The subject of the Stalinist past was a controversial topic even within the Soviet Union and now is perhaps even more so in Former Soviet States. Given this, it’s not surprising there were mixed feelings in anticipation of Rethinking the Stalinist Past in Soviet Union (1953-70) an event chaired on September 23rd at Pushkin House by Dr.Polly Jones, author of a book by the same title.
At the networking reception before the event people were already exchanging thoughts on the subject: Can one analyze the Stalinist past, when history has been written and rewritten a number of times under the firm command of Soviet and Russian leaders? When those who could testify for the occurrences at the time have either been dead or isolated, and those who begin to disclose the information may leave one questioning how empirical it really is? And was there anything to say on the subject, something new and original, that would not be a repetition of numerous, already existing works of literature, which would make you change your mind about Stalin and the Soviet Union as a whole? As it turned out – nothing is impossible.
It was a pleasant surprise to see that the audience was a mix of old and young, who seemed equally interested in the subject. Dr. Jones did a great job in just over an hour of giving the audience a short but exhaustive excursion to the Stalinist era. There were parallels between Soviet Russian past and characteristics of the modern regime with Mr. Putin in charge. Just to clarify: drawing parallels is not to say that president Putin is equated with Stalin, but there are some undeniable similarities in the features of two regimes: like Stalin, Putin is increasingly being portrayed as saviour of his nation, with his image featuring on t-shirts, wall calendars, and popular artworks. It is no news that history repeats itself and that by analysing the past one can forecast potential developments for the future. Manipulations of history reflect the Orwellian notion that “who controls the present, controls the past, and who controls the past, controls the future”. One can agree with Dr. Jones that this idea, in the wake of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian crisis, is becoming more topical now, both in terms of understanding Russia and thinking about potential ways out of the crisis for all involved.
The impact of the recent Russian-Ukrainian crisis (especially for those involved in it beyond simply reading the headlines) has sparked (or revived?) a debate among scholars about finding the similarities between the current regime in Russia and Stalin’s regime: Russia has, according to the popular current rhetoric, been returning to the practices of Stalinist era. “Can we see the return to the cult of personality?”- Dr. Jones asked? That’s for each of us to decide.
According to Polly Jones, the assessment of the Stalinist cult of personality allows us to trace the Soviet rule, and thus a significant part of the lecture was dedicated to the subject of de-Stalinization – what happens when such a leader, whose personality was almost literally holding the regime and system together, is gone? The talk revealed the issues that arise when one tries to dismantle the cult of personality, naively believing the nation will come to terms with the past once terror testimonies appear in the public arena and victims start to talk. De-cultivising an idol ultimately becomes a Pandora’s Box which can bring a regime to a premature end, as people begin to question the whole system and its mechanism, things that appear no less responsible for the terror than the once-praised leader himself. To illustrate the point, Dr. Jones referred to Khrushchev’s famous Secret Speech at the 1956 Twentieth Party Congress which marked the beginning of the de-Stalinization era in Soviet Union, and gave impetus to society to engage with the system as a whole.
When the myths about the regime begin to be crushed, can one really stop the regime from falling? As Dr. Jones’s lecture indicated, it becomes only a matter of time. The discussion cannot be stopped – it can only be postponed – but it will still find its ways in the literature, in art, in music. The era of de-Stalinization was marked not only by the testimonies of regime victims, but given considerable attention in literature, where works by Solzhenitsyn and Simonov became, in the eyes of the many, the voice of the truth.
Dr. Jones ended her talk with rhetorical questions: “Can the past ever be satisfactorily resolved? Can one draw a firm line between history and truth versus myth in the Stalinist era?”
Who knows? But it’s worth trying, and Dr Jones has had a good shot at it. The subject is once again becoming more and more timely. So is Dr. Jones’s book worth a read? Definitely.
Dr.Polly Jones’s Myth, Memory, Trauma: Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953-70 (Yale, 2013) is available from Amazon, priced at £40.71