Alexander Rabinowitch is Professor Emeritus of History and Indiana University, where he taught from 1968 until 1999, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the St. Petersburg Institute of History, Russian Academy of Sciences since 2013. He’s the author of several studies on the Russian Revolutionary era, including Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising published by Indiana University Press, The Bolsheviks Come To Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd published by Haymarket Books, and The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd published by Indiana University Press.
Cat Power, “You are Free,” You Are Free, 2003.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
Time’s Person of the Year. Who would have thunk it? Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin joins Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Three other Russian leaders who’ve received the honor.
Stalin was named twice, in 1939 and 1942. The first for “dramatically switching the power balance of Europe one August night” when the vozhd’ signed the now infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact. “History may not like him” Time prophesied,”but history cannot forget him.” And how. Ironically, the 1942 honor came when Stalin became an ally of the United States against Hitler. According to Time, everything that happened that war plagued year–Chiang Kai-shek holding his own against the Japanese, Churchill’s victory over the Nazis in Egypt, Roosevelt’s bringing the full weight of the US war machine on the Axis–seemed small next to Stalin. As Time explained, “and, worthy though they may prove, they inevitably pale by comparison with what Joseph Stalin did in 1942.” The Red Army repulsed the Germans at Stalingrad, leading to four Soviet offensives that eventually pushed the Germans back to Berlin.
The garrulous Nikita Khrushchev was named “Man of the Year” in 1957. Nothing other than a little satellite that went “beep, beep, beep” gained him the accolade. Russia won the space race by launching Sputnik I and Sputnik II into the Earth’s orbit. But that wasn’t all the peasant’s son did in 1957. A year before he shocked the Communist world with his “Secret Speech” which denounced his mentor, Stalin. It also allowed him to politically outwit his rivals on the Politburo. He reached out to the Middle East by giving $563 million to aid Arab nationalism in Syria and Egypt. He achieved much more in that year even though he did “not yet have absolute power, [was] still best described as chairman of the gang.” Still, he proved politically wily toward his opponents, using a combination of guile and good old Russian muzhestvo to beat them. Said Time, “In 1957, Nikita Khrushchev outran, outfoxed, outbragged, outworked and outdrank them all.”
Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded “Man of the Year” in 1987 and “Man of the Decade” in 1989. So far Gorbachev has been the only person praised with the latter title. Not bad for a peasant born in the village Privolnoye during the nightmare of collectivization. But Time didn’t recognize Gorbachev for his background, or as a symbol of Soviet upward mobility (Khrushchev was probably a better symbol of the particular Stalinist kind). He was honored because he did the unthinkable. Although a Stalinist in his youth, Gorbachev instituted reforms that would eventually unlock many of the secrets of that ideology. Perestroika, which he argued was “to revive the spirit of Leninism,” was a kind of neo-NEP that sought to institute controlled market forces and decentralization into the stagnant Soviet economy. Glasnost turned much of the Soviet profane into the sacred. As a result, the “black spots” of Soviet history rapidly began to lighten. In the eyes of Time, all of this made Gorbachev “a new unfamiliar kind of leader” who recognized that “the old rules of dealing with that long-suffering land [were] suddenly outdated.”
But that was only the beginning of Time’s recognition of Gorbachev. In 1989, they saw him as the “Man of the Decade.” Why? “Because,” Time explained, “he is the force behind the most momentous events of the ’80s and because what he has already done will almost certainly shape the future.” And though Gorbachev didn’t “mean to abolish communism,” he learned that history is a real bitch to control. Right when you think you have it by the reigns, it violently bucks from your grip. Don’t think so? Just ask George Bush. The future Gorbachev was ushering, however, wouldn’t fully emerge until 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded. That historical act, which this year’s “Person of the Year” has called “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century,” has certainly shaped our present. More than people seem to be willing to acknowledge.
In 1989, Gorbachev was still considered a positive revolutionary. Time compared him with all sorts of world historical figures. He was the “Copernicus, Darwin and Freud of communism all wrapped in one.” He was “Prospero in a realm ruled by Caliban.” He was “simultaneously the communist Pope and the Soviet Martin Luther, the apparatchik as Magellan and McLuhan.” Indeed, Gorbachev was in a sense a “global navigator” but one similar to how Viktor Chernov described Lenin in April 1917,
“He seems to be made of one chunk of granite. And he is all round and polished like a billiard ball. There is nothing you can get hold of him by. He rolls with irrepressible speed. But he could repeat to himself the well-known phrase “I don’t know where I am going, but I am going there resolutely.”
If Gorbachev didn’t have a clue where he was going and where he was dragging Russia behind him, this year’s “Person of the Year” has no doubts. Vladimir Putin is not so much dragging Russia as he is pushing it. True, he is not the first Russian Sisyphus, all those listed above were sisyphi in their own right. And if Time began their “Man of the Year” award three centuries earlier, it would have certainly recognized Peter the Great, Catherine II, Nicholas I, Alexander I, and Lenin among their honored. Some say Putin is a Tsar. The more idiotic call him a neo-Stalin. Putin, however, would be better seen as a manager, a CEO, and a sort of mafia don. Putin sees himself as a Russian Franklin Roosevelt. He has the insurmountable task of prosecuting Russia’s revival at the same time he has to keep his rival boyars’ corruption within acceptable boundaries. Putin is a pragmatist more than anything. And this requires him to pick his battles. Sometimes he does so with exactness. Other times hubris gets the better of him.
Putin is mostly demonized in the West. Nothing says this more than the fact that Time’s Adi Ignatius spent three and a half hours with the man, yet in the article we hear as many quotes from Garry Kasparov than from Putin. The response from the American political class on Putin’s recognition was predictable. Republican Presidential candidate Mit Romney called Time’s move “disgusting” instead designating the US military viceroy in Iraq General David Petraeus as more worthy. John McCain also thought Petraeus was a better pick. All McCain sees in Putin is “three letters – a K, a G and a B.” Then in his cowboy way McCain stated ““I would have had a much stronger response to Mr. Putin a long time ago.” If elected, it seems that hubris might get the better of McCain too.
But there you have it. Time has spoken and not without sparking controversy. That’s one thing it as its Person of the Year have in common. Putin is controversial the world over. And like Time, we can certainly count on him to continue speaking.Post Views: 1,009
By Sean — 10 years ago
The Russian media is abuzz with reports on the 90th Anniversary of the Komsomol. Local celebrations, museum exhibits, and conferences are planned all over the country to commemorate the youth organization. In Pskov, the local office of the Committee for Youth Policy and Sport has organized festival called “My Komsomol Youth.” Arkhangelsk has a series of events planned through November 4 “to give an objective judgment of the activities of the League, remember old friends, and impart our experience to young people,” says Arkhangelsk governor Ilya Mikhalchuk. “On these days we will celebrate the organization, which without exaggeration, gave us admission into life.” The Volgograd provincial museum will host an exhibit titled “Milestones Glorious Path of the Komsomol.” Other cities holding events include Nizhni Novgorod, Cheliabinsk, Amur, Novosibirsk, Kursk, and Irkutsk, to name a few. The biggest event was held on Sunday in the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow where Komsomol Congresses used to be held. The event, titled “Soviet Russia,” was a who’s who of the new Russian elite. There are also a few NTV reports: here and here. Celebrations weren’t just confined to Russia. Even Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko took a moment honor the Komsomol’s history.
It is estimated that almost two-thirds of Russian adults have been members of the Kosmomol, and most have fond memories of it. Zhores Alferov, the winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics, told RIA Novosti that “The Komsomol was an absolute organization of the masses. It educated people in a lot of things, including management and ethics.” Vladimir Sungorkin, the editor of Komsomolskaya pravda, said that “Lots of people today say that they hated the Komsomol, that they knew they had to keep as far away from it as they could. But that’s just rubbish. The Komsomol was founded on Christian, humanitarian ideals, the ideas of equality and brotherhood.” Some agree with this idea that the Kosmomol was founded on Christian ideals. In an interview with RIA Novosti, Nikolai Mesiatsev, a Komsomol veteran who was in the league in the 1930s, said that Patriarch Aleksei I told him in 1957, “You know, my boy, that the ethical norms of your League coincide with those of Orthodox Christianity.” You don’t have to dig into so-called “Komsomol ethics” that deep to see that he’s right no matter how much the League’s founders would have been aghast at the thought. By the late 1920s, ideas of sexual monogamy, family values, social conformity, and conservative mores were at the center of the League’s unwritten “code of conduct.”
Even more interesting is that by the 1980s, the organization had become a center of primitive capitalist accumulation. The Komsomol was Gorbachev’s vanguard in economic reforms which eventually allowed people like Mikhail Khodorkovsky to make millions. Such is the irony. Perhaps this is why Daria Mitina could write the following about the “Soviet Russia” event on Sunday,
On this day, all they gather in one hall: governors and ministers, former governors and former ministers, oligarchs and pensioners, functionaries and managers, bankers and scientists, cosmonauts and engineers, left and right, red, white and blue polka dotted, and all they extol the organization that made them real people.
There’s something mystical when bankers and oligarchs, highest officials and people of power come to the stage and with fiery eyes, in a voice trembling from tears, talk about the battles for the Soviet power, about feats of labor, about the tents on the construction site of the Bratsk power station… Today all they are the veterans of the Komsomol. (Translation Dmitri Minaev.)
While most agree that reviving a Komsomol-like organization that would dominate youth politics is no longer feasible, there appears to be a consensus among Russians that youth organizations are a positive thing. True, much of the perceived need comes from the usual older generation’s belief that youth are on a downward slope to utter corruption. “I’m very concerned about the situation [of Russia’s] youth,” says Nikolai Mesiatsev. He went on to lament the typical influence of television and its dangers to children and teenagers. You could find the substance of Mesiatsev’s statements uttered repeatedly over the last 150 years.
Enter state sponsored organizations like Nashi, Molodaia gvardiia, and Mestnyi. While lacking the scope and power that the Komsomol had, these organizations, especially Nashi, look to trained Russian youth in the ideological-economic mores of the day: capitalism, business, and nationalism.
How does an old Komsomol view the youth of Nashi? Here are a few excerpts from an exchange between Viktor Mishkin, the former First Secretary of the Komsomol and Irinia Pleshcheva, a commissar from Nashi published in Moskovskii Komsomolets:
MK: The Komsomol and the Nashi movement are often compared. To what extent is such a comparison pertinent?
Viktor Mishkin: I don’t see anything in common. The Nashi movement has only just been formed. To call it an organization which would united a large part of youth is in my view too early. It is not because when I worked in the Komsomol it was an organization of 42 million people and Nashi is considerably smaller. The main distinction is that the Komsomol had a history, it was an organization that was present everywhere, and Nashi this is a small project. It carries out actions and then disbands. After half a year it carries out the next, and then disbands again. There is only one thing in common between the Komsomol and Nashi. They are organizations of the party in power.
Irina Pleshcheva: I disagree. You had in your charter that you were the fighting helper and reliable reserve of the KPSS. And we have nothing like this. Yes, there were very many komsomols. But then almost everyone joined. If not then your life ended up on the side of the road. Who wants to join [Nashi], joins, and who doesn’t . . . and we are not forged as cadres for United Russia. We are forged to be cadres for various spheres of society.
Viktor Mishkin: But your organization was created to support United Russia.
Irina Pleshcheva: We support the course of the President. When Putin was president, it means his course, Medvedev, it means his. And whoever will be there [we will] still support. . . providing that he will stick to a course of sovereign democracy, the building of civil society, and the making of Russia into a leader in the 21st century.
Viktor Mishkin: And how do you prepare cadres? There was the seminar at Seliger (the Nashi’s yearly summer camp–Sean). I read a report from it that said that the main theme was to build a future elite for Russia.
Irina Pleshcheva: Yes, our purpose is to bring up an elite for Russia. And there are various ways. I’m, for example, a member of the Public Chamber, but I don’t want to be any kind of deputy or politician. In the future I want to work as a journalist. For me there has been definite growth troward my future profession.
Viktor Mishkin: For you this is interesting. But the program, the organization must work for all youth. Yes for the President–that’s great. You will personally be in the elite.
Irina Pleshcheva: Your words are music to my ears!
Viktor Mishkin: And what kind of results are there for the rest of youth?
Irina Pleshcheva: There are programs to fight against the illegal sale of alcohol to children. For example, we have in Voronezh guys who picket stores where they sell vodka to minors. After this an agreement was made that these stores would not sell hard alcohol. four stores were almost closed, but now any parent can send their child for bread and not be afraid that he will buy something else. Also there is a program devoted to young families.
Viktor Mishkin: And what does that give?
Irina Pleshcheva: In the three years that this program has been running we’ve had eight couples marry. They already have three children.
Viktor Mishkin: Here is your impart–eight couples. All of these are isolated cases. Today to compare Nashi with the Komsomol is absolutely impossible because the scale of Komsomol work was collossal. Not to idealize the Komsomol, but I want to remind you about the Komsomol housing complexes which built residences for young families.
One can go to Seliger three times and meet with the President twice but this does not make you a leader. Its not possible to train cadres with two seminars. And the Komsomol trained and routinely led from the simple to the complex. It was the best school for managers!
A bit of generational rivalry for sure. I’ll provide more of this interview tomorrow.Post Views: 916
By Sean — 1 year ago