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Was Stalinism Nationalistic? A Review Article

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David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956. Russian Research Center Studies, 93. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. xv + 378 pp. Illustrations, table, appendix, notes, index. $53.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-6740-0906-1.

Since the end of the Cold War, several important monographs, collected volumes, and journal articles have appeared that, in one way or another, support an earlier revisionist interpretation of Soviet history formulated by, among others, Robert C. Tucker, Frederick C. Barghoorn or Mikhail Agursky.[1] Analysts such as Tucker, Barghoorn and Agursky have, in one way or another, understood Soviet policies as being in fundamental conflict with the regime's own official ideology insofar as the Soviet leadership often pursued de facto non- or even antileftist policies, and, above all, russocentric aims. The scholarly documentation of such tendencies has markedly grown during the last fifteen years, including books written or edited by Shimon Redlich, Gennadii Kostyrchenko, Yitzhak Brudny, Hildegard Kochanek, Aleksandr Borshchagovskii, William Korey and others.

Above all, Nikolai Mitrokhin, in his study of the Soviet Russian nationalist movement after 1953, has suggested a far-reaching reconceptualizationof the outlook of large sections of the CPSU and Komsomol central and Moscow city apparatuses of the Cold War era.[2] According to Mitrokhin's findings, Russian ethnocentric and anti-semitic views were more widespread among the postwar Soviet political and cultural elite than had been previously assumed.

David Brandenberger's new study of Stalin's cultural policies is--along with Eric van Ree's study of Soviet "revolutionary patriotism" of the same year [3]--among the three or four most significant new contributions on official Russian patriotism in the 1930s-1950s. Based on a doctoral dissertation defended at Harvard's department of history, Brandenberger's study is divided along a chronological line into three parts: 1931-41, 1941-45, and 1945-53. It deals with the increasingly russophilic policies and propaganda of the regime, especially in the realm of education, and attempts to evaluate the impact that the various ethnocentric and xenophobic campaigns had on the minds of ordinary Russians. Brandenberger concludes that Stalinist russocentrism, while being received by the people selectively and often in ways not intended by the regime, penetrated Soviet society deeply enough to cause the formation of a new Russian national identity. For the first time in Russian history, many, if not most, ordinary Russians started to identify themselves prominently, if not primarily, as members of the Russian national community.

The study's principal themes, such as the new history text books of the 1930s, "socialist realism," cults around Ivan Groznyi, Aleksandr Pushkin and others, zhdanovshchina and campaigns against "cosmopolitanism" have been analyzed in the specialized scholarly literature before. Brandenberger adds here a plethora of well- documented new observations to these earlier descriptions and brings these interrelated tendencies into a dense, comprehensive narrative that makes excellent reading. He is also interested in how successful these promotions actually were, and what long-term consequences they may have had. He sees these policies not only as indicators of certain changes in the thinking and strategy of the Soviet leadership, but also as important factors in the cultural history of contemporary Russian society. To this reader, Brandenberger proves convincingly that the various Stalinist patriotic campaigns affected Russian mass culture profoundly and had an influence on popular views on Russian history that can still be felt today. Brandenberger's informative account will become indispensable to everybody interested in high Stalinism, and in the development of twentieth-century Russian politics, education and culture, in general.

But how useful are the terms and conceptualizations that Brandenberger here proposes for capturing Soviet cultural and nationality policies of the 1930s-1950s?

Mitrokhin, in his above-mentioned oral history of post-Stalinist culturalpolitics in the USSR, does not hesitate to question common wisdom about the nature of Soviet ideology. Mitrokhin speaks explicitly of Russian nationalism when describing the outlook of the party and Komsomol functionaries he introduces on the basis of his numerous interviews and archival research. In contrast, Brandenberger attempts to reconcile the crux of his findings with traditional interpretations of the Soviet system by, seemingly, trying to leave the question about the nature of Soviet ideology under Stalin eventually untouched. On the one hand, he states that the rise of russocentric tendencies in the 1930s "amounted to no less than an ideological about-face" (p. 8), but, on the other hand, underlines that Stalin's reformulation of Soviet ideology was largely, if not purely, "instrumental" and driven by "pragmatic" considerations and "populist" political tactics (pp. 2-8), i.e. that it was not a proper reflection of the fundamental beliefs of the new Soviet leadership. This interpretation is aided by Brandenberger's peculiarly narrow concept of Russian nationalism (p.6) as only referring to a yearning for Russian self-determination and separatism. (Such a restrictive definition would, in view of the prevalence of--partly aggressive--imperialism in most varieties of Russian ethnic particularism until today, seemingly imply that Russian nationalism has never been a major political movement.)

Brandenberger's set of interpretations and definitions makes it possible to draw a thick line between "russocentrism," on the one side, and Russian nationalism, on the other, and to argue that Stalin's "national Bolshevism" was certainly "russocentric," but still no variety of nationalism. Brandenberger emphasizes the practical usefulness, instead of genuine appeal, of Russian patriotism to the Soviet leadership, which out of cynicism and pragmatism abandoned internationalism. This way, his findings can be reconciled with traditional extremism theory that sees the Stalinist regime as constituting the paradigmatic case for a leftist dictatorship. (The latter is an extrapolation, it needs to be added, that Brandenberger himself is not making in his study. But it seems to me to be one of the implications of, if not a motive behind, his peculiar interpretation of the nature of Stalinist russocentrism as not nationalistic.)

While Brandenberger's study is empirically and theoretically strong, I wonder whether his conceptualization of the ideas and motives of the Soviet leadership is useful, and whether, in particular, it is adequately contextualized. Does Brandenberger's conceptualization of the sources of Stalinist cultural and nationality policies sufficiently take into account other, parallel tendencies in Russia and the comparative-terminological issues involved?

First, there is--in Brandenberger's as in many other English-language studies of twentieth-century Russian nationalism--an unfortunate lack of attention to the relevant German-language literature. While German political science has made only a few important contributions to the international study of Soviet and post-Soviet politics, the quality of German historical research on modern and contemporary Russia is often comparable and sometimes superior to that of the eminent Anglophone and Russian scholars.

An odd disparity between the Anglo- and Germanophone communities is, moreover, that as a rule, the German authors are (often, fully) aware of the English-language literature while not all Anglophone scholars read, use and quote the relevant German studies. Brandenberger, to be sure, mentions here a few important German studies by, among others, Klaus Mehnert and Gerhard Simon. It seems thus that Brandenberger actually reads German. Yet, in view of this circumstance, it is even more surprising that he, at the same time, ignores German-language research on, for instance, Stalinist anti-Semitism in its entirety. This concerns, for instance, the relevant monographs by Matthias Vetter, Matthias Messmer and Arno Lustiger, as well as an important collected volume edited by Leonid Luks.[4]

A number of other German books and articles on Russian nationalism in general and the Stalinist period also comes to mind, in particular, a volume on Soviet patriotism edited by Erwin Oberlaender and a monograph on Russian nationalism by Frank Golczewski and Gertrud Pickhahn.[5] Brandenberger probably does not need these studies to make and substantiate his argument as his study is otherwise well-grounded on primary and secondary sources. However, it would have been interesting to see whether and how much the interpretations and findings of these and some other German authors can be reconciled with, incorporated into, or rejected by, Brandenberger's research.

Second--and this is a more important remark-- Brandenberger's emphasis on the pragmatic motives behind Stalinist russocentrism calls for an elucidation in light of other, simultaneous policy shifts that seem somehow related to the move away from the nationality, cultural, and educational policies of the 1920s described in such detail by Brandenberger. It might have been worth more than just mentioning that a whole array of other drastic redirections in Soviet domestic and international behavior happened all at the same time, and that these shifts created an uneasiness which reminds one of the awkward aspects of Stalinist russophilism.

Among such parallel tendencies left barely or not mentioned by Brandenberger was, for instance, a return to traditionalism in gender and family policies, or the Soviet leadership's brief but intense flirtation with the Nazis in 1939-1940. True, these and similar subjects fall outside the focus of Brandenberger's study, but they could be relevant in view of his emphatic rejection of the concept of nationalism for a characterization of Stalinist ideology; phenomena such as the above-mentioned also create conceptual problems not easily resolved. These and other similar changes could, along with the growing russocentrism, be interpreted as spreading from the same motives. But were pragmatism and populism the only such motives?

Last but not least, Brandenberger's claim that Stalinist russocentrism was not truly nationalistic appears as less self-evident if seen in comparative light. There have been many international varieties of Marxism that altered themselves into various forms of populist nationalism, sometimes into ultranationalism. Before Stalinism, the two most prominent examples for these kinds of developments were the emergence of the radical social theories of Georges Sorel and the evolution of the political thought of Benito Mussolini. Other varieties of Italian and French proto- and full fascism had their roots in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century leftism too. The Berkeley political scientist A. James Gregor has even built a comprehensive theory of international fascism around these transmutations arguing that Stalinism and Maoism, among others, constituted varieties of fascism (and, by implication, nationalism).[6]

In the case of Russia, the manifestly russophile ideology developed since the breakup of the Soviet Union by CPRF chairman Gennadii Ziuganov represents merely the most recent example and, in a way, logical conclusion of Russian Marxism's transformation into a form of populist nationalism. The major difference between Stalinist and Ziuganovite russocentrism seems to be not that the former was not yet nationalistic while the latter now is, but that the post-Soviet communists were less path-dependent on their movement's ideological roots and could freely incorporate into their "classics" various right-wing theorists such as the Russian Ivan Il'in (a monarchist) and Lev Gumilev (a neoracist), or German Oswald Spengler (a "conservative revolutionary") and Karl Haushofer (a cofounder of modern geopolitics). A number of Stalin's policies can be seen as roughly congruent to the ideas of these thinkers who wrote in the inter- or postwar years.

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============================================================================== Andreas Umland, CertTransl (Leipzig), MA (Stanford), MPhil (Oxford), DipPolSci, DrPhil (FU Berlin), PhD (Cambridge). Visiting fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution (more...)
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