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  • Back in the USSR?

In the noisy public square of our times, we keep hearing that the Soviet Union is back. Of course, that begs the question: which Soviet Union exactly? To some, it is the ever expansionist and oppressive USSR that hoodwinked the West at Yalta and is now out to undermine democracy wherever it can, whether with the new tools of postcommunism such as "big companies, rich oligarchs," and social-media influence peddling or the good old-fashioned way by simply grabbing other people's territory.1 To others, it's an altogether less impressive USSR of economic inefficiency and autarky, political sclerosis, and rampant blat and sviazi. As one author has put it, "Putin isn't a genius; he's Leonid Brezhnev."2

The fascinating articles in this issue take us back to several rather distinctive iterations of the USSR, which lead us to reflect on the curious texture of time and the discipline of history. Historians know better than anyone that the old saw about history repeating itself is wrong. Nothing that comes later is ever exactly the same as that which came before. It is also a little too glib to say that history rhymes. As time moves, everything changes—the rub is simply that very little changes in sync or in the same way, which then sets the stage for one of the great challenges of the historian's craft: how to parse the relationship between continuity and change or, more precisely, the relationship between the varieties of change that are a part of the passing of time, some of which are so obvious they cannot be missed and others so subtle that they can lure us into thinking that nothing much has changed at all. Of course, the present also hovers amid the past in other ways as well, especially in the questions that we pose as historians. Though the discipline [End Page 463] once positioned itself as the arbiter of timeless objectivity, we too cannot help but be the creations of our times.

Back then to the question of which iteration, if any, of the USSR is still with us. Not surprisingly, the answer turns out to be complicated. The Soviet criminal justice system, for example, which is richly illuminated in several articles here, seems at once truly gone yet also powerfully present, suggesting that while much about crime and punishment Soviet-style has changed, some changes are harder to see than others.

As Tatiana Borisova and Jane Burbank argue in their searching conceptual essay that opens this issue, Russia possesses a "legal tradition" made up of "foundational habits and traits" that emerged "over several centuries" and then just as gradually settled into place and have since remained relatively constant down to the present, perpetuating themselves from era to era, even across periods of rupture such as the Petrine revolution and the establishment of Soviet power (472). One of these enduring traits is the idea that the "ultimate authority to grant, make, and change law" rests solely with the emperor or "emperor-like figure" presiding over the state (476–77). And yet amid this general continuity, as Borisova and Burbank make clear, Russian law was never static. In fact, the inclination "to change the rules" according to circumstance was one of the habits that the emperors and their successors regularly relied on to stay in charge, which in turn helped support the replication of the "legal tradition." Indeed, as Borisova and Burbank observe, some of the "rule changes" of the Soviet period were especially important and remain commonplaces of contemporary Russian legal practice. Soviet conviction rates, for example, were far higher than they were in the imperial era, and this trend continued after 1991. "The sense among judges that a failure to convict is a failure of the system has persisted until today" (506).

The connection between Stalin-era deportation practices and the present is more tenuous. Obviously, the deportations have long since ended. At the same time, as Alain Blum and Emilia Koustova make plain in their article on the Lithuanian experience, the social, political, and legal legacies of deportation were complex and long-lasting. Making rich use of materials from...


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pp. 463-468
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