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  • The Tenacious Liberal Subject in Soviet Studies
  • Anna Krylova (bio)

American scholars of Soviet Russia in their recent review articles, introductions, and prefaces have demarcated their scholarship of the 1990s as a distinct period in Soviet studies. Scholarly work delimited itself from the previous academic epoch by the events of 1991, newly available documents from Russian archives, and innovative interpretive frameworks. The "new" has become the defining word of the decade. The emphasis on novelty announced the break with the past and, simultaneously, admonished contemporary scholars to distance themselves from previous schools of interpretation. In a review article in the Journal of Modern History, entitled "1991 and the Russian Revolution: Sources, Conceptual Categories, Analytical Frameworks," Stephen Kotkin exemplifies this tendency and exhibits its problematic consequences. His stated project to reinterpret the entire Soviet period against previous scholarship rather than in dialogue with it results not only in a dismissive vocabulary about the "caricaturish notions" of the totalitarian school of the 1950s–1960s and the "clumsiness" of the revisionists of the 1970s–1980s, but in simplifications of the pre-1991 conceptual legacy.1 However, attempts to efface the past often backfire: by obscuring from the reader (and perhaps the author himself) intellectual indebtedness to the discipline, they reduce the conceptual escape to empty rhetoric.

While appreciating the innovative contributions of the scholarship on the Soviet Union of the 1990s, this essay questions the claims of sharp "epistemological breaks" with the scholarly past and explores conceptual continuities in Soviet studies since World War II. My vehicle for this investigation will be the genealogy of the category "Soviet man." I will focus on the ways that American scholars researching the 1930s have conceptualized the Stalinist subject, and particularly on the political and cultural roots of their conceptualizations. [End Page 119]

Let us begin our history of Stalinist man in immediate postwar period in the United States. With the end of the short period of cooperation during World War II and the emergence of the Soviet Union as the new "threat" to freedom, prewar debates about Stalinism reemerged with significant changes in emphasis. A discourse on classical liberal values and the "autonomous" liberal self, defined against the threat of totalitarian collectivism, emerged at the center of public, intellectual, and academic life. The advent of American Cold War liberalism was, I argue, the central formative experience for the emerging field of Sovietology as well as for postwar Soviet studies as a whole. Within the young Sovietological enterprise the intellectual turn towards what one scholar called "neoindividualistic" liberalism manifested itself through morally charged perspectives on the Stalinist subject. This intellectual shift, in turn, circumscribed interpretive possibilities within a set of binary categories: indoctrination/resistance, belief/ disbelief, faith/cynicism.2

This article explores the unarticulated assumptions that underlie the Cold War view of human agency and analyzes its impact on academic conceptualizations of Stalinist man, tracing its persistence throughout the postwar years, from the totalitarian school to the contemporary scholarship of the 1990s. I argue that the emergence of the totalitarian school from the Cold War discourse of the '40s and '50s resulted in a particular interpretive narrative that presented the Stalinist subject as the opposite of the liberal self, or as the death of liberal man in Stalinist Russia. The search for remnants of liberal subjectivity and signs of resistance against anti-liberal communist Russia constituted a central, long-term agenda for American scholars. I submit that this tendency reached its logical extreme only in present day, i.e., post-1991, post-Soviet scholarship.3

Given the deep roots of scholarly conceptualizations of Stalinist man in American political culture, the present analysis by necessity encompasses more than just work by American Sovietologists, political scientists, and historians. Rather, it explores the history of the notion as a cultural dialogue among scholars, journalists, and fiction writers. The intent here is not to review the enormous literature on the Soviet Union but to focus on texts that had lasting conceptual impact on the ways Americans, academic intellectuals included, imagined the Stalinist subject. Though a product of an international intellectual community – including such outstanding and diverse intellectuals as German writer Arthur Koestler, English journalist and writer George Orwell, and Austrian...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 119-146
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-26
Open Access
No
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