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  • The Historical Turn in Late Soviet Culture:Retrospectivism, Factography, Doubt, 1953–91*
  • Denis Kozlov (bio)

In his 1972 "Obelisk," the story of a Belarussian village during World War II, Vasil' Bykov portrayed a local elementary school teacher, Ales' Ivanovich Moroz, who chose to die with his students during a Nazi execution. Bykov created the image of a genuine teacher, to whom students meant not just a job but also an obligation. The way Moroz taught matched his high personal standards:

Moroz intensely studied Tolstoi [and] … read a lot to the children. That was quite a lesson! Today any student … once you talk to him about Tolstoi or Dostoevskii, will start telling you about their blunders and misconceptions. Yet one has to study where the greatness of these geniuses lies – but instead, everyone has a whole list of their drawbacks. Hardly anyone remembers on which hill the wounded Prince Andrei lay at Austerlitz, but everyone confidently makes judgments about the delusion of non-resistance to evil by violence. As for Moroz, he did not shuffle Tolstoi's misconceptions – he just read to his students and imbibed everything himself …1

One may well ask how remembering the hill on which the wounded Prince Andrei lay helps one to understand War and Peace. Yet it is important that in 1972 Bykov proposed studying Tolstoi in school by abandoning the hollowness of official conceptualization for the sake of appreciating the descriptive richness of text. Bykov's reading of War and Peace did not simply reflect his literary taste, but was also an intellectual product of its time, illustrating characteristic developments in late Soviet views of history and historical knowledge. [End Page 577]

This article focuses on two aspects of late Soviet historical consciousness: a special appreciation or idealization of the past and a "factographic" approach to historical knowledge. "Factography" hereafter signifies the Russian word faktografiia, which a 1964 dictionary defined as "a description of facts without analysis [or] generalization."2 The late Soviet obsession with historical minutiae, as well as a widespread relish of the past, were mechanisms of a collective search for origins and identities in which the society engaged during the period 1953 to 1991. As the post-Stalin debate of the "Thaw" undermined the persuasiveness of earlier interpretations of history, many groups in Soviet society sought to legitimize their existence by constructing new historical continuities. The search for continuity shaped public historical inquiry in the form of selection, accumulation, and circulation of data that were meant to complement rather than revolutionize existing worldviews. At the same time, the quest for historical tradition stimulated the traditionalism of historical reasoning. To many students of history, the accumulation of rich empirical evidence became a source of special pride and the crucial aspect of historical knowledge, while the past, including its intellectual practices, came to represent a positive alternative and guide to contemporary reality. In the end, however, despite its attempt to reconcile the past and the present, the late Soviet search for origins increasingly led its participants to a profound rethinking of themselves and their society.

* * *

School is a good place to begin this discussion. The quotation from Bykov with which we began demonstrates a characteristic fronde that the intelligentsia developed against the established pedagogy of Soviet schools, with its reduction of complex novels and historical events down to packages of doctrinal formulas. This fronde was an early development that evidently accompanied the minting of standard Soviet curricula and teaching manuals. The Leningrad orientalist Igor' D'iakonov remembers that in the ninth grade (1930–31), where he studied mostly alongside children of the intelligentsia, he won the teacher's praise after writing an "analysis" of War and Peace without mentioning either Natasha, Pierre, or Prince Andrei. His classmate, meanwhile, composed four equally convincing "social analyses" of Crime and Punishment, portraying Raskol'nikov consecutively as a member of the nobility, the intelligentsia, the enserfed peasantry, and as an illegitimate son of Nicholas I.3

Enforced curricula remained the standard practice for many decades after the 1930s, together with manuals, compulsory study plans, and teaching clichés.4 [End Page 578] These generated many jokes and catchphrases recognizable to any graduate of the educational system.5...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 577-600
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-26
Open Access
No
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