Richard Robbins is a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Mexico. He’s the author of Famine in Russia, 1891-1892: The Imperial Government Responds to a Crisis and The Tsar’s Viceroys: Russian Provincial Governors in the Last Years of the Empire. His new book is a biography of Vladimir Dzhunkovsky Overtaken by the Night: One Russian’s Journey through Peace, War, Revolution, and Terror published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Gary Numan, “Metal,” The Pleasure Principle, 1979.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the Russian liberal opposition. Not only do they seem to be out of touch with the sentiments of the population, or seem to offer any alternative to Putinism, they also appear prone to something I call historical transfiguration.
Take for example, what “parallels” Grigory Yavlinsky of Yabloko, Leonid Gozman of SPS, and Garry Kasparov of Other Russia see between the Russia of 1917 and Russia of 2007. Yavlinsky said that some of those parallels are “the dominance of corruption and bureaucracy, the absence of inner mechanisms for modernization, the absence of economic and political competition, the absence of a mechanism for the government’s renewal, and the absence of the chance to form a responsible and efficient opposition.” Gozman thinks that like in 1917, today’s rulers have an “absolute feeling of stability, and the tsar also had it. In addition, the opposition is being ousted toward revolution, and the tsar did not want to discuss anything as well. He had his own truth, and this was quite enough for him.” And never to be outdone, Kasparov claims that the “analogies with 1916-1917 are quite explicit.” “The Objective tensions are rising in society,” he explained, “and this is exactly what serves as the main engine of revolutionary processes. For instance, a gap between the rich and the poor has reached an unimaginable size.”
I don’t know what history books these three are reading. Because they leave out one crucial factor: World War I. The war was the number one issue in 1917. All of the instabilities that the above three speak of were exacerbated by it. Russia’s failure at the front is what made the difference between revolution and protest. The Revolution would have gone nowhere without soldiers willingly, and often happily, turning their guns on their officers. Take for example these Okhrana reports from 26 February 1917:
“In the vicinity of the Church of Christ the Saviour, the 4th company met a mounted patrol of 10 policemen; the soldiers abused the policemen, calling them “pharaohs,” and firing several volleys at them, killing one police man and one horse, and wounding one policeman and one horse. Then the soldiers returned to the barracks, where they staged a mutiny. Colonel Eksten came to put it down and was wounded by one of the soldiers; his hand was cut off.”
That same day, Okhrana agents also reported:
“As the military unites did not oppose the crowds, and in certain cases even took measures tending to paralyze the initiative of police officials, as for two days the mobs wandered unhindered about the streets, and as the revolutionary circles advanced slogans: “Down with the war” and “Down with the Government”–the people became convinced that the revolution had started, that success was on the side of the mobs, that the Government was powerless to suppress the movement because the military units were on the side of the latter, that a decisive victory was in sight because in the very near future the military units would opening join the revolutionary forces.”
It was actions like these, not just in Petrograd, but also at the front which made the Russia Revolution, as one scholar argued, essentially a mass soldiers’ revolt.
Moreover, it is no secret that the key to the Bolshevik’s taking power in November 1917 stemmed from the fact that they controlled almost the entire Petrograd garrison and had solid support among soldiers at the front. This why 66.9% of soldiers at the Western front cast their Constituent Assembly votes for the Bolsheviks.
Russian oppositionists might remember these historical facts before they try to draw “parallels” between Russian in 1917 and Russia now. After all, believing in their own analysis of 1917 might end them up on the wrong side of the gun.Post Views: 269
By Sean — 10 years ago
The 3 March issue of the Nation has two reviews of four recent books on Soviet history. The first review, “The Ice Forge,” written by Jochen Hellbeck, examines Lynne Viola’s Unknown Gulag and Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers. Viola’s book chronicles the deportation of Soviet “kulaks” during collectivization. About it Hellbeck writes, “The Unknown Gulag, is an indictment of the utopian folly and criminal neglect of Soviet officials, and a moving account of human suffering.”
Similarly, Figes text is an exploration into private life under Stalin’s rule. “Reading The Whisperers,” Hellbeck states, “one comes away with a powerful sense that stigmatization and self-reinvention were central, indeed defining, attributes of the Soviet experience for many Russians of rural as well as urban backgrounds.” Figes has set up a website for the book which allows visitors to access the many interview he had conducted for his study. Despite a few translated interviews, unfortunately the bulk of them remain in Russian making audience access is limited. One can only hope that Figes will have the funds and desire to translate more of them.
I think this observation by Hellbeck is quite interesting:
As I read the interview transcripts on Figes’s website, I was struck by how, in at least a few cases, the subjects appear to have been treated to a rather aggressive form of questioning about their thoughts and feelings in Stalin’s time. Yet one interviewee, Dmitry Streletsky, would not yield to these pressures and insisted on his own, decidedly moral, reading of his life under Stalin. Streletsky could have leapt from the pages of Lynne Viola’s book. He was born into a family of peasants who were persecuted as kulaks and exiled to a special settlement in the Urals. The death rate in the settlement was staggering. Streletsky relates how his single most important desire, to prove he was a Soviet citizen like everyone else, was constantly impeded. The Memorial worker interviewing Streletsky understands this to mean that he was driven by a fear of punishment:
Q: Did you fear that they would punish you [for your kulak origins]?
A: There was shame, and there was my conscience, it wasn’t just about the punishment, but about these things.
Q: But you also feared that they might punish you?
A: Who knows? I had doubts, yes doubts. I didn’t feel fear,
Q: And that they would punish you, right?
A: That they would punish me and all the rest. Fire me from work….
A few sentences later Streletsky’s interview partner returns to the same subject: “Tell me, please, what or whom did you fear more, the NKVD or the commander [of the settlement]? Were you afraid?” Streletsky’s response: “Listen, I didn’t feel any fear.
Streletsky then talks about how he dreamed of joining the Communist Party throughout the years of his exile. When he describes his disappointment about being turned down for party membership in 1952, his voice shakes with emotion, the transcript notes. The exchange between Streletsky and his incredulous interrogator is revealing, for it discloses not only Streletsky’s moral reading of his Soviet experience but also the gap that lies between him and the interviewer, who adheres to a cynical view of Communism more characteristic of younger generations of Russians.
In the second review, “Revolutionary States,” veteran Soviet scholar Ronald Suny tackles Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks in Power is the third in trilogy of arguably the best scholarly study of the Russian Revolution. Among Rabinowitch’s many themes, Suny notes that the central issue in this volume is: “Why did a democratic revolution based on grassroots councils and committees turn into a dictatorship that employed state terror against its opponents, real and imagined, within months of its coming to power?” A haunting question indeed.
The second book subject to Suny’s examination is Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia. Tear Off the Masks!, the only of the four books featured which I’ve read, is a collection of articles that Fitzpatrick has published over the last fifteen years on the subject of imposture, denunciation, social identity, and coping in 1930s Soviet Russia. It is this thematic concentration that allows Suny to conclude from Fitzpatrick’s fifteen articles that her notion of the “quintessential Soviet” is “a shrewd manipulator able to adapt to shifting opportunities, maneuver through ever-present dangers and “con” the authorities when necessary.” It is this notion of Soviet citizens as ultimately conscious, rational individuals who always knew what they wanted and how to get it is where I part with her text. In parts, Fitzpatrick’s book reads like the liberal individual triumphant, a move that borders on placing her subjects above the conditioning power of History itself.
Much of Fitzpatrick’s reductionism is partially born in a historiographical attack on what she calls the “Soviet subjectivity school.” I could never understand the propensity to ascribe schools in Russian historical studies, especially to ones like the so-called “Soviet subjectivity school” which have no more than two or three scholars attached to them. Neverthless, such ascription serves many, especially as they try to carve out an island of difference within an mostly academic sea of similitude.
The contours in Soviet historiography aside, the real tragedy is that Fitzpatrick’s effort to undermine Hellbeck’s notion of a illiberal Soviet subject, (Hellbeck and Israeli historian Igal Halfin are recognized as the theoretical hydra of a Foucaultian notion of the Soviet self), leads her to posit an equally reductionist view of the self that the “Soviet subjectivity school” has similarly, and often unfairly, been criticized for. But such is the outcome when one rejects the notion of theory altogether. Such declarations mask the fact even the most empirically based analyses are steeped in some theoretical assumption about the lives subject to them.
A study that somehow captures the inner contradictions of life under Stalin that goes beyond Soviet citizens as either dupes or tricksters is still waiting to be written. My methodological position would be an exploration into the dialectical braiding of the two poles. But that is a whole other story that is still in the making.Post Views: 204
By Sean — 3 years ago
Here’s the first of a new weekly podcast covering Eurasian politics, society, and history.
Christopher Miller, Mashable‘s Senior Correspondent covering world news, particularly the post-Soviet space and especially Ukraine. You can read Chris’ reporting from Ukraine here.
Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is also the co-author with Clifford Gaddy of the recently released second edition of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.
You can read my review of Mr. Putin here.Post Views: 352