Thinking Allowed‘s Laurie Taylor has an interesting discussion with Mikhail Ryklin about the historical memory of Stalinism. Ryklin’s most recent work looks at Communist ideology as a “substitute” or “political” religion which “gave millions of people all over the globe an ultimate meaning.” Indeed, Marxism, with its eschatological narrative based on the fall and rise of Man, class concepts of the Good and the Evil, and the importance of Revolution as the apocalyptic moment, stood as a secular replacement for the Christian religious narrative at the moment when liberal capitalism was in crisis.
And what is the state of Stalinism now? Ryklin argues that Stalin’s rehabilitation cannot be seperated from the Soviet victory in WWII. Current so-called “Stalinists” are trying to explain the Terror with the Molotov thesis: Terror was necessary to rid the county of a potential Fifth Column in case of war. As Molotov, the ever loyal and unapologetic Stalinist, told Felix Chuev in 1982,
It is interesting that before the events of the thirties, we lived all the time with oppositionists, with oppositionist groups. After the war, there were no opposition groups; it was such a relief that it made it easier to give a correct, better direction, but if the majority of these people had remained alive, I don’t know if we would be standing solidly on our feet. Here Stalin took upon himself chiefly all this difficult business, but we helped properly. Correctly. And without such a person as Stalin, it would have been very difficult. Very. Especially in the period of war. All around–one against another, what good is that?
As Ryklin adds, this thesis goes well with Russians’ split memory on Stalinism. Millions perished, but the time was also a period of social mobility, perceived order, and most importantly, Russia’s victory over its external enemies. “There are very different images of this time depending on what group in society your family belonged,” Ryklin tells Taylor. The so-called revival of Stalin in the present is an appeal to this positive memory of period.
It’s an interesting discussion with a fascinating thinker. Unfortunately, ten minutes just doesn’t do the Ryklin’s views justice.
You Might also like
By Sean — 10 years ago
If Putin was an American politician, what would he be? He is conservative, deeply religious, a patriot, and strong partisan for Russian traditions.
Given this, I doubt we would have seen Putin strutting about on the DNC’s American Idol-esque stage, swearing his undying, almost cultic allegiance to Barak Obama. It’s more likely we would find him preparing to jet to St. Paul to rouse the base in support of McCain. For some, Putin’s Republican affinities are all too clear: Putin is a closet neocon and the his real intent of his interview with CNN was to cast a veiled vote for John McCain.
It is this last point that I find interesting. Mostly because the big question has been what Putin was thinking when he asserted that the US might be behind the Georgian War. Bad information? Kooky conspiracy thinking. An age old Russian paranoia? Or was he somehow trapped in the simulacra of his own state media machine where the lines between reality and virtual are erased? An affirmative to the last question wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve witnessed this discursive circle in Soviet archival documents. The central and local Soviet leadership often referenced the press in internal reports. When I do come across this phenomena, I always ask: Don’t they know that the media is controlled? They can’t actually think the press is some reflection of reality? If the documents are any answer, they do and continue to do so. And this belief is not as simple as them “believing their own bullshit.” That is clear. Nor is such a belief unique to Russia. The real question is how and why this happens My short answer is that Putin & Co. are locked in their own rhetoric. There is no outside discourse with enough truth value to break the logic of their dominant discourse. Their belief, rhetoric, and power to control the parameters of acceptable speech reinforces themselves in a dizzying circle signification.
Some, however, are suggesting there is something more sinister at work in Putin’s allegations. Namely, that it is the way that Putin meddles in American elections. This is the thesis of Ilya Milshtein’s article “Coercion to McCain” (Russian verison). As Milshtein writes,
One way or another, our national leader has “voted” for the republicans for at least four years already.
In the fall of 2004, the Russian president sternly spoke out against democrat John Kerry. Literally equating the liberal candidate to Al-Qaeda, Putin said that a defeat of Bush would be “a grandiose victory for international terrorism.” He repeated this thought he had grown fond of at the moment when America was counting the votes collected by the contenders. If George wins, Putin said, this would mean that “the American public did not allow itself to be frightened, and made a wise choice.”
As you know, the American public lived up to his expectation.
Was Putin’s assertion of American meddling in Georgia, though couched in “hypothesis” and “ifs” a similar gesture? Maybe.
Every word here is worth its weight in gold, and each is clear as crystal.
It is hard to accept that Putin, one of the most informed people on the planet, doesn’t know something. And who could strive for “escalation” and win percents over it? Only McCain, which some of our political figures and experts have already spoken out about –as a rule, those who welcome the coming cold war epoch with a joyous song.
Now Putin has joined with them. Taking into account past experience, Vladimir Vladimirovich today acts from the opposite side. It’s as if, in Ukraine four years ago, he had recruited the local people into the ranks of the “Orangists” and twice congratulated Yushchenko with a glorious victory. He accuses the republicans of initiating the war in the Caucasus, knowing full well, that the majority of Americans won’t believe him. Instead, they’ll clearly adopt it: this unpleasant Russian is against our John. That’s why many of those who waver between McCain and Obama, will now vote for the republican candidate. Simply because Putin alluded to him with disapproval.
The time at hand is completely different, after all. It is a very cold time, forcing Americans, with a sigh, to remember the late Ronald Reagan, with his firmness in leading the operation which today can be called “coercion into perestroika.” It is exactly McCain who is conducting his electoral campaign with Reagan’s name on his lips.
In a word, just a couple more of these interviews on American TV channels, and our cunning premier will celebrate a victory with the republicans. Why they are so dear to him is uncertain. But one wants to believe, that coming into power, John McCain won’t forget the efforts of his Russian partner in the cold war, and will reward him with some kind of secret decoration.
The impact of Putin’s “vote” will be revealed in this week’s Republican National Convention. After all the Republican heat on Russia is going up. Dick Cheney was dispatched to Georgia to send Russia a message. Cindy McCain was sent to do some refugee PR. Some are already suggesting that Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin has national security experience just because her state, Alaska, is close to Russia. So maybe Russia will be something the Republicans bang on this week. We shall see.
To think I was half joking when I wrote, “If McCain wins in November he should send Medvedev and Putin a box of chocolates in gratitude.” Maybe I was on to something . . .Post Views: 703
By Sean — 11 years ago
The consecration of two memorials, one in the US the other in Russia, caught my attention as I was perusing the Russian news. The first is the so-called Victims of Communism Memorial which was dedicated in Washington DC today. The Memorial is the work of the Victim’s of Communism Memorial Foundation which seeks “to commemorate the more than 100 million victims of communism; to honor those who successfully resisted communist tyranny; to educate current and future generations about communism’s crimes against humanity; and to pay tribute to those who helped win the Cold War.” As a whole the Foundation seeks to make combat the “moral blind spot” and “moral failure” of “free societies” to not equate Communism with Nazism.
The Foundation’s origins date to HR 3000 which was sponsored by US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Senator Claiborne Pell, and Senator Jesse Helms and passed unanimously 17 December 1993 and then renewed in October 1998. The bill charged the National Captive Nations Committee “to construct, maintain, and operate in the District of Columbia an appropriate international memorial to honor victims of communism, tragically numbering more than 100 million, struck down in an unprecedented imperial communist holocaust through conquests, revolutions, civil wars, purges, wars by proxy, and other violent means.” Former President H. W. Bush serves as it honorary chairman and its National Advisory Board features such Russian studies necrophiliologists Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes. The Russian representation of its International Advisory Board includes former Soviet dissidents Elena Bonner and Vladimir Bukovsky.
Tuesday’s groundbreaking featured a keynote address by D.C. Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and remarks by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. President George W. Bush also spoke to the audience (see below).
I find having such a memorial rather strange. The millions of victims of communist regimes can’t be denied and their memory should live for a variety of reasons. But many of those reasons, I think, pertain to the nations where these tragedies occurred not in the United States. Having such a memorial seems to only twist the horrors of Communism into yet another example of self reflexive ideological grandstanding by the United States. After all, one must ask how many actual “survivors” of communism will actually get to visit the memorial? In fact, the Foundation’s own statements point to it as simple American triumphalism. Here are some examples from the Foundation’s “History of Communism”:
“The West’s triumph over the “evil empire” was no accident of history. It was the result of a calculated strategy by a grand alliance of political, military, religious, business and labor leaders. These leaders deserve credit for the victory over Communism many thought impossible.”
“And yet the United States, communism’s greatest challenger and a symbol of freedom to the world, has no memorial to commemorate these victims,” it said.
“This memorial will assure that they are, instead, remembered forever and that the history of communist tyranny will be taught to future generations.”
Oh, the hyperbole! In regard to the last one, remembered by who? Americans? It seems that such a memory should be for the nations that experienced, allowed, and participated these tragedies. Memorials like this should be in former Communist countries so there can be some social, political, and cultural reconciliation to these tragedies, not for the victors to beat their chest and claim the providence of History. The memory presented by the Victim’s of Communism Memorial Foundation is more like that memory’s hijacking rather than its preservation.
This brings me to the next memorial to the victims of Communism: the memorial dedicated to some 20,000 victims of Stalinist repression located in Butovo outside of Moscow. The memorial features a timeline of the repression and photographs and case files of victims (which ironically were given to the memorial by sympathetic KGB veterans) executed as part of Stalin’s “mass operations” carried out between August 1937 and November 1938. The “mass operation” or “kulak operation,” as Party documents called it, was the bloodiest moment of the Great Terror. According to historian Arch Getty, “By the time it ended in November 1938, 767,397 persons had been sentenced by summary troikas; 386,798 of them to death and the remainder to terms in GULAG camps. The process saw systematic, physical tortures (approved personally by Stalin) of a savage nature and scale, fabricated conspiracies, false charges, and mass executions. As such, the kulak operation of 1937-38 must be counted among the major massacres of a bloody twentieth century.” (J. Arch Getty, “‘Excesses are not permitted’: Mass Terror and Stalinist Governance in the Late 1930s,” Russian Review, 61, 2002, 113-114.)
What is more horrifying beyond Stalin’s personal hand in this operation is how, Getty argues, local leaders were more zealous and eager in implementing the operations than even Stalin and Ezhov desired. The result was an “operation far from centralized and quickly degenerated into the kind of chaos, confusion, and contradiction endemic to Stalinist campaign mode, but there is little reason to think that Stalin sought or expected the mess he created.” (116). The mass bloodletting was in part the result of the Soviet regimes own central institutional weakness.
The memorial at Butovo seeks to rescue some of the victims’ humanity from the violent chaos through memory. But that doesn’t mean that the effort is without controversy. Memory is never devoid of politics no matter how sincere the effort. As the New York Times explains:
The killing ground is a symbol of a much larger, bloodier conflict in Russian society, that between the Bolsheviks and the Russian Orthodox Church. One thousand of those killed here are known to have died for their Orthodox faith. More than 320 have been canonized as “new martyrs” of the church — bishops, monks, nuns and lay people who were victims of Soviet rule.
The new church was consecrated on May 19 as part of the celebration of the reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Church Abroad, an ?migr? group that broke away in the 1920s. The walls of the church are filled with icons of the new martyrs, including one depicting their executioners shooting them. Glass cases in the lower church are filled with their personal items, like an executed priest’s prayer book and his violin.
Some visitors see the focus on Orthodoxy as insulting to the memory victims at Butovo, especially since many were not Orthodox nor Russian but resembled a snap shot how a variety of groups in Soviet society could be labeled “enemies of the people.”
Despite its focus on Orthodoxy, the Butovo memorial is exactly where a monument to the victims of Stalinism should be: where the trauma actually occurred and where those who’s families were directly or indirectly effected by the violence can construct a memory, and hopefully some sense and reconciliation of their own.
Update: According to the LA Times, the reason why the groundbreaking of the Victims of Communism Memorial was today was because today is the 20th anniversary of President Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech.
Another correction, President Bush did attend the event. As for what he said, the LA Times reports:
Bush paid tribute to Ukrainians who starved during Stalin’s purges, and to Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians put on box cars for deportation to concentration camps, and to East Germans shot attempting the scale the Berlin Wall.
“Regimes did more than take their victims’ lives,” Bush said. “They sought to erase their memory.”
Bush also used the occasion to compare communist tyrants to today’s terrorists. “Like communists,” he said, “followers of radical Islamic terrorism are doomed to fail.”Tags: Soviet Union|Russia|Stalinism|Great Terror|history|memory|Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation|ButovoPost Views: 646
By Sean — 3 months ago