POST-SOVIET IDENTITY.

Jamie Olson’s latest Flaxen Wave post, “Aflatuni on Post-Soviet Identity,” features his translation of an excerpt from an interview with Sukhbat Aflatuni (the pseudonym of Yevgeny Abdullaev), a Russian-language poet from Tashkent; it then mentions a novel I’ll have to read:

Incidentally, if the theme of ethnic and linguistic identity among Russians in the post-Soviet world is one that catches your interest, consider reading Denis Gutsko’s novel I Speak Russian (Русскоговорящий), which won the Russian Booker prize in 2005 and concerns a Jewish-Georgian native speaker of Russian who fails to attain Russian citizenship after the fall of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the book has not yet been translated into English, but you can find an English summary of it on RussiaProfile.org.

But what drove me to post was an article he links to in passing, Julie A. Buckler’s “What Comes after ‘Post-Soviet’ in Russian Studies?” (pdf available at this page). Buckler wrote Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape, which I very much liked, and her article is an interesting rundown of recent developments in the post-Soviet field of academia, with a very useful bibliography at the end (which shocked me by adding “Print” after nonelectronic publications—inevitable, I suppose, but I hadn’t seen it before). I was very annoyed by the section I’m about to quote, but my annoyance is with the self-absorption of (many) academics, not with her (I don’t believe in shooting the messenger):

Approaches to the Stalinist period (1932–53) have shifted dramatically. Studies of this period, perhaps more than those of any other, used to be dominated by a moral stance, which documented the horrors of the Stalinist terror and the seemingly unilateral doctrine of socialist realism, “the truthful depiction of that which leads life toward socialism” (Kemp-Welch 131; see also 120–32). Yet Karen Petrone finds the discourse of Stalinist mass celebrations to be anything but totalizing, a field of fissures, multiple meanings, alternative and conflicting viewpoints, miscommunications, and compromise. …
The mid-1930s have generally been seen as constituting a sharp break with the radical experiments and cultural pluralism of the preceding period, a turn back to more conventional cultural norms and a sacralization of the state evident above all in the cult of Stalin. Recent scholarship emphasizes continuities as well as abrupt reversals, looking at the ways in which Stalinist policies continued the revolutionary project of creating a new Soviet person who lived by socialist values. …
Even socialist realism has become more interesting. Boris Groys argues provocatively that Stalinist art and literature corresponded in many respects to the earlier project of the Russian avant-garde, that Stalinism actually continued the avant-garde project in a spirit of even greater radicalism…

Yes, morality is so passé. My primitive side thinks that a spell in the Gulag would do wonders for the perspective of these “provocative” scholars; my mature side rolls its eyes and wonders why such revisionism is beyond the pale for Nazi Germany but apparently acceptable for Stalinist Russia. “Right this way, ladies and gentlemen; please ignore the corpses and focus on the new Soviet person who lived by socialist values!” Bah.

Comments

  1. I’m with Julie on this one, sorry. No one is denying that Stalinism was bad in all kinds of ways, but the purpose of historical scholarship is not to wring our hands about historical evils. Sanitation workers don’t go around moaning about how stinky the dump is–and if they spent all their time doing that, the garbage would never get cleaned up. (Scholars of Nazi Germany these days don’t tend to focus laserlike on how evil it was either.) If you are interested in hearing about poor suffering Gulag inmates for the millionth time, there are plenty of books which will scratch that itch for you, but actual working Soviet historians, no matter what their politics are, find most of them quite uninteresting. This is really a professional discourse/popular discourse dynamic which is present in all kinds of fields. (Literary scholars don’t spend much time debating whether books are “good” or “bad,” for instance.)

  2. Oh, sure, and I’m certainly not saying scholars should spend their time moaning. But there’s a huge difference between focusing on other things and talking in a chipper way about “alternative and conflicting viewpoints.” If you want to talk about other things than violence and repression, fine, I have no problem with that, but if you’re going to deal with precisely the areas in which violence and repression took place, it seems to me you have a moral duty not to pretend it’s just a matter of alternative viewpoints. Stalin wasn’t negotiating boundaries, he was killing people by the million. I’m not saying I want to hear about poor suffering Gulag inmates for the millionth time, I’m saying you should always be aware of those inmates looking over your shoulder while you write, and not pretend the Stalin era was simply an exercise in social mobility (as some of the revisionists used to back in the palmy days when they were scrabbling for tenure). Scholars of Nazi Germany don’t focus laserlike on how evil it was, but they also don’t talk as if Hitler was simply making room for new cadres in politics and industry.

  3. Needless to say, I expected you to react that way, just as you expected me to riposte as I did. It’s the Slawk ‘n’ Hat Show!

  4. In the introduction to her book “Gulag,” Anne Appelbaum mentions how hard it has been to publish articles and books critical of the USSR. It’s as though the European and American left are tacitly acknowledging some kind of ideological bond, and therefore don’t want it mentioned at all, like having an alcoholic uncle in the family who’s sitting in jail for killing a hooker or something. He just doesn’t get mentioned at family gatherings.

  5. I don’t know if I understand quite what Julie Buckler is getting at, and therefore what Hat is reacting against. But let me try to find a middle ground –
    I am reminded of an essay about Vassily Grossman that I read today in the TLS. (The essay is by the eminent historian Geoffrey Hosking, and is a review of Grossman’s “The Road” and “Everything Flows.”)
    Hosking writes: “Grossman attributes the pervasive nature of the terror to four social types, which he calls the ‘four Judases.’ Stalin decreed the terror,” but he needed men and women down the social and political hierarchy to carry it out.
    The first Judas was the arrested man or woman who gave in under torture and signed a denunciation of an innocent person.
    The second Judas was someone from the wrong social background (the son of a bourgeois, of the professional middle class, of a priest) who always feared being uncovered, and denounced the innocent to protect himself.
    The third Judas came from the poor, had little education, and worked hard to gain the respect and prestige that party office brought him. He knew others were innocent, but he believed he was still working for a higher truth.
    The fourth Judas “was the egotistical intriguer” [quoting Hosling here] who used others — even by denouncing them — “to the great end of acquiring wealth and avoiding poverty. He denounced the innocent to gain a little more living space, a salary rise, a suite of Polish furniture.”
    This sort of person is surely the most morally depraved, and deserves no justification, no excuse.
    And yet Grossman himself offered — not excuses — but insight, and from his own past [Hosking quoting Grossman now:] he “could tell you about greenish-brown village bread made with ground-up leaves,” and [Hosking now] “about his desparate struggles to escape the prison-like world of such poverty.”
    Grossman is hardly one not to “pretend the Stalin era was simply an exercise in social mobility,” [that's quoting you, Hat], but, as Hosking says, “the capacity for insight into all these human types, their hopes and fears, is what distinguishes Grossman from most writers about Stalin’s terror.”
    I don’t know if this applies to the sort of work Julie Buckler is talking about, but, Hat, I hope it makes you feel better — I hope these studies are not trying to excuse or ignore, but trying, like Grossman, to understand the social sickness that made atrocities possible.

  6. The “Print” designations in the bibliography are part of the 2009 revision of the MLA style. I also find it rather redundant.

  7. I’m mostly with Hat. While sometimes among non-specialists you come across a one-dimensional image of the USSR — as if everyone walked around dourly, looking over their shoulder, incapable of love or humor or honest work — and in that (small sense) I welcome a more nuanced/multi-dimensional version of history, there is a tendency on the liberal-left part of the spectrum to ignore or glide over the “bad stuff” about the USSR. And I’m driven completely mad by the liberals in the US defending Putinism. It’s as if they have a Soviet apologist hangover or something.
    I’ve wondered if the same thing is going on in other countries, particularly European.

  8. michael farris says:

    I’m somewhere between hat and slawk. While researchers looking at various aspects of the Stalinist USSR have to just take the evil as a given and not pay too much attention to it _within the field_.
    On the other hand, the evil should not be trivialized or forgotten, especially when dealing with those from outside their narrow field who might nt be fully aware of it.

  9. Hat, I don’t think many people today would endorse the straight Arch Getty thesis that the Terror was entirely a bottom-up process that hinged on social mobility. (Mostly because such a position became embarrassing once the archives showed Stalin being involved much more directly in the process than Getty claimed.) But it’s impossible to deny that social mobility was an essential part of what made the Terror what it was.
    I just don’t see why, in the context of a period in which lots of things were changing for the better as well as the worse, it’s supposed to be some kind of moral badge of honor to kowtow ritualistically to the camps and shootings, as if they were the most important thing that happened at the time. Why should the moral categories that interest the Western public be the ones that set the agenda for the field? Sure, you can’t tell the story of Stalin’s Russia without the Terror, but you also can’t tell it without vydvizhenie and urbanization and the rise of an educated Soviet public. It’s been far more common to take the “don’t minimize evil!” injunction as permission to be sloppy with everything else than it’s been to actually minimize evil.
    Applebaum’s (and others’) implication that the leftists in the field are somehow denying or marginalizing the Terror is really disingenuous, though it is quite symptomatic of her work in general. In fact, it’s borrowed straight from the Cold Warriors who controlled the field for so many decades and made writing non-Terror-based history of Stalinism practically into prima facie evidence of disloyalty. It’s nothing more than red-baiting disguised as genuine moral concern.

  10. And in any event, I am at a loss as to why making an aesthetic argument about Socialist Realism is, even facetiously, grounds for “a turn in the camps.” Talk about minimizing evil!

  11. Sorry, “a spell in the Gulag.” I must have had the other phrase in my head from some other occasion.

  12. Grossman is hardly one not to “pretend the Stalin era was simply an exercise in social mobility,” … but, as Hosking says, “the capacity for insight into all these human types, their hopes and fears, is what distinguishes Grossman from most writers about Stalin’s terror.”
    Grossman is an artist who had experienced it all in his own person and earned the right to his insight. He is not at all what I’m talking about; I’m talking about Western scholars who, well-fed and in the comfort of their reliably heated offices, decide the best way to get ahead in the field is to rebel against the previous anti-Stalin paradigm and come up with an exciting new revisionist one that claims it was all a matter of “conflicting viewpoints, miscommunications, and compromise.” I despise that sort of smug amoralism.
    Why should the moral categories that interest the Western public be the ones that set the agenda for the field?
    Please, not with the “morality is relative” thing. And I trust you’re not claiming that Russians don’t care about the millions murdered and more millions who spent much of their lives in camps; that would smack of the “life is cheap over there” rhetoric that distinguished the colonialist mentality of yore.
    Once again, I’m not saying scholars shouldn’t investigate vydvizhenie and urbanization and whatever the hell they want to; the more different perspectives we have, the more we learn. I’m saying there’s a big difference between saying “we mustn’t allow the horrors of Stalinism to blind us to other things that were happening” and “talking about the horrors of Stalinism is for quaint old reactionaries, we’ve moved beyond all that, vydvizhenie is the hip new thing!”
    This reminds me of the arguments I used to have with my dad (who was in the Foreign Service) about the U.S. embrace of nasty dictators, which repelled me even at an early age. He would patiently explain that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to look only at morality, it had to worry about oil supplies, military alliances, etc. And I’d say “OK, I can understand that we can’t afford to break off relations, but that doesn’t mean the president has to appear in photos grinning and shaking their hands and talking about what great pillars of freedom they are!”

  13. Roger Depledge says:

    Literary scholars don’t spend much time debating whether books are “good” or “bad,” for instance.

    So much the worse for literary scholars, with or without scare quotes. Science sans conscience n’est que ruyne de l’ame.

  14. And no (just to be perfectly clear), I’m not saying every scholarly discussion of the Soviet Union should “kowtow ritualistically to the camps and shootings”; I’m not saying they have to be mentioned at all, if they’re not relevant to the topic being discussed. But come on, you know as well as I do that some scholars (from the group conveniently lumped under the vague term “revisionist”) roll their eyes at any mention of the camps and consider it a sign of antiquated reactionary tendencies to think about them at all. I consider those people to be on a par with the “useful idiots” who visited the USSR at the time and wrote glowing reports about the factories and cultural flowering (“We saw a lovely exhibit of Uzbek art, right in downtown Moscow!”).

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    But isn’t the claim that “Stalinism” represented a sharp break from the immediate past itself at least sometimes a rhetorical attampt to minimize the evil of Lenin and pre-Stalin Bolshevism in general? I’m not sure why the systematic persecutions and mass murders that began immediately in Oct./Nov. 1917 should be overlooked to the extent some of their proponents were more tolerant of avant-garde trends in art and literature than Stalin was.

  16. Sure, I agree completely. I deplore both the attempt to minimize the evil of Stalin and the attempt to minimize the evil of Lenin by dumping all the blame on Stalin. (Again, I’m not demanding historians issue a ritual denunciation of e-e-evil every time they write, just that they show some signs of moral awareness. It’s pretty easy to tell the ones who care from the ones who don’t.)
    Mind you, I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when there were lots and lots of people eager to make excuses for communist regimes, so I developed pretty fierce antibodies.

  17. There’s good evidence that the Rwandan genocide, which was much more bottom-up, was about social mobility and the consequences of overpopulation (among other things).
    My parents were Trotskyists and I was born in 1958, so I grew up in an environment of fierce leftist denunciation of the “ruling bureaucracy” of the USSR and how it was a corruption of socialism, worse in its way than capitalism. It took me years and years to find out that wasn’t the general American leftist position. Talk about swallowing a load of old cobblers….

  18. Can you really argue that the Ukrainian and Kazakh famines, which were far worse than the camps in terms of death toll, and which mostly affected the poor and powerless, had anything to do with social mobility? If anything the fascination with the Gulag has probably blinded people to many of the true horrors of the Soviet regime. Too much Soviet history is seen through the eyes of the intelligentsia.
    lots of things were changing for the better as well as the worse, ?
    What actually changed for the better? Arguably nothing at all – literacy had been mostly achieved by the 1930s; “industrialization” turned out to be mostly investment in obsolete,wasteful and environmentally destructive technologies; the military was weakened by the purges; national cultures in non-Russian parts of the USSR were being devastated; the culture of rural Russia was destroyed so thoroughly that the effects are still painfully obvious even today; etc. etc. I think it’s only a very Muscovite-centric view that can see anything positive in the Stalin era.

  19. Too much Soviet history is seen through the eyes of the intelligentsia.
    This is something I realize more and more the more I read.

  20. It seems that I always catch these lively discussions late. I don’t have much to add about the movement away from moral censure in studies of the Stalinist period, but I do wonder if it may have something to do with the way that Stalin has come to be viewed by some Russians in a more positive light in recent years. In any case, the two shifts have been taking place at the same time.

  21. I am completely with hat – and mab – on the necessity to preserve ‘the [moral] nervous system’ in scholarly work. Like hat I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and, on the other side of the curtain, I remember how intelligentsia of my parents’ [nʈs] generation giggled among themselves about both the arguments inf defence of the Soviet system among the Western friends of the USSR and their critique of the capitalist system.
    I am glad Anne Applebaum’s work is mentioned here. Her complaints are not part of the study itself, but were an afterthought, itself already 8 years old. I”ve read it and would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why GULAG didn’t work. Her analysis of the camps system in 1950s is brilliant in that it shows how fear and repression stopped being effective tools (to put it in very short crude terms, people got tired of being afraid). Some current analysts throw the line from events in the Arab countries to perestroika and glasnost, but looking at how people’s behaviour developed under Stalin’s regime may explain even more.
    On socialist realism, I think it’s been shown that, aesthetically, art and literature of the period, if not regressed, then certainly lost the passionate diversity and energy of 1890 to 1927 period. That is not to say that the support systems for artists and writers created then were not without merit and elements of them were borrowed and are still used in Europe.
    On ‘social mobility’, whatever that may mean, my favourite counter-argument is a phrase I now cannot source: ‘We thought revolution was to make sure there were no more poor people, not that there were no more rich people’.
    As for the ‘shift to stalinism’, I think it is more of a post-cold war syndrome, rather than a post-Soviet thing. Remember, democracy is the worst possible form of government. The roots of that shift are also in the change in the status of Russia in world affairs – why fund or encourage studies ‘critical’ of the nation so vital to world’s (Western) security and economy? Putin’s insistence that only hard-line ‘managed democracy’ can save the country from falling apart (and its apparent support by Russians) must have had some influence on the students of Russia these days.
    I’ve looked up ‘russophobia’ in OED the other day – it still says ‘dislike of Russia and especially political system of the former Soviet Union’. Russophobia has long become a powerful branding, a label, often indiscriminately thrown at anyone who is critical of the way things are going in the country. ‘Rolling eyes’ at the mention of camps is part of that phenomena, I think.
    Can I ask the consilium for help? Russkogovoryashiy (lit.Russian-speaking – русскоговорящие) is an awkward word to describe the hugely expanded sphere of russophonie – from Kazakhstan and the Ukraine to Israel, Germany, France, England and America. I am trying to come up with a shorter, snappier word – and can’t. I use rusoslovie on twitter, but it still doesn’t sound right.
    And, Jamie (and hat – for linking), thanks for the lovely profile of Aflatuni, I didn’t know about him.

  22. A number of versions of that phrase are framed as a joke with the granddaughter of a Decembrist witnessing the October revolution. (One in English sourced from Gennady A. Yagodin.)

  23. thanks, Mike, it’s a good one, isn’t it? It reappeared suddenly in the 80s and was extremely popular at the time. I don’t think it rings the same bell today as it did then. I was hoping to find a proper attribution, it feels as though it might have one. Throw it at the Quote Investigator?

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    The anti-Derg version MMcM found in English is a good reminder that post-1974 Ethiopia was pretty much a rerun of the same script used in post-1789 France and post-1917 Russia. If the first time’s tragedy and the second time’s farce, what’s the third time?

  25. farcical tragedy?

  26. What actually changed for the better? Arguably nothing at all – literacy had been mostly achieved by the 1930s; “industrialization” turned out to be mostly investment in obsolete,wasteful and environmentally destructive technologies; the military was weakened by the purges; national cultures in non-Russian parts of the USSR were being devastated; the culture of rural Russia was destroyed so thoroughly that the effects are still painfully obvious even today; etc. etc. I think it’s only a very Muscovite-centric view that can see anything positive in the Stalin era.
    By the standards of the time–which is what’s really relevant here–Stalinist industrialization was a cutting-edge project, which is why Stalin spent so much time and money getting American equipment and advisors. Kotkin’s book on Magnitogorsk shows this pretty well. Naturally, the actual implementation ended up quite a bit more low-tech, but in terms of actual GDP improvements Stalinist industrialization was a great success. (It can be argued that this was just a return to the long-term trend established before the revolution, but in the context of this discussion that’s neither here nor there.)
    For my money, the greatest development of the Stalin era was the construction of the Academy of Sciences as a powerful economic and political institution with a vast amount of say in resource-allocation decisions–this wouldn’t really bear fruit until the Khrushchev era, but there were already noticeable improvements by the ’40s. I don’t think there has ever been another example of a country going from a second-rate scientific backwater (Pavlov was the exception, not the rule) to one of the world’s foremost research locations. In space research, for instance, it was the marriage of rocket enthusiasm and Stalinist institution-building that made the Soviets world leaders.
    As far as the general staff is concerned, I hear the argument about purges weakening the military pretty frequently, but I’ve yet to see any actual evidence for this besides the Soviet collapse in the first days of the German invasion, which may or may not have been related. (I suppose the Winter War may be cited as well.) A comparison between Mukden and Khalkin-Gol at least shows that there was no real comparative decline, though Soviet success in the latter could be a function of generalship.

  27. Military technology in general, actually, improved greatly under Stalin. During the Civil War soldiers were effectively poking each other with pointy sticks, while by the mid-’40s the USSR was producing the world’s best tanks and some of the best aircraft.
    Also, there’s Central Asia. The naive anticolonial viewpoint doesn’t really capture the degree of Soviet investment in the region. While it’s certainly true that it led to some dramatic environmental problems, Stalinism in Central Asia did improve living conditions and, to a certain extent, advanced women’s rights. At the very least it created the institutional and social foundations for Soviet-style Central Asian Islam, which managed to successfully coexist with modernity and tolerance better than most other religious traditions. (See Adeeb Khalid’s work for more on this.)
    That said, I completely agree about Russian history being written from the point of view of the intelligentsia. The trouble is that the intelligentsia became obsessed with its own oppression and victimization even as it benefited more than any other group from Soviet policies. I think the focus on terror is a direct product of this obsession.
    My family, like most Russian and Jewish families, was not untouched by terror (my great-grandfather, the playwright Aleksandr Afinogenov, who I readily admit was something of a willing toady for Stalinist ideals, was purged and nearly arrested, while my mother’s side of the family lost everything after NEP ended). I have not personally met or interacted with any non-expat or emigre Russians who are still interested in hearing and talking about the Terror. Most hold to the view that while Stalinism drastically mismanaged a lot of things and carried an enormous human cost, it was on the whole a positive development in Russian history. I don’t know whether I agree with this viewpoint, but I certainly prefer it to the tedious and self-righteous body-counting so beloved by many Westerners. As an eighteenth-century historian I find it difficult to keep shedding tears over the victims of the Lisbon earthquake or the Great Northern War, and I don’t see what makes Stalinism qualitatively different except for its recency and scale.

  28. I hope this doesn’t lead to me being called an apologist for Stalinism. The best point of comparison I can think of is the destruction or genocide of Native Americans in the course of American colonization and expansion. Most (center-left and leftist) Americans you talk to will acknowledge that this was a horrible crime and a tragedy, but those same people will lose patience with you very quickly if you start to suggest this somehow negates or supersedes all 400 years of subsequent American history–even if they admit that it was an indispensable part of making that history possible.

  29. Not me, I consider the expropriation of Native Americans at the absolute center of American history, along with the brutal exploitation of African Americans and the eternal push for war, and I lose respect for anyone who loses patience with you if you bring it up too forcefully. My favorite American historians (Alan Taylor, Gary Nash, et al.) never lose sight of it.
    Don’t worry, I’d never dream of calling you an apologist for Stalinism (and I hope no one else would, either). You’re taking an understandable Professional Historian line, and as you know, I have the greatest respect for you as a historian (or, if you prefer, historian-in-training). But we all have our biases, and we all choose where to set up our barricades.

  30. Slawken,
    I would argue with all your points, paragraph by paragraph, they are all, with respect, either awfully wrong, or terribly muddled, or have a highly coloured shadow of hindsight over them. The argument on ‘institution building’ re the Academy of Sciences is especially outrageous. The concept of the Academy as a powerful state-financed, self-regulating independent body goes back to Peter I (1724) and has been confirmed and reinforced ever since, even now, when the state of many academic institutions and facilities is pitiful. Pavlov was not an exception, but the rule. Vernadsky, Bekhterev, Kapitsa, the Vavilov brothers, Nikolay Koltsov (the patron of Timofeev-Ressovsky) and many others established their academic reputations well before 1917. It is a great credit to the академики, not he system, that they managed to preserve their autonomy throughout the Soviet period, effectively opposing the regime. At the height of the campaign against Sakharov, when he was stripped off all his Soviet medals and honours, they voted against the government-sponsored motion to expel him.
    But I want to make just one point: with an impressive sleight of hand you are broadening the definition of Stalinism to what is commonly refered to as statism (or etatism). Stalinism is a much narrower concept, where most definitions include coercion, terror, social intolerance and political oppression. If you want to change that, just say so, before building an argument.

  31. once again: all of the above is said with respect, to an historian in search of truth

  32. Sashura: in this context, my definition of “Stalinism” includes everything that the state did in the Stalin period, whether it can be subsumed under a different category or not.
    On science, I’m sorry but I can’t respond in detail to your points in the context of a blog comment thread. Suffice to say that the history of science in Soviet and Imperial Russia is one of my primary research areas, and work done in the last 15-20 years fits more closely with what I’ve tried to argue above. In particular, there’s been a lot of pushback against the heroic-oppositional-scientist model. I’m not trying to beat you over the head with my (rather limited) expertise, but see the following books, not all of which totally agree with me or one another but which illustrate something of what I’m talking about:
    Nikolai Krementsov, Stalinist Science (this one in particular)
    Alexei Kojevnikov, Stalin’s Great Science
    Paul Josephson, Physics and Politics in Revolutionary Russia
    Asif Siddiqi, The Red Rockets’ Glare
    Ethan Pollock, Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars
    Michael David-Fox and Gyorgy Peteri, eds, Academia in Upheaval
    David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb
    I should also say that I’m not denying the existence or importance of science in the pre-revolutionary or pre-Stalin period. I’m making an argument about the way Stalin built up and positioned the Academy vis-a-vis other Soviet political and economic institutions. Quite simply, an academician in 1950 could command resources and clout beyond the wildest dreams even of a Mueller or a Lomonosov.

  33. J. W. Brewer says:

    I am not a Professional Historian(tm), but it seems relevant to me that no material segment of Portuguese, European, or American society acted as apologists for the earthquake or (in the fashion of many Useful Idiots or worse over the course of the 20th century) denied that it had, in fact, killed a lot of people. OTOH, putting Stalin in a certain context by pointing out that the czar at the time of the Great Northern War also used a fair amount of brutal coercion in pursuit of some dubious notion of modernization (as well as founding the Academy, Sashura tells us) seems like it might be a plausible thing for Professional Historians(tm) to do.
    As for the sort of moralizing perspective that may not be in style among PH’s, there’s always the contrarian view expressed in the anecdote about the fellow (said to be an old Hungarian survivor of ’56, in the version I heard) who noted that Stalin was responsible for the killing of more Communists than anyone else in human history and for that reason alone was to be reckoned a very great man.

  34. But I want to make just one point: with an impressive sleight of hand you are broadening the definition of Stalinism to what is commonly refered to as statism (or etatism). Stalinism is a much narrower concept, where most definitions include coercion, terror, social intolerance and political oppression. If you want to change that, just say so, before building an argument.
    Sure, you can also define “Stalinism” to include kicking puppies and taking candy away from children, and on that basis conclude that it was inherently evil. I’m not sure why you’d want to do that in a broad discussion of processes taking place under Stalin, or expect your opponents to agree.

  35. I am not a Professional Historian(tm), but it seems relevant to me that no material segment of Portuguese, European, or American society acted as apologists for the earthquake or (in the fashion of many Useful Idiots or worse over the course of the 20th century) denied that it had, in fact, killed a lot of people.
    This might be the key issue here. As far as I am concerned, as someone born in 1987, the whole business of who denied what when and who was taking money from what intelligence organization is deeply uninteresting and irrelevant. The Cold War is over. No one but fringe wackos would today argue for Stalinism as a viable developmental path for any country facing a choice of such paths. Therefore, I refuse to take the phenomenon of “useful idiocy” or any of its related phenomena into account when deciding on my attitude to the Stalin period. From my point of view, anyone who does needs to stop living in the past and refighting long-dead battles.
    Now, it may well be that I am a naive and callow youth, but it is also true that I have seen no convincing argument for the relevance of “useful idiots” to this discussion in this thread.

  36. Oh gosh, I’m with Sashura: it would take days to knock down all slawkenbergius’ arguments. I must say I’m particularly annoyed with your swipe at Anne Applebaum, whom you shove in with the Cold Warriors and implicate in red-baiting. This is exactly the sort of thing I come across all the time — anyone who focuses (or focussed) on the horrors of the USSR gets reduced to a right-wing stereotype. Bleah. Prove that she’s a cold warrior or red-baiter.
    Jeez, slawk, the basis of the system was as evil and horrible as it gets. Almost everything you write seems to want to ignore that or put it in a compartment. Double bleah.
    PS Sashura: russkorovoryashie is really okay, I think. Yeah, it’s long, but it gets tossed around a lot and if you say it enough, it rolls off your tongue just fine. To my (non-native)ear, it is very politically correct without being annoying, if you know what I mean.

  37. Oh, the eyeroll. What a great argument.

  38. On the other hand, she’s right that your attack on Applebaum was pretty gross.

  39. OK, since that particular point doesn’t matter to me either way, I’ll happily concede it. (Which of course doesn’t get rid of the historical reality of Cold Warriors using alleged refusal to discuss the Terror as a red-baiting tactic. I’m not invested enough in the issue to figure out the exact links Applebaum has to these people.)

  40. But gee, if you’re not “invested enough in the issue” to figure out Applebaum’s alleged links, why did you accuse her of being one of them?
    Sorry, but I think you are really cherry-picking history when you write about academician’s “clout and resources” in 1950. Compared to what? If compared to some examples in the Russian/Soviet past — maybe. But then you also have to complete the picture: depending on the year and field – ideological constaints. Bureaucratic humiliation and waste of time. Not being able to choose your coworkers (forget it if an excellent colleague was Jewish). Hiding your third cousin who emigrated to America. Unable to attend conferences or have access to foreign literature in the field. No Western machines or devices. Outdated domestic equipment. And that’s only a partial list, and it only concerns work. Yes, 500 rubles was a lot of money, and yes, scientists and scholars were respected more then than now. And yes, a lot of people did brilliant work. And yes, as I wrote originally, people weren’t all walking around on tip-toes, looking over their shoulders. But it wasn’t a system you’d want to be part of.

  41. You’re not doing any less cherry-picking than I am. There were plenty of Jewish scientists in the Stalin period–anti-Semitism was not a major feature of the political landscape until after the war, though it is true that in 1950 this would have been a more pressing issue. Scientists, as long as they could make a case for their usefulness, were better able to protect each other from repression than practically any other social group. Likewise, “depending on the year and field,” access to Western conferences, technology, and publications could be quite extensive. (For instance, the government paid for the purchase of Kapitsa’s laboratory equipment from the Cavendish lab to convince him to work for them.) Bureaucratic humiliation and waste of time is a feature of life for scientists in any political system, but the relative budgetary and administrative independence of the Academy could reduce the burden quite a bit. Then there’s the security of living in a system that heavily prioritizes science, higher education, and scientific investment, knowing that there is (or soon will be) a huge pool of high-quality cadres to draw from. And that’s only a partial list, and it only concerns work.
    What else should I be comparing it to? An idealized picture of scientific life in the West? If the magical hand of God came down from heaven, raised the Soviet Union’s GDP by several hundred percent, and gave it a liberal-democratic political system, it’s quite possible that life for scientists would be better than the reality of 1950s Stalinism. But that’s a pretty ridiculous standard, especially given that my original argument was about the fact that certain things were improving under Stalin.

  42. I mean, what are you trying to argue, anyway? That because Stalinism was eeevil it also had to be nonfunctional?

  43. The best point of comparison I can think of is the destruction or genocide of Native Americans in the course of American colonization and expansion.
    That seems an awfully strange comparison to make, from the Russian point of view. After all, the USA (or Mexico, or Brazil) developed based on Europeans taking by force land, labor and resources from non-Europeans, not their own people. Morally questionable, definitely, but a “European-American” citizen of the US or Brazil certainly enjoys the considerable material benefits of those crimes having taken place, so it’s understandable why Americans might venerate people like Jefferson or even Columbus. However, as a Russian, or as a citizen of the Russian Federation, what benefits do you have from Stalin’s crimes? You live in a country that is arguably culturally poorer, less influential globally and with a far lower standard of living than it would have been without Stalin. Russians venerating Stalin is far more like indigenous Mexicans venerating Cortes than Americans venerating Andrew Jackson. To an outsider it seems like masochism.
    I also think it odd to call the Stalin era “a positive development in Russian history” in any case. The devastation of the Russian countryside was so thorough that you could argue that Russian history and the Russian nation essentially ended with Stalin in any case, everything afterward is just Soviet history (and Putin’s “Russia” is certainly culturally far more Soviet than Russian).

  44. I don’t venerate Stalin and I explicitly said that I’m undecided on whether the Stalin era was a positive development in Russian history. I’m not convinced that the available alternatives in the mid-’20s would have been any better in the end (especially not Trotsky). Would the country have been better off under the Provisional Government or its SR-dominated, Constituent Assembly-legitimized successor? I honestly have no idea.
    The idea that Russian history can be neatly separated from Soviet history strikes me as bizarrely nationalistic. In any event Soviet history is as much or more my own history than any hypothetical “Russian history.”

  45. Wow, you are still beating the dead horse :) Obviously the years of Stalinism inform the present times to a much greater extent than the Lisboan quake or even the French Revolution. Therefore, a historician’s / politician’s / intellectual’s point of view is bound to be affected by one’s current affinities. For someone longing for traditional Russian peasant culture, it would be natural to underscore Stalin’s destruction of the village and to discount the positive effects of industrialization. For someone else, primarily obsessed with Russia’s imperial grandeur, it may be natural to see the evil designs of the minorities like everywhere, from Stalin’s henchmen to 1990s secessionists. For an Uzbek, Georgian, or Ukrainian pol, it may be expected to deemphasize their regions preexisting slavery and illiteracy, and to focus instead on the mass migrations or environmental damage. Everybody is partial to a greater or lesser extent, and everyone sees a different set of flaws.
    Back in Stalin’s times though, the discourse was almost entirely contained within the leftist and patriotic terms. The adherence to socialism, to modernization, and to the international unity remained largely inquestioned. The difference was in the details and in the personalities, like, to simplify the things, did Trotsky or Lenin had any edge over Stalin. That’s why the Thaw of Khruschev’s years has become so powerful … because people identified with system and were overjoyed about its improvements. The evils of Stalinism were seen as “mere blemishes”, like grave errors in implementation of an otherwise wonderful concept. It took decades more for this feeling to wear off.
    Just to turn the story personal, my Grandad dedicated the following verse to “The Sceptic”, his own father, just before the Sceptic perished at Lubyanka:
    Да, я горжусь своей страной
    Не смейся, скептик, надо мной,
    И не ори, разинув рот:
    Ты, милый, мальчик, пат-ри-от
    Two years later, Gramps, by then a commander of a 45mm anti-tank gun in the retreating army, joined the Party, it was just this patriotic thing to do in the trying times, first and foremost ensuring that the Nazis will execute him on the spot if he was ever captured. Fast forward another 15 years, to the Thaw. Now he’s become The Sceptic, and my Mom, a patriotic-minded grad student, contemplated joining the Party “because the reforms must be advanced from the inside”. Gramps said, listen to me just this one time, I’ve been in your position exactly, believe me, once you are inside, you won’t be able to change anything, anything!
    They all wanted to improve the Soviet Union – from within and without upturning its cornerstones. It’s now that we can choose to reject the thing wholesale, or to cherrypick its select achievements while still condemning it.

  46. Mosky, as you can see the horse ain’t dead. My grandfather was wounded by Germans’ bombing just outside Moscow in 1941 and then worked at Kurchatov’s atomic institution.
    my definition of “Stalinism” includes everything that the state did in the Stalin period, … you can also define “Stalinism” to include kicking puppies and taking candy away from children, and on that basis conclude that it was inherently evil. I’m not sure why you’d want to do that in a broad discussion of processes taking place under Stalin, or expect your opponents to agree.
    That’s exactly what I am objecting to – the definition.
    For purposes of the argument let’s build the following purely linguistic exercise.
    Let’s attack Obama’s social reforms. Social reforms? Obama is the leader, so whatever the state does under him can be described as his political thinking, concept. How do we describe political concepts? By adding -ism or the most representative motion or idea. What do we get? Add -ism to social and you get socialism. Ooh, sounds good, everybody is scared of socialism. Let’s use Obama’s socialism to rally the chayniki.
    Now, let’s apply the same analysis to your trick with ‘stalinism’, in reverse. Stalin was the leader during the period. Everything the state did during that period you decide to define as stalinism. So, everything, good and bad, e.g. ‘institution building’, both Stalin-inspired and done quite independently of Stalin’s direction or despite his interference also falls under ‘stalinism’. Ooh, sounds good. Let’s use this ‘stalinism’, forget what it really stood for and whack those whiny gulag-remindists so that they shut up forever.
    That’s what it looks like to me.
    why you’d want to do that in a broad discussion
    I am not really engaging in a broad discussion, as I said, I am only arguing one point – the fallacy in definition.
    I’ve long blacklisted the word (and the notion) of ‘evil’. To me, it implies the inability to use common sense, objective criteria in a scholarly argument, and, hence, immediately disqualifies whoever uses it.
    Add to your list on the Academy: Red Moon Rising by Mat Brzezinski, a fascinating parallel account of the Korolev-von Braun race to space. They both spent time in camps, Russian and American. (on the linguistic side, it reminds us of such pearls as ‘flopnik’ and ‘pupnik’, the puppy of a space dog that Khruschev presented to Kennedy, and also the latter-day Eisenhower’s White House described as the Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier)

  47. Mab,
    thanks re russkogovoryashiye. It’s probably my Engkish nudging me against anything longer than the robust Anglo-Saxon three letters.

  48. Two years later, Gramps, by then a commander of a 45mm anti-tank gun in the retreating army, joined the Party, it was just this patriotic thing to do in the trying times, first and foremost ensuring that the Nazis will execute him on the spot if he was ever captured.
    This is one of the main themes of Simonov‘s «Живые и мертвые», which I’m reading now (at Sashura’s insistence—thanks, Sashura!). The hero has lost his party card and other documents (through no fault of his own) and is terrified that this will prevent him from defending his country at the front. It’s making me understand the mentality of Soviet patriots like nothing else I’ve read.
    This is a great discussion, but let’s not gang up on slawkenbergius; he’s just defending his professional impartiality, not standing up for Усы.

  49. J. W. Brewer says:

    Well, Slawk. may be as he said a naive and callow youth. Anne Applebaum was a year ahead of me in college (thus graduating the year before Slawk. was born), but she did not as an undergraduate move in the school’s (very small and marginal) right-wing extremist and/or red-baiting circles. I mean, I didn’t know her, and I would have known her had she moved in those circles. She did as it were marry into well-credentialed anti-Communism (her husband being a Polish sometime-dissident-emigre/now-cabinet-minister) and her first book, at least, has something of the Polish POV, i.e. the problem with the Soviet Union was not merely that it was run by Bolsheviks but that it was run by Russians.
    But even the young, naive, and callow can perhaps be profitably integrated in discourse with the aged. Last night at church (it being the beginning of Lent) I heard a freshfaced American-born deacon only a few years older than Slawk. chanting the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete in alternation with a priest who was a boy in Moscow when Stalin was still in power, and it all worked just fine.

  50. Sashura, the idea that there was such a thing as institution-building that took place “quite independently of Stalin’s direction or despite his interference” is pretty laughable, except for a few edge cases. At least I’ve never seen it. That said, if you want to call everything done by the state in the Stalin period “Stalinism-plus” or “msinilatS” or whatever you are welcome to do so, as long as it’s clear that my remarks apply to that term. I have rarely seen terminological debates produce interesting outcomes in historical or any other discussion.

  51. Ganging up on Slawkenbergius? Not me for sure. If anything, I sort of grudgingly accept that Slaw’s got a strong point. Grudgingly not just because of a personal vendetta against someone responsible for violent death of most of my relatives, and persecution of the rest, but also because this guy was nauseatingly insincere and hypocritical. But of course, family wise, my parents wouldn’t have been even born if it weren’t for the Soviet Union and its nation-building zeal.
    My fav parable is of terrace-farming on volcano slopes. In Indonesia and the Philippines, people terrace and farm the slopes of the volcanoes. That’s where the soils are the richest, that’s where the harvests are the best. Of course once in a while a volcano would blow up and kill many people, and uproot the rest. That’s the benefit-risk ratio of living in the USSR. Many advantages, but how would one know if it isn’t gonna explode in another Great Terror soon?

  52. Sashura: I have nothing to offer for Russian, but I’d use Russophonia in English, since we already have Francophonia and Anglophonia (both adaptations of French).
    Your ironic comparison between Obama and Stalin doesn’t really work, though, because although Stalin obviously didn’t control everything his government did, as an autocrat he was responsible for all of it. Obama is not an autocrat, and can’t be held responsible for everything that happens in the U.S. government today.
    Vanya:
    After all, the USA (or Mexico, or Brazil) developed based on Europeans taking by force land, labor and resources from non-Europeans, not their own people.
    Ah, but who are “our own” people?
    In Mexico, the victims of this robbery were in fact the ancestors of almost all living Mexicans. In the U.S. that’s not true, but the U.S. ideals (if not practice) are based on not making such distinctions: an American is an American (in theory), whatever their ancestry. From my viewpoint as a civic nationalist, the difference between robbing others and robbing your own looks very small indeed: we are all, at most, 320th cousins.

  53. John,
    “In Mexico, the victims of this robbery were in fact the ancestors of almost all living Mexicans.”
    Well, exactly. And this is why Mexicans have far more ambivalent (if not simply negative) feelings about the people who colonized the country than Americans do. You might think Russians’ attitude towards Stalin and Communism would be similar to the way Mexicans feel about Cortés and the early Mexican royal governors. These people created the modern state – but at a horrific cost and loss of a lot of cultural continuity. That’s why Slawk’s comparison struck me as odd – most Russians seem to identify with the exploiters, not the exploited.

  54. Slawk, you write about Soviet science without the context of the system. Yes, people went to conferences, but based not on merit or need, but on their ability to toe the party line. Yes, some laboratories got money and equipment, but based on the decision or whim of either the leader or the party. What budgetary and administrative independence are you talking about, when the leader and the party determined what could be studied and what couldn’t? Industrialization and science were first and foremost funded for the military. Good ideas had to go through the conservative party system to get approval, which was often based on ideology, not science or scholarship, or the result of gazing into a crystal ball, trying to divine if the top leadership would be pleased or not.
    There was one employer: the state. There was one leader who decided matters of science and scholarship. Haven’t you seen the books with Stalin quoted as the great authority on everything from food preparation to translation? There were party functionaries trying to keep their jobs or keep alive, in which case saying “no” was almost always safer than saying “yes.” People largely had opportunities not by their merit, but by their political reliability. If you need a reminder of what the system was, read this excerpt from Starman (http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/first-man-up/?scp=1&sq=starman&st=cse). It’s about the period after Stalin, but the system remained.
    Besides, if industrialization was so great and “science, higher education and scientific investment” were so great, why were the country’s industry, science and scholarship light years behind the West? Almost every field and every factory was – and to a great extent, still is – backward and appallingly out of date. And not because people were stupid, or badly educated, or poor workers. But because the system didn’t allow for innovation, and the system mostly valued political credentials over professional abilities.
    I will say yet again – for the third or fourth time – that this wasn’t a black and white picture. There were good people everywhere. There were smart people everywhere, who cared about their work. If you happened to be in a field or have an interest that did not threaten the state ideology or was needed by the state (by whim or decision of Stalin and the top party officials), you might have been able to work without much interference. But you can’t really be arguing that, well, there were good things and bad things about Stalinism, can you?

  55. In addition to being apparently clouded by ideology or moral righteousness, your impression of Stalin-era science is out of date as far as scholarship on the subject is concerned. Consult the books I’ve listed above for a starting point.

  56. I’m sorry if that sounds condescending, but this is my job. It’s what I spend my days reading and writing about. I’m not a good enough teacher or debater to carry the whole state of the field on my back, so I’m unable to have a serious discussion unless all parties involved have a basic familiarity with the relevant literature.

  57. John Cowan: thanks for approving russophonia, I wasn’t sure it worked.

  58. Last night at church (it being the beginning of Lent) I heard a freshfaced American-born deacon … chanting… in alternation with a priest who was a boy in Moscow when Stalin was still in power, and it all worked just fine.
    What a beautiful ecumenical scene!
    We spent the mardi gras yesterday cooking pancakes and celebrating the International Women’s Day (8 March). It is said that it originated from the New York women textile workers ‘empty pans’ march of 1857. Apparently some historians dismiss those origins as ‘apocriphal’. My mother (she still works in the Russian Academy system), who was active in the international women’s movement back in the 70s and 80s says it’s true, she saw contemporary newspaper reports on the march. Does anyone have any definitive info on that?
    And, is mi-careme marked at all in America and Canada? I was told that the Rouen Cathedral was entirely financed by indulgencies sold to the French who couldn’t bear going through the Lent without having any butter.

  59. Slawk. may be a naive and callow youth.
    No, I trust him to be a serious historian and an honest debater.
    But I will not make age an issue in this campaign.

  60. Your ironic comparison between Obama and Stalin doesn’t really work, though, because although Stalin obviously didn’t control everything his government did, as an autocrat he was responsible for all of it. Obama is not an autocrat, and can’t be held responsible for everything that happens in the U.S. government today.
    John, thanks for catching this – that’s exactly what the exercise is constructed to show.
    In the Obama case, with socialism, we build-up – broaden the meaning to give the subject a wider scope, but stronger colouring than it has. ‘Social’ (reforms, policies) becomes ‘socialism’ in order to discredit the policy. It doesn’t work, I hope.
    In the Stalin case, with stalinism, we build-down – broaden the meaning of the word to give the subject a wider scope than it has, but weaken colouring. ‘Stalinism’ becomes a less repugnant concept, when it’s defined as ‘everything that the state did during the period’. Again: it doesn’t work, I think.
    The method is the same and the result is the same – a change in perception of the subject, perhaps desired, if not achieved.
    And, sorry, I don’t buy into the notion that autocrats and their governments control everything. If that was so, was Khruschev just a goblin from the box? If that was so, where did all the protesters in Tahrir square come from?

  61. the idea that there was such a thing as institution-building that took place “quite independently of Stalin’s direction or despite his interference” is pretty laughable
    What I say could be an endnote to a footnote in the third appendix to the second afterword. But was it Descartes who said ‘make definitions precise and avoid half misunderstandings’?
    Brushing aside a serious argument (Stalin didn’t control everything, nor did the regime) as ‘laughable’ reminded me of the kind of argumentation favoured by one famous essayist. I reread his famous essay recently in connection with a much-written about anniversary:
    ‘That [name], owing to these contradictions, could not possibly understand either the [political label] movement and its role in the struggle for [political concept], or the [place] revolution, goes without saying.’

  62. hat, sorry, if what I am saying sounds like ‘ganging up against’ Slawk, I honestly have nothing against him – I only hope that some time later he will find this exchange useful in his own professional life.
    Who’s in the gang anyway? Mab, are you in the gang?

  63. Simonov
    did you get to the scene when Sintsov leaves the note ‘off to osoby otdel (counter-intelligence section)’ under the gun he took off a Smersh officer who’d fallen asleep?
    I didn’t realise I was pestering you to read The Living and the Dead, but having looked through the correspondence, maybe I was, what an embarassment. At least you seem to enjoy it, a consolation.

  64. I only hope that some time later he will find this exchange useful in his own professional life.
    I doubt he’ll remember it, but I expect that, like most of us, he’ll lose his hard edges to some extent. I was every bit as severe when I was a know-it-all grad student; I’m just glad there was no internet then to preserve the evidence.
    did you get to the scene when Sintsov leaves the note ‘off to osoby otdel (counter-intelligence section)’ under the gun he took off a Smersh officer who’d fallen asleep?
    Yes, I loved it! (I’ve been zipping through it and have less than 150 pages to go; at the moment he’s manning a machine gun a few kilometers from Moscow, trying to hold off the advancing Germans.) And as for pestering, don’t be silly, I love it when people urge me to read things! I would never have read the book without you, so I’m truly grateful.

  65. ah, thanks.
    In the second book, Soldiers Are Not Born to Be (Солдатами не рождаются) there is a powerful face-to-face with Stalin, which I am sure is based on Simonov’s own experience.

  66. Bathrobe says:

    Hat, isn’t it a little uncharacteristic of you to introduce political issues into the blog?

  67. Hey, I’m right here!
    And, sorry, I don’t buy into the notion that autocrats and their governments control everything. If that was so, was Khruschev just a goblin from the box? If that was so, where did all the protesters in Tahrir square come from?
    I think we might be misunderstanding each other. I wouldn’t dream of arguing that Stalin controlled everything–that’s patently silly. But institution-building, which is what I was talking about, is a different question. The environmentalist scientists Douglas Weiner talks about in A Little Corner of Freedom might have built something like an institution beneath Stalin’s radar, but that’s basically the only example of that I can think of. Stalin took a much more active hand in dealing with institution-building than most autocrats, and that’s reflected in the structure of Soviet institutions.
    In any case, while the definition of Stalinism has been much debated, it’s fairly normal in the Western historiography to use it as shorthand for everything the state (at the very least, Union and RSFSR-level structures) did in the Stalin period. Again, I’m not insisting on any terminological point here.

  68. I might not be familiar with your list of literature, but I do have some knowledge of the subject, including 33 years of living in the USSR and Russia with close friends in RAN. The question is, if you stop just calling me — and Anne Applebaum — names, what’s wrong with what I wrote? And how to do factor that into your analysis?
    On that cheery note, I’ll sign off this discussion.

  69. Victor Sonkin says:

    I haven’t read through all the comments, but I do agree that the idea of (to put it VERY roughly) of ‘bad Stalin — good Lenin’, very popular at some point even within Russia, is rather discredited. So the thought expressed by the scholar doesn’t seem, in my opinion, to indicate that Stalin wasn’t so bad, but rather that the previous Soviet (and Russian, for that matter) experience had already contained his atrocities in statu nascendi.

  70. Hat, isn’t it a little uncharacteristic of you to introduce political issues into the blog?
    Current political issues, yes. Historical and historiographical ones, no. See my Purity vs. History series; the last one has links to the other posts in the first sentence.

  71. Hey, I’m right here!
    Heh. Sorry about that!
    And just to be crystal-clear: I’m sure you know the facts and the historiography far better than any of the rest of us. Furthermore, you’re absolutely right that historians can’t be squeamish about blood any more than doctors can; you can’t do history if you’re constantly wringing your hands and moaning about how awful it all was. I just think it’s possible to do history in a thoroughly professional manner while acknowledging the moral dimension, just as it’s possible to be a good doctor while acknowledging the humanity of your patients rather than treating them like walking charts (though few doctors seem to be capable of this any more).

  72. I think we might be misunderstanding each other.
    [clearing] misunderstandings may be the best way to understanding.
    sorry for the third person refs.
    Stalin apart, I think ‘institution building’ is a worthy, relevant subject. Of course, I don’t know how you frame your research, but if it were to show how concerted public (state policies supported by society) effort with strong guaranteed public financing, high social status of academics, educational policies and autonomy in decision making (e.g. supporting mathematics may not seem necessary to a government, but scientists will know that rockets won’t fly and buildings won’t stand without them), – how that leads to the country becoming stronger, then it may go beyond a narrow historical study. Especially now, when there is a relentless corporate pressure on academia compounded by the equally relentless withdrawal of state supports.

  73. Current political issues, yes. Historical and historiographical ones, no.
    More pestering: when you get to Slovo’s Ice Road, you’ll see a fine example of how current and historical intertwined at the time when Stalin was ‘building institutions’ – the main character, an academic, ‘discovers’ and ‘translates’ an ancient Georgian tract on how totalitarianism is good for a nation.

  74. It’s on the pile, right after Babi Yar!

  75. J. W. Brewer says:

    Going back to one subject of the quote that attracted hat’s ire in the first place (as to how the avant-garde did or did not fare under Stalin as opposed to under prior autocrats), there was an interesting piece a few days ago about the improbable and new-to-me story about how a vast collection of surviving pre-Stalin modernist paintings has ended up housed in small-town Uzbekistan: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/arts/design/desert-of-forbidden-art-igor-savitsky-collection-in-nukus.html

  76. And just to be crystal-clear… hear, hear! totally agree.
    historians can’t be squeamish
    no, and it shows in all sorts of funny ways, when they are. I recently read Simon Schama’s huge tome Citizens on the Great French revolution. He is so obviously embarassed by the crucial role that the fish-wives of Paris played in the events, that he even argues that poissardes doesn’t come from poisson, but from poix – high pitched voice. I mentioned this on my blog:
    http://russianbooks.blogspot.com/2010/07/embarassment-of-fish-wives-and-most.html

  77. pre-Stalin modernist paintings has ended up housed in small-town Uzbekistan
    yes, it’s a long running story and if anyone has any means to help them, please do, it’s an amazing collection. Thanks for mentioning it.

  78. it’s possible to be a good doctor while acknowledging the humanity of your patients rather than treating them like walking charts (though few doctors seem to be capable of this any more).
    Yes. But is this because doctors are as morally obtuse as anyone else (but no more so), or because medical school education refuses to see itself as moral/ethical the way all education is – and ends up beating the moral sense out of doctors? Or, because moral obtuseness is selected for under the current system? Or all three, most likely.
    I hope you find a humane doctor if someone you know needs one.

  79. I don’t have any answers to your excellent question, but my wife and I have been very lucky in finding humane/menschy doctors.

  80. Bathrobe says:

    Current political issues, yes. Historical and historiographical ones, no.
    Sadly, I don’t know how the two can be separated. I certainly wouldn’t want LH to turn into a blog on politics and nationalism, but in the end it seems to me that all history is politics (or bunk, depending on how you want to put it). There is no such thing as history without a slant, and the slant is always something to do with someone’s ideas about the present.

  81. “Now, let’s apply the same analysis to your trick with ‘stalinism’, in reverse. Stalin was the “leader during the period. Everything the state did during that period you decide to define as stalinism. So, everything, good and bad, e.g. ‘institution building’, both Stalin-inspired and done quite independently of Stalin’s direction or despite his interference also falls under ‘stalinism’. Ooh, sounds good. Let’s use this ‘stalinism’, forget what it really stood for and whack those whiny gulag-remindists so that they shut up forever”
    If you uphold this view, you can’t bind Stalin and political repressions either. Now it’s not Stalin’s Terror, it’s Stalin-era Terror ^^)

  82. Sashura: My comment was an attempt to sort control (which is a mirage) from responsibility. Certainly Stalin didn’t and couldn’t control everything the Soviet state did, never mind wider Soviet society. But he was responsible for everything that state did, in a way that Obama, who is limited by a huge variety of legal and extra-legal restraints, is not, precisely because Stalin could intervene at will whereas Obama cannot. In the same way, a modern CEO is (held) responsible for everything a corporation does, though obviously he does not control all of it.
    Vanya: I suppose it’s because Mexico has never been an imperialist nation as both Russia and America have been and are. People who think of themselves as los hijos de la chingada ‘children of the fucked(-over) woman’ aren’t likely to have the arrogance required to be conquerors.

  83. Certainly Stalin didn’t and couldn’t control everything the Soviet state did, never mind wider Soviet society. But he was responsible for everything that state did, in a way that Obama, who is limited by a huge variety of legal and extra-legal restraints, is not, precisely because Stalin could intervene at will whereas Obama cannot.
    This is my take as well.

  84. Look, John, Hat,
    here my objection is only to the use of -ism for the historical period: Stalinism or’Stalinist period’ instead of Stalin’s period.
    I understand the difference between America in the age of Obama and Russia in Stalin times, though I don’t subscribe to the idea that the leader is responsible for everything.
    Russians and students of Russia would know one of the agitprop slogans of that time: “Спасибо товарищу Сталину за наше счастливое детство!” – ‘Thank you comrade Stalin for our happy childhood’. It has long been used in a bitterly ironic sense, to show how everything was attributed to him.
    And the 60s produced a very different idea in public discourse: “Я отвечаю за всё” – ‘I Am Responsible for Everything’ was a popular 1964 novel by Yuri German. The title quickly became a slogan of the time inspiring civic activism, including dissent, and individual responsibility.

  85. I understand the difference between America in the age of Obama and Russia in Stalin times, though I don’t subscribe to the idea that the leader is responsible for everything.
    You don’t believe that if a leader imposes a system in which an organization like the OGPU/NKVD is given a free hand to arrest, jail, exile, and/or shoot anyone they feel like, that leader is responsible for the people arrested/jailed/exiled/shot even if he didn’t personally issue the order in each particular case?

  86. A coupla slap-happy grandfatherly ex-sixties libruls, it’s the John and Hat Show!

  87. If you uphold this view, you can’t bind Stalin and political repressions either. Now it’s not Stalin’s Terror, it’s Stalin-era Terror
    Exactly, see, my exercise works!

  88. You don’t believe that if a leader imposes a system in which an organization like the OGPU/NKVD is given a free hand to arrest, jail, exile, and/or shoot anyone they feel like, that leader is responsible for the people arrested/jailed/exiled/shot even if he didn’t personally issue the order in each particular case?
    Like Terminegger, I was going through the list of all possible answers to this: yes, no, no, yes, I don’t know, piss off, and then I remembered the anecdote that made rounds in 1934/35 (Slovo quotes it in the Ice Road): ‘How many men does it take to kill comrade Kirov?’ ‘Kirov’s Law’ gave free hand to torture and summary executions and lead to the show trials of 1936-38. Svanidze in Istorisheskiye Khroniki argues that the murder was a crime of passion, but it did happen after Gorkiy and Yagoda had pleaded with Kirov to stand against Stalin at the 17th party congress, most of the delegates of which perished at the hands of the NKVD.
    Your question can be taken along the lines of the famous ‘God Almighty’ sophism: can God create a rock that he himself cannot move? Do you know the Russian idiom обойти в одно касание, that comes from football? Isn’t there a similar one in baseball, when the pitcher throws the ball to one of the loaded bases instead of the batsman? Or the zugzwang in chess, when you can’t make a move without weakening your position?
    But, assuming you ask an earnest question, and not setting a debating trap, I’ll give an earnest answer: yes, he was responsible and should be held responsible for the great terror (Stalinism, not Stalin’s period). He had a vested interest and unchallenged power, he personally went through the execution lists with the red and blue pencil.
    Now, if you let the trap spring and say, do you not contradict yourself in agreeing with that he should be held responsible? No, I don’t, because the imposition of the NKVD terror couldn’t have happened had there not been a tacit acceptance among the bolsheviks that it was ‘necessary’ for the ‘great cause’ (Stalin’s period, not stalinism). They’d fallen in their own logical trap. Bukharin, whom Lenin saw as one of his preferred successors, in his pre-execution letter to Stalin mentioned that argument. When you get to reading Pilnyak, you may also find it. In one of his stories a group of stranded academics decides to execute the only woman in their group, because she was creating too much sexual tension in the expedition and therefore distracting them from fulfilling the party-approved mission.
    And of course the Kirov joke shows that there was a healthy degree of cynicism and common sense about what was happening.
    Another footnote: we are not having a shouting match, but a gentlemanly discussion, are we? I am no Isaiah Berlin, but I do appreciate the chance to say what I’ve long been thinking about.

  89. Of course we’re having a gentlemanly discussion! And I have no quarrel with anything you said in your last comment; I just wanted to clarify that beyond all necessary details of historical contingency, it is important to give credit for terror where credit is due: to the guy at the top. One can easily dive into details and swim around in them so much one loses sight of the essential.

  90. I just though I’d come back and offer a few thoughts on the “moral” side of the question–viz., is it immoral to write a history of the Stalin period that ignores the repression in favor of what the regime did well? (To put it another way, are histories of the camps more “moral” than histories of the Academy of Sciences?) I personally do not think there’s a significant moral component to history-writing, but I am assuming that many of you do.
    It seems to me that if you’ve got a halfway consistent notion of what it is that writing history is supposed to accomplish ethically speaking, you are more or less obligated to write histories of the good side of Stalinism-plus rather than its bad side. (I am assuming here that we live in the real world of 2011, in which there is broad scholarly and popular awareness and consensus that Stalin was responsible for a lot of innocent death and suffering.) Why? Because if history is supposed to inculcate the idea that following in Stalin’s footsteps is a bad thing, then it needs to present a maximally realistic picture of what the payoff was or was perceived to have been. In this sense the conduct of the moralizing historians of recent decades has been dramatically counterproductive, because it treats Stalin’s popularity in Russia as somehow inauthentic. Truly moral history would have to take account of the fact that for many Russians, the inequality “(national greatness) + (military victories) + (economic and scientific development) > (dozens of millions dead) + (totalitarianism however defined) + (reactionary social politics)” is truer than the reverse. Once it has done so, it is then free to argue a moral case for why the reverse of the inequality is more accurate, since a truly convincing argument needs to be juxtaposed to the most robust possible version of the opposing position.
    Basically, just compare Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It would be hard to deny that the former is an incomparably more convincing book, not just because it’s a more accurate depiction of our reality, but also because its depictions of what keeps people invested in the system are so much more persuasive and true-to-life. (I think no book has done more damage to people’s understanding of politics and society in the last 60 years than Nineteen Eighty-Four, but you don’t have to agree with me to accept this argument.)
    So unless you think history should be a kind of allegorical mystery play or something, you should be celebrating every attempt to make Stalinism-plus less black and more gray.

  91. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four
    I’ve long thought of the two as complementing each other rather than contradicting. Both concepts are present in our reality, Huxley’s ‘control them with pleasure’ and Orwell’s ‘control them with fear’. Your passage is almost exactly what Huxley wrote to Orwell after he read Nineteen Eighty-Four. It took me some time to get to Homage to Catalonia and other writings, the same with Huxley. Comparing them I must say Orwell has a much sharper eye.
    the inequality “(national greatness) + (military victories) + (economic and scientific development) > (dozens of millions dead) + (totalitarianism however defined) + (reactionary social politics)” is truer than the reverse.
    Sorry, I don’t understand this point.

  92. The difference is that there has never, to my knowledge, been a society that was actually controlled primarily by fear in any meaningful sense of the word. (Although there have been, of course, plenty of societies that were accused of this by hostile commentators, Russia being a prominent example.)
    My bit about the inequality was just a clumsy way of stating that these people believe the “pros” of Stalinism to outweigh the “cons.”

  93. Oh, and I’m a big fan of Orwell–I just wish he hadn’t wasted his dying days on that piece of literary garbage.

  94. equality
    I see, thanks, I missed the > sign. I am afraid though, that few people form their views of history in spreadsheet-like fashion.
    garbage in my book only applies to that awful reality show that snatched a character from Nineteen Eighty-Four. But then, Orwell himself called the novel ‘wretched’.

  95. Slawkenbergius, this is puzzling. What you wrote is pretty much what I wrote in my first posting. Why did you hurl accusations of moral righteousness and hand-wringing at me?
    History is “what was.” That means the full range of “what was,” which always means, even in the worst regimes, people figuring out how to live honest lives as best they can. And of course people figuring out how to get benefits in the most dire circumstances. Of course you need to look at that because it explains why heinous regimes survive. It is partially fear, but it’s also partially that people get something out of them.
    But you also shouldn’t, in my view, examine those benefits outside the context of the heinous regime. That also distorts the historical picture and analysis of the results of history. There is a great difference between “researchers going abroad to a conference” and “researchers who are party members, Slavs, stool pidgeons and poor scientists going abroad to a conference.”
    Unfortunately, you aren’t quite right about the broad consensus that Stalin (Stalinism, Stalin era) was “bad.” In Russia that consensus does not exist, particularly because of the Putin-era media blitz about the wonders of industrialization and turning Russia into a great power. The result of that is hearing a man whose Tatar family was deported and largely killed under Stalin — they loaded them into railway cars to Kazakhstan without food or water and just tossed the dead bodies off the train — say “well, there were bad things but it was all neccessary for industrialization.” That’s the result of talking about “the good things” without the context of the regime. Another result of that is of course the acceptance of Putinism.

  96. Um, I don’t know if we ever disagreed. You just kind of showed up and started breezily accusing me of not understanding how bad things were for Soviet scientists or something, which is what the charge of moral righteousness was about. “Double bleah.”
    As for the consensus bit, I’d encourage you to reread what I wrote.

  97. Also, the idea that it’s “Putinism” that’s solely or primarily responsible for Stalin’s newfound popularity among Russian people is a dangerous liberal fantasy. For one thing, people are increasingly comparing Stalin to Putin, and not to the advantage of the latter–the idea being that at least under Stalin the nomenklatura actually had to suffer as opposed to paying a few million and getting off scot-free.

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