Myth, Memory, Trauma – Untidy Thoughts

Having re-read the various posts on Polly’s book, including her latest entry – which assembles comparative cases in order to highlight what was and wasn’t distinctive about Soviet memory of the Stalin era – I think it might be useful to point out a number of issues that have gone unremarked or unresolved in the discussion so far. While I don’t expect all questions or areas of disagreement among us to be resolved, I do want to push back a bit against the current tendency in the humanities to generate a multitude of individual theses and anti-theses, but to leave unfinished the work of debate and synthesis, which requires discriminating between stronger and weaker arguments. Or, to put it another way, we often seem to conclude our group discussions with questions, ambiguities, and divergences at the expense of answers, testable hypotheses, and syntheses. Of course posing a good question is the indispensable first step in any intellectual endeavor. One of the hallmarks of a good question, however, is its ability to facilitate a good answer.

Let me proceed in telegraphic form:

1. According to Denis, “what the evidence implicitly suggests is that the Stalinist past turned out to be precisely not usable.” I think Polly has laid this argument to rest, having demonstrated that aspects of the Stalinist past – above all, the epic victory over Nazi Germany – were not only usable but became indispensable, as they continue to be in Russia today. The dilemma Polly analyzes lay in the fact that these indispensable components were inseparable from others (e.g., the Terror) that appeared either unusable, unrepresentable, or both.

2. Polly writes, in her most recent post, that “de-Stalinization was not the decades of uncomfortable near-silence about a difficult past, as explored by many historians of post-war Germany, by Henri Rousso in his classic study of post-Vichy France, by Tony Judt in his masterful overview of dysfunctional post-War European memories, and further afield, in recent studies of the systematic silencing of the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina.” I beg to differ. For all the genuine “memory work” performed by Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, the fact remains that “decades of near-silence” thereafter covered up huge swathes of the Stalin era, including the devastating costs of collectivization, the overwhelming (non-communist) majority of victims of the Terror, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact (and with it, the inconvenient fact that well before the “Great Fatherland War” began, the USSR had already engaged in its own aggressive wars against Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states) – to mention only the most egregious zones of on-going silence.  “Dysfunctional memory” strikes me as a rather good description of the zig-zagging story Polly narrates in such telling detail in Myth, Memory, Trauma.

3. A good deal of our blog conversation about Polly’s book – including my own posts – has focused on the way Soviet political elites manipulated (or as Denis put it, “repackaged”) memory of the Stalin era for contemporary political purposes. Without denying that claim, I would like to remind everyone that Soviet leaders were not a separate species – culturally or cognitively – but were cut from much the same cloth as the population they governed. In their relationship to the Stalinist past, it seems to me, most of the rulers as well as the ruled combined instrumentalism (“what works for our present-day needs”) with a deeper psychic struggle to make sense of epic-scale terror and war. The main difference, of course, was that the rulers had at their disposal the enormous machinery of the party-state. As Georgi Arbatov put it in his 1993 memoir, The System, “One must not think that these myths and ideologies were only a soup that we fed the masses, while the ‘high priests’ ate completely different food, and coldly and rationally calculated policy on the basis of some higher interests visible only to them. Maybe Stalin was like that. But not those leaders whom I knew” (p.299).

4. Polly has offered a series of illuminating comparisons and contrasts as regards the politics of post-war memory in various countries. It struck me while reading her book that another axis of comparison might be the representation of the mechanics of memory itself. What model of mind is at work in the novels, letters, and memoranda she analyzes? To my eye, the Soviet model of mind looks remarkably like the one made famous by Freud (and subsequently absorbed into 20th-century Western discourse), with its division of mental labor between the conscious and the unconscious, its insistence that repressed memories always fight their way back, even if in strangely altered form, etc. While Bolshevik mythology relentlessly juxtaposed “consciousness” and “spontaneity,” by the post-Stalin era, it seems, the Freudian model had won out.

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