Monday, June 11, 2018

Soviet-Era Historical Preservationists Offered Ideological Alternative to Communism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 11 – Fifty-two years ago this week, the constituent congress of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Monuments and Culture took place in Moscow, a group that presented an alternative to communist ideas of internationalism and modernism and that arguably played at least as great a role in the destruction of the USSR as did the dissidents.

            In reporting on this anniversary, Yevgeny Politdrug of the Sputnik i Pogrom portal, says that the 1966 congress “became an important moment in Soviet history because it was this organization which became a center of attract of all those being drawn toward ‘the Russian Party’ in the CPSU” (

            Before World War II, internationalist ideas dominated in the USSR; but in the way Soviet patriotism became popular, an idea that suggested that the proletarians had acquired their own country and thus had something to lose, the commentator says. Some people still think Stalin was a Russian nationalist, but he wasn’t: Soviet patriotism rested on a communist foundation.

            With Stalin’s passing, internationalist themes of the pre-war kind were replaced largely by the notions of “friendship of the peoples,” a development that had the effect in many people’s minds of raising the question as to whether the Soviet state had forgotten the ethnic Russians, even as it became possible to take pride in Russia’s pre-1917 history.

            Such feelings were intensified by Khrushchev’s attack on the church; and after he was overthrown, many began to lobby on behalf of defending old churches, a program that was “covered with the sauce that Khrushchev was a bad man and voluntarist while Leonid Illich had a respectful attitude toward the past and wouldn’t repeat his mistakes,” Politdrug says.

            In the summer of 1965, the preservationist society registered with the RSFSR government and immediately attracted to its ranks many prominent writers, artists, composers, directors, academics and even a few senior Russian officials. Remarkably, one who joined was a White leader’s grandson who had been in the camps since 1928.

            “Formally,” the commentator says, the group was entirely about defending old monuments; but “informally, the organization became a center of attraction for various kinds of those who disagreed with the regime from national communists to Orthodox conservatives.”  In 1968, some of the most radical formed the semi-public Russian Club.

            “It would be too much of a stretch to call this nationalism,” Politdrug says. Most stayed largely within the communist framework and only asked how they could improve things.  But over time, some of the members came to reject Marxism-Leninism as such, opening the way for some ideological pluralism.

            In addition, of course, “there were not a few Stalinists who sincerely considered Stalin the heir to the traditional course of powerful statehood.” But they did not set the weather, as it were. Instead, the group grew and attracted ever more people to its alternative ideological program of action.

            Not surprisingly, it was criticized by the regime, especially under Andropov, but more surprisingly, the attacks on it were limited to ideological ones, thus making it easier and less dangerous for people to join its ranks and even to become more radical as was the case with the spinoff group, Pamyat.

            Within the group, Russians evolved in various directions, some toward monarchism, others toward Orthodox conservativism, a third toward Stalinism, and “some passed through all these stages.” One thing they had in common: They viewed liberals with much the same hostility they had earlier viewed Marxist-Leninists.

            In what may be a surprise to many, the group still exists, although it doesn’t play the role it once aspired to. But by opening up the space for discussion about ideology, the Society changed the Soviet Union and Russia as well.

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