We do not learn from the past, we live in it

A conversation between Irina Kosterina and Serguei Oushakine, Princeton, New Jersey, 2015.

Serguei Oushakine is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Slavic Languages and Literatures and Director of the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Princeton University. His research interests include memory and politics of history, postcolonialism, post-Soviet and Eurasian studies, and everyday life. Mr Ushakin is author and editor of several books and collections both in Russian and English.

Irina Kosterina: It seems to me that some kind of a new era of history has begun in Russia, and I would therefore like to talk about the importance of historical memory and historical reflection about the past. There is a strong sense that much of what is happening with the people in Russia today is due to the fact that our Soviet past has not been worked through.

Serguei Oushakine: Yes, this is a very familiar point of view — one which I do not entirely share, however. First of all, I am not sure that reflexivity and behavior are connected. Do read the diaries of [the Soviet writer] Yuri Nagibin: the level of his reflexivity is directly proportional to the level of his misanthropy. Behaviour changes when there are rules.

I do not visit Russia so often, which is why I notice changes very clearly: Suddenly, car drivers began to stop at the crosswalk and give way to pedestrians. They did not begin to reflect on the pedestrian standing by the road; they did not become better people. The fines became stiffer, and as a result, people’s behaviour changed.

You see, ordinary people do not reflect much on the historical past in their everyday life. People are worried about their work, children, parents, and health. People are just too busy to ponder about the meaning of the February Revolution or the “right-wing deviation” within the Communist Party. In Russia’s current situation, people have no time to make forays into history. What is more, there are professional historians to make these forays.

I think the problem is elsewhere: the so-called mass readership has been firmly preoccupied with the mass culture only. At best, there are authors like Boris Akunin, who try to write some quasi-historical texts without working with documental archives. At worst, there will be “alternative histories” replete with new chronologies and conspiracy theories.

Professional historians can disagree on the assessment and meaning of any given event, but if those disagreements fail to crystallise into some form of historical schemes, formulas, and rituals that could reach out to ordinary people, then those schemes, formulas, and rituals will be created by someone else. Someone of a different nature.

IK: Why is this happening? Are ordinary people incapable of accepting the complexity of history? Do they need a simplified picture?

SO: Lately, I have started a project on books that the young Soviet state began to publish for children in the second half of the 1920s. Back then, the government set up special Institutes for Reading, and there was constant discussion about how the new reader, son or daughter of a worker who was himself a barely literate first-generation city-dweller, was actually reading.

Some rather important people took part in these debates: [first Soviet Commissar of Education Anatoly] Lunacharsky, [Soviet author Maxim] Gorky, and [members of the early Soviet literary movement] the «Young Formalists.» [Literary critic] Lidiya Ginzburg argued very frankly that there was a need for a new schematic fabula. There was a need for clarity.

Do not overwhelm children with a lot of facts; this “documentalism,” as Ginzburg called it, served no purpose whatsoever. Pioneer leaders were taught to distinguish between the narrative scheme and the story, which developed and illuminated the scheme. They were told that children should not be destructed by convoluted stories; they needed to see the narrative skeleton. What was needed was a graspable and memorable picture — a framework that would make it clear «who should beat whom,» when, and why.

I think the situation today is somewhat similar: We need a graspable “picture”. But there is none. To be precise, there is no picture that would present historical facts as a clear and understandable narrative.

IK: Is this not because the state itself has no historical politics?

SO: The state does not reflect, people do. The state does not write history, historians do. The likes of [Russian Academy of Sciences members Nikolai] Fomenko or Isaak Mints. The state can facilitate or complicate the process — for instance by closing archives or, on the contrary, by digitising and publishing, say, Soviet newspapers on the internet, so that people could see what was being discussed, by whom, and how.

But I think that the mere availability of and access to data changes very little. There is a lot of information already available. Let me repeat: We need good filters (created by historians) that would make this data digestible. And therein lies the problem. In the US, we have The History Channel, which explains to people in an understandable language what the past was like. Professional historians working hand in hand with TV professionals to make a quality product.

I think the situation is slowly changing in Russia. We had various documentary series such as “Sovetskaya Imperiya” (Soviet Empire) and the like, but almost no professional historian took part in making these series. As a result, the genre that used to be called “popular science” has become just “popular”.

It is telling that the TV programme that was hosted once by Nikolai Svanidze was called “Istoricheskiye Khroniki” (Historical Chronicles). As we know, history begins where the chronicles end. A chronicle is just a record of events. For it to become history, you need an outline, a plot, and development — what we now call a “narrative.”

In my view, Svanidze was right to name his series the way he did: It had no articulate historical narrative. All we can do, then, is just keep reshuffling the facts, hoping that they would stack up by themselves over time. So far they have not.

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IK: What is the reason for the absence of a positive narrative? Is there no proper language for this purpose?

SO: I do not know, this is a mystery to me, too. I once wrote an article on “post-Soviet aphasia.” Aphasia is a breakdown in the process of symbolisation, when you cannot find the correct symbol for an object. You are forced to use that which you happen to get a hold of, that which you know for certain. The end result might not very elegant, but at least you know how to get it.

I asked young people in Russia to describe themselves, to tell me how they saw themselves if looking from the outside (i.e. to reflect about their own position). I did the research in 1997-1998 and posed these questions to pupils at senior class in school and to freshmen at university. I surmised that they had some dreams, plans, and aspirations. Basically, I was trying to understand how they related to their parents’ Soviet generation and the new generation of “successful” people (then called “New Russians”), and did they see any fundamental differences.

When describing themselves, these youngsters emphasised that they were “no longer Soviet, but not yet New Russians.” They constructed their identity through a process of negation: We are not them, nor those people, and not those ones, either. However, they had no intrinsic, positive identity. I was surprised at this and tried to understand how this symbolical dead end came about. (In fact, this is where my doctoral dissertation originated.)

I found out interesting things. Alright, it was clear that provincial schoolchildren could not describe themselves very articulately. However, in 1997, during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, a special commission of wise men, headed by [the political scientist] Georgy Satarov, was set up to come up with a “national Russian idea.” Of course, the commission failed to come up with anything of the sort; it only compiled a press survey and published an abstract with quotes (they called it a “thematical montage of the discussion”) and then disbanded itself.

Thus, coming up with a national idea by decree did not work. Gradually, the symbolical vacuum began to be filled by “retro” products. At the end of 1995, the first in a series of films, “Starye Pesni o Glavnom” (Old Songs About the Important), [which recounted Soviet history through old songs], was shown on Russian television. There was a multitude of remakes [of Soviet films], and a stylistic return to the past began.

IK: Was this Soviet nostalgia?

SO: No, it was not nostalgia. What [the Russian TV journalist Leonid] Parfyonov did in his TV series “Namedni” (Lately) was specifically to demonstrate that Soviet society was not monolithic, but that it was, in fact, a multilayered mosaic, and that the fragments of this mosaic and the life experience in such an atomised and multilayered environment had an impact on life today as well.

Parfyonov knowingly “killed” the unifying framework and the possibility of a homogenising narrative with his visual variety, showing that we could “enter” the Soviet past not just through parades on the Red Square, but through the memory of how people knitted macrame lace or froze in the tents while building the Bratsk Power Station in the 1960s. This absence of a “single” road of history allowed to draw up very minute individual links between present-day people and their parents of yesterday.

Not for nothing did Parfyonov repeat in the beginning of each episode that the TV series consisted of “events, people, and phenomena that defined our lifestyle — that without which it was impossible to imagine and even more difficult to understand us.” He created an archive of late Soviet everyday life. To be precise, he showed us how it could be done. But the work did not proceed farther than that. By and large, dealing with the past was limited to the genre of listing all those “events, people, and phenomena.” The work of “understanding” was not completed; eventually, the process of imagining depleted itself, too.

IK: So there were no new historical narratives?

SO: Give me one modern Russian cultural narrative that would not be based on negation.

This applies, more likely, to young people who did not have this narrative and who were raised in an era of a “killed narrative.” In other words, for them, the current patriotism is not a repeatition but the original.

IK: There is probably no modern one, but I do remember well the late Soviet narrative, which was propagated in schools in the 1980s, that “the Soviet people was a victorious people.”

SO: But this narrative was totally undermined during the Perestroika era.

IK: The “virus of patriotism” that is spreading now in Russia shows very clearly that the narrative was not killed off completely.

SO: This applies, more likely, to young people who did not have this narrative and who were raised in an era of a “killed narrative.” In other words, for them, the current patriotism is not a repeatition but the original. They do not remember and do not know about the rejection of the Soviet formulas like we do. Also, you must agree that if you remember how countries boycotted the Olympic games in Moscow and then in Los Angeles, you will interpret the calls to boycott the Olympics in Sochi in a somewhat different manner.

IK: Okay then, but why is there no such rejection among the generation of my parents, who remember all of it perfectly well?

SO: It seems to me that they did not believe that the narrative was “killed” during the Perestroika era after all; they accepted the fact that it ceased to be the main narrative, but it did not cease to exist for them.

IK: That is exactly what I am talking about — that there has been no serious collective reflection on the Soviet experience nor any assessment of the Soviet past.

SO: There were plenty of such debates at the end of the 1980s and in the beginning of the 1990s. It is another matter that these debates did not produce any positive language that would allow people to reconcile the Soviet past that they remembered with the one that they were told about. For obvious reasons, people did not want to reduce their whole lives to stories about [Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenty] Beriya, the GULAG prison camp system, and political repressions.

You know, in 2001-2002, I spent several months interviewing those who had taken part in the war in Chechnya. You listen to the stories about the horrors of the war, you rage and fume about what you have heard, but then you go out on the street and see that there is a whole other life out there, at places even beautiful, and that people rarely think about Chechnya.

Have you often seen any collective reflexions or assessments of the war? The onset of the genre of Russian “glossy” journalism coincided with the two Chechen wars. Such selective amnesia! We think of [Soviet director] Ivan Pyryev’s film “Kubanskiye Kazaki” (Cossacks of the Kuban) as an example of unbelievable historical fabrication, yet here we can see that a whole “industry” was built as if in his name.

We would like to see polarisation, or to be more precise, a cleansing of history, yet a very selective one — without Stalin, but with the “Stalin towers.”

IK: Nonetheless, the upshot is that people have not made up their mind about what to think about the Soviet Union: Was it good or bad?

SO: No, they have not. One of the reasons is that the Bolshevik demand to “make up one’s mind” — who do you stand with, masters of culture? — simplifies both history and people’s biographies.

I once lectured at Princeton on the history of socialism and showed a fragment from Dziga Vertov’s film “Three Songs About Lenin.” It was a scene where a woman in a nomad tent was screwing in a lightbulb and then light appeared. The next scene was archival footage of Lenin speaking in Moscow. That was to make everyone to understand right away where the light came from: A very canonical plot about “Lenin’s bulb” and about electricity as a unifying force. An American student asked me, “How can you show that? That is propaganda!” I asked her why, to which she replied: “There was the GULAG, after all.” I said: “There was light as well.”

You see, you would like people to choose between light and the power of darkness, whereas I think it is important to show that both phenomena existed side by side and were often even inseparable from one another. Yet I do not really know how to reconcile both the light and the GULAG. And I think this is the problem: We would like to see polarisation, or to be more precise, a cleansing of history, yet a very selective one — without Stalin, but with the “Stalin towers.”

I was in [the Georgian capital] Tbilisi recently. It was interesting that there was no museum of Stalinism there, but there was a museum of Soviet occupation (with very little information about Stalin), and there was a biographical museum of Stalin himself in the city of Gori. These two layers of history — occupation and Stalin — did not really intermingle practically or geographically. Such attempts to construct a “good memory” within a “bad history” are commonplace in the former Soviet Union. People want to put everything in their “right place,” condemn those responsible, assign a grade to the past, and forget.

IK: Do you think we should not evaluate the past, then?

SO: I do not think that giving grades is a very productive way to converse with the past. Stalinism was condemned in 1956, in 1961, during Perestroika, and again today. You see, an evaluation does not release you from responsibility; it does not even lead to any significant internal changes. We would all like for the assessment to lead to a catharsis that would allow us to understand everything and transform us. Yet we can see that none of this has happened over more than 50 years. It seems, then, that the problem is not only in the lack of assessment.

IK: Even if people have a very relaxed attitude toward the GULAG prison camp system and toward Stalin?

SO: Are you saying that people today can call for “shooting the enemies of the people?”

IK: There are such people. The narrative about “stability” and force as honourable values is quite prevalent today. Therefore, 30-year-olds do not see anything objectionable in resorting to violence; they think that one can make others “respect” and fear Russia this way. In my view, this is because no one has pointed the events in the past to this generation and explained to them that genocide and violence against one’s own people are bad things, and that there is nothing that can justify these deeds.

SO: Yes, this is true, but the problem is that in the picture that you have just drawn, you have the “people” on the one hand, and an obscure, impersonal “something” on the other. Yet who was the author of this genocide and violence? After all, it was not a machine that was shooting by itself. It was a part of that very same “people.”

If President Yeltsin would have met and talked with [first Chechen President Dzhokhar] Dudayev, maybe there would have been no war, but there are very few people who are pointing to these events and saying that it was something that was wrong. The generation of 30-year-olds that you talked about has its own experience of chaos and “genocide” against its own people, which probably taught it to look at phenomena such as Stalinism in a somewhat different manner…

But we were talking about history. Here is another example for you, and this one is about genocide, from one of my trips to Belarus. Not far from Minsk, scores of mass graves were found during the Perestroika years. It is still unclear how many people were shot there; the figures vary: Some claim 250,000-300,000, others say 30,000. The Belarusian Popular Front insisted that it was an act of genocide against the Belarusian nation; one of the movement’s leaders claimed then that it was the result of “joint efforts of Russian and German communists and fascists to destroy Belarusians.”

However, the only two documents found in the graves of those killed were issued to the [Jewish] names of Moisha Kramer and Mordechai Shuleskis. Furthermore, when the prosecutor’s office completed its first round of investigation, it came to the conclusion that a crime had clearly taken place, but that there was no one to punish. The executions were carried out by members of the Minsk department of [the Soviet secret police] NKVD. Some of them had already deceased, while many others were executed by the NKVD generation that followed them.

What we have, then, is another case akin to what happened to [former NKVD director Genrikh] Yagoda, [who was responsible for mass executions and was then executed himself]: We have to decide whether he was a victim of the repressive regime or part of a human destruction machine that escaped from his control? Soviet history is full of such cases: Jewish pogroms overlap with political repression, and the executioners become the victims. How can we deal with something like this?

IK: Given that, as you say, our history is full of such cases, one can thus justify any actions by the authorities.

SO: Well, we are not talking about justifying their actions. We are trying to understand why there has been no articulate historical narrative about the Soviet past that could form a basis for solidarity instead of polarisation within the society; why we have no narrative “skeleton.” The examples that I gave partly explain that instead of a skeleton, all we have is bones, so to speak. There is no clear narrative because there was no clear history that would have allowed us to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent.

Stephen Kotkin, my colleague at Princeton, has just released the first volume of his biography of Stalin. Steve went through a lot of archives, yet nowhere — nowhere! — did he find a single hint that would have indicated that Stalin was a cynical dictator who spoke one thing in public and something completely different in his personal correspondence. In fact, Stalin turned out to have been a quite consistent person who had a strong belief in that his cause was just.

What I am trying to understand are the origins of the belief that these people had: If it was not in Stalin, then in Lenin; if not in Lenin, then in universal equality… We remember that [Soviet author Varlam] Shalamov was sent to the prison camps, but less often do we recall that he was first convicted for secretly printing copies of “Lenin’s Testament” [that was critical of Stalin]…

IK: Are you sure that people are interested in history at all?

SO: Maybe I am an optimist because I have not lived in Russia for a long time. Nevertheless, I think that people want to learn about the past — the past that helped them live today. Yes, I do indeed believe — okay, I want to believe — that people are interested in quality products. That said, I know that the editions of my books have still not been sold out. Nevertheless, it does not stop me from writing new ones! Yes, I am an optimist.

IK: You really have lost touch of Russian reality if you think so. What people want most is pop songs and mass culture — lowbrow TV series and popular ballads. [Singer and songwriter] Stas Mikhaylov is now the highest-paid Russian artist.

SO: At the same time, the production of [Richard Wagner’s opera] “Tannhäuser” in Novosibirsk and [the screening of the Russian film] “Leviathan” are being discussed throughout Russia. In America, I cannot imagine any nationwide debate about “Leviathan.” At best, there will be a review in the culture section of The New York Times.

IK: But these are not debates about the fine arts, but about politics.

SO: Well, I do not recall any political debates about opera or ballet in the U.S.

IK: Yet many refuse to see “Leviathan” because they think that the film “tarnishes Russia.” Do you have any idea why people have gotten so worked up about the country’s national image? Are we talking about the same national idea that Georgy Satarov’s commission failed to come up with?

SO: It is not only about that. I think that the 1990s “cleansed the space” so thoroughly that it was very difficult for any basic value clusters to spring up in this environment. It is like painting with white ink on a white canvas.

Recently, I was watching the [Russian TV series] “Furtseva,” [which tells about the life of the long-time Minister of Culture of the Soviet Union, Yekaterina Furtseva]. The series is very indicative. On the one hand, it is a typical example of the problem that we just talked about: There is no distinctive narrative framework; the only narrative is the biography of the main protagonist. There is no need to make up any story: The person was born; then she grew up, and then died.

What is interesting is how this biographical scheme was fleshed out in the series. “Furtseva” was a kind of a post-Soviet Cinderella story, where instead of the prince charming we have a membership in the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and instead of the kingdom we have the Ministry of Culture. But this is not the main thing.

“Furtseva” is a sort of a neoliberal analogy of Social Darwinism: An iron lady battling alone for her survival, counting on her own strength and instinct only. She can expect help from nowhere and can trust no one. Homo homini lupus. There are no permanent friends or loyalties. The goal is to survive. Only those survive who are able to adapt best to the market demand — in this case to the ideological environment.

I think the series was important because it very clearly demonstrated everything what we have talked about today: There are no values that people could build their lives around. All we have are utilitarian exchanges and a fundamental cynicism in relations between people.

I do not know whether it is accidental or not, but I think it is important that Furtseva’s success in her career (in Soviet terms) was an excuse for the authors of the series to tell about her unhappy life. “Happy ends” are not a Russian genre. At the same time, we do not really want to build our lives based on the ideology and aesthetics of suffering. We would rather want to avoid that.

Given that there are no particular utopias left, we have not really managed to find new aesthetic principles that would attract or carry people further. Dystopias and other horror stories are much more popular. What to do with the “revolutionary avant-garde” in such a conservative period is unclear; socialist realism, which could and does fit in with the current context, is just so very predictable.

We can see how religion is becoming one of the social forms that allow people to make sense of the real-life issues in society, specifically because it articulates a series of rules that should be followed. In other words, religion creates the narrative framework we were discussing. However, it seems to me that religion is often reduced to ornamentalism, which we already talked about…

All these value clusters presuppose that people would organise their lives around them. In this respect, nationalism is much more accessible, as it does not require any individual effort: It is enough to join an already existing group.

Observing the development of national ideologies not just in Russia but in other former Soviet countries is quite revealing. What we can see is a very interesting example of the Marxist view of history. In the 1990s, the dominant metaphor of solidarity was that of family: [The Russian blockbuster movies] «Brother,» «Brother 2,» and «Sisters,» the constant talk about Yeltsin’s “Family” (inner circle), and battalion commanders called “daddies.”

In Belarus, a myth of [the country’s leader as the] “Batka” (Old Man) was formed, and in Kyiv, people talked about [former President Leonid] Kuchma’s “clan.” In the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, where I visit often, clans are widely considered an alternative system of social organisation. I even published two books entitled “Semeinye uzy: modeli dlya sborki” (Family Bonds: Models to Assemble).

In recent years, we can see a rather clear move away from these “tribal” to “national” structures that were also built organically but did not presuppose any family ties. This is real progress! Just as the classics of Marxism-Leninism predicted! Nationalism is becoming an organising force. Slowly, gradually, but inevitably. In this respect, Russia has of course fallen somewhat behind its neighbours — the Baltic States and, to some extent, the Caucasus and Central Asia as well. It is hard to say how this will develop, given that Russia is an imperial and multinational country, and thus the attitude toward diversity is different.

IK: Yet Russian nationalism is not ethnic, but national and country-based, which is why “patriotism” has become our nationalism.

SO: You know, yes and no. I think that all nationalisms are linked to ethnicity in any case. It is very hard to prove that you are a “Russian patriot” when you are speaking in Tatar. The words are just so different.

IK: You would be surprised, but that is exactly what is happening! We can see “Russian patriots” in Chechnya, in Dagestan, and in Buryatia. Even stronger patriotism than in the Russian heartland.

SO: Have you asked them why they are like this?

IK: Yes, I did. They immediately started talking about their need for a “strong Russia” that could “stand up” to the Americans who were imposing their will on everyone. The old Cold War narrative, in other words. Therefore, the so-called “neopatriots” see Russia as a counterbalancing force.

SO: I think that such a geopolitical nationalism is, more likely, a way to organise beliefs and people.

This post-Soviet nationalism is not just reactionary (i.e., conservative), but it is also reactive, formed as a response. That is why I think it is inefficient.

IK: Beliefs about what?

SO: About one’s own life, understood in “geopolitical” terms. It is an attempt to define oneself through opposition. We already talked about the fact that because there is very little intrinsic positive identity (traditions are still just being invented), the nationalism that we witness today is largely dialogical in its structure. In other words, it does not strive so much to conserve some “original” or “eternal” values of the nation as to point to distinctions (mostly between neighbours), draw borders, and once more to underscore the discrepancy between time and space.

As a result, what we can see is the emergence of a fundamental dependence on that which we, in fact, reject. Attachment to the object of aversion — what the Americans call the “things we love to hate.” That is why there is such an accentuated attention to who said what about whom. This post-Soviet nationalism is not just reactionary (i.e., conservative), but it is also reactive, formed as a response. That is why I think it is inefficient.

In contrast to the nationalisms of the past, post-Soviet nationalisms are very unsustainable. Without a notional “Jen Psaki” — an external “bogeyman” — that requires a stiff response, post-Soviet nationalisms are unable to withstand. They have very little of their own. Moreover, the “Jen Psaki” will not be there forever, either…

IK: In other words, you think that there simply is no positive narrative?

SO: Yes, and efforts to articulate it are only now beginning to take shape. The aesthetics of failure seems much more efficient. The negative has a stronger allure, which we can all see when watching the news. Who needs “reports from the field?” I would much rather hear about dissected bodies or some brutal love…

IK: Is it because we are all masochists?

SO: (Laughs.) I do not know whether we are all masochists or just not yet, but the power of this emotion turns out to be more important than the constructive wish for a fortuitous future.


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