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Late Stalinism and the Soviet Nation

Evgeny Dobrenko

In Russia everything changes over ten years and nothing changes over two hundred years. These words, attributed to Petr Stolypin, were borne out, it seems, by all of the country’s subsequent history. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when the words were spoken, Russia had experienced a revolution, for the suppression of which Stolypin went down in history. In the next decade, it went through World War I and two revolutions, the latter of which swept away the former elites, changed the political system, and consolidated a new economic regime. After surviving a devastating civil war, the country entered the century’s fourth decade, which was inaugurated by no lesser convulsions—collectivization, industrialization, and cultural revolution, all of which altered the country’s social profile forever. The decade brought the Great Terror, unprecedented in its scope and definitively consolidating the change of the elites and the new political regime. The 1940s were inaugurated by the Great Patriotic War, which hit the country like a tornado, destroying its most economically developed part and consuming the most dynamic generation of youth. As soon as it ended, the country entered the era of the Cold War, one of yet another mobilization and unprecedented xenophobia, simultaneously developing a new imperial project and transforming itself into a world power and one of the poles of the new world order. The following decade brought the Thaw, a new modernizing impulse that was in the 1970s replaced by stagnation. A new burst of historical dynamism in the 1980s, the symbol of which became “perestroika and acceleration,” concluded at the beginning of the twentieth century’s last decade with the collapse of the USSR and the “camp of socialism,” the end of the Cold War, and yet another replacement of the political order and the economic system. When it entered the new century, the country engaged in an accelerating process of political counter-reforms, which were followed by economic crisis, stagnation, a new autarky, and confrontation with the West. It seems that in fact everything did change every ten years, and nothing at all changed. Nonetheless, much did change. The changes simply run deep.

The era following World War II has always been in the shadow of times far more tempestuous and hence far more interesting to historians—the revolutionary era (1920s), that of terror (1930s), or that of the Thaw (1956–64). The era of late Stalinism has gotten lost amid these historical surges like a sort of historical blank. It is perceived as a time of unprecedented political and social stability, the first such time in twentieth-century Russian history. But the depression that set in after the storm has seemed less interesting to historians.

Not without reason do historians prefer “eras of change” to eras in which “nothing happens”; it is precisely in the former that palpable social, political, and cultural fractures and shifts occur, the significance of which is defined by the longevity of their effects. At issue here are the wars and revolutions that produce breaks, but the effects of these breaks—and precisely where the subsequent wars and revolutions that produce new breaks mature—are in barely noticeable shifts, the shaping of a new routine, in the sustainability of life within these consequences. The eruption of a volcano is a short-term phenomenon; the formation of a volcano is a long-lasting process. That which determined the historical consciousness of the Soviet (and later the post-Soviet) nation for decades to come matured imperceptibly beneath the surface of the apparent lack of conflict in the postwar era.

Nations are born through the tragic events that they usually turn into triumphs. No one understood this better than Charles de Gaulle, who claimed that the future lasts a long time. In point of fact, the past lasts much longer. Victory in war was the event in which the incipient Soviet nation manifested itself for the first time. But this did not occur in the ruins of 1945. It took years for the tragedy of war to be transformed into the triumph of victory and for the Soviet nation to collectively recognize itself, during which a myth was created about the war and Soviet greatness, about an all-conquering leader and a supreme state, about the envy of the arrogant West and Russian national exceptionalism, about stolen glory and messianism. This was what constituted the essence of the late-Stalinist era. Stalin truly did take control of a country with a plow and leave it with an atomic bomb. But it is no less important that he took control of a country populated by people who had lost their own history and had been deprived of a national identity and left behind the full-fledged Soviet nation that was entirely the product of Stalinism. Stalin was the father of this nation.

History is made in eras when “nothing happens,” specifically when the breaks and vivid political manifestations that occurred in the “era of changes” have accumulated political institutions and acquired their own rituals and traditions, have given rise to a corresponding political culture that is perceived as natural, have been transformed into a “way of life” and a “way of thinking” or “structures of everyday life,” and have shaped a corresponding system of social relations and ties, as well as ethics and aesthetics. In other words, in order to have a longtime effect, the consequences of an “era of changes” must go through a stabilizing stage when a sort of subsidence of the revolutionary wave occurs, along with adaptation to life in the new conditions, when these new conditions are ritualized and normalized. It is in such stable periods that nations are born and history is made.

Late Stalinism was just such an era. In the most obscure years of twentieth-century Russian history this deep-seated historical process was especially intense, and it ended with the ultimate crystallization of the Soviet nation. Its post-Soviet successor is to this day experiencing phantom pains, complexes, and traumas of that era. It was precisely during that era (not before and not after) that its ideological parameters were molded. In those years much of the sediment of the 1930s had settled, and a new slurry emerged of modernized conservatism and nostalgic patriarchal sentiment, anti-Americanism and an envious attitude toward Western achievements, and isolationism and xenophobia with an aggressive international agenda.

From Late Stalinism by Evgeny Dobrenko, translated by Jesse M. Savage. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Evgeny Dobrenko is professor of Russian studies at the University of Sheffield.

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