Staunton, October 30 – Whether Russians decide to base their identity on tsarist or Soviet traditions or to come up with an entirely new one, Irina Prokhorova says, they must as a first step stop being ashamed of the fact that the overwhelming majority of them descend not from the nobility or the communist elite but from the peasantry.
In a wide-ranging interview with Andrey Arkhangelsky in the new issue of Ogonyek, the editor of Novoye literaturnoye obozreniye, says that the experience of people in World War II shows that even the most horrific events can unite people if they know the truth about them but divide them if they don’t (kommersant.ru/doc/3447599).
The experiences of Soviet citizens in the war caused the post-war Soviet leadership which had gone through that conflict like everyone else to limit their totalitarian aspirations and rein in their “imperial appetite.” This direct personal experience was key because “Soviet censorship did not allow public discussion about the tragic consequences of the war.”
“Today,” however, she says, “the generation of those who fought at the front left, and people have begun to treat the war in a different way, one that leads not to unification but to the division of society.” And that, which involves things like justifying Stalin’s crimes and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact “can lead to a new tragedy.”
The institution of serfdom, Prokhorova says, nominally disappeared in the 1860s, “but its influence on our subsequent life as before has been colossal.” That experience of slavery “has not allowed” Russians to address some of the basic questions that must be answered to come up with an adequate identity.
In this, there is an obvious contrast with the US where the rise of the positive cult of the cowboy was an implicit recognition that Americans were a nation of herders; and that recognition as transformed into myth led to the formation of a national identity there, the editor continues.
But in Russia things worked out differently because “it is difficult to find in our historical memory about the peasantry a basis for the elaboration of a positive identity.” By tradition, the peasants were viewed the byword for backwardness and ignorance. Indeed, it was one of the few things both the Slavophiles and Westernizers agreed upon.
Following the revolution, “the Bolsheviks, having usurped the rhetoric of liberation and equality, in reality deprived the peasantry of the remains of freedom by driving it into the collective farms. It is no accident that among the people, VKP stood not for the All-Russian Communist Party but for ‘the second law of serfdom.’”
The overwhelming majority of Soviet officials came from the peasantry but instead of being proud of their background, they “competed with one another to become the new nobility. “Having destroyed the peasantry as a class, the Soviet state constructed the mythology of ‘the happy villager,’ a pseudo-popular mass culture” with all the trimmings.
As a result, Prokhorova says, “we simply do not have the language for a serious conversation about the peasant cultural inheritance.” And that problem was made worse by the rise of anti-Soviet Russian nationalism which deified the tsarist period and the White movement and ignored what had been the fate of the peasantry under both.
Some would add workers to the forefathers of Russians today, but the writer argues that this is a mistake because the workers came from the peasantry and “in Stalin’s time, the statue of the worker was little different from that of an inmate of the GULAG.” He too was subject to a kind of serfdom which reinforced rather than helped overcome the past.
Today, Russians are beginning to break out of some of the straightjackets of the past, but they still view Russian history as that of the state rather than of the people. And until this false optic is broken, Russians will continue their eternal arguments about Ivan the Terrible or Stalin rather than consider what the people have gone through and accomplished.
“If we look at historical precedents with the eyes not of rulers or executioners but those of a private individual and especially of victims of social experiments, then we will be ble to assess many events very differently and formulate different priorities.” And perhaps most important, we will then be in a position to “achieve civic reconciliation.”
Unfortunately, even now, the collective historical imagination of Russians “as before is dominated by the standards of the 19th century: tsar – elite – people,” with the first almost everything, these second what remains, and the third simply not taken into account or actively despised.
That must change, and for it to change and for Russians to be able to evaluate where they have come from and what they have achieved or not achieved and how they should view the current authoritarian regime which seems to want to go back to the past, Prokhorova concludes, they must begin by acknowledging and accepting their peasant backgrounds.