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."

In 1993, only shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Katerina Clark published a short article entitled "Changing Historical Paradigms in Soviet Culture" in a collection of essays entitled Late Soviet Culture:  From Perestroika to Novostroika.  This short article by one of the Soviet Union's most sophisticated cultural historians provides a nice description of the way revolutionaries chose to see their own recent past.  It's a cliche to say that revolutionaries, by definition, reject the past in favor of the future.  Even so, it's seemingly impossible for men and women to ignore the past altogether.   If one historical episode, or mode of historical thinking, is rejected, another almost automatically fills the void. 

 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.  

1 comment:

  1. It’s interesting how Russian leaders used the revolutionary pasts of other nations as well as their own to evoke a dedicated a spirit of revolution among their people. By using agency, or in other words using the ability of a person/group to act, Russian leaders continued their focus on the future by silencing, or marginalizing, their own past for their own benefit. The leaders did not want their people to dwell on a hungry and blood soaked past for it would simply demoralize the nation. But instead of simply erasing those events from history, the Kremlin would give agency and emphasize other historical events from foreign nations as motivation. It was thought that by giving agency to these other events, the Russian people would ignore their scarring past and dedicate themselves to the ultimate world-wide revolution.
    As time went on, their leaders gave agency to yet other historical events. This time however, they saw it as appropriate to use past Russian revolutions to push their people in remembering why they had overthrown the tsars. Even though Stalin was handing out death certificates like candy during The Great Purge, Russians could utilize the revolts and revolutions of 1825, 1905, and 1917 to keep their optimism and communist spirit strong. The Lenin/Stalin ideology of sacrificing few individuals or in this case millions, for the good of the revolution was a battle cry for Russians. The remembrance of the Bolsheviks’ fight for the cause in 1825, 1905, and 1917, made Russians accept all sacrifices to reach that ultimate goal.
    It seems that as the Soviet Union moved from one political or economic issue to the next, there was always some historical event that with agency, demonstrated to the Russians how to fight together. With the arrival of WWII and aggressive enemies on both sides, Germany and Japan, the Russian Civil War began to influence the people that the Soviet Union had been through such as a situation before, and it could do it again.
    What’s not surprising about Russian leaders’ policy of giving agency to historical events is the fact that Stalin was marginalized after his death. The man, who probably had the most effect in forming the Soviet Union, was silenced to give way to the memory of the Old Bolsheviks. By shutting out the man who had unscrupulously murdered millions of people, Russian leaders attempted to demonstrate not only to the Russian people, but also to themselves of how much the Soviet Union intended to reform. Agency to the Bolsheviks once again convinced the Russians that it was time to go back to the basics of why the revolution started. Silencing the brutal Stalinism ideology and returning to the Bolshevik “hope for a humane future”, Soviet leaders were not only to able to pursue reforms, such as the ones pushed by Nikita Khrushchev, but Soviet citizens became more optimistic in the pursuit of a peaceful world.
    While I’d like to see how much agency Stalin is given today, it seems that the article portrays Putin as a pseudo-Stalin due to the nationalistic approaches to history he has taken. I don’t doubt that Russia’s brighter years will be given agency, but exactly how they could account for a dictator such as Stalin is no easy feat. But if the Russian notion of sacrificing individuals for the good of the whole country, I fear that Putin will find no problem in giving agency and silencing whom he pleases.