Gorbachev at 75

Gorbachev turns 75 today. This world historical figure needs no introduction. He is celebrated in the West and reviled in Russia. Yet, he continues to speak out against censorship in Russia as well as sending warnings about the re-emergence of authoritarianism. He spoke on similar themes in an interview with Radio Free Europe. Whatever one may think of his views, he remains one of the most important figures of the 20th century. Gorbachev recently gave an interview to Rossiiskaya gazeta. Here are some of his more interesting comments. All translations, for better or for worse are mine.

Rossiiskaya gazeta: In your opinion, what must the leaders of Islam do to reduce the dangerous characteristics of the rising opposition?

Gorbachev: I would like to put the question differently: What must all the participants in the process of globalization do? The Islamic world—it demands understanding and respect. It has huge human, historical and cultural potential. In the span of a century and a half it has given much to the world, enriching its science and culture. An equal and mutually respectful dialogue with it is not completely impossible. This is the only correct path.

Gorbachev remains optimistic for the victory of moderation. He rejects the idea of the “clash of civilizations” and instead sees the possibility of a dialogue based on the common language of modernity which is present in both the West and the Islamic world. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, that the rhetoric of anti-modernity has taken center stage on both sides. In the last five years we’ve seen an increased polarization based on either religious fundamentalism, or the complete barbarization of one side by the other.

RG: Do you share the position of the Russian (Rossiiskii) delegation, which refuses to vote for the PACE (Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly) resolution? [Here the interviewer is referring to a resolution before PACE that called for the condemnation of the crimes of communist regimes. The text can be read here.—Sean]

G: This brings to mind Yeltsin’s team’s plan for coming to power. I have in mind the process in the Constitutional court where he attempted to put the KPSS (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) on trial. I didn’t go to this court. I then said that there is only one court possible—the court of history. The crimes of the regime must not be combined with the lives of several generations. People lived, selflessly labored, to elevate the country. All that was achieved in this period that was achieved by the people. By a mighty people. This needs to be remembered.

RG: But PACE’s resolution does not contain accusations of the people who lived in the Communist period. This resolution condemns communism as a political practice. Even communist ideology is not subjected to judgment. That said, what remains of your relation to its past?

G: I was and remain a supporter of the socialist idea. Its ideal. Its value. But I lead in the process of debunking the socialist model which renounced democracy and made a bet on dictatorship.

RG: Once a speech was given on this . . . In February the country will mark a historical date—50 years since the 20th Party Congress. You were a young man then. What kind of impression did Khrushchev’s speech which denounced Stalin’s personality cult make on you?

G: I remember how I came to these events. I arrived in Stavropol, and after seven day duty in the Procuracy they sent me to lead a department of propaganda in a Komsomol kraikom. This was August 1955. The 20th Party Congress was in February. That said, I was prepared to take some sort of role in it. After graduating MGU [Moscow State University] I was dispatched to the Procuracy of the USSR. Twelve people—eleven were war veterans and me. They probably took me as proletarian. Then they were beginning to reorganize the department in the Procuracy which controlled the passage of penal law in the State security organs. Up to that time the [Security organs] carried out investigations, judged and carried out executions without legal oversight. Then in the spring of 1955 this already became clear to me. After all, I joined the Party in school in the tenth grade. I believed in communism; I believed in Stalin. I wrote in an essay, “Stalin is our glorious fighter, Stalin is the iron of our youth (“Stalin – nasha slava boevaia, Stalin – nashei iunosti polet”). For me the speech on the cult of personality was a shock. Then came the red little books which had the speech printed in them. They sent us to the villages with these books to conduct expository work. I arrived in Novoaleksandrovskii district with my friend, Nikolai Vorotnikov a Party secretary of a district committee, as a relatively young man. [He said to me,] “Listen, Mikhail, I don’t know what you will say. There we will attempt to explain what the people don’t believe.” We collected the people together. We addressed and told them and it was quiet as a coffin. People didn’t believe. So today we see them walking with portraits of Stalin. Because under [Stalin] the prices were lower not like it is now. Ten years ago we had a conference in our foundation on the 20th Party Congress. There, voices also cried out that the 20th Congress was a betrayal. And that perestroika was a continuation of this betrayal. You understand that the problem is not in Stalin, that this was from a personality with a certain character, but in Stalinism which was the ideological foundation of a totalitarian regime. In recent years so many movies came out on this period, the best artists played the role of Stalin. And often the hero instead becomes the antihero – “the real” Iosif Vissarionovich. And all the rest of it remains so primitive. But I repeat the problem is not in Stalin, but in Stalinism. We still have not thoroughly debunked Stalinism.

I find this absolutely fascinating. I’ll let Gorbachev’s words speak for themselves.

I’ll leave it at that. Gorby said many more interesting things, but the labor of translation got the better of me. I encourage all who read Russian to check it out.

Revisiting the Great Debate

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.

Советское белье

Soviet dress is a rather understudied topic. But now we can breathe easier. According to the London Guardian, Professor Olga Gurova from the European University in St. Petersburg is working on a cultural history of underwear in the Soviet period. I have to say, I’ll read it. I find the topic absolutely fascinating. Here is how Gurova explains her work:

In the 1920s, Soviet magazines touted a “regime of cleanliness” for the proletariat. “Underwear,” explains Gurova, “was a compulsory part of that regime.” A goal was established: everyone should have at least two sets, and should change sets at least once every 7-10 days. Mass production was cranked up, underclothing the populace in officially healthy, comfortable, hygienic long johns, boxers, undershirts and bras. Gurova’s research shows that most of these items were “spacious”, and that “there was no big difference in design between male and female underclothes”.

Having pored over masses of documentation, Gurova infers that during the 20s “Soviet underwear was not about sex, it was about sport”. Sports outfits – T-shirts, shorts and sleeveless shirts – became the basic prototypes. Petticoats, seen as old-fashioned, faded from the scene, as did corsets. Underwear design quickly adapted to better serve Soviet women’s physical activities in the factory and the kitchen. In contrast to most European countries, reports Dr Gurova, “the Soviet revolution cancelled corsets and dressed women in bras more quickly”.

This is corroborated by Christina Kiaer’s Imagine No Possessions, which looks at, among other things, the intersection of commodity production, fashion design, and avant-garde art in 1920s Russia. Much of the avant-garde fashion design was geared to sports uniforms and wear. I just hope Gurova’s study will be available in the US, so I don’t have to track it down in Russia.

Stalin by the Numbers

The 50th Anniversary of Khrushchev’s speech has passed but not unnoticed. There was lots of commentary over the week in English and Russia media. Below you’ll find links to English and Russian language articles that have been published in the last few days. The list is far from complete. I won’t provide any detailed commentary on them.

Khrushchev’s Secret Speech & End Of Communism
1956: Khrushchev Lashes Out At Stalin
Khrushchev: The Man Who Stood Up To Stalinism
Russia Turns Its Back On The Man Who Denounced Stalin
Stalin Nostalgia Growing in Russia
1959: Macmillan And Khrushchev Talk Peace
‘The First Nail In The Coffin Of Communism’
The Speech Russia Wants To Forget

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Instead I would like to concentrate on a recent poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Social Opinion (VTsIOM) on “Repression, the Repressed and ‘the Strong Hand’” released this week in conjunction with the anniversary of de-Stalinization. An analysis of the poll can be found here. Such polls are common in Post-Soviet Russia. Many people see them as a gauge to the Russian population’s “transition” to democracy. In fact, I was at a conference on Stalin at USC last week and one presenter used statistics from VTsIOM as evidence of Stalin’s “reemergence” in Russia. I personally don’t put much stock in these polls as a representation of how Russian’s view Stalin. Instead I see them as interesting indicators to how Russians remember and understand Stalin’s Terror. Here are some of the polls statistics.

Who in your opinion carries the primary responsibility for mass repression in the country after the Revolution up to the 20th Party Congress? (in percent)



Leaders of the NKVD –Iagoda, Ezhov, Beria.


The upper Party leadership – Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov, Kaganovich, and others.






In the conditions of enemy encirclement and the threat of war, repression was inevitable.


Difficult to answer.


What is interesting about these answers is not that 41% named Stalin. It is that fact that 59% said that it something else besides Stalin was responsible for mass repression? Now, does this mean that Russians are more favorable to Stalin? I would say no. What it tells me is that given a set of explanations, many Russians understand mass repression as a phenomenon conducted by individuals. This is perhaps because of the canonizing effect of Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, which was very popularity when it was translated into Russian in the 1990s. Conquest portrays the Terror as part of a master plan executed flawlessly by Stalin.

What is conspicuously missing in the list of answers are the Russian people themselves. There is no space for collective responsibility. This could be simply explained by the fact that the questionnaire did not provide an answer for some sort of collective responsibility. This in and of itself is suggestive of how such polls construct the memory of such events. They reduce a potentially diverse set of viewpoints into a few. They create a narrative for how events are represented and remembered. It however makes one wonder whether Russians see any collective responsibility at all for the horrors of the Soviet regime. My guess is that there continues to be little sense of this, and as a result a failure to come to terms with living and participating in an authoritarian society.

The lack of recognition of a collective responsibility about mass repression in Russia has always stuck me. After all, the term “mass repression” is not only one that denotes scope; it also suggests a process that goes beyond one man or a group of leaders. Essentially, this survey hides the fact that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of rank and file Party members, secretaries, local leaders, and regular people participated in the execution of this “mass repression.” Without them, I doubt it could ever have become mass. Take for example, this denunciation written by a student of the Leningrad Technical Institute and Komsomol member in 1936 to the editor of Pravda, Lev Mekhlis about one N. V. Kitaev:

How can a parasite WHO ALWAYS SOBS WHEN HE HEARS LENIN’S NAME AND GROANS WHEN HE HEARS STALIN’S (those are not just words, comrade Mekhlis, but the appalling truth), how can such a person be allowed to remain within the walls of the institute, how can we, comrade Mekhlis, shelter such a snake in our bosom?

The letter went on to state how the denunciation of Kitaev was not out of personal malice toward him.

No comrade Mekhlis, it’s much worse—for four years, until February 1935, we venerated him as a “real party man,” politically highly developed, an activist, someone who always spoke up at every meeting and assembly, who could quote Lenin and Stalin and in our (Komsomol members’) eyes was the INCARNATION OF PARTY CONSCIENCE, ethics, and PARTY SPIRIT.


Since Kirov’s murder, [Kitaev] arouses an animal fear in me, an organic disgust. Just as I previously venerated him and respected him, now I fear him and expect him to do something terribly evil, some irreparable harm to the whole country. If you could have seen the unfeigned joy we all felt . . . when we learned of his expulsion [later revoked] from the Institute after the execution of Zinoviev and Kamenev . . . It is impossible and criminal to allow him to finish his studies at the Institute, because comrade Mekhlis even THE CAMPS OF THE NKVD WILL NOT REFORM HIM . . . I am terribly sorry now that he was not sitting next to his hero Zinoviev and Kamenev [in the court that ordered their execution.]

(cited in Shelia Fitzpatrick, Tear Off the Masks, 213.)

The fate of Kitaev is unclear. What is clear is that many more similar denunciations can be found in the archives as well as incidents where people participated in the public denunciation of others in local show trials.

None of this would be found in the survey. It only recreates the idea that history is the work of great individuals rather than the multitude of actions carried out by regular people.

The memory of the “mass repression” is inscribed in other parts of the survey. Here it is the memory of victims rather than perpetrators is formed.

Were any of your relatives repressed in the 1930s and 1940s? (in percent)

Of all Respondents






60 and older

Yes, I know much about their fate from stories of close relatives and family archives (letters, photos, etc)







I know that my relatives were repressed but the details aren’t known to me.







None of my relatives were repressed.







I don’t know if any of my relatives were repressed or not.







Difficult to answer.







According to the survey one in four respondents were “repressed.” But what does repressed mean? Does it mean execution, arrest and imprisonment, deportation, or dispossession? Or does it also include much more? Does this include all soldiers imprisoned after the war? War collaborators? It is difficult to say because the survey doesn’t give a definition. This says to me that there is a question as to what repression means, and how it is defined and remembered by the respondent. I think that what exactly “repression” means is an important question because the trend has been to think that everyone imprisoned under Stalin was “repressed.”

It would be difficult to verify if the 25 percent figure in the survey is correct. The difficultly is not simply that “repressed” is not defined, neither is “relative.” Does this mean close relative—mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, etc? Or does it mean great uncle, cousin, third cousin etc? On this, the survey is potentially misleading in demonstrating the scope of repression among the population because when reading the one in four statistic, one assumes that one in four soviet citizens in the 1930s and 1940s were “repressed.”

Thanks to the opening of the archives, we now have a better sense of the numbers of executions, Gulag inmates, arrests, etc. Some of them are considered accurate; others are based on estimates when set against demographic materials. Some of the numbers are for specific periods, like 1936-1937, or for the whole Stalin period 1930-1953. Some include NKVD victims, other numbers include famine, and still others even include war deaths. The point is how you frame the figures, what you include in the count, and what you don’t. Most importantly when evaluating numbers on the victims of Stalin, what you mean by “repression” and what you think Stalin is responsible for is of utmost importance.

Here part of what we now know. And I should first preface this by stating that all of these figures are from scholarly studies, most of which are based on archival documents. But as many scholars freely admit, the numbers from archival documents and census data also contain inaccuracies. All in all, they act more as a guide than a way to posit completely accurate figures. The population of the Soviet Union in 1937 was 162 million. In 1939 was 167.3 million. Population growth was estimated to be around an average of 3 million per annum.

1921-1953 total arrests

1938 camp population

1938 prison and camp population

1952 camp population

1937-38 camp deaths

1937-38 executions

1921-53 executions

2.5 million

1.9 million

2 million

2.5 million




Source: J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn and Viktor N. Zemskov, “Vitcims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence,” American Historical Review, 98:4, 1993, 1022.

Grated these figures don’t give us a sense of the percentage of people repressed in the Stalin period in terms of overall population. Most the above figures are for a narrow period of time that coincides with the Great Purge, 1937-1938. These also don’t include deportations of ethnic groups or kulaks (razkulachivanie). There are estimate figures for these too, but I will only state one since it coincides with not only the anniversary, but also Russia’s Men’s Day holiday that was on February 23.

On February 23, 1944 the NKVD began the deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan. I won’t go into the history of it because I am not an expert on this. But according to figures in the archives, 400,478 Chechens and Ingushes were recorded in special settlements (spetsposeleniia). This is not the number of those deported, only those who arrived. Some estimate that over 100,000 died in transit to Kazakhstan.

Suffice to say and attempt on producing numbers on the victims of Stalinism will remain only estimates. And like I mentioned above, it depends on what you mean by “repression” and to a certain extent “victim.” But complexity hasn’t stopped scholars from trying. But the more sophisticated scholars who are armed with minutia of demography tend to be inconclusive on total numbers, but have offered numbers in specific areas: executions, deportations, sentences, Gulag populations etc more as a way to disprove previously offered guesstimates that were often steeped in Cold War ideology and misconceptions about how the Soviet Union functioned. As one can imagine the battle over figures has caused fierce academic debates. Even though most scholars agree that we have a much better picture of the scope of repression, the ability to come up with a best estimate on the total of victims under Stalin continues to be marred in politics, definition, inaccurate data, not to mention academic nit-picking over tables, calculations, and figures.

Personally, I don’t have much of an intellectual interest in numbers. I can’t comprehend the mass slaughter of a 100 people let alone millions. Plus at some point the humanity in all of it gets lost. The human gravity in the difference between one million and two million gets erased by the short abstract distance between one and two. After all, whether the estimate on the total number is 20 or 30 million, does 20 million make the Stalin period less repressive than 30 million? Or does 30 million make it more repressive than 20 million? Less or more inhuman? Hardly.

More on Khrushchev

Articles and commentary commemorating Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956 continue. Today Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag: A History, weighs in on the pages of the Washington Post. Unfortunately, her commentary is more about us than about the historical significance of Khrushchev.

I’ll do my best to refrain from ranting on Applebaum’s statement that the American military is in Iraq “trying to pick up the pieces after the collapse of another totalitarian regime.” Excuse me, but last I checked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq didn’t collapse. That state was smashed by the very military that is now “trying to pick up the pieces.” So let us not equate Iraq with the Soviet Union and the US military as some sort of altruistic totalitarian mop up force.

But I digress. . . One thing that you can count on with the commemorations of Khrushchev’s speech is a lot of historical re-evaluation of it in terms of the present. Applebaum suggests that Khrushchev’s speech was “the first step in what turned out to be a very long struggle to end totalitarianism in the Soviet Union.” Forget the fact that I disagree that the Soviet Union was ever totalitarian. I think that to say so is to ascribe too much perfection to an incredibly inefficient system. Authoritarian? Absolutely. Granted, Khrushchev was trying to reform the Soviet system of some serious problems inflicted upon it by Stalinism. And I’m willing to accept that denouncing Stalin opened up the possibility for reform. However, I refuse to believe that the speech had anything to do with being part of a very long struggle to end “totalitarianism” in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev was hardly anti-authoritarian. Just ask the Hungarians.

Nevertheless, Applebaum does make some interesting points. She is right to state, as so many others have, that Khrushchev’s denunciation wasn’t completely out of distaste for Stalinism, as it was to consolidate his own power:

Although it was an international sensation — no Soviet leader had spoken so frankly before — the speech didn’t exactly tell the whole truth. Khrushchev accused Stalin of many crimes, but deftly left out the ones in which he himself had been implicated. As William Taubman, author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, has documented, the Soviet leader had in fact collaborated enthusiastically with Stalinist terror, participating in the very mass arrests he condemned. Khrushchev’s speech was intended as much to consolidate his own power and intimidate his party opponents — all of whom had also collaborated enthusiastically — as it was to liberate his countrymen.

Applebaum also presents a lesson to all those “impatient” Americans who think that the blossoms of democracy can quickly flourish from the soil of authoritarianism. The “authoritarian impulse,” as she calls it, sometimes takes generations to shed.

Clearly there is a lesson here for those who would bring down totalitarian regimes, and it concerns timing: The death of a dictator or the toppling of his statues does not necessarily mean that a complete political transformation has occurred, or even that one will occur soon. On the contrary, it takes a very, very long time — more than a generation — for a political class to free itself of the authoritarian impulse. People do not easily give up the ideology that has brought them wealth and power. People do not quickly change the habits that they’ve incurred over a lifetime. Even people who want to reform their countries — and at some level Khrushchev did want to reform his country — can’t necessarily bring themselves to say or to do what is necessary. Certainly they find it difficult to carry out political reforms that might hasten their own retirement.

This isn’t to say dictatorships must last forever: Despite some of its current leadership’s repressive instincts, Russia itself has changed in fifty years, beyond recognition. But the transformation was often incremental, always uneven, and difficult for impatient Americans to understand or support. But then, all such transformations are difficult for impatient Americans to understand or support, and probably always will be. If history is anything to go by, we’ll have no choice but to try and do so anyway.

The Moscow Times provides more memories of Khrushchev’s speech and how Soviet citizens came to know it. An article in today’s edition focuses on the recollections of Khrushchev’s daughter, Rada Adzhubei.

Adzhubei and her fellow students in Moscow State University’s biology department had the speech read to them, she said, speaking Monday in her apartment near City Hall on Tverskaya Ulitsa, which she shares with her son and his family. It took between 1 1/2 and two hours to read, she recalled.

Like the delegates at the Party Congress, the students were given no opportunity to ask questions afterward.

“The person from the Party’s neighborhood committee took the booklet away, and we were left with our thoughts and opinions,” said Adzhubei, who is reserved when talking about the now distant past.

“Stalin was our God, tsar, hero and everything else. It wasn’t easy to debunk him.”

Yury Levada, who was editor of the scientific journal Nauka i zhizn at the time of the speech, remembered similarly:

The journal’s office, like the entire country, was abuzz with rumors that Khrushchev had attacked Stalin. In early March, the staff realized the rumors were true when they were shown the booklet of 20-odd pages, Levada said in an interview last week.

Levada was picked by his colleagues to read out the speech, and after he had finished, it was given back to Party officials, as happened everywhere else across the Soviet Union, he said. The booklet had a warning stamped on its cover, “Not for publication,” Levada said.

“I thought I’d never see an official copy being handed out. It was a surprise,” he said.

Khrushchev did not explain what caused Stalinism, or invite any discussion of the subject, Levada said. “Khrushchev made a strong effort to make sure that people didn’t ask too many questions and that faith in the Party wasn’t undermined,” he said.

Although rumors had prepared the journal’s staff for what was in the speech, they felt “a certain shock,” Levada said. Afterward, they wondered in private conversations why the Party had allowed Stalin to do what he did, he said.

Why did the Party allow the speech to be read and not published? After all, reading it does make it public. But printing it makes it permanent. The Bolsheviks put a certain value in texts; there was something dangerous about the existence and presence of subversive texts. Nothing said this more than the obsession over the existence of the Riutin Platform (1932). Take for example, S. V. Kosior’s speech to the December 1936 Central Committee Plenum:

Kosior: Take for instance, the decree and the [Riutin] platform. You know, no matter how much you try to prove it by saying that you were shown the platform and that you didn’t read it, no one will believe you.

Bukharin: I didn’t read it.

Kosior: That’s just talk. At the time the matter [of the Riutin Platform] came up, it was clear to all of us what was going on.

Bukharin: Comrade Kosior, I was not in Moscow at the time.

Kosior: Nothing is proven by that. This doesn’t prove that he didn’t read the platform. That’s no argument, either. Do you want us to believe now, after all that’s happened, do you want us to believe that Bukharin is such an honest devoted party worker, that he knows nothing?

(J. Arch Getty, The Road to Terror, 317)

In my own research, I’ve found transcripts of Komsomol purge commissions questioning members about the presence of Trotsky’s New Course at “oppositionist” meetings. There were few questions about what members talked about. Questions focused only on whether the text was present, who was at the meeting, and if the defendant saw or read it.

Perhaps something was similar about Khrushchev’s speech. If there was no printed copy it was like it never existed. Khrushchev’s denunciation existed for as long as it took for it to be read aloud. After that it only existed in citizens’ memory and never in a form that could be read, reread, analyzed, discussed, or questioned.

Stalin as Sacrificial Lamb

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.

Remembering Khrushchev’s Speech

One of the great things about having a university affiliation is that I have online access to all sorts of newspapers, journals and magazines. One such magazine is Russian Life. I’m not a regular reader. In fact, I know little about it and only stumbled upon it because its Jan/Feb issue features an interview with Sergo Anastasovich Mikoyan, the son of Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan (1895-1978) on his memories of Khrushchev’s speech.

Since the interview is only available to subscribers, here are some of Sergo Mikoyan’s more interesting comments:

Did you sense the coming changes before the 20th Congress?

I knew what was happening. I knew the two people who made a huge contribution to Khrushchev’s decision to prepare and read the report at the Congress. Unfortunately, historians know almost nothing about these two people: Alexei Vladimirovich Snegov and Olga Grigorevna Shatunovskaya.

Snegov had been a member of the party since 1917, and in his youth was an organizer alongside [Vyacheslav] Molotov’s wife and even knew her before Molotov did. Then he was in party work, but in 1937 was working in my father’s apparatus and ended up in prison. In 1938, after [Lavrenty] Bena took the post of Narkom at the NKVD, a small number of people were let out of prison, Snegov among them. He came to my father and explained everything that had happened. My father recommended that he go to Sochi and check into a sanatorium and not come back [to Moscow] for as long as possible. He promised to inform Snegov when it would be safe to return, since he understood that Snegov’s release might end up being temporary. But Snegov, a confirmed Bolshevik, did something rather stupid. He said that he would go away only after his Party Card was returned to him. He was so insistent, that my father called [Matvey Fyodorovich] Skiryatov in the Party Control Commission and requested the swift return of Snegov’s Party Card, as he had just been released from prison. As soon as Snegov showed up to pick up his Party Card, he was once again arrested, and he returned [to freedom] only 17 years later. During this time, he passed through all of the circles of hell. They even led him off to be shot, but then did not shoot him. He was in Butyrka and Sukhanovo prisons. His back was covered with marks from floggings; he was missing a finger on one hand.

Olga Shatunovskaya worked with [Stepan] Shaumyan in Baku in 1918, and therefore knew my father from an early age. Then she worked in Moscow and met Khrushchev, and worked with him from 1936-7 in the Moscow Party Committee. She was also arrested, and spent some 10 years in the camps, then was exiled.

In 1954, both of these people returned to Moscow, and, with the help of Lev Shaumyan I Stepan Shaumyan’s son] succeeded in meeting with my father, talked with him and related what went on in the prisons. As strange as it may sound, much of this was unknown to my father. He had not any conception of the massive scale of the repressions. Olga related an interesting story about how, in one of the camps where she had been, there were ten thousand women. A Japanese spy was brought to the prison and she spoke very directly: “I am an actual spy. I know why I am in prison. But you cursed Bolsheviks are m prison for no reason whatsoever…”

Their stories had a great deal of influence on my father, and he related them to Khrushchev. In fact, to Snegov belongs the phrase, which both Khrushchev and my father used in their memoirs: “If you do not dissociate yourself from Stalin at the first Congress after his death, and if you do not recount his crimes, then you will become willing accomplices in these crimes.”

I was present when they told their stories, and I saw how my father was surprised and taken aback. When Olga Shatunovskaya spoke of the spy in the camp, he even called in my mother and said, “Ashkhen, come here, listen to what she is saying,” and he asked her to repeat her story.

In particular, it was under the influence of these stories that we understood that practically no one who was arrested was guilty of any crime. After the 20th Congress, my father created 93 commissions which visited the camps in order to free people. They did not consider individual cases but simply looked at the article of law in question. If an individual had been convicted under Article 58 for sabotage, terror, anti-Soviet opinions or actions, then he or she was immediately set free, because it was clear that there were no guilty parties convicted under this article.

I question whether Anastas Mikoyan was really that na?ve and ignorant of what was going on. After all he became a member of the Central Committee in 1923, and a member of the Politburo in 1935. And it was Mikoyan who hurled the following at Nikolai Bukharin at the February-March Central Committee Plenum in 1937:

One thing nobody can argue with. To know of terror against the leadership of the Party, of wrecking in our factories, of espionage, of Gestapo agents, and to say nothing about it to the Party—what is this?! He is a member of the Central Committee and a member of the Party. This is proved incontrovertibly, it is proved by the confrontations [with those confessing]; the materials in the presence of Politburo members proved that the rightist terroristic activities were known to the pupils of Bukharin, the partisans of Bukharin. They were known to Bukharin, he knew that they were preparing terrorist acts against the leadership of the Party, he knew and he did not tell the Central Committee. Is this permissible for a member of the Central Committee and a member of the Party?! It is proved and clear even to a blind man. (cited in J. Arch Getty, The Road to Terror, 369. The text was originally published in Voprosy istorii, 4-5, 1992, 22.)

Nevertheless, Mikoyan the younger does give some interesting information of how Khrushchev’s speech was prepared.

Did your father discuss with you how Khrushchev’s report on the Cult of Personality was prepared?

Up until the last minute there was a battle over this report. In the Presidium of the Central Committee, Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov all spoke categorically against it being given. They proposed tabling it until a later date. Then they came up with another course of action: to delegate the preparation of this report to the editor of Pravda at that time, [Pyotr] Pospelov, thereby hoping to decrease the report’s significance. Pospelov was a Stalinist; he had selected materials for Stalin’s Short Count [History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course). But this Stalinist, working with the materials provided by the NKVD, could not hold back his tears. Khrushchev correctly understood the situation, however, that a report of such significance should be given by the top person in the Party, and he decided to deliver it himself.

What was the situation like in the Congress? Did people suspect the changes that were coming?

Prior to the report – some five or six days before – my father spoke at the Congress and sharply criticized Stalin. And there was quiet indignation in the hall. No one cried out, but my uncle, [the aircraft designer] Artyom Ivanovich, was a guest at the Congress. That evening, he came by the house and said: “Your father has made a huge mistake. He spoke critically of Stalin and the Party bosses sitting around me were quite upset. This could end badly for him.” He said the same thing to my father: “Anastas, you have made a huge mistake.” My father answered that such a reaction in the hall signifies that they even fear a dead man, but that soon they would hear much more. My father’s speech was a trial balloon. In truth, Molotov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov fought to the end. Their final condition was that the report be delivered only after the elections to the Central Committee and the Politburo. They feared that their role, as accomplices of Stalin, would have an effect on the outcome of the elections. Therefore, the final session of the Congress was held after elections to the leadership organs. The foreign delegations were not invited. It was a closed session. Representatives of socialist countries were later given a copy of the report in printed form.

Khrushchev’s Speech

Next Friday will mark the 50 years since Nikita Khrushchev made his famous “secret speech” at the 20th Communist Party Congress. The speech, which can be found here, denounced the Stalin’s “cult of personality,” his use of mass repression, ethnic deportations, and bungling during the War. Among the many detailed examples Khrushchev used to disclose Stalin’s crimes, he said:

Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint and the correctness of his position was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. This was especially true during the period following the 17th Party Congress, when many prominent party leaders and rank-and-file party workers, honest and dedicated to the cause of Communism, fell victim to Stalin’s despotism.

The history of the Khrushchev’s speech is undoubtedly a world historical event. It redefined the 20th century. It planted the seeds for the Thaw. It split the world communist movement in half. It sparked the Hungarian uprising. It laid the groundwork for d?tente with the West. However, it is a mistake that the speech was public denunciation of Stalin. It wasn’t published when it was given, but read aloud in factories, kolkhozes and other Soviet institutions. Here is how historian Roy Medvedev remembered it:

They gathered activists, all the party members, all the Komsomol members, the directors of kolkhozs [communal farms[ and sovkhozs [state farms]. The instructor of the district Communist Party arrived, took out a red book, and told us: ‘I am going to read you the secret speech of Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev at the 20th congress.’ For four hours, we listed to this report. There were people present who had fought in World War II and worshipped Stalin. There were people like me, whose father was repressed and died in prison and who knew about torture and camps.

Though immediately published abroad, generating shock and commendation from foreign Communist Parties, the text was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988. You can read about how John Rettie, the Moscow correspondent for Reuters brought the speech to the West in a recent article in the New Statesman. Moreover, there are rumors that there are many versions of the speech and that the copies in our possession are believed to be incomplete. An unedited transcript has yet to be found, and there is some question whether one actually exists.

This week will be filled with assessments, memories, and discussion around the historical significance of Khrushchev’s speech and, for better or for worse, some rather tired commentary on the “specter” of Stalin in contemporary Russia. In fact such reflection has already started. Here are a few links to that emerging discussion.

“Communism may be dead, but clearly not dead enough”
“Russia and Stalin on the Rise”
“Secret Speech Still Divides”
“Stalin museum is ‘an insult to millions sent to death in Gulag”
Why Does Russia Still Love Stalin Now?
“The day Khrushchev denounced Stalin”
“Debunking Stalin’s Debunkers”

Today’s LA Times has several commentaries around Khrushchev’s speech:

Nina Khrushcheva, “The day Khrushchev buried Stalin”
Robert Conquest, “The Speech that Shook the World”
“By the Numbers”

The Complete Dictionary of the Language of Council of Worker, Peasant and Red Army Deputies

Have you forgotten all of your Sovietese? Can’t remember what ???? (????????? ???????????????? ????????? ??????????, Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic), ??? (??? ????? ?????????, without the right to correspondence, part of a prison sentence that really meant execution), or ??? (????????-??????????????? ????????, party-state control) stands for? Don’t fret dear post-Soviet citizen or bewildered non-Russian academic; a new book complied by Valery Mokiyenko and Tatyana Nikitina will save you.

That book, reviewed in the Moscow Times, is The Dictionary of the Workers Paradise (???????? ??????? ????? ????????). A title, according to the review’s author, Michele A. Berdy, is an awkward translation. You see, ???????? is itself a term of the bygone Soviet past which was short for C???? ????????? or “council of worker, peasant and Red Army deputies”. With long titles like these you can see why they were shorted by smashing roots together or just making them into acronyms. I come across these all the time with my research on the Komsomol. Even the Komsomol itself is a creation such a chain of words. Kom-so-mol breaks down into “kom”, or communist (????????????????), “so”, or league (????), and “mol”, or “youth” (????????). The full name of the Komsomol is really the All-Union Leninist Communist Youth League (?????????? ????????? ???????????????? ???? ????????), or ?????, another horrendous name reduced to a simple five letter acronym. One of the longest of such acronyms is the name for the first Soviet secret police, the Cheka (???): The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle Against Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, or ????????????? ???????????? ???????? ?? ?????? ? ??????????????? ? ?????????.

According to the review, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it includes terms and acronyms that Soviet citizens created outside and even contrary to officialdom. Not only does this show how deeply Soviet language was subsumed into the nation consciousness, it also demonstrates how language was turned upside down in ironic and sometimes humorous fashion. As Berdy writes,

“The dictionary is filled with hilarious examples of anti-Soviet Sovietisms: ?????? (scarecrow) for any statue of a Party leader; ???????? (partymobile, or literally a “member carrier”) for a limousine that ferried around Party members; ?????? (“Vladdy”) the diminutive of Vladimir used to mean a statue of Lenin; ????????????? (to rip something off), in reference to communist expropriation, with some implied obscenity thrown in.”

But are these really “anti-Sovietisms”? I am inclined to say no. Poking fun or ridiculing the state or the state’s culture hardly constitutes as anti-soviet. If anything, they are emblematic of the range of possibilities created by Soviet language that don’t undermine their hegemonic status, in fact, I would said reinforce it, but nonetheless creates a space for different articulations. A world like ????????, while points to, and even mocks, the acute difference between a party member’s status and regular citizens, its articulation still reinforces that hierarchy. I doubt that Soviet citizens who spoke this word looked to rip the system any more than a Tsarist citizen with pornographic pictures depicting the Tsarina Alexandra with Rasputin, a post-Soviet citizen with a mocking picture of Putin, or for that matter, an American citizen who uses the word “Bushit” does.

The book also contains what I think is one of the most fascinating aspects of Soviet language: the naming of children after revolutionaries, soviet holidays, industrial motifs, and even institutions. Berdy notes that names like “?????? (Lenin spelled backwards), ??? (Era) and ?????????? (Engelsina) for women and ???????? (Electron), ???? (Ural), ??????? (New World) and ???????? (Electric) for men” were fashionable after the revolution. My research attests to this. I found an article in a Komsomol newspaper from 1924 that suggested that Komsomol members name their children similar names. The reasoning was that since Christianity had saint names to commemorate and reinforce its ideology, communist ideology also needed “red names.” Some appropriately communist names were ????????? (October), ????????? (Star), ??? (Communist Youth International), ??? (International Youth Day), ????? (Change), and ????? (Study).

At any rate, Dictionary of the Worker’s Paradise sounds not only like a valuable resource for people like me, but a reference to the awkward, and even wacky, side of Soviet everyday life.

Slezkine’s Mercurian Century

“The Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century.” Such is the opening line of Yuri Slezkine’s intriguing and controversial book, the Jewish Century. Slezkine charts modernity through the journey of one, albeit significant, ethnic/religious group: Russia’s Jews. It’s a story about shedding and becoming, triumph and tragedy; about how Russian Jews became more Soviet than Jew, and how in the end they were too Jewish to be Russian. The Jewish Century is also a narrative of how the twentieth century is about how all of us, in a sense, have become Jewish.

Slezkine’s argument is complex and its implications profound. If modernity is about becoming urban, mobile, and literate; if it is about being ripped from the land and thrust into the abyss of free labor; if it is about the dissolution of national borders and everyone becoming nomads; and if it is about the struggle of the self to reconcile the plethora of modern “identities”, then the Jews represent the most adaptive group to these changes. Within their culture and tradition is something best suited for dealing with the fact that in the modern age,

“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” (The Communist Manifesto)

The Jew is a chameleon, a shape shifter, a mimic man. Ironically, these are also stereotypes many have used to persecute Jews. In a way, the anti-Semites of the 19th century already wrote Slezkine’s argument. Except that their pen was not a computer in Berkeley, California. Nor were they driven by a deep academic humanism. Their passion was forged with the cold steel of violence. Their ink was blood. This is not to say that Slezkine rewrites all anti-Semite paranoia to the melody of a new key. Not at all. He turns them on their head. He takes their stereotypes seriously in order to measure the place of Jews in modern society. His study is the return of the repressed. In the end, his heroes are not the shifty-eyed Jew found in anti-Semite propaganda. They are the heroes of the twentieth century. Their tale is filled with irony, triumph, tragedy, and sorrow which make their experience transcend all classes, ethnicities, geographies, and cultures. The Jews are models for us all.

Yet, while the Jews are the models for the modern, their particular journey disavowals it. As we were becoming more modern, that is more “Jewish,” the Jews themselves were becoming more like us. They either suppressed their Jewishness in favor of identification with an over arching national identity: Russian, German, etc; or if their host country foreclosed assimilation, they became hyphenated, split: Jewish-American, Russian-Jew, German-Jew. They were almost the same but not quite, hampered by the primordialism of their “blood.” And blood was the curse of the modern age. As science categorized the “races” into advanced and primitive, blood became the marker of being in the last instance. Culture, with all its messiness and malleability, was streamlined into the fixed empiricism of science. Jews could therefore become Germanized and Russified but never really German or Russian. Their blood contained an essence, a one millionth of one percent that made them, despite all efforts, Jewish. If the modern age was about the mobility of body and fluidity of self, then the very ideology of modernity itself, the search for absolute scientific truth and origin, was its own contradiction. Because of their cultural adaptability, the Jews were never really fully outside, but because of their blood they could never be completely inside either.

This in-betweeness was the nature of what Slezkine calls the Mercurians. The Mercurians followed the example of the Greek god Hermes (Mercury), who was “the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, craft, and art.” Mercurians are those groups who mockingly danced on the borders of the hegemonic. They are the Romani of Europe, the Sikhs of India, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, the Kanjar of Pakistan, and the Margi of Sudan. They are the diasporic populations who wonder the Earth as traders, beggars, shopkeepers and because of this they were the subject of primitive capitalist accumulation; the circuitry of a vast emerging economic network.

However, every concept has its Cain. For the Mercurians it was the Apollonians. These people were the settled and the agrarian. They also inhabited the halls of political power and looked at the Mercurians with a suspicious eye and branded them as the unwashed, the barbaric, and the primitive. For their part, the Mercurians stared back with the same piercing epithets. Instead of throwing themselves into the whirlwind of the modern, the Apollonians painstakingly tried to turn back the clocks of time. They built nations to ward off the specters of modernity for the world was theirs to lose. They were the universal to the Mercurians’ particular.

But the forces of capital were not easily tamed. By the late 19th century, the world the Apollonians knew, the world that they made turned on them. Qualitative presence of the market began trumping quantitative superiority of the fields. It became a world determined by dancing tables rather than the till. Concrete and steel replaced dirt and wood. The Appolonian nations became besieged from within and from without by ethnic and cultural aliens. The particular was rapidly becoming the universal. For those caught in this social-economic tempest, it was sink or swim. All the values that defined Apollonian life and tradition were now fetters to be overcome. All the values that defined the Mercurians became the template for modern man.

Though well suited for the birth of modernity, at the same time the Mercurians were potentially tragic figures. Contrary to some of their fellow Mercurians, like say the Romani, many Jews strove, out of desire or necessity, to go beyond the cultural and political borders that their culture professed or that others ascribed. So while mobility was integral to the Mercurian way, Russia’s Jews rejected it. Here Slezkine looks to Sholem Aleichem’s classic Tevye the Dairyman to develop a wonderful metaphor out of Tevye’s daughters: Hodl, Chava, and Beilke. All three desired to find solid footing in the quicksand of modernity. Hodl looked beyond herself to Communism to become part of a greater nation founded on the international of peoples. On the surface, Communism provided a conversion narrative to a higher organization of humanity with its attempt to perfectly wed Apollonianism and Mercurianism. That is, a state that produced Mercurians with Apollonian faces that was national in form and socialist in content. But Communism could only get ideally beyond ethnicity; it never could really overcome it. The Soviet attempt to right historical wrongs with its minorities required the constant positing of ethnicity as a concrete identity. I will return to this point below. Chava, on the contrary, became a Zionist and looked to the future Jewish nation to give her blood and culture hallowed ground. The myth of Palestine provided fulfilled biblical prophecy and utopian desire. A Jewish state, even adrift in a sea of Arabs, could potentially be the only place where otherness could turn into an expression of self. Beilke went to America, the most Mercurian of modern nations. American liberalism, it seemed, provided the best ideological compromise between Mercurianism and Apollonianism. It was a state without a nation. All of its immigrants forsake their various ethnicities to fit under the broad mestizo umbrella of Americanism. American capitalism, however, produced other contradictions that the mestizo umbrella could not reconcile. Some immigrants, because of their “race” were able to become more American than others. For others, only political struggle could Americanize, that is to say, “whiten” their skin. In the end, America’s supposed Mercurian equality turned out to be window dressing for a racialized Apollonian hierarchy. It was capitalist in form and racial in content. In the context of 1930s America, this made Liberalism the least ideologically attractive to Chava’s children. The American “wilderness” only conjured dreams of other, future worlds. There in the “land of Liberty”, Chava’s children remained “uncertain Jews and incomplete Americans, while believing their cousins in Russia were “native-born Russians and perfect Soviets.”

It is these “native born Russians” and “perfect Soviets” that are at the center of Slezkine’s story. He shows the metrics of Jewish representation in the Soviet project, from their high percentages in the Communist leadership and the secret police to their overrepresentation in Soviet intellectual and cultural circles. His statistics reverse any doubt as to Jews’ influence. Russia’s Jews, formerly relegated to the Pale became an essential part of the establishment of Soviet hegemony over Russian social and cultural space. If the long term goal of Soviet modernity was the birth of the New Soviet Person (novyi sovetskii chelovek), Soviet “Jews” overfilled the cribs of its maternity ward.

Then everything changed. Every major Soviet nationality had a room in the Soviet communal apartment of nations. Because the Jews had no geographical space of their own like their Armenian, Georgian and Uzbek brethren, they “fixed” themselves in the room of Soviet national identity. For a time, this room was a comfortable one. But the Soviet state eventually evicted them, like so many others. The Great Terror eliminated a whole stratum of Soviet elite and promoted in their place were mostly Russians of peasant and worker origin. This new strata buttressed by the Russian patriotism of the Great Patriotic War, “began to think of itself as the legitimate heir to the Russian imperial state and Russian cultural tradition.” This, along with Hitler’s “final solution,” made many Soviet “Jews” consider something that they hadn’t in many years, and for some, for the first time. Despite all their efforts to subjugate the self, they were, in the end, simply Jews. Culture couldn’t wash away blood. In the climate of the Cold War and the creation of Israel, which aligned with the capitalist West, Soviet Jews became an internal enemy just like any other. The expression of Jewish culture was now a nationalist act. Their assimilation became a mask that had to be ripped off to reveal their true face. Stalinist Russia sought to remove their influence through extralegal repression and violence. Post-Stalinist Russia did it through legal means: the social promotion of everyone but Jews.

The “discovery” of Jewish overrepresentation in the Soviet elite was more than a result of policy and paranoia. It was the outcome of a biopolitics that is at the core of modernity. The modern state’s desire to catalog its population according to a connection between blood and culture made all efforts to develop an individual identity born of free will a fruitless one. Populations, Soviet or otherwise, could never really escape the ethnic stamp the state gave them. Identity was always first a negotiation of categories that were a priori. Biopolitics was an Apollonian mechanism to fix the emerging Mercurian fluidity. States’ adoption of what Foucault called “governmentality” required its populations to be decipherable objects that could be compartmentalized into the prison house of the nation, and by that very act, those objects were transformed into subjects. The Soviet state was no different. The effort to fulfill the utopianism of Marx’s statement, “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic,” (The German Ideology) was undermined by the very categories that were the metrics of Soviet progress. The state wanted, no, needed to know the quantity and quality of its population. It needed to measure its present self against its past and its future. The withering away of ethnicity demanded knowledge about the cultural and economic quality of said ethnicity. Every time the state asked: How many Jews there were in higher education compared to Uzbeks, it only unwilling regenerated what Althusser called the “reproduction of the means of reproduction.” Every statistical report on ethnicity maintained a compartment for the Jew, even if the Jews themselves had no desire to fill it. Thus, the Soviet project destroyed the Jew as a signifier as it simultaneously retained Jew as a signified.

By the 1970s, triumph and irony turned to tragedy. The postwar effort to marginalize Russia’s Jews from political, social, and intellectual life only generated doubt in their belief in Communism. As Slezkine puts it, “Communists might have children, . . . but Communism did not.” The Soviet system, which many of Hodl’s generation themselves helped create, appeared to her children and grandchildren as only the apogee of exclusion, violence, and repression. With Soviet Communism now thoroughly corrupt, and its utopian pretensions made utterly na?ve, Hodl’s descendants increasingly reconciled themselves to their other two options: Zionism and Liberalism. Thus, the one sided love affair with Russian Communism ended not because Jews weren’t willing to commit themselves. It ended because in the end when Communism looked into its lover’s eyes, it did not see a faithful communist. It only saw a Jew.

Still, a larger question haunts Slezkine’s study. Given that Russia’s Jews are one of many Mercurian groups, one can and should ask: what makes the Jews so different from other Mercurians? Why do they represent the modern, while to suggest similarly about the Romani would elicit laughter? Is it their cultural tradition, their prominence in the arteries of capital, and their presence in the high priesthood of Western knowledge? I think that it is this and more. Slezkine’s Jews represent modernity in part because their history deals with a particularly modern problem: the struggle to reconcile the fractured self into a coherent whole. As those living on the edge of society, straddling the border between inside and outside, the European/Russian Jew is fractured at birth. To be a Jew is both an ethnic and a religious category. For some Jews, to be religious is to automatically be ethnically Jewish, and thus in a disasporic context they remain more outside than inside. Yet, for the secular Jew who aspires to be more inside than outside, there is a tension, even a schizophrenia, around the fact that to be Jewish is to be part of an ethnic and a cultural lineage that may disavowal the religious but never really escape its cultural power to define what is Jewish. (As a side note, the issue of religion is glaringly absent from Slezkine’s book and requires comment. Unfortunately, I must refrain from commenting on this absence here.) This tension has the potential affect to push them toward a dialectical synthesis, not with Jewish ethnicity and religion, but with the hegemonic cultural space they occupy. One may, for example, identify him or herself as a German-Jew that is more German than Jewish. However, the hyphenation at the center of hybridity constantly points to the ethnic Jew, which points to the cultural Jew, which also points, no matter how much it is denied, to the religious Jew. This is not to suggest that religion is the determinant of Jewish in the last instance. It is only to suggest that as a category and possibly as an identity, Jewish cannot completely exist without it.

And why is this struggle for the self connected to the general problem of the self and modernity? The story of Jewish identity in Europe and Russia is an allegory for the displacement we all experience in the age of global capital. If we have or are still becoming Mercurian, the mobility of capital requires the mobility of people. The logic of capital, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is to transform us all into nomads. Yet, despite the increase in nomads, whether they be the Turk in Germany, the African in France, the Mexican in America, the Pakistani in Britain, or for that matter, the American in Russia, nation states and nationality still matter more than ever, making all those nomads out of place. They are the new diasporics marooned on the islands of nations. We diasporics are confronted with the same question the Jews of the nineteenth century were: Do I remain outside or proceed inside? And if I go inside, will they let me in and what will it cost me? Who will I become and will I still be me? Globalization turns us all into potential mimics for “power has wielded the most extreme violence against this mobility.” (Empire) This effort at fixity proliferate the discomfort of being almost the same, but not quite. It subjects all of us to what Homi Bhabha calls the repeated turn “from mimicry—a difference that is almost nothing but not quite—to menace—a difference that is almost total but not quite.” It is this movement between mimicry and menace that made the slippage from Jew to Soviet and back to Jew again so utterly tragic.

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