Jon Platt is an assistant professor in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department at the University of Pittsburgh where he specializes in Pushkin, literary theory, Soviet culture, and Russian contemporary art and poetry. He recently published Greetings, Pushkin!: Stalinist Cultural Politics and the Russian National Bard (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016).
Sebadoh, “Rebound,” 4 Song CD, 1994.
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By Sean — 5 years ago
Amid all the Navalny news yesterday, I decided to hold off posting my latest Russia! Magazine column, “Pussy Riots on Film.” This week I review Maxim Pozdorovkin’s and Mike Lerner’s HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Here’s a trailer followed by my opening paragraphs:
About two-thirds of the way through Maxim Pozdorovkin’s and Mike Lerner’s documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the judge Marina Syrova scolds the courtroom. “People, let me remind you, this isn’t a theater.” Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich were delivering their closing statements to resounding applause. Judge Syrova’s denial was really an affirmation. The trial was theater. In fact everything about Pussy Riot was theatrics, from their impromptu performances to their demeanor in court. The three young women weren’t the only performers. The defense and prosecution, Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr, the media, the adherents and detractors, and Pussy Riot’s international supporters, which included such legendary celebrities as Yoko Ono and Madonna, all played their roles in this drama. And so did Syrova. There she was on my TV screen serving as one of the antagonists in a film where three balaclava wearing feminists played the leading ladies.
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a good film. It’s an excellent primer for laymen unfamiliar with the Pussy Riot story. The documentary also gives something to those who followed the case. By allowing the narrative to unfold through the voices of its participants—Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, Samutsevich, their parents, their lawyers, Russian Orthodox patriots, etc — even the initiated viewer is treated to a good look into the personalities around the Pussy Riot phenomenon. From the disparate voices of their characters, Prozdorovkin and Lerner managed to craft a consumable narrative. Unfortunately lost in the simplicity are the real politics of Pussy Riot, especially their feminism, and the larger political context in which the group operates. In the end, Pussy Riot and their collective’s message is muted by the film’s effort to weave individual stories about Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, Samutsevich. While these three young women come across principled, poised, and provoking, in making the film mostly about them, Prozdorovkin and Lerner allow little screen time for Pussy Riot as a radical leftwing political art project. Ultimately, their “punk prayer” is framed as individual communions rather than a collective lament to the Holy Mother.Post Views: 600
By Sean — 10 years ago
There isn’t much by way of new information about the raid on Memorial. Why the human rights organization was raided still remains a mystery. Work has renewed at the organization’s office but day to day activities remain disturbed. After all, the police did confiscate a laundry list of materials. According to a statement issued by Memorial, those materials include several hard drives that contain “biographical information of tens of thousands of victims of Stalinist repression collected by Memorial over the last 20 years, a unique collection of photographs and copies of archival documents on Stalinist terror, the results of searches of camp cemeteries and firing ranges in the territory of the former USSR, and an archive of audio interviews with former GULAG prisoners.”
Memorial, of course, wants their stuff back unmolested and as soon as possible. When Irina Flige, the director of Memorial St. Petersburg, presented this request to the investigative committee, they told her that an official response will take about a month.
The seizure of historical documents relating to terror unsurprisingly raises the specter of Stalinism and its place in Russian historical memory. Stalin still remains a controversial figure. He’s continues to be loved and hated, sometimes in the same breath. Historians have provided no satisfactory unified narrative for this complex period of Russia’s history. This failure is not for lack of documentation. The problem is more than how one interprets those documents continues to have political resonance for the present.
Still, the Memorial raid does raise the issue about documents and whether, as Clifford Levy argued in a recent article in the NY Times, “many archives detailing killings, persecution and other such acts committed by the Soviet authorities have become increasingly off limits.”
The declassification of documents has ebbed and flowed in the last 15 years. In the 1990s, the archives were simply opened without any process of declassification. The process was formalized in the mid-1990s with the law “On the process of declassification and extending the period of classification of archival documents of the Soviet government.” Moreover, declassification committees are underfunded and understaffed. There is also little incentive. Now there seems to be a cultural atmosphere that suggests that Russians want to move on. They’ve heard enough about the horrors of the Soviet system and seem to either not care anymore or would rather look to the future rather than the past. There have been instances at the federal level to re-classify documents. A partial list for 2005 and 2006 can be found here. But these seem to have little do with Stalinist terror.
The amount of available materials on the Soviet period are enormous. According to Sergei Mironenko, the director of the State Archive of the Russian Federation, said the following in response to a question about materials on Stalinism in a press conference yesterday:
“I cannot say for certain, but I presume that three-fourths of such documents have been declassified. A quarter remains classified,” he said. “According to our laws, any document must be declassified automatically after 30 years. Unfortunately, this law is not fulfilled,” he said. “Russia has a very awkward and costly declassification system. It takes 27 resolutions of experts to declassify any document,” Mironenko noted. It is difficult to get access to declassified documents, as well, he remarked.
One should emphasize that the 30 years does not pertain to documents relating to individuals. There is a 75 year wait for those unless you get special permission from any surviving family members. Also, getting access to declassified documents depends on what you’re working on. It’s has always been a dance with archivists to get materials if you are interested in seeing blood. I’ve gotten the “You’re requesting a lot of negative material” talk from archivists and I don’t do any research on terror. Part of the reason for this is that most archivists were trained in the Soviet system, so their first impulse is to protect information and not dole it out. The other reasons is that they are particularly sensitive about foreigners sniffing around their archives looking to, in their view, defame their national heritage. Given the legacy of English language historiography on Russia, I can’t say I blame them.
It is important to remember that not all declassifications pertain to Stalinism. For example, one of the holdings declassified this year was the Commission on Paper under the Council of People’s Commissars SSSR, 1928-1929. Anyone interested in what has been declassified in the last few years are encouraged to take a look at Rosarkhiv’s yearly bulletins on declassification. This of course doesn’t include regional archives where access can be hit or miss and depend more on the temperament of local archivists.
Basically, while the Memorial documents are important and must be returned, they are but a drop in a vast ocean of available documentation.
Still, the issue is about historical memory, and in particular the memory of Stalinism. Many are often aghast that Stalin retains a positive image among many Russians. Again and again you hear people ask why Russians have yet to contend with Stalinism. Yet, I wonder whether those who repeatedly ask this question are really asking for Russians to contend with Stalin the way they want them to. They want Russians to see Stalinism as a singular death machine where one man, Stalin, stood at the apex. History is far more complicated and contingent and unfortunately, Stalinism cannot be reduced to this no matter how many victimologies you construct, no matter how many mass graves you dig up, or even however many documents you declassify. if it was our job would be all too easy.
This is why I agree with Slavoj Zizek’s statement that “We should . . .admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism.” Namely, Stalinism was a historical phenonmena, and frankly, to locate its horrors only in the personage of Stalin is whitewashing the millions of people who actively participated in those horrors. In my view, really contending with Stalinism would mean understanding it as a phenonmena where the line between perpretrator and victim was blurred. It would mean coming to terms with the perverse carnivalesque at its core. It would require Russians to look into the mirror and peer deeply into themselves, not to locate victims or even perpretrators, but to ask how a society could cannabalize itself.Post Views: 653
By Sean — 12 years ago
Boris Kagarlitsky has weighed in on the significance of Khrushchev’s speech in a commentary in the Moscow Times. I think some of the passages are worth noting. Kagarlitsky has an interesting thesis: In order for not only Khrushchev, but the Communist Party to erase their complicity in Stalin’s crimes, a complicity which made the Terror possible, they had to essentially sacrifice Stalin.
Looking back on the congress, some accused Khrushchev of inconsistency and a lack of radicalism, while others objected to the fact that he made Stalin’s crimes public and turned political reform into a personal, posthumous reckoning with Stalin. The guilt or complicity of other Politburo members is not the issue, however. Khrushchev heaped all the blame on Stalin because he wanted to avoid a serious discussion of what had happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s.
Had Khrushchev’s view of the dead dictator been more balanced, questions might have been raised about the inherent contradictions of the Soviet state and about the extent to which the existing order reflected Marxist conceptions of socialism. These questions had been raised by Trotsky, who was anathema to the elite under Khrushchev just as he had been under Stalin. Had Khrushchev been a less virulent anti-Stalinist, he would almost certainly have been forced in the direction of Trotskyism.
The Party elite in the late-1950s opted to forgive no one and to comprehend nothing. Stalin had to be sacrificed in order to protect the system. The secret speech was not one man’s initiative; it reflected the general view of the Party machine after three years of infighting.
What is more interesting, and unfortunately it is a point he makes in passing, is how Kagarlitsky characterizes Stalinism. The standard view is to see Soviet society under Stalin as atomized society where the diversity of opinion was annihilated for fear of arrest and execution. Stalinism, however, was more complicated than that. And it was this complexity, an irreconcilable blend of democracy and authoritarianism, or how I like to characterize Stalinism—authoritarian populism—that made extreme violence acceptable and deplorable in the same breath, uttered within the same system.
Soviet society was never entirely monolithic. The proof of this can be found in the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as well as in the Soviet archives. There was, however, a strong sense of a common fate and a common cause that united not just the working class and the bureaucratic elite, but even gulag inmates and their captors. The Stalinist regime was directly linked to the history of the Revolution. It was a sort of communist Bonapartism. It combined totalitarianism with democratic principles, fear and repression with enthusiasm and sincerity. This blend made the 20th Party Congress possible.Post Views: 397