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.
In his initial post, Denis Kozlov mentions a number of keywords – key, that is, to public discourse during the Khrushchev era as well as to Polly’s wide-ranging analysis of that discourse – and calls for “closer attention to this language.” The terms he has in mind include “1937,” “sincerity,” “truth,” “Leninism,” “liberalism,” “narodnost’,” and “partiinost’.” In contrast to Polly, I read Denis as asking not for these terms to be defined a priori, but rather for us to pay closer attention to their shifting meanings and usage over time. If I understand him correctly, Denis is calling for a Begriffsgeschichte of the central terms of de-Stalinization. If so, then I would endorse his call while pointing out that, as Karen Petrone noted, Polly’s book focuses on narrative more than on the shifting meaning of individual words. And her attention to narrative produces handsome returns: as Polly shows in one of my favorite chapters of Myth, Memory, and Trauma, Simonov and other authors “reinvented the original master plot of the Soviet novel, seeing the war as an obstacle (albeit on a much larger scale than those of the 1930s production novel), whose overcoming attested to the strength of national character” (210). To write a Begriffsgeschichte would be to write a different book, based on a different kind of research.
When reading Polly Jones’ stimulating book on Soviet memory of the Stalin era, I found myself thinking about two other works that helped establish the memory of collective trauma as a distinct field of humanistic inquiry: Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and Saul Friedlander’s edited volume, Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (1992). Both explored the challenges of depicting liminal experiences – the First World War and the Holocaust, respectively – in a variety of fictional and non-fictional genres. Both can help us think comparatively about what Jones calls the “memory work” undertaken by the protagonists of her book.
Seen comparatively, perhaps the most distinctive if unsurprising feature of the Soviet case is the role of the Party-State as constant gardner in the field of memory. Whatever the season – thaw or freeze – the gardner is there, planting, cultivating, pruning, weeding. The gardner has a diagnosis for all the ills that beset the garden: the cult of personality. The gardner has a device to ensure that those ills never reappear: socialist legality. And for those who tell the story of the garden’s ills, the gardner knows the correct idiom: Socialist Realism. True, weeds keep coming up, and it’s increasingly difficult to discern the garden’s layout, but no one can overlook the presence of the gardner.