Andy Willimott is Lecturer in Modern Russian & Soviet History at the University of Reading specializing in the social and cultural history of revolutionary Russia and the early Soviet state, with a particular interest in the formation and experience of radical ideology. He is the co-editor with Matthias Neumann of Rethinking the Russian Revolution as Historical Divide. His new book is Living the Revolution: Urban Communes & Soviet Socialism, 1917-1931 published Oxford University Press and winner of the BASEES Alexander Nove Book Prize for 2018.
Skinny Puppy, “Cage,” B-Sides Collection, 1999.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
When I was in Russia last October I met a woman named Alexandra in the Komsomol archive. Last year, I wrote about how she was researching “Komsomol capitalism” for an article she was writing for Der Spiegel.
One of the things I didn’t mention was her claim that her father, who turns out to be Lev Besymenski, had been one of the Russian officers to search Hitler’s bunker. Like many Russians, he took souvenirs back with him. But Besymenski didn’t simply grab cutlery and other trinkets. He took something closer to his passion: music. More specifically, 100 shellac specimens from Hitler’s private record collection.
Alexandra claimed that one summer she stumbled upon a collection in their dacha’s attic. The collection consisted of classical and opera music by Russian and Jewish composers. I remember who she expressed disgust at the at Hitler’s hypocrisy at being a fan of those he considered subhuman. I didn’t know what to think of this story at the time (In addition to the Hitler record story, she also said that she was friends with Condoleezza Rice among other things). Frankly, I didn’t know whether to believe her or not. To be polite and for the sake of interesting conversation, I went with it and told her that these records were probably quite valuable. She seemed surprised that anyone would have any interest in these artifacts.
It turns out that Alexandra was telling the truth. Lev Besymenski died in June and Alexandra made the collection available to Der Spiegel for perusal. Here is what they found:
Hitler’s second passion, after architecture, was music. He went to the opera house almost daily during his time in Vienna to listen to the music of Beethoven, Wagner, Liszt or Brahms. But to him, only German music counted. Yet Besymenski’s collection astonishingly contains works by composers the Nazis considered “subhumans,” including Russian composers such as Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alexander Borodin and Sergei Rachmaninov. For example, the item with the inventory number “Führerhauptquartier 840” contains a recording by the Electrola company labeled “Bass in Russian with Orchestra and Chorus” — a recording of the aria “The Death of Boris Godunov” by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, sung by Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin.
Another album contains nothing but works by Tchaikovsky with solo performances by star violinist Bronislav Huberman, a Polish Jew. “I feel this is a sheer mockery of the millions of Slavs and Jews who had to die because of the racial ideology of the Nazis,” a stirred-up Alexandra Besymenskaya remarks today.
It just goes to show that you never know who’ll you’ll meet, let along hear, in a Russian archive.
By Sean — 11 years ago
My latest article for the eXile, “Nashi: Is it Really the End?” is now online. Here is an excerpt:
This year, there has been much speculation in the Russian print media about the demise of the Kremlin youth organization “Nashi,” which has been as much a darling of the Russian state as it has been the bane of the Russian opposition and the Western media.
But the situation is not so simple as merely shutting down Nashi. As a new president comes to power in Russia, some are speculating that Nashi’s task is done and they’re no longer needed. This is perhaps wishful thinking for a host of reasons. In order to understand where Nashi is going in the post-Putin era, it is necessary to understand where they came from, and what role they have played.
* * *
“Do you want to realize your plan? Do you want to change the world around you? Do you want to influence your country’s future? Do you want the world to remember you? Are you searching for your place in life? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, don’t despair, there is an answer.”
In America, a pitch like that would signal a “Tony Robbins” alert, but in Russia, a far more sinister organization offers the answers to your prayers: the Antifascist Democratic Youth Movement “Nashi,” waiting for you with open arms.
All you have to do is, first, click onto their site and fill out your online application. A few days after you fill it out, Nashi promises to invite you to a “get-to-know-you” pow-wow. If accepted, Nashi promises to give you “a chance to change your life, influence world politics, and become a member of the intellectual elite.”
Given the demanding, competitive environment in Putin’s Russia, it’s easy to see how Nashi’s offer would look attractive. Its flashy website, spectacular rallies, and lock-step marches produce images of power and success. Through spectacle, it projects an image of unity and devotion to a cause. Nashi considers itself the vanguard for protecting the moral, political, and cultural fiber of Russia. For most people around the world, an organization like this evokes the worse aspects of totalitarianism—where youth are mobilized to blindly fulfill the whims of a repressive regime.
By Sean — 10 years ago
Memorial goes back to the Dzerzhinskii District Court on Monday to get a decision on whether the police raid on its St. Petersburg headquarters was lawful. This is the organization’s third hearing. The last one was postponed because the head investigator did not prepare his case materials. I’ll be sure to report on the hearing after it happens.
In the meantime, there is one piece of new information. According to Fontanka.ru, the raid’s head investigator Mikhail Kalganov told the judge that the raid was the result of “outside surveillance of an unknown male of slender built, who after leaving Memorial made his way to the apartment of Aleksei Andreev, the editor in chief of Novyi Peterburg. Detective Kalganov concluded that this man was Andreev himself, though he did not have any direct proof.” Readers will recall that police argue that Memorial is connected to the paper, which is under investigation for extremism.
While there has been a lot of international condemnation of the Memorial raid, Russian academics were silent for the most part. Until now. A group of 24 scholars affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences have sent a letter to President Medvedev, General Proscutor Chaika and St. Petersburg Prosecutor Zaitsev asking for the immediate return of Memorial’s archival materials. There was some indication that the materials were to be returned last month. That still hasn’t happened.