This paper was read at a conference on the History of Stalinism in Moscow on 5 December 2008, I have broken it down into three parts, I thought it was fitting after sharing for the past month stories from my Kazakh students’ grandparents.
The Embrace of Stalinism
Arseny Roginsky, 16 – 12 – 2008
Why is Russia romanticising the memory of Stalinism, enquires Memorial’s founder Arseny Roginsky, when its defining feature was the use of terror?
The memory of Stalinism in contemporary Russia raises problems which are painful and sensitive. There is a vast amount of pro-Stalinist literature on the bookstalls: fiction, journalism and pseudo-history. In sociological surveys Stalin invariably features among the first three “most prominent figures of all times”. In the new school history textbooks, Stalinist policy is interpreted in a spirit of justification.
There are also hundreds of crucial volumes of documents, scholarly articles and monographs on Stalinism. The achievements of these historians and archivists is unquestionable. But if they do have any influence on the mass consciousness, it is too weak. The means of disseminating the information have not been there, and nor in recent years has the political will. However, the deepest problem lies in the current state of our national historical memory of Stalinism.
I should explain what I mean here by historical memory, and Stalinism. Historical memory is the retrospective aspect of collective consciousness. It informs our collective identity through our selection of the past we find significant. The past, real or imaginary, is the material with which it works: it sorts through the facts and systemizes them, selecting those which it is prepared to present as belonging to the genealogy of its identity.
Stalinism is a system of state rule, the totality of specific political practices of the Stalinist leadership. Throughout the duration of this system, a number of characteristic features were preserved. But its generic feature (which arose from the very beginning of Bolshevist rule and did not disappear with Stalin’s death) is terror as a universal instrument for solving any political and social tasks. It was state violence and terror that made possible the centralization of rule, the severing of regional ties, high vertical mobility; the harsh introduction of an ideology which could be easily modified, a large army of subjects of slave labor, and many other things.
Thus, the memory of Stalinism is primarily the memory of state terror as the defining feature of the age. It is also what links it in so many respects with today.
Victims, not crimes
Is that really what the memory of Stalinism means in today’s Russia? I’d like to say a few words about the key features of this memory today. Firstly, the memory of Stalinism in Russia is almost always the memory of victims. Victims, not crimes. As the memory of crimes it does not register, as there is no consensus on this.
To a great extent this is because popular consciousness has nothing to hold onto from a legal point of view. The state has produced no legal document which recognizes state terror as a crime. The two lines in the preamble to the 1991 law on the rehabilitation of victims is clearly insufficient. There are no legal decisions that inspire any confidence – and there have not been any trials against participants of the Stalinist terror in the new Russia, not a single one.
There are other reasons too.
We killed our own people
When popular consciousness has to come to terms with historical tragedies, it does so by assigning roles of Good and Evil. People identify themselves with one of the roles. It is easier to identify oneself with Good, i.e. with an innocent victim, or better still with a heroic battle against Evil.
Incidentally, this is why our Eastern European neighbors, from Ukraine to Poland and the Baltic States have no serious problems with coming to terms with the Soviet period of history, while in Russia, people identify themselves with victims or fighters, or with both at the same time. Whether or not this has anything to do with history is quite another matter – we’re talking about memory, not knowledge.
It is even possible to identify oneself with Evil, as the Germans did (not without help from the outside), in order to distance oneself from this evil: “Yes, unfortunately we did that, but we’re not like than anymore and we’ll never be like that again”.
But what can we do, living in Russia?
In the Soviet terror, it is very difficult to distinguish the executioners from the victims. For example, secretaries of regional committee in August 1937 all wrote death sentences by the bundle, but by November 1938 half of them had already been shot themselves.
In national, and particularly regional memory, the “executioners” – for example, the regional committee secretaries of 1937 – are not unambiguously evil: yes, they signed execution warrants, but they also organized the construction of kindergartens and hospitals, and went to workers’ cafeterias personally to test the food, while their subsequent fate is worthy of sympathy.
And one more thing: unlike the Nazis, who mainly killed “foreigners”: Poles, Russians, and German Jews (who were not quite their “own” people), we mainly killed our own people, and our consciousness refuses to accept this fact.
In remembering the terror, we are incapable of assigning the main roles, incapable of putting the pronouns “we” and “they” in their places. This inability to assign evil is the main thing that prevents us from being able to embrace the memory of the terror properly. This makes it far more traumatic. It is one of the main reasons why we push it to the edge of our historical memory.
(To be continued)