Soviet Subjectivity: Torture for the Sake of Salvation?
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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.1 (2005) 171-186

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Soviet Subjectivity

Torture for the Sake of Salvation?

Dept. of Political Science and Sociology
European University of St. Petersburg
ul. Gagarinskaia, d. 3
St. Petersburg 191187
Russian Federation
Igal Halfin, From Darkness to Light: Class, Consciousness, and Salvation in Revolutionary Russia. 474 pp. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. ISBN 0822957043. $22.95.
Igal Halfin, ed., Language and Revolution: Making Modern Political Identities. 403 pp. London: Frank Cass, 2002. ISBN 071465227X. $54.50.
"Analiz praktiki sub´´ektivizatsii v rannestalinskom obshchestve" [Analysis of Subjectivation Practices in Early Stalinist Society] (Interviews with Igal Halfin and Jochen Hellbeck; essays by Aleksandr Kustarev, David L. Hoffmann, Jeremy Smith, Svetlana Boym, Il´ia Gerasimov, Alla Sal´nikova, Dietrich Beyrau, and Yashiro Matsui; "Concluding Thoughts" by Halfin and Hellbeck), Ab Imperio, no. 3 (2002): 209-418.

When people experience a personal trauma, they believe it to be unprecedented and inimitable. With time and healing, however, such perceptions change. Health means, besides other things, the eventual ability and desire to compare one's own experiences to others'. With even more time and experience, another phase generally occurs. An event from the past once again seems unique, this time not as immediate pain but rather as a memory that, like a work of art, may be at once terrible and attractive. This is the difference between memory and history, but also between ethics and aesthetics. When memory is transmuted into history or art, ethical judgments can give way to aesthetic contemplation. Looking backward, we gradually cease to subject tragedies to moral judgments, especially great tragedies, meaning those with the greatest number of victims. Still, such tragedies provoke curiosity and sometimes, fascination. Historians of the Russian Revolution seem to complete this cycle. [End Page 171]

Recently, the historian Michael David-Fox divided Russian historians in North America into grandparents, parents, and (grand)children.1 Counting himself among the last of these groups, Igal Halfin is concerned with his intellectual grandparents, political historians of the "modernization school," who—in the spirit of the Cold War and the liberal confrontation with it—were familiar with all the nuances of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks but failed to notice that their common ideas were definitively anti-modern. Halfin is even more concerned with his spiritual fathers and mothers, social historians of the "revisionist school," who—in the spirit of détente—forgot all about ideology. They chose to represent Soviet life not as a Great Utopia or as a Great Terror but rather as a queue in an empty grocery store. Emphasizing the "vertical dynamics" of Soviet careers more than the mass murders of those Soviets, "revisionists" imagined Stalinism as an exercise in non-institutional democracy. To be sure, queues were long in the USSR, and the queue in a grocery store teaches more about the Soviet experience than the queue at the Lenin Mausoleum. Ignoring ideology and underestimating violence, however, led to a gross misunderstanding. This school of thought served short-term, specifically North American ideological purposes but was a far cry from historical justice, even to those who stood in the Soviet queues, not to mention those deprived of this privilege. No less important, "revisionism" ignored much that was original and therefore instructive in the Soviet experience.

Halfin, along with some other "grandchildren," makes "revisionism" look obsolete. He believes that ideology matters. Many of the Soviets who suffered on the fronts of the Civil War, in the GULAG, and in the grocery stores did know what they were struggling for. Like other cases of spiritual upheaval, the enthusiasm of these people warrants investigation. Coming full circle, though perhaps not fully aware of it, Halfin actually follows his great-grandparents—the earliest historians of the Revolution, who were also, not by coincidence, its authors, victims, or both. This group included people such as Lev Trotskii, Pavel Miliukov, Nikolai Berdiaev, and René Fülöp-Miller. They were horrified by the power of the sword, but they were also...