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Myth, Memory, Trauma: A Blog Conversation

For this edition of Russian History Blog’s “Blog Conversations,” we have gathered a distinguished group of scholars to discuss Polly Jones’s new book, Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-1970 (Yale University Press, 2013). Having devoted our blog to a discussion of The Stalin Cult two years ago, it seems only fitting that we discuss Soviet attempts to cope with that cult and other difficult aspects of the Stalinist past in the first two decades after the dictator’s death.

Generally, we have thought of this “thaw” primarily through through the lenses of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, the removal of Stalin’s body from the mausoleum after 1961’s 22nd Party Congress, the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and a few other notable works in the journal Novyi mir, only to have the “thaw” undone by Khrushchev’s ouster in favor of Leonid Brezhnev in 1964. Jones draws on a wide array of sources and intellectual approaches to paint a more complex and more interesting picture of Soviet approaches to the Stalinist past during and even after the Khrushchev years.

Drawn from an incredible array of sources, including but not limited to post-Stalinist literature, history textbooks and academic studies, memoirs, Party meetings, press and literary publications, and citizens’ letters, the stories gathered here present a thoroughly engrossing picture of the variety of responses to an evolving and uncertain official memory of the Stalinist past. Even with topics that we have long considered, like Khrushchev’s secret speech, Jones presents us with compelling new evidence that goes some way toward revealing and explaining responses within and outside of the Communist Party to this unprecedented and mostly unexpected turn on the previously deified Stalin.

I am excited that we are discussing this book, and even more excited by the array of specialists we have lined up to lead the discussion. Myth, Memory, Trauma speaks to a variety of intellectual audiences, engaging memory studies; literary studies; political, social, and cultural history; and studies in transitional justice (at least in an understanding of that field as encompassing something far broader than just judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings) and coming to terms with the past. It adds substantially to the burgeoning historical study of the Soviet Union after Stalin.

The blog conversation brings together the following people, including the author of Myth, Memory, Trauma, to discuss this remarkable book. We hope you will join us by commenting below, or by joining the conversation via Facebook or Twitter (@RussHistBlog) with the hashtag #MythMemoryTrauma.

Polly Jones is Schrecker-Barbour Fellow and University Lecturer in Russian at the University of Oxford. In addition to Myth, Memory, Trauma, Jones is author of numerous articles and editor or co-editor of The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization. Negotiating Social and Political Change in the Khrushchev EraThe Leader Cult in Communist Dictatorships. Stalin and the Eastern Bloc; a special issue of Slavonic and East European Review titled The Relaunch of the Soviet Project, 1945-64; and a special issue of History of Education titled Policies and Practices of Transition in Soviet Education from Revolution to the End of Stalinism. She is currently working on a project on the writing and reading of biographies in the late Soviet era.

Stephen Bittner is Professor of History at Sonoma State University. He is the author of an investigation of cultural life in the “thaw” years. The Many Lives of Khrushchev’s Thaw: Experience and Memory in Moscow’s Arbat and the editor of the memoirs of Dmitrii Shepilov, The Kremlin’s Scholar (Yale University Press, 2007). His current research is focused on the history of viticulture and winemaking in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The result will be a book titled Whites and Reds: Wine in the Lands of the Tsar and the Commissar.

Denis Kozlov is Associate Professor of History and Russian Studies at Dalhousie University. He is the author of The Readers of Novyi Mir: Coming to Terms with the Stalinist Past which used thousands of letters from readers to literary periodicals to explore how the Soviet reading audiences of those decades comprehended their life experiences in the framework of twentieth-century history. He is now working on a cultural history of migrations in twentieth-century Russia.

Benjamin Nathans is the Ronald S. Lauder Endowed Term Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter With Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 2002), which won the Koret Prize in Jewish History, the Vucinich Prize in Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, the Lincoln Prize in Russian History and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in History. Nathans chaired an international committee of scholars that helped design the content for the Museum of Jewish History in Moscow, which opened in November 2012. His current research explores the history of dissent in the USSR from the death of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Karen Petrone is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin and The Great War in Russian Memory, which looks at how a war that was not officially commemorated by the Soviet state was nonetheless the subject of a lively discourse through the interwar period. She is currently working on a textbook project for Oxford University Press that will narrate Soviet history from 1939-2000 using primary source documents. She is also co-editing a book on Everyday Life in Russia.

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