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  • Thawed SelvesA Commentary on the Soviet First Person
  • Benjamin Nathans (bio)

Here’s a question worth pondering: why does the phrase “Soviet intellectual history” sound odd? Why is it that so much recent scholarship on the intellectual lives of Soviet citizens has focused almost entirely on their dialogues with themselves, on subjectivity and selfhood at the expense of the social? Is it that the USSR’s war on capitalism eviscerated the public marketplace of ideas? Or that the enthronement of a state-sponsored ideology impoverished what had been a burgeoning tradition of social thought? Now that historians and anthropologists of the post-Stalin era have begun to dismantle the walls separating “official” from “nonconformist” texts, what structures of thought can we discern in the landscape of “developed socialism”?

The finely textured case studies by Andrew Stone and Benjamin Tromly give us an opportunity to address these questions from new vantage points. Their articles provide valuable portals into the lives and thought of two Soviet citizens who, in radically different ways, came to question some of the cardinal values of the Soviet state. Both lives were massively disrupted by that state, as were the lives of an extraordinary number of their contemporaries. In Anatolii Bakanichev’s case, successive ordeals in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps produced a profound distancing from postwar Soviet society’s deepest source of moral legitimacy: the triumph of Soviet good over Nazi evil. For Revol´t Pimenov the sequence was reversed, as dissenting ideas led to biographical rupture in the form of arrest, imprisonment, and exile. In Stone’s reading, Bakanichev’s life offers an alternate genealogy of “other-thinking,” distinct from the more familiar trajectories of metropolitan dissidents (such as Pimenov). At the same time, Stone argues, Bakanichev’s self-emancipation from Soviet myth—along with glimpses of analogous processes in other World War II veterans—cracks open the supposedly monolithic worldview of the frontovik generation. [End Page 177] Bakanichev emerges as an emblem of unorthodox thought and genuine diversity in the mental world of late Soviet society.

Tromly’s conclusions could hardly be more different. In his view, Revol´t Pimenov’s story speaks not to self-emancipation but to the tenacity of Stalin-era mental habits. What appears on the surface as Pimenov’s revolt against Stalinism turns out to be a recapitulation (in the new circumstances of the “Thaw”) of the quintessentially Bolshevik ambition to achieve an extrapersonal identity, the self as incarnation of revolutionary consciousness. Like Stone, Tromly endows his protagonist with broad significance in part by linking him to the subsequent history of the Soviet dissident movement. Here too, however, his conclusion points in a very different direction. Rather than offering an alternate path toward “other-thinking,” Tromly argues, Pimenov’s case casts “other-thinking” itself in a new and ambivalent light. Foreshadowing the dissidents’ “extreme moral commitment” to “abstract ideals” (175), Pimenov’s intellectual biography suggests “the lasting power of modes of Soviet selfhood” (175) into and beyond the Thaw era.

The stark contrast between the findings of these two talented historians does not trouble me. After all, they have reconstructed the intellectual journeys of two figures who were themselves quite different. Stone and Tromly belong to a cohort of scholars (among whom I count myself) who seek to scrutinize our still rather schematic understanding of what Zygmunt Bauman has called “second-generation socialism.”1 Rather than dwell on, much less attempt to resolve, the tensions between these richly suggestive accounts, I would like to examine individually some of their central arguments.

Each of the two articles leans heavily on a single concept. In Stone’s case this is the idea of moral equivalence. Invoked more often (though not by Stone) for polemical than analytical purposes, moral equivalence typically asserts an identical degree of culpability between two parties, stances, methods, and so on, where one has been construed as morally worthier than the other. It is also typical for claims of moral equivalence to leave unclear exactly what is equivalent to what. These characteristics apply in spades to Bakanichev’s account. As Stone notes, at various points in Bakanichev’s memoir the two entities on either side of the...


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pp. 177-183
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