Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Long Life of Stalinism: Reflections on the Aftermath of Totalitarianism and Social Memory

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Long Life of Stalinism: Reflections on the Aftermath of Totalitarianism and Social Memory

Article excerpt

If there are some relatively stable tropes of memory-work, some patterns and idioms of collective working-through of the past we have come to expect, Russia defies them all. Two decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but if you so much as scratch the surface of most family histories, you are likely to discover first-hand experiences of Gulags and deportations, dekulakisation and State terror. Yet there have been no legal processes put into place by which the atrocities of Stalinism would be officially recognised and condemned as crimes against humanity. (1) Unlike, say, South Africa or Argentina, Russia has had no Truth Commission, no 'Never Again' report, no mechanisms to enable and legitimate the nation-wide work of testimony, witnessing and mourning. Russia has had nothing like the whole-scale memorialisation of its traumatic history that we have seen in Germany or the USA. Over fifty years since the death of Stalin, there is still no central monument to the victims of terror. The location of most mass graves remains unknown and streets across the nation carry the names of henchmen. (2) The thought that the victims of Stalinism and their families might receive an official 'Apology' like the one delivered by the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to indigenous Australians, makes one laugh with incredulity. Even more alarmingly, in 2008 'The Name of Russia'--a project under the umbrella of the Russian Academy of Sciences broadcast by the State-owned TV channel--instituted a nation-wide search for a historical figure that best represented Russia of today. (3) Modeled after BBC's '100 Greatest Britons', 'The Name of Russia' had Stalin finish third in a contest, which commenced with five hundred potential candidates for the title. The persistent rumours spread on many Internet forums suggested that the organisers of the program had to tamper with the votes to prevent the scandal of Stalin coming first.

On the surface, this looks like an almost clinical picture of the collective amnesia or, in the psychoanalytic terms, of the 'mass repression' of mass repressions, only this is not quite the case. In today's Russia, we can observe not a black-out on memories of totalitarianism and Stalinism but on the contrary a profound surplus of such memories at least as far as testimonial and historical texts are concerned. "Since the late 1980's," writes historian Irina Paperno, "there has been an overwhelming outpouring of memoirs, diaries, and other personal accounts of life under the Soviet regime." (4) Outpouring is no euphemism. There is so much material out there you could spend a lifetime reading. Much of it is freely available on the Internet. (5) In other words, despite the current government's push towards the rehabilitation of the Soviet regime (or, rather, its version of it), there is an incredibly rich, voluminous and constantly growing body of the highly credible literature that painstakingly chronicles both the specific experiences and the broader historical narratives underpinning the fate of millions of Soviet citizens killed, imprisoned, deported, sent to Gulag or forced to live in constant terror. It is clear that the processes and cultures of remembering and forgetting Stalinism effectively co-exist in the contemporary Russia in complex and confronting ways. What is more, the vectors of memory are moving forward and backwards at the same time--it is simply inconceivable, for instance, that so many people would have voted for Stalin in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Inevitably we are left with the question of how to account for this convergence of a uniquely powerful testimonial culture and the wide-scale rehabilitation of the Soviet regime--a predicament that simply could not have been possible without some kind of deep forgetting or systematic mis-remembering of the Soviet past. Paul Connerton has recently set out "to disentangle the different types of acts that cluster together under the single term 'to forget. …

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