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  • Cultural Memory in the Century of Upheaval:Big Pictures and Snapshots
  • Michael David-Fox (bio)

Even by the standards of a bloody and ideological era, Russia's 20th century brought more than its share of upheaval. Two state breakdowns, ushering in new regimes repudiating the economic orders and ideologies of the past, seem extraordinary enough in a single century. But the first half of the century brought almost non-stop cataclysm: the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, total war and civil war, the wrenching transformations of the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet "socialist construction," forced collectivization, industrialization, and the Stalin revolution beginning in the late 1920s, the Great Purges, all topped by World War II and Cold War Stalinism. The relative stability of Soviet history in the postwar decades until perestroika might be contrasted to the social and demographic disasters of the first half of the century. However, particularly if we are speaking about the realms of culture and ideology, the two tumultuous periods surrounding the initiation of Soviet reform communism in 1956 and 1985–87 must also be counted as major upheavals. While social cataclysms and cultural change are indubitably connected, the articles in this issue focus attention particularly on the dynamics of upheaval in high culture and cultural politics. Only the articles by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Denis Kozlov address society-wide phenomena and aspects of popular culture, while all the others are principally concerned with literary life, the identities and aesthetic programs of intellectuals and professionals, or Bolshevik cultural figures caught in the tangles of 20th-century upheavals. The achievements, flaws, and very definition of the "new cultural history" are rightly subject to vigorous debate; it is a big if not shapeless tent that, in the Russian field as elsewhere, uses the concept of culture for many purposes.1 Yet it seems clear that in Russian and Soviet cultural history the implications of [End Page 601] this long string of intensive reorderings have not been synthetically or systematically thought out.2

In terms of Soviet history specifically, upheaval, or intensive turmoil at first accompanying phases of militant "socialist offensive," was woven into the deep structure of the Soviet system. In a sense the ur-upheaval was war communism, followed by the compromises-cum-transformations of NEP, yet in the first case the regime was not sufficiently established for much of an "advance" on the "cultural front," or, in the second instance, a genuine retreat. Both phases of the Bolshevik Revolution set important precedents for the mammoth dislocations of Stalin's Great Break (velikii perelom) at the end of the 1920s. At this point a cyclical pattern was confirmed: the Great Break was reined in by distinct reversals initiated in 1931–32 (ushering in new mid-1930s directions often, somewhat misleadingly, known in Western scholarship as the Great Retreat); the Great Purges were followed by a wartime ideological relaxation, punctuated again by the hardline Zhdanovshchina of the late 1940s. Once the Soviet system was entrenched and Stalin died, the progression of upheavals changed aspect: they appeared no longer as militant assaults or crackdowns but as reforms linked to de-Stalinization. Yet they still incorporated many practices and traditions of party-state projects of transformation launched from above.3

What motivated this phenomenon of recurrent upheaval, which, linked as it was to consequential ideological shifts and the regulation of culture, had such a profound impact on cultural life? On one level, such alternations, or cycles, might be compared to the successive periods of reform and reaction in the half-heartedly modernizing autocracy of 19th-century imperial Russia: they were launched and then repudiated primarily by top-heavy states desperate both to initiate and to curtail change. But Soviet communism swept intellectuals along and aimed to reconstruct culture much more deliberately than the old regime; the major turning points of Soviet-type upheaval were connected to the coercive imposition of totalizing projects, to the zigs and zags of building socialism without a master plan. This tended to generate waves of attack with all their "excesses," [End Page 602] followed by retrenchment, partial repudiation, and hence the impetus for some new assault.4

The articles collected here, to be sure, are not explicitly...


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