Matthias Neumann is Senior Lecturer in Modern Russian History at the University of East Anglia. He has published widely on the history of childhood and youth in revolutionary Russia. He’s author of The Communist Youth League and the Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1917-1932, which has been translated into Spanish and will be published in South America in spring 2019. He’s also the co-editor of Rethinking the Russian Revolution as Historical Divide: Tradition, Rupture and Modernity published by Routledge.
Sham 69, “If the Kids are United,” No Thanks!: The ’70s Punk Rebellion, 2003.
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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.Post Views: 786
By Sean — 13 years ago
Three news items appeared this week that concern Russian nationalism: the Nashi camp in Tver, the Russian government’s earmarking of 500 million rubles for “patriotic education” and the group of nationalists trying to get the Moscow courts to ban Jewish organizations. These three incidents all point to what I call in very mild terms the general redefinition of Russian national identity. In harsher terms these three signal the potentially scary growth of Russian nationalism.
I’ll first deal the attempt to ban Jewish organizations. This has been going on for a while now and would probably be ignored if Russia didn’t have such a long and strong history of anti-Semitism. The case involves the Russian translation of a Jewish text called the Kitsur Shulhan Arukh. The Kitsur is an ancient religious text that gives elaborate rules about Jewish daily practices of the self: mostly about washing, eating, and clothing. The Russians who’ve brought the case to court claim that the text spreads hatred because it calls Christians “worshipers of idols.” Moscow Rabbi Zinovy Kogan admits that there are some “incorrect passages” but they hardly spread hatred toward Christians or Russians for that matter. The most comical aspect of this story is that those who are bringing the case to court is claiming that Jewish organizations foment ethnic hatred and anti-Semitism. Huh? That’s right you read that correctly, Jewish organizations spread anti-Semitism.
The Moscow prosecutors apparently saw the absurdity of this issue when they dropped the investigation whether the Kitsur spreads hatred. That didn’t deter the unidentified Russian nationalists. They brought an appeal to the court I hopes that they reexamine the case. This whole issue would probably just fade away if it didn’t actually have some real support. In January, 19 Russian lawmakers signed a letter that accused Jewish organizations of fomenting hatred, citing the Kitsur. Mikhail Nazarov, a historian and writer is quoted as saying that any politicians who “support the principles” of the text should resign.
Statements like Nazarov’s would also be easily dismissed if other recent events around the issue of Russian nationalism didn’t rear its head. This week the Russian Government earmarked 500 million rubles to promote “patriotic education.” The Patriotic Education Program for Russian Citizens, which spans 2006 to 2010, seeks “to prepare the strategy of developing the personality of the Russian patriot” and “prevents attempts to discredit or deprecate the patriotic idea in the media.” The Program will do this by printing pamphlets on “correct reproductive behavior,” developing patriotic video games, producing cassettes and CDs of patriotic songs, as well as launch a Fatherland Program on television. But before everyone gets all hot and bothered about the Russian attempt to instill “patriotism” among mostly young people, keep in mind this figure: The United States will spend $88 million in 2006 to promote “democracy” in Russia, while the Russian government will only spending 77 million rubles (around $2.75 million) on patriotism.
While the Patriotic Education Program for Russian Citizens might be a bad throwback to the USSR, I’m afraid the pro-Putin youth organization Nashi might pose a real concern. I’ve already mentioned their “commissar” training camp in Tver. I wanted to touch on the Nashi camp again to point out some of its similarities to the old Communist Youth League in a 21st century key.
Nashi seems to have some pretty strong institutional support. According to a Moscow Times report, land for Nashi’s Seliger Camp was donated by the Tver governor, who gave 2 hectares, and the Russian Orthodox Church which handed over five. In return Nashi members helped restore the nearby Nilova Pustin Monastery. At the camp, Nashiisti chopped wood, visited the camp internet caf?, read the Nashi newspaper, Nashi Izvestia, swam, ran, and sang songs. The Moscow Times article provides an interesting picture:
“Soviet-era songs drifted from the main stage in the center of the camp, where the commissars gathered at 8 a.m. They stood at even intervals on an enormous grid of plastic strips. Young people who had birthdays that day were called to the stage and congratulated, then most of the group left for the daily five-kilometer run. Two circles of young women performed aerobics for the eager lenses of photographers.”
The future Nashi “commissars” also listened to lectures about new ideas, politics, and the future of Russia from politicos of United Russia. The deputy head of the Putin Administration, Vladislav Surkov addressed the crowd. Surkov’s speech set off a litany of rumors about what other important figures would visit Camp Seliger. Rumors, fueled by hope, also spread about a possible appearance from Vladimir Putin himself. There was no Putin, but the hope among Nshi young members shows desires if not the cult of Putin’s personality.
But what does this all represent? What is Nashi and what will they become? It is too early to tell. Perhaps this quote from Svetlana Kalinina, 19 year old “commissar” from Yaroslav, gives some indication:
“I know they call Putin an authoritarian in the West, but the Russian people have always needed a strong leader. Its part of our character.”Post Views: 760
By Sean — 7 months ago
Guest: Shaun Walker on The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past published by Oxford University Press.