Sixty-two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Russian novelist Yuri Olesha’s dubious protagonist Nikolai Kavalerov peers into a street mirror only to see someone else, a grotesque parody of himself, coming out of it. Olesha was not envisioning the fall of communism in his novel Envy. Quite the contrary. Yet the metaphor for Russian history contained in this moment is extraordinarily prescient. Shortly after Kavalerov’s vision in the mirror, the narrative shifts from the first person to the third and then, Olesha writes, “the narrator fell silent.” Despite this warning, the “narrator” continues for another twenty pages. Who is telling this story? Who is in control of the plot, the characters, the most basic structures out of which meaning can emerge?

In 1989, Russia looked briefly into the mirror of its past, but the image reflected back was, much like Kavalerov’s, distorted and menacing. Two years later, the Soviet narrative came to an end, yet much in Russia today shows that the “narrator” may have prematurely announced his demise. The extravagant Soviet kitsch flourishing today on the streets of Moscow, the massive distortions of history to be found in much new “scholarship” and in the new public high school textbook endorsed by the Russian government, and the inability to reckon with a past that engulfed and suffocated Russian society for almost seventy-five years has left present-day Russia contemplating itself much like Kavalerov before the mirror in 1927.

When the Berlin Wall was torn down and a new beginning was about to unfold across Europe, Russia was completely unprepared for the changes that appeared to many in the West to be the natural result of the love of freedom and a widespread desire to throw off the repressive, criminal, monstrous legacy of Soviet communism. The impetus behind the desire to tear down the Soviet system in Russia, however, had many sources. A desire to establish a free market, liberal democracy was only one of them—that is to say, a free market in the context of the legal structures without which liberal democracy is impossible. This stream of Russian/Soviet thinking was best characterized during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin regimes by figures like Alexander N. Yakovlev, Yegor Gaidar, and most recently Grigory Yavlinsky, the founder of the Yabloko Party. But another stream was characterized by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and many other writers and thinkers who viciously attacked the Stalinist system, yet did so from a very conservative position defined by Russian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity. Others more extreme than Solzhenitsyn challenged Soviet rule based on a nationalism considerably more xenophobic and anti-Semitic, and less humane.

The samizdat (literally, self-publishing) dissident phenomenon of the mid-1950s and onward is frequently seen as a concerted and coherent effort by like-minded individuals. Yet the samizdat movement in fact united several contradictory strains of thinking against a common enemy. The first appearance of samizdat or crypto-samizdat in the USSR appeared not after Khrushchev’s thaw, but during the darkest days of the 1930s when Russian fascists published Nazi-inspired broadsides against Stalin. The walls that imprisoned the Soviet people in the Communist system also kept these powerful forces in Soviet society in check. When the Berlin Wall fell, so did these internal walls.

The most ominous development that quickly became apparent in the extremist press after Yeltsin took power was the so-called “Red-Brown Alliance”: the improbable alliance between the fascists and the Communists. To this only apparently contradictory phenomenon was soon added the Orthodox Church. What they all had in common was almost fanatical Russian nationalism, a rejection of the West, anti-Semitism, and a belief in the necessity of a powerful, autocratic central government. In the late 1980s and early 1990s newspapers and publications of all sorts represented this alliance by featuring the Orthodox cross and the Nazi swastika on their mastheads. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in mass market editions with a prefatory note by Henry Ford; the works of the white supremacist David Duke were on sale in the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian federal assembly); and the image of Joseph Stalin was relentlessly rehabilitated among the masses. In the mid-1980s, Stalin was little considered in public debate and would not have been identified by the majority of Russians as a great leader—today, he is viewed by the majority of Russians as one of the top two leaders in the history of Russia (along with Ivan the Terrible) and is ranked by Russians as one of the truly great world leaders (along with Mahatma Gandhi).

Yeltsin, his advisors, and popular supporters were not capable of withstanding the force of these deep-seated currents in Russian social and political reality. In the eyes of the Russian nationalists, the economic chaos of the 1990s only confirmed that a liberal democratic state was a useless luxury promoted in Russia by Western “experts” for the benefit of the West. Democracy became, in the parlance of the late 1990s, dermocracy—literally, a “shitocracy.” Furthermore, the chaos of those years caused ordinary people to long for the remembered social and physical security offered by the Soviet system of welfare, however illusory or inadequate it may actually have been.

It is easy for us in the materially prosperous West to chide the Russians for their merely material concerns, but the recent panic in the United States over the collapse of the stock market does not even begin to replicate the anxieties that gripped Russia when its stock market lost, not 45–50 percent of its value as in the 2008–2009 U.S. stock market crash, but 75 percent of its value between January and August 1998. The background of Russian history is not the Great Depression of the 1930s but the Famine of 1932–33 (in which some 5 million Ukrainian peasants starved to death amid cannibalism and the complete eradication of their culture, and some 4.5 million peasants in Kazakhstan also perished); the Terror of the 1930s; and the total collapse of civil society.

Russia’s history in the twentieth century was traumatic under any definition. Revolution, destitution, terror, mass murder, and savage repression were followed by the barbaric cruelties of World War II that claimed 20 million Soviet lives, new repressions, new forms of state violence, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the brutally stagnant years of the Brezhnev regime. Gorbachev followed with the promise of liberalization, the relaxation of censorship, and the possibilities of “socialism with a human face.” Yet, the underlying reality that informed Russian experience since the beginning of the last century was incompletely incorporated in the transformative process that led to Gorbachev’s rise and ill-founded hopes for fundamental change in Soviet society.

On November 9, 1989, the political fortunes of the Soviet Union were poised on a knife edge; by December 1991, they had fallen off the edge. But history does not have knife edges, and often that which appears to be a turning point can be seen as part of a much longer trajectory from the perspective of fifty or a hundred years later. From the standpoint of Russian history, the demise of the Berlin Wall was just such a phenomenon.

From 1989 to the end of the Yeltsin period, the great hope was that new political and economic structures, imposed largely from without, would transform the Soviet system into a liberal democratic, free market state. This hope has been defeated. If this period of chaos and uncertainty teaches anything, it is that a rationalist view of the historical process is deeply flawed. Stalin achieved a complete transformation of the Soviet Union only through the imposition of total violence on his own people, the murder and imprisonment of tens of millions, the uprooting and destruction of national cultures, and the formation of an absolutist, autocratic state that, in principle, sought to take the place of God. And even Stalin’s efforts were never entirely successful in the 1930s and 1940s; after World War II, some of his former closest supporters, such as V. S. Molotov, began to express slender hopes for changes in the Stalinist system.

In 1947, Molotov had written to Stalin, who was in Sochi recuperating from an illness, that he thought it necessary to be more liberal toward foreign correspondents and “allow foreign correspondents to operate without strict controls.” This lack of caution on Molotov’s part spelled the end of his influence in Stalin’s inner circle. Stalin had written to the Central Committee in November 1945, days after Pravda reprinted a speech by Churchill, that “we must carry out a harsh struggle against obsequiousness before foreigners. If in the future we will publish similar speeches, we will instill such obsequiousness and groveling.”

Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” on February 25, 1956, attempted to drive the demon of Stalin out of Soviet Communism. It only partially succeeded. The gulag was officially dissolved, mass shootings were effectively prohibited, the iron repression of the 1930s was indeed relaxed, as Molotov had envisioned. Yet the police state remained almost completely intact. In December 1956, a memorandum was sent to the cultural department of the Central Committee in the wake of the burgeoning scandal over the publication of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. A remarkable observation is made in a memo signed by D. Polikarpov, B. Ryurikov, and I. Chernoutsan. After noting the effects of the resolution of the twentieth party congress following Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” it comments on the mood of Soviet writers in various literary organizations in Moscow and elsewhere:

They seized sharply on material in which the perversions connected to the cult of personality were disclosed. This signifies the inevitability of a deep, internal perestroika. This process of an internal perestroika will not be quick, and it will not be painless. In these circumstances, it is necessary first of all carefully and tactfully to take stock of each writer’s peculiarities and creative fortunes, to answer their complicated questions, to explain the intent and significance of the struggle against the cult of personality, and to unify the writers around the resolutions of the great and responsible ideological-creative task set by the congress.

As early as December 1956, Central Committee bureaucrats were using the term perestroika to describe the task ahead; they employed this term in a way that suggests that this was not the first time it was being so used. But how was this restructuring to be accomplished? Change was to occur entirely within the parameters of the “great and responsible ideological-creative task set by the [twentieth] congress.” Party leaders did not envision changing the frame: the task was to affirm the core values of Soviet society but jettison the Stalinist cult of personality.

At the December 2008 International Conference on Stalinism held in Moscow, the same precise project was articulated by Dr. Alexander Chubaryan in his plenary address. Chubaryan, the head of the World History Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was intent that the Conference reaffirm the positive values of the Soviet system while draining it (and its values) of its Stalinist content. No one yet has shown how this can be accomplished either in theory or practice.

The West was deceived by the presence of samizdat in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s into thinking that Russian culture—not just dissident culture—was pervaded by a unified spirit of defiance against this system and could thereby change basic modes of thinking and sensibility. Culture, however, changes much more slowly than politics, and, as the Central Committee memo noted, such change would be neither quick nor painless. Today, the return of Stalin into the classrooms and into the living rooms of ordinary Russians demonstrates that the turn away from 1989 is nearing completion in Russia—the image coming out of the mirror may look much different from what stands before it.

The question of why the image of Stalin, rather than a symbol of the Soviet system minus Stalin, has returned to daily Russian life, which is what Chubaryan and Khrushchev before him advocated, can be answered only by recognizing that the Soviet system has no other visible symbols of success. Lenin’s short reign did not represent Soviet success and power so much as the triumph of Marxist thought. It was Stalin who fought the great battles against Trotsky, the Nazis, and the sneering West. In the eyes of many today, Stalin vindicated the Soviet system, by transforming it into a great world power. No more “obsequiousness and groveling” before the West, or, as Stalin wrote in a letter to Gorky, “no more beggarly Russia.” In the end, the revival of Stalin has less to do with the image of Stalin than with the self-image of the Russian people, their powerful need to look into the mirror and see not themselves but their deepest aspirations reflected back.

Not everyone today shares Chubaryan’s vision of the “new” Russian political order. Grigory Yavlinsky, the former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, and the founder of the Yabloko party, whose aim is to establish a liberal democracy based on the rule of law, is quite pessimistic about the present political reality in Russia, which he sees as a form of “post-modern Stalinism”; that is, Stalinism without any of its outward signs. Others include Arseny Roginsky, the founder of Memorial, an organization established to commemorate the victims of the gulag and Soviet repression, keep alive the energy of samizdat from decades past. Journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya, have refused to be silenced. Such groups and individuals could not have existed in the 1930s and could not have acted openly in the 1960s.

But Politkovskaya was murdered; Roginsky’s Memorial was broken into by government investigators on the eve of the 2008 Moscow Stalin Conference; and Yabloko has a following of only about 60,000 members. As Yavlinsky said to me in a recent interview, “as long as I stay on the reservation I can say whatever I like. The second I get off the reservation, I am a dead man.” He knows well the perimeter of that reservation. Twenty years after 1989, the deepest questions of the perestroika of Russian society, going back to 1956, remain. They will not be answered by political or economic success or failure but by the slow work of cultural transformation.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 3, on page 15
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https://newcriterion.com/issues/2009/11/russia-before-the-mirror-reflections-on-1989

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