A rather strange article appears in today’s Johnson’s Russia List #53 and I’m not sure why. It’s a piece by Alice Gomstyn called “Where the Cold War Still Rages” from the February 6, 2004 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Gomstyn revisits the “totalitarian”/”revisionist” debate that has structured Russian historical studies in the United States for the last 25 years. I mention the article here because some readers might be interested especially since totalitarianism has recently appeared on this blog in conjunction with Khrushchev’s speech.
As a member of the so-called “post-revisionist” generation, I lament the passing relevance of this debate in Russian historical studies. When reading over that work one gets the sense that ideas mattered. The polemics that fueled it made the scholarship people were producing exciting. I can’t say the same for now. I just don’t see the debates over modernity, periodization, the (in)applicability of Foucault, the linguistic turn, etc as having as much punch as the totalitarian/revisionist debate. The creation of schools like the so-called “Soviet subjectivity school” out of the work of really two scholars seems manufactured and forced, if not down right lame. As does claims about the emergence of a “neo-totalitarian” school. They just leave me limp.
The only light I see at the end of this tunnel of boredom is perhaps some of the interesting scholarship being done of nationality and ethnicity. But until we see whether that scholarship will make an impact on the field, I will have to sit around and lose myself in nostalgia for more political charged times.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
My new eXile article, “Russian Academia Under Fire,” is now online. Here is an excerpt:
On any given day, the Russian media is filled with reports of restaurants, clubs, factories, hospitals, schools, and apartments succumbing to the searing flames of Vulcan. Casualties are common. Fire is often the result of teenage pyromaniacs, defective wiring, discarded lit cigarettes, industrial accidents, and just plain stupidity. Fire is a major killer in Russia. More than 17,000 Russians died in fires in 2006, about 13 for every 100,000 people. This is a staggering statistic. Not to mention one I take to heart. Several friends and I almost became part of those stats in the summer of 2005 when the kitchen in Moscow’s Kafe Bilingua went up in flames.
Russia’s fire epidemic is not just a threat to public safety, a taker of lives, or a destroyer of property. The threat of fire also gives the lowly Russian bureaucrat a measure of political and administrative power. There is no better example of how the chinovnik brandishes his fire code weapon than the recent closing of European University in St. Petersburg (EUSP). No one knows why agents from the Russian Ministry of Disaster Emergency (MChS) conducted a surprise fire inspection on 18 January which led to the University’s closure. Was it a Kremlin sponsored attack on the liberal, Western orientated university? Was it punishment for accepting a grant from the European Union to monitor elections? I happen to think that European University’s fate is not the result of some directive from above. Rather it is yet another example of the capricious nature of the Russian bureaucrat and the lengths he will go to prove his political loyalty to his bosses.
Historically, the Russian bureaucrat has always been in a perilous position. Sandwiched between leaders who demand obedience and a public eager to lynch him, the successful Russian chinovnik survives by manipulation, intrigue, guile, and corruption. He’s a contortionist of the law; a practitioner of sly servility. When he receives a signal from his masters of an imminent threat, the chinovnik unleashes the little power he has at his disposal. These powers include bureaucratic foot dragging, a sudden concern for administrative order, and a selective devotion to the letter of the law. These methods allow him to show that “his house is in order” and cleansed of “spies,” “liberals,” and other political troublemakers. At the same time, if his actions are deemed excessive, he can claim that he was simply following the rules. In this sense, the fire code is perfect political weapon shrouded in the cloth of legality. Selectively wielding the fire code has a perfect Orwellian ring to it. “Hard” forms of political repression are attenuated with the “soft” language of the “law” and “public safety.”Post Views: 554
By Sean — 10 years ago
As we all well know, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did the deed and recognized the independence South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A chorus of condemnation, disappointment, and warning immediately followed.
US Secretary Rice: “I want to be very clear, since the United States is a permanent member of the [UN] Security Council, this simply will be dead on arrival.”
US President Bush: “This decision is inconsistent with numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions that Russia has voted for in the past, and is also inconsistent with the French-brokered six-point ceasefire agreement which President Medvedev signed. Russia’s action only exacerbates tensions and complicates diplomatic negotiations.”
German PM Angela Merkel: “This contradicts the basic principles of territorial integrity and is therefore absolutely unacceptable.”
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili: “This is a test for the entire world and a test for our collective solidarity . . . Today the fate of Europe and the free world is unfortunately being played out in my small country.”
British Foreign Minister David Miliband: “Russia must not learn the wrong lessons from the Georgia crisis. There can be no going back on fundamental principles of territorial integrity, democratic governance and international law.”
It’s open season on Russia as verbal pellets rain on Medvedev’s head. Dima’s response? Bring it on baby.
“Nothing frightens us,” he said in an interview on Russian television. “Including the prospect of a cold war, but we do not want this, and in this situation all depends on the position of our partners”.
Dima talked tough. He held his ground. He threw the ball back in the West’s court and said, “Do something about it.” Nothing is going to sway him. Not a slipping stock market, not investment flight, not a tarnished international image.
But talking tough was only part of the game. Medvedev seemed to be everywhere today in a press junket blitz. An interview with BBC, an editorial in the Financial Times, a talk with Al-Jazeera, with CNN, Russia Today, and France’s TFI Television. I’m wondering if he’ll make it on Oprah or the View. “Hey world! Meet Dimitry Anatolevich Medvedev the President of Russia! Here’s a memo for you. We’re going to do what we want and you can’t do a damn thing about it.” Funny, no one seems to be calling him a “liberal” now.
The crux of Medvedev’s response focuses on quite predictable points: Russia’s duty to protect its citizens, saving Ossetian victims, Western hypocrisy and their flippant disregard for Russia, and, of course, the K-word: Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo. Russians said Kosovo was a precedent and everyone dismissed it. Well, here’s what Dima says now:
Ignoring Russia’s warnings, western countries rushed to recognise Kosovo’s illegal declaration of independence from Serbia. We argued consistently that it would be impossible, after that, to tell the Abkhazians and Ossetians (and dozens of other groups around the world) that what was good for the Kosovo Albanians was not good for them. In international relations, you cannot have one rule for some and another rule for others.
Now others are asking: Is Abkhazia and Ossetia like Kosovo or not? Well, there is no doubt in my mind that the situations will be compared, laws will be examined, victims will be counted, treaties, resolutions, and agreements will be consulted. All the diplomats and politicians will posture in the front of the cameras, using all the predictable code words and phrases. The bones of the dead will be exhumed to construct just the right historical parallel. A pillory of pundits, editorials, and “experts” will swoon at questions that make them and their views relevant. Ah, international crisis, it’s just so good for business.
But there is something missing in all of this. There is a silence or should we call it a deafness pervading all the chatter and pontificating. Do you hear it? Can you feel its vibrations amid the declarations and denials of recognition?
What is this sound? It’s the voice of the Abkhaz and Ossetian.
Well, I sure as hell can’t hear it. It seems that amid the geopolitical spit swapping and tit for tat maneuvers, few have bothered to ask the lowly Abkhaz and Ossetian how they feel about being catapulted into the club of nations. Most articles detail the reactions from the the US, Europe, Georgia and Russia.
Sure, sure the Abkhaz and Ossetians don’t have official recognition by laws they didn’t write or politicans they didn’t elect, but still there must be something said for the act of creation that “recognition” brings. After all, three weeks ago Abkhazia and South Ossetia only mattered to those who gave a rat’s ass. Now all eyes are transfixed. They’re suddenly that little corner of the real life Risk board where, in the words of Mikheil Saakashvili in FT, Moscow is unfolding a plan “prepared over years” to “rebuild its empire, seize greater control of Europe’s energy supplies and punish those who believed democracy could flourish on its borders. Europe has reason to worry.” Little South Ossetia and Abkhazia are the pen from which Russia “redraw[ing] the map of Europe.” Who knew that the utterance of “recognition” could spark such discursive fury.
Saakashvili’s editorial is interesting on another level. It is a veritable denial of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s actual existence. His words are an act of discursive erasure. This is already clear in his statement “This war was never about South Ossetia or Georgia.” He goes farther than this. “Over the past five years [Russia] cynically laid the groundwork for this pretense,” he writes, “by illegally distributing passports in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, “manufacturing” Russian citizens to protect” [Emphasis mine]. The Ossetians are essential phantasmagorias concocted in some Moscow OVIR office.
Real people? Nah . . . unless . . . Unless they are positioned as perpetrators. But even here, the Ossetians silence in favor of the Russians. Saak writes,
Since Russia’s invasion, its forces have been “cleansing” Georgian villages in both regions – including outside the conflict zone – using arson, rape and execution. Human rights groups have documented these actions.
But Mikheil, it was the Ossetian militias extracting some revenge that did these acts. Why deny them the little agency anyone is willing to afford them?
It is only through the agency of violence, retribution, and revenge that the Ossetian is now able to speak. Even from the Russian side the Ossetians are relegated to a passive position of “victims.” The Ossetian as the figure of the perpetrator or victim is his only existence. The Abkhaz too only speak the language of perpetrator. Saakashvili tells us,
Moscow also counts on historical amnesia. It hopes the west will forget ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia drove out more than three-quarters of the local population – ethnic Georgians, Greeks, Jews and others – leaving the minority Abkhaz in control. Russia also wants us to forget that South Ossetia was run not by its residents (almost half were Georgian before this month’s ethnic cleansing) but by Russian officials. When the war started, South Ossetia’s de facto prime minister, defence minister and security minister were ethnic Russians with no ties to the region.
This paragraph is quite revealing. The Abkhaz exist only as ethnic cleansers and the Ossetians, well they don’t even govern themselves. Their cause is merely a plot by “ethnic Russians with no ties to the region.”
Surely the Ossetian and Abkhaz reaction amounts to something? After all, they are fighting and dying, right?
As much as Saakashvili and others try to argue that Russia has “manufactured” the Ossetians or that this crisis is all part of Russia’s larger designs, someone must account for the fact that the Ossetians and Abkhazians are celebrating. Sure the laws, politicos, nations, and others needed for “legitimate” independence are silent, but there is something to be said the act of creation recognition brings.Post Views: 739
By Sean — 11 years ago
“Only by uniting our efforts can we achieve results in developing our country and ensure that it take an appropriate place in the world,” Putin said in reference to National Unity Day. “That is why, the idea that inspired this holiday seems to be very important to me and deserves support.”
By all accounts, on this National Unity Day is an empty holiday created by the Kremlin to replace Revolution Day on November 7. Even more a sign of desperation, is the fact that the historical event chosen to mark said unity is Russia “liberation” from the Poles in 1612. If you have to look back four centuries to find national unity, then you know you are in trouble.
But everyone knows that the historical reasons for National Unity Day are a sham, and to emphasize that again really isn’t the point. The point is that the celebration of especially this year’s holiday is a reminder of how Russia’s past and present is marked with disunity. And while Putin is for the most part something for the Russia people to unite around, his words can’t help contain a tinge of desperation.
This year’s unity day is like none since its invention in 2005 by the simple fact that November 7 marks the 90th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. No there won’t be any grand celebrations. Nor will there be much recognition of the anniversary on global scale. It’s a bit sad really especially since it’s not a stretch to say that the Bolshevik Revolution was the most important event of the 20th century. Some honest reevaluation of it seems necessary to me, but maybe that is just the historian in me talking.
Celebrations marking the Revolution’s 90th Anniversary will surely be small. Only the most staunchest of communists will probably commemorate it. Still, most Russians, according to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, continue to view it as positive. 31% of respondents felt that the Revolution spearheaded “Russia’s economic and social progress.” 26% said that it “helped Russia turn over a new leaf.” Only 16% said it was an impediment to Russia’s development, and 15% saw it as a national disaster. Given how tendentious the Revolution continues to be, there is no doubt that many will argue about what these percentages actually mean.
No matter how one views the Revolution, whether it was a “coup,” a “social revolution,” or simply some kind of back room hatched conspiracy, one can’t deny that it symbolized and continues to symbolize more disunity rather than unity. Such was the case in November 1917. Speaking to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, Lenin crafted the Bolshevik’s victory in terms of unity. “We have now learned to make a concerted effort,” he said. “The revolution that has just been accomplished is evidence of this. We possess the strength of mass organization, which will overcome everything and lead the proletariat to the world revolution.” Lenin knew that taking power was a gamble and that his party’s strength was concentrated in Russia’s urban centers and among the soldiers. So Lenin, as he would do until his death, preached unity at the moment when disunity was at its most virulent.
But whatever unity among the toiling classes Lenin hoped to retain, they were dashed by the realities of rule. By January 1918, Lenin’s government was getting flooded with letters of protest against disbanding the Constituent Assembly, failing to fulfill its promises, and incapable of dealing with the burden of rule. One unsigned letter “from the front” dated 15 January 1918 to Lenin is especially telling. It reads:
Comrade Lenin: It’s been been four whole days since we’ve had a glimpse of bread, we are walking around naked and barefoot. Yet still there’s no peace and none is expected. Comrade Lenin, did you really seize power so that you could drag the war out three more years? Comrade Lenin, where is your conscience, where are the words you promised: peace bread land and liberty in three days’ time? Did you promise all that just so you could seize power? And then what? But no, you don’t want to fulfill your obligation. Now, this is all lies. If you don’t keep your promises by 1 February, then you’re going to get what Dukhonin got: you’ll drop like a fly. If you’ve picked up the reins then go ahead and drive, and if you can’t then, honey, you can take a flying fuck to hell, or as we say in Siberia, you’re a goddamned motherfucker, son of an Irkutsk cunt (если взяли вожжи то правте а если неможите то летика ты свет нахуй посибирски сказать к ебёной матери ты ёб тваю мать иркутская блядь), who’d like to sell us out to the Germans. No you won’t be selling us out: don’t forget that we Siberians are all convicts.
It’s unknown whether Putin has received any letters from “Siberian convicts” calling him a “motherfucker” or a “son of an Irkutsk cunt,” though if he did, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. Because like with Lenin 90 years ago, Putin’s increasing calls for unity against outsiders, between peoples, and even between security organs speaks more to the reality of its opposite. True, Russia is hardly in the condition it was in 90 years ago, but one should not take Putin’s stability as a sign for greater social harmony.
Perhaps this is why it was a mistake to call the holiday National Unity Day in the first place. Many disgruntled Russian youth have appropriated it as a symbol of their own perceived disenfranchisement. For them, “national unity” means Russkii unity rather than Rossiiskii unity. In weeks leading up to National Unity Day, the few racial attacks were interpreted as examples of this. It’s unlikely that they had any connection to the holiday. If anything they speak to what many fear is a “mushrooming” of Russian ultranationalist groups. And it is clear that authorities are taking more and more notice. The far right presents even more a threat to Russia’s political stability than the liberal or even radical left. 5000 police were mobilized around Moscow and non-Russians were advised to stay off the streets.
The rally for a “Russia for Russians” missed its goal of 7,000, but only by a few grand. 5,000 nationalists turned up including an American named Preston Wiginton. Wiginton, a white supremacist from Texas, addressed the crowd with black cowboy hat and all. “I’m taking my hat off as a sign of respect for your strong identity in ethnicity, nation and race,” he told onlookers weathering the light Moscow drizzle. “Glory to Russia!” he said in broken Russian. “White power!” he shouted in his native English. It just goes to show that despite tensions between Russia and the US, Russian and American racists can find common ground. Moreover, for all the talk about racism and xenophobia in Russia, one should recognize that spitting on immigrants has become a favorite pastime of the US Congress and the EU.
Nashi activists countered the Russian March with its own calls for unity. Taking a page out to the Soviet notion of the “friendship of peoples,” 30,000 Nashi, United Russia’s Young Guard, and Mestnye activists marched through central Moscow carrying a “blanket of peace” which they sewed together to symbolize Russia’s multiethnicity. “Young Guard and other guys will come together to show the will of the people unified against those who want to divide the country,” State Duma and United Russia rep Valerii Riazanskii told Kommersant on Friday. “Nashi will present 4 November as a new tradition of celebration, and to Russian (россиян) confidence in multinational friendship and unity of peoples,” said representatives of Nashi. As a group that employs xenophobia as a campaign tactic, I don’t think Nashi is really a good symbol of tolerance.
Of all the marches and rallies around National Unity Day/Revolution Day, I think Saturday’s “March of the Empty Saucepans” in St. Petersburg is my favorite. Comprised of 1,500 protesters, half of which were pensioners, the rag tag crowd shouted slogans like “Putin’s plan is trouble for Russia” and “We’re awaiting a bread uprising” to express their anger at rising food prices and inflation. As NPB organizer Andrei Dmitriev told Reuters, “In Russia, 90 years ago, everything also began as a result of rising bread prices. People took to the streets and the tsar was overthrown.” Well, yes bread riots do have a exceptional place in revolutionary lore but I would advise Dmitriev to not get his hopes up.Post Views: 620