I don’t usually post plugs, but I received an email from the Community Engagement and Education Department from the PBS series POV about the upcoming broadcast of My Perestroika on June 28. It’s rare that serious films about Russia make it to American television, and promoting PBS in general is a worthy endeavor, so I thought I would help them out. You can find your local time for My Perestroika here.
Unfortunately, the DVD only has an “institutional price,” i.e. a whopping $395 for university libraries. So PBS is the only affordable place, i.e. free, for the time being.
Here is a short synopsis of My Perestroika from its press kit,
When the USSR broke apart in 1991, a generation of young people faced a new realm of possibilities. An intimate epic about the extraordinary lives of this last Soviet generation, Robin Hessman’s feature documentary debut tells the stories of five Moscow schoolmates who were brought up behind the Iron Curtain, witnessed the joy and confusion of glasnost, and reached adulthood right as the world changed around them. Through candid first person testimony, revealing verité footage, and vintage home movies, Hessman, who spent many years living in Moscow, reveals a Russia rarely ever seen on film, where people are frank about their lives and forthcoming about their country. Engaging, funny, and positively inspiring, in MY PERESTROIKA politics is personal, honesty overshadows ideology, and history progresses one day, one life at a time.
So tune in. I will.
For those without PBS, My Perestroika will be streamed online from June 29, 2011 to August 28, 2011 (FYI: the link is dead at the moment, but I assume it will work on the 29th).
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By Sean — 13 years ago
In his masterful narrative of Imperial Russian history, Russian: People and Empire, Geoffrey Hosking stated that Russian nationhood is caught in an irreconcilable binary between russkii and rossiiskii. The former signifies the ethnic category for Russian, which has its roots in the Slavs who established Kievan Rus’ in the 9th century, while the latter suggests a category for subjects or citizens of the Russian Empire despite their ethnic identity. Russian state and national development, agues Hosking, is in many ways characterized by the effort to reconcile these two concepts. “The great question for Russian leaders during the 19th and 20th centuries,” he wrote, “might be formulated as whether they could inculcate an analogous compound national identity in their empire’s more diverse elements.” (xxi)
Efforts to solve this question abound. Peter the Great attempted to create civic categories with his Table of Ranks, eschewing ethnic difference as something that could be overcome through service and loyalty to the State. Nicholas I addressed the civic and ethnic binary via his Digest of Laws (1832) by codifying Russian estates or soslovie coupled with an aggressive policy of Russification. The Bolsheviks attempted to reconcile russkii and rossisskii by Bolshevizing the problem. They suppressed Russian and ethnic nationalism while celebrating sovietization, preached the vague “national in form, socialist in content,” and attempted to create an overarching national-civic category of Soviet. However, as the collapse of the Soviet Union shows us, both the Tsarist and Soviet systems failed in uniting these seemingly contradictory categories. In fact the recent resurgence of russkii in the form of extreme nationalism and racial violence suggests that like during the late Imperial period, rossiiskii is taking a back seat. It appears that the problematic that plagued Russia’s state building continues to nag its post-Soviet development.
Nothing suggests this more that the current law before the Duma called “On the foundation of State national politics of the Russian Federation.” The bill is full of the problem the binary russkii and rossiisskii poses. Ethnic minorities within the Russian Federation see the bill as yet another attempt to codify Russian ethnic and cultural dominance. The State Council Committee on Culture, Science, Education, and National Affairs of Tatarstan, for example, has denounced the bill as chauvinistic and harking back to the “unrealistic experiment” to create a Soviet nation because it singles out a privileged position for the Russian people (Article 16) and declares that Russian (rossiiskii) citizens are “duty bound”(Article 20) to know the state language of the Russian (Rossiiskii) Federation—Russian (Russkii). Further, Article 21 states that “the violation of the legislation of the Russian Federation on the state national politics is a criminal penalty.” Once again, russkii trumps rossiisskii. In the view of Indus Tahirov, a deputy of Tatarstan’s Parliament, such Articles, especially with its provisions guaranteeing non-Russian’s right to use and preserve their native culture and language, makes the bill
a very insidious law. It gives the impression of defending the Russian people, but in essence it is directed against the Russian people. It appears to compliment the Russian people but actually it sets the Russian people up against all the other peoples. Then there is that terrible article where it states that citizens of the Russian Federation are obliged to know the Russian language. What does it mean: “obliged”? If they have to imprison me, what will they do?
Empire leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And any effort by the Russian majority to create an overarching civic category based on Russia (rossisskii) recalls a well known bitter taste.
The Radio Free Europe article on the matter states that the impetus behind this bill is fears of demographic change in Russia. Russian society is becoming more diverse and the growth of the Muslim population, the Kremlin fears, will one day whittle down Russian ethnic and religious dominance.
However, I feel the problem is more at the heart of Russian concept of nationality than the materialism of demography. It seems, (and by the way Russian concepts of nationality and ethnicity are shamefully understudied and under theorized), that nationality (natsional’nost’) and the people comprise it (narod) are becoming more and more synonymous with the concept of race. Here in the United States, for example, we tend to think of race as biological, and nationality and its members as more civic (though certainly not completely lacking biological markers). Both are more or less distinct categories. However, in Russia, race, nationality and its members (narod) seem to be intersecting more and more because the latter two have always been understood as a biological-cultural category, that is, it is blood and culture. This means that one’s nationality or nation is determined by biological lineage, language, culture and to some extent geographical origin. This conflation of nationality (natsional’nost’) and people (narod) with race seems to be recognized in the Duma bill because two distinct terms are used when speaking of, say, the “Russian nation” in the text. When it talks about the Russian nation as a civic entity it uses “Russian nation” (Rossiisskaia natsia), whereas when denoting an ethno-national entity it uses “Russian people” (Rossisskaia narod).
The Russian concept of nationality, therefore, forecloses the creation of a purely civic identity because the civic category rossiisskii cannot be separated from its ethno-biological roots. Rossiisskii is inherently based on an ethnic concept: Russia is a geographical territory where Russians (russkii) are its foundation. Nothing says this more than the first line of Article 16: “The Russian people (russkii narod) are recognized as the “state-forming” (rosudarstvoobrazuiushchii) people who have constituted itself in all territories of the Russian Federation.” No other ethnic group is given such a primary and privileged position in the law. In fact, no other ethnic group is specifically named. They are silenced as they are subsumed into the general category of narod. The Russian people’s (Russkii narod) primacy is only furthered by the following statement:
Organs of state power of the Russian (Rossiiskii) Federation, organs of state power subject to the Russian Federation and organs of local government under working and implementation of federal, regional and local programs of social-economic and national-cultural development of the peoples (narod) of the Russian Federation are duty bound to take into consideration the needs and interests of the Russian people (russkii narod). (Article 16)
How can an overarching civic category based on rossiisskii be created if it must make particular consideration of the “needs and interests” of the ethnic category of russkii? The above statement seems to negate that possibility thus making the bill “On the foundation of State national politics of the Russian Federation” to end up being yet another failed attempt.
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.
By Sean — 11 years ago
I have yet to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s acclaimed Young Stalin. Now I might not have to. According to the Guardian, Montefiore has signed a contract with Miramax, producer Alison Owen of Elizabeth fame, and screenwriter John Hodge of Trainspotting to do a celluloid version of the book. Not a bad follow-up to receiving the Costa Book Award for Best Biography of 2007.
The real question is who should play the young Stalin? If it was up to Montefiore, Koba’s salad days in the revolutionary underground would be played by none other that Johnny Depp. “If it’s not done in Georgian, Johnny Depp would be perfect for the lead role,” he told reporters.
Given the supposed attention Montefiore gives to Koba’s many love affairs, Depp sounds like a perfect choice to play the Georgian Don Juan turned Communist dictator.