- Soviet SubjectivitiesDiscourse, Self-Criticism, Imposture
The three books under review here all deal with the individual, or, more precisely, with individuals, in the Soviet system in general and Stalinist political culture in particular. They all form part of the by now well established historical research movement that examines what has been called “Soviet subjectivity.” Such a micro-historical approach has become possible since the opening of the Soviet archives, but it is also a corollary of the major turn in the humanities at large that is often labeled as the “linguistic” or “cultural turn.” Whereas Berthold Unfried and, even more so, Igal Halfin subscribe entirely to these successive “turns” and use a Foucauldian framework of discourse analysis, Sheila Fitzpatrick remains faithful to her profile as a social historian (and one of the most competent and prolific specialists on Soviet history). She acknowledges the “new cohort’s” major contribution to the revitalization of the historiography of the Soviet Union since the 1990s, achieved by reintroducing the significant role of ideology into scholarly discussion without falling back on Cold War partisanship and paradigms of totalitarianism. She also, however, does not conceal her reservations about this fashionable methodological framework that has an inclination to impose [End Page 609] “totalizing theory” (8–9). Although she integrates cultural history into her approach and methodological reflection, she prefers to investigate “identity and identification” rather than the “self” and “subjecthood,” which are the terms favored by her younger colleagues.
Igal Halfin is certainly one of the most vocal adherents of discourse theory and its application to the Soviet case. Intimate Enemies is his third monograph dedicated to the interwar period (after From Darkness to Light and Terror in My Soul).1 His main hypotheses are widely known among historians working on the Stalin period, not least thanks to his numerous articles. As in his previous works, Halfin draws attention to the language of communist agents: “reading the lines instead of reading between the lines” remains his motto, by which he rejects the assertion, made by many historians and literary scholars alike, that it is necessary to decipher the Aesopian language that people supposedly employed in order to outmaneuver the omnipresent censorship and the repressive character of the Stalinist regime. Halfin points to the constructive function of language that constitutes rather than comments on reality. In his narrative, “Bolshevik discourse” appears as a kind of preinstalled software program that begins to unzip itself after the Party has come to power. Although he meticulously describes the discursive shifts that occurred throughout the 1920s until the defeat of the United Opposition, he appears to believe that the violence of the Great Terror of the 1930s was inherent in Bolshevik language from the outset.
Halfin’s central idea is that of the “eschatological character” of Marxist ideology, which acknowledges only one path to salvation, the worldly kingdom of conscious New People. Following the political religion paradigm without ever invoking the term or referring to its early or present-day theorists, Halfin speaks of the Communist Party as the “brotherhood of the elect,” which resonates with the Party’s claim to be the avant-garde of the proletariat and of the world-historical process.2 A new conceptual element in this book seems to be the metaphor, or, as Halfin puts it, the “heuristic device,” of the “Black Mass,” which describes the gradual demonization of the oppositionists’ activity as particularly harmful (336 n. 16). The main danger for the Party [End Page 610] resides in the mastery of communist discourse on the part of these “intimate enemies,” which enables them to seduce parts of the credulous proletariat. “Since it...