Thursday, July 24, 2014

Totalitarian Politics

I thought that I had learned something about historiography during graduate school, and that is that different historical eras necessarily produced different kinds of history.  That is to say, if modern historians were interested in politics, they bore witness to the story of American history through the prism of that obsession. If they were interested in gender, they saw history in the light of that interest.  To some extent, this is true. Certainly, current modern debates about controversial subjects are carried back into the distant past. Recently, however, I've become convinced that a different phenomenon is also at work in historiography. On my recent Fulbright trip to Russia I thought seriously about modern Russia, as opposed to historical Russia, for the very first time.  Whither was Russia tending?  More importantly for the purposes of this blog, I thought about how the current state of Russian politics--and specifically Putin's brand of pseudo-authoritarian intrigue--would influence how historians looked at Russia's history during the twentieth century.

But if the current debate about Putin's statecraft will influence the way historians interpret the past, it's probably fairer to say that the current state of Russian political culture actually reveals something new about that past.  The difference may be a subtle one.  In graduate school, I would have expected the current state of Russian unfreedom to force Russians to look back into time to discover the origins of authoritarianism.  Now, I believe that Russia's current political bankruptcy requires such an exploration of the past.  If Russian remains corrupt, illiberal, economically backward, imperialist, anti-Western, anti-semitic, and xenophobic, we really do need to explain this set of interrelated phenomena.  At any rate, I like what Evgeny Dobrenko's essay, "The Literature of the Zhdanov Era:  Mentality, Mythology, Lexicon" suggests about the origins of modern Russian totalitarianism.  For Dobrenko seems to suggest that trauma of the 1920s and 1930s are buried deep within the fabric of Russian literary culture (and architecture, everywhere else for that matter).  We need only to look at modern Russian literature, and specifically post-war literature, to understand his point.

Dobrenko admits upfront that it's difficult to study postwar literature.  However, Dobrenko also believes this is precisely the point:  postwar literature is stultifying boring, and almost intentionally so.  Works of socialist realism pervaded Soviet culture, encapsulating the logic of totalitarianism with their very blandness and political quiescence. By definition, totalitarian culture is unified.  Moreover, it exists without conflict or any possibility of critique.  Naturally, a totalitarian state espoused totalitarian culture, devoid of any possibility of dissent or controversy.  Dobrenko's useful examination of Socialist Realism in literature can be found in a wonderful collection of essays entitled Late Soviet Culture:  From Perestroika to Novostroika.

Another insightful essay in this collection from Boris Kagarlitsky, "A Step to the Left, a Step to the Right," compliments Dobrenko's theme by reminding us that totalitarian political culture is, by definition, "neither left nor right" (to use Sternhell's phrase).  Historians waste a lot of energy debating the political orientation of totalitarian regimes, but in reality totalitarian regimes must always occupy the center of the political spectrum, or indeed all of the political spectrum.  Stalinism is certainly the perfect exemplar of this aspect of totalitarian politics.  He adopted leftist and rightest postures whenever it suited him. Today, people may well ask whether Putin's politics belong to leftist or rightest political traditions.  But as Kagarlitsky tells us, the question is largely meaningless.  Putinism now occupies, or attempts to occupy, all possible political positions.  Putin is a nationalist as well an Soviet imperialist, a capitalist as well as a socialist, a conservative as well as a reformer. On minute he sends in troops to the Crimea and receives authorization to invade the Ukraine, another he calls for peace in the Ukraine. Putin is Russia's chief anti-corruption campaigner, imprisoning oligarchs who have profitted handsomely from the early 1990s and overseeing a regime that routinely imprisoned businessmen for graft.  Another minute, Putin and his close friends are seen to have amassed unprecedented fortunes.  Simply put, Putin, inheritor of Russia's embrace of totalitarianism, represents all possible positions on this and most other political positions.

Now why such totalitarianism still thrives in the Russian sun is another question altogether.  But as Dobrekno seems to suggest, we need to look to psychoanalysis and the repressed and un-grieved tragedies of early Soviet rule for a plausible answer.  Russia suffered enormously from the purges of the 1930s, to say nothing of the Revolution, Civil War, World War II, and other events.  But almost as bad as the suffering is the fact that Russians never had the chance to talk about those sufferings.  The literature of the postwar era is important.  Its very silence speaks volumes about the extent to which totalitarianism remained alive and well in the Soviet Union even in the aftermath of Stalinism.  Viewed in this light, Socialist Realism is nothing less that the positive expression of an ethos of power.  For Dobreno, the expression of that power can be found in Socialist Realism's celebration of the past and future at the expense of the present.  For catastrophe has no present.  When disaster strikes, you know what happened before the disaster, and you know what happened after the disaster, but the actual event is a dark mystery.  And so, by endlessly praising Soviet citizens who were willing to sacrifice the present to build a better future, the literature of the Soviet Union reflects a form of totalitarian apocalpse.


No comments:

Post a Comment