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.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Case Study Socialist Realism

"Comrade Stalin can't show every man personally to his place in the firing lines."  Thomas Lahusen cites Batamov to Kovshov in Far From Moscow.

"We know that the positive hero of socialist realism exchanges his private life for his duty to the socialist society."

"The most important feature of Soviet censorship:  it forbids silence..." Thomas Luhusen citing Andrei Siniavsky in "Samizdat and the Rebirth of Literature."

"Anzheave felt the profound need to describe in one way or the other what he had been witnessing."  Simonov explaining Azhaev's whitewashed description of prisoner labor.

"We never ceased for one minute to be communists."  Mitia Promyslov in The Boxcar.

As mentioned in a previous post, with Gene Kuperman, Thomas Lahusen is the editor of a wonderful collection of essays entitled Late Soviet Culture:  From Perestroika to Novostroika.  Thomas Luhusen's own contribution to the collection is a short essay entitled "The Mystery of the River Adun:  Reconstruction of a Story."  In this essay, Lahusen traces the editorial evolution and public reception of one of the Soviet Union's most popular works of literature, the socialist realist novel, Far From Moscow.  The book was originally a paean to Stalinism, but in the aftermath of the Thaw Stalin's presence in new editions was toned down while the anti-semitic--or "anti-cosmopolitanism--" themes were diluted.  The deepest mystery of the novel, however, remains:  how could a former inmate of Stalin's gulag hide the real conditions of such labor camps and in fact glorify the labor of fellow prisoners?  Ironically, the answer can be found in the introduction of a fellow apologist, Simonov.  According to Simonov, anybody who lived through such a terrible experience as the labor campus naturally strove to find real meaning in the experience.  While many prisoners produced 'prisoner camp" testimonies that outlined in grim detail their sufferings, others inevitably sought to tell others about their experience in the language of power.  The result was a betrayal of those who died and suffered from the communists' arbitrary and capricious penal system, but not altogether unintelligible.  Could all of this brutality have been in vain?  Certainly something noble would come out of all of the pain.  Lahusen's close reading of the different editions of Far From Moscow offers up an interesting approach to other forms of Soviet culture.  After all, it's not enough to analyze only the Soviet Union's dissident art forms.  Complexity must be identified even in the state's most prized works of art.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kremlin Wives

Although the role of women at the pinnacle of the Kremlin society isn't the most important aspect of the history of gender during the Soviet experiment, Larissa Vasilieva's book, Kremlin Wives, is a surprisingly illuminating good introduction to the subject of communist women's history. Published only shortly after the collapse of the Soviet state, Vasilieva was able to interview a number of important Kremlin women as well as to attain relevant files related to their frequent brushes with Stalin's security organs.  Vasilieva, who was herself a relatively privileged member of the Soviet apparatchiki, tells the story of Soviet womanhood through the biography of elite Soviet women.  These women include the wives of Lenin, Stalin, Beria, Budyonnaya, Molotov, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev, to name just a few of Vasilieva's fascinating subjects.

For the most part, the Kremlin wives were highly intelligent leaders in their own right.  Certainly Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, as well as Lenin's mistress, Inessa Armand, made important contributions to the revolutionary movement, and Krupskaya in particular helped to shape the Soviet worldview, especially regarding education.  Even so, both women always put Lenin first, and their willingness to take a back seat to Lenin's political primacy was a portent of things to come.  Although revolutionary history is filled with examples of heroic female Russian revolutionaries, male Soviet leaders were never entirely comfortable  Until Raisa Gorbachev proved that the Soviet Union was able to accept another dynamic, educated, and highly visible woman in public affairs  (and many Soviet citizens retained serious reservations about Raisa's public role), Krupskaya was the last wife of the Party's leader who exercised a clear position of leadership in her own right.  

With the rise of Stalin, the role of elite Soviet women became much more conservative.   Whereas many revolutionaries had at least entertained ideas about free love, female emancipation from child reading duties, divorce, and the link between bourgeois family structures and capitalism, the cult of Stalin soon reconciled Soviet political culture to pre-revolutionary gender norms.  While Stalin's own wife (or his second wife to be more accurate), Nadezhda Alliluyeva, worked, and maintained her own professional identity, her suicide ( if not murder) seemed to mark the limits of Stalin's tolerance for independent women.  

Of course the predominent theme of Kremlin Wives is, almost necessarily, a description of how women dealt with all-encompassing terror.  Marshal Budyonny's second third wife is illustrative. While making the Marshall a happy home by playing the role of a traditional domestic housewife, Maria Vasilievna, also had to contend with the fact that the Marshal's second wife, Olga Stefanovna, had been imprisoned on trumped up charges. Molotov's wife, Paulina Zhemchuzhina, was actually imprisoned even as her husband continued to serve Stalin.  Beria's wife, Nina Beria, had to contend with the fact that her husband was systematically raping young women, in addition to overseeing the state's more formal mechanisms of terrorizing its citizens.  Nina seems to have chosen to live in denial, although the Vasilieva is right to point out that it can be very difficult to pass judgement on any of the Kremlin wives when they were fearful of being sent to the gulag or killed of they voiced any criticism of Stalin or his henchmen. 

With Stalin's death, the daily regime of terror soon subsided.  However, it's difficult to say that the effects of terror didn't last until the very end of the Soviet Union, if not beyond.  Nina Kukharchuk, Khrushchev's wife, had survived the terror by remaining in the shadows.  She wasn't a glamorous woman, but she had once served to promote Soviet power in its infancy.  Born poor,  Nina Kukharchuk remained a stalwart communist functionary who accompanied her husband on a few famous diplomatic missions but mostly strove to support her husband in his domestic life.  Her successor, Victoria Pretrovna, also adopted a low profile, accommodating her husband, Leonid Breshnev, even as he moved from one mistress to another. While not necessarily personally corrupt, Victoria Pretrovna supported her relatives even as they abused the privileges of the communist elite.

Taken as a whole, the Kremlin wives were both similar to, and different from, ordinary Soviet women.  The Kremlin wives were, generally speaking, a confident group of women, at least insofar as anyone living so close to the edge of terror could be considered confident.  The Kremlin women were extremely privileged in many respects, and many made use of the special stores, dachas, and governesses that were available to them.  However, their lives were extremely complicated.  The Soviet Union never fully worked out its attitude toward women.  Were they supposed to work outside the home or in the home?  Were nannies okay or a sign of bourgeois privilege?  Was it possible to play a public role in public affairs?  Did women have an important role to play in the formation of policy related to childhood, education, or family life in general?  How much education, and what type of education, was desirable?  The Soviet Union collapsed even as these debates raged around Raisa Gorbachev.

Some quotes from the book:

"If she doesn't shut her mouth the Party will appoint old Elena Stasova as Lenin's widow in her place!"  Vasilieva citing Stalin.

"Intelligent, beautiful, and as delicate-looking as porcelain, Alexandra Kollontai put women's sexuality at the center of the Communist agenda."

"What is rarely mentioned is that the revolutionaries fought a small detachment of palace gaurds and the Petrograd Battalion of Women.  In other words, the Bolsheviks' victory that night was over women."

"The Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power, was also a vast communal apartment complex."

"Even the best parents ruin their children by bringing them up at home."  Lyadov-Mandelstam.

"Can a collective person be produced in an individual family?  To this we must say a categorical no."  Lyadov-Mandelstam.

"No Kremlin wife's opinion was ever officially welcomed.  Those who challenged that fact--such as Molotov's wife, Zhemchuzhina, as we shall see--were promptly arrested."

"We're creating a new state," she wrote.  "People need us.  It would be hypocritical to deny ourselves the things people always acquire when they come to power."

"Larissa Reisner was a tangle of contradictions.  She could turn simple immorality into an exploit. Osip Mandelstam recalled that Larissa once threw a party solely to enable Cheka agents to arrest the guests."

"She cast her lot with him like a tiny sailboat drawn to a giant ocean-going steamer."  Svetlana Alliluyeva describing her mother's relationship to Stalin.

"He went so far as to offer to shoot his wife, an impulse evidently familiar to many Kremlin men in those days."

"This time she found the beaches empty.  All the fashionable women from last season were now in jail."

"As the Soviet system scythed and leveled its human resources, fear was a daily staple and worked its way deep into the Russian character."

"The personal has no social significance."  Kaganovich.

"A large quantity of male debauchery."  From an official inventory of Beria's office.

"Stalin wanted to create a mighty state, and he succeeded.  Of course there had to be victims.  But no politician then could see any other path that would us to our precious goal without victims."  Nina Beria.

"...Kremlin life is part of a complex distribution system of privilege that must always be kept a secret."

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.  

The Power of the Powerless

Although it's not possible to write extensive posts about every manuscript or film project Soviet Roulette receives, I am always to receive review copies of English-language books or films related to Russian or Soviet history, literature, and culture.  On some occasions, Soviet Roulette also analyzes works related to the Cold War, comparative revolutions, international communism, Central or Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central and Far Eastern history.  In this spirit, I would like to thank for sending me a copy of The Power of the Powerless, a documentary that covers the relationship between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution.  The film provides viewers with insight into the means by which totalitarian states intimidate their citizenry at the local level, and how resistance to such intimidation often functions. Of course, the Soviets used brute force to put down the Prague rebellion, but their Czech allies also suppressed dissent in more subtle ways.  Indeed, it's just as important, and more typical of everyday communism, to see a former faculty member who supported reform describe being punished for her political sympathies by being fired from the faculty and then asked to clean bathrooms at the university. One might have hoped for a little more context to the 1968 revolt against hard-line communism, but the dozens of eye-witness accounts of that revolt and its aftermath, and a detailed description of the events leading up to the Velvet Revolution, make this an important film.