Wednesday, July 16, 2014
History for Revolutionaries
"Suddenly, it would seem, the official genealogy was not transnational but hermetically Russocentric. As it were, once Lenin was dead, the Stalins came out to play."
"The Bolsheviks, however, tended to understand by the point of origin in "ancient Greece" not Athens but Sparta..."
"Hence the paradoxical situation whereby during a thaw whose ostensible aim is to save the country from stagnation and conservatism the main focus of the intellectuals was on the past."
So what past did the Bolsheviks seek to revive and which historical actors did they choose to honor? As we know, at first, the Bolsheviks eschewed ancient Greece in favor of Revolutionary France. Everything had a French historical analogy. Indeed, Clark points out that the Bolsheviks, as opposed to some other strands of Marxism, talked endlessly about French history even as they rejected most Russian historical precedents. In their first years in power, the Bolsheviks rarely cited the peasant or Decembrist revolts that had so inspired the radical intelligentsia of the nineteenth century.
Of course, Lenin and his ilk weren't entirely free to choose their revolutionary antecedents. Clark reminds us that early twentieth century Russian intellectuals were already obsessed with the French Revolution, and indeed Marx and Engels had already argued that the French Revolution as well as the Paris Commune were the most important models for future revolts. Interestingly, the Bolsheviks favored the Commune over 1789, in part because the Commune seemed to be a brief experiment with the world's first successful Dictatorship of the Proletariat as well as a trial run for the Bolsheviks' theory of "dual government" of government by the party as well as the soviets.
After the death of Lenin, Bolshevik historical precedents underwent a sudden transformation. Suddenly, Russia rediscovered the Russian past. "Socialism in one country" apparently made socialist history from one country as well. At this time, the Bolsheviks rediscovered Russian authors such as Pushkin and Dostoevsky, and revised the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, as well as the Revolution of 1905 (in addition to the October Revolution of 1917 which had brought them to power).
As the 1930s progressed, Clark maintains that the traid of 1825/1905/1917 was overshadowed to some extent with an interest in the Russian Civil War. The militarism of the Civil War apparently appealed to a Party that was engaged in the brutal transformation of the Russian economy and, to some extent, such that transformation as linked to the rise of aggressive and resurgent foreign powers such as Germany and Japan. Of course, Russia's participation in World War II overhauled that historical mythology and replaced it with an interest in Russian conflicts with foreign invaders such as the Swedes, Tartars, and French. Internally, of course, official ideology endured that Russia would remain obsessed with the mythical moment in which Lenin had allegedly passed the torch of leadership to Stalin, a man who he apparently personally disliked at the end of his life.
Clark doesn't spend much time on post-Stalin memory, but does remind readers that by marginalizing Stalin, Russian leaders gave some attention to remembering other Old Bolsheviks who offered more hope for a humane revolutionary future.
Clark's article was probably penned too soon after the collapse of communism to offer much insight into historical memory in the so-called "democratic" era of Russian history. She had witnessed an explosion of interest in the victims of communism, but perhaps couldn't have suspected the victimized but extremely nationalistic version of history Putin and company would soon invent.