that the protests are neither a doomed tantrum against a father figure, nor a product of Western manipulation. What if the protests are a direct response to the specific kind of political spectacle that the Putin regime has been creating since he came to power in 2000?

Rather than recapitulating her interesting argument here, I urge you to read it yourself and see some of the best application of scholarly analysis grounded in history to Russia’s contemporary moment.

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