Vanguard Video, Final Edition! Leah’s Video for Putin’s Cultural Revolution (Week 13, Day 2)

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 13, Day 2. Our subject is Putin’s Cultural Revolution, and our teaching assistant is Dante.

I have a couple of announcements for you. First, please remember that next Monday, May 4 we will meet in real time on Teams for our last day of class. Please remember to complete all your Revolutions Timeline posts by the end of the day on May 3! On the 4th, we will discuss the Timeline and our big takeaways from this semester.

Second, if you have not yet submitted your Rough Draft, I want to encourage you to do that as soon as possible. As you know, there’s no penalty for turning it in late. But you do need to turn it in at least a couple days before you submit your final draft. Your rough draft is worth 10%, and if you don’t turn anything in, I can’t give you credit for it. So please do get that submitted.

Today we’re wrapping up our mini-unit on Putin’s Russia by talking about culture. We’re looking at Putin’s Cultural Revolution through the lens of popular culture because it provides the most vibrant, flexible, and immediate view of a subject that is constantly evolving. As we’ve discussed the past couple of classes, Putin has a great deal of genuine support among Russians, but there is also a persistent trend of protest against him. Like everyone else, Russian artists have had to decide where they stand on Putin’s presidency. Some, like the singer Mashani and rapper Sasha Chest, have joined Team Putin wholeheartedly, while others, like the groups Voina and Pussy Riot, have made their names through acts of creative opposition. Interestingly, one of Russia’s biggest post-Soviet rock stars, Sergei Shnurov of the band Leningrad, has tried to sidestep this issue by publicly embracing a form of capital-driven, valueless nihilism. Today’s sources are going to help us explore each of these positions.

Arkady Ostrovsky provides thorough background information on Sergei Shnurov, and Mashani and Sasha Chest are pretty straightforward figures. I’ll give you some more information on Voina and Pussy Riot now, since they are a bit more complicated. Voina, whose name means “war,” is an art collective that first made its appearance in 2007. Their artwork is ephemeral; they create it in public spaces without permission, knowing that it will be destroyed almost immediately. The point is to make a leftist political statement though radical, creative disruption, and to this end, they document their actions and publicize them after the fact. That’s how we have the video of their piece “Artists Flip Off the FSB,” in which they use paint and a raised drawbridge to denounce the post-Soviet secret police. In doing so, they are drawing on a tradition of outsider art established by underground Soviet artists in the 1970s and 1980s. But we might consider their connection to earlier movements, as well.

Pussy Riot is more well-known in the West. Two of the group’s founding members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Peter Verzilov, started out as members of Voina before breaking off to form their own group. Pussy Riot is both an art collective and a band, and they share Voina’s mission of protesting Putin’s government through radical performances. They staged their first actions in 2011 at prominent sites in Moscow, including a prison where political protesters were being held and Red Square. Their most famous action is the “Punk Prayer,” which they performed in 2012 at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. They chose this location because it is the seat of the Orthodox Church, which has developed a mutually-reinforcing relationship with Putin, and because its opulence serves as a reminder that the government spent millions restoring the church (which was destroyed in the Soviet Era) instead of renewing infrastructure and combatting social problems.

Three members of Pussy Riot were caught by the police during this action and put on trial. Two of them were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and sentenced to two years in prison. This may remind you the consequences faced by Ludmilla Alexeyeva and other Soviet human rights activists, and the members of Pussy Riot certainly see themselves as heirs to that tradition of activism. While many Russians disapproved of Pussy Riot’s actions, they also felt that this sentence was too harsh. Additionally, the trial brought unwelcome international attention to the fragile state of free speech in Russia. The prisoners were freed a couple months early, in honor of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. As you can see from the second video, they returned immediately to making protest art.

The third video, “Chaika,” dates from 2016 and demonstrates both Pussy Riot’s continuity and its evolution. Chaika is the surname of Russia’s Prosecutor General, whose corrupt dealings were revealed in a 2015 documentary made by the Anti-Corruption Foundation. This foundation was established in 2011 by Alexei Navalny, who we discussed last time. As this should make clear, while the circle of oppositionists in Russia is relatively small, they are well connected, and the cross-pollination of their ideas is often quite productive.

The last video was made by British pop star Robbie Williams in 2016. I will leave it up to you to determine what message it conveys about Putin’s Russia.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. Let’s start with Ostrovsky’s article. How would you describe Sergei Shnurov and his band, Leningrad? What kinds of things do they sing about? Why do you think they became so popular in the early 2000s and have remained popular today? In what way do their songs and their performance style capture the zeitgeist (the feeling of the times)?

2. What is Shnur’s stage persona and how does it compare to his actual background in real life? Why do you think he has embraced this persona? In what ways is this act of self-reinvention similar or different from Bolshevik ritual building in the 1920s? As an artist, is Shnur closer to the avant-gardism of Boris Arvatov or the “proletarianism” of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians? (Keep in mind that I’m asking this question about his approach as an artist, not the music he makes, though you can consider his music in your answer.)

3. Ostrovsky explains that Shnur calls Leningrad a “gang” rather than a “band.” Find the paragraph that begins, “Leningrad, his band, is a motley crew…” Make a close reading of that paragraph and the next one. Can you unpack Shnur’s position? Ostrovsky calls this “nihilism.” Do you think it’s for real? Or is it just another part of the persona? If it’s part of the persona, what lies behind it? How does this attitude help us understand Leningrad’s popularity?

4. One of the more remarkable aspects of Shnur’s philosophy is that he hates the idea of being a “protest band.” In describing his first band, Van Gogh’s Ear, he tells Ostrovsky, “We rebelled against all those ‘rock values,’ against ‘confession’ and ‘protest,’ because there is nothing more commercial than protest in Russia.” (Ostrovsky, web) How do you think Pussy Riot would counter this claim? If he’s right, does it necessarily follow that commercialization undermines the message and sincerity of protest music? Has protest music been commercialized in the US, too? Can you think of a Leningrad-style band that calls this out in our society?

5. Shnur claims to be apolitical. Is he? Are there ways in which his work supports Putin’s government? Are there ways in which his work undermines it? Is it up to Shnur whether his actions are political or not? How does his situation compare to the kompaniya members in the late 1950s, who also saw themselves as apolitical?

6. Consider Mashani’s song, “My Putin!” The message here is pretty obvious: Putin is the man for her! But what’s going on with her dresses? In the open air shots, she’s wearing a dress in the colors of the Russian flag, while in the “dungeon” shots, she’s wearing a dress in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and looking helplessly at the camera. She even praises Putin for “returning Crimea” and predicts that he will “restore our own all-freedom Union.” Consider that this video was made in 2015. What exactly is Mashani saying about Putin’s geopolitical ambitions? How does this fit with Tony Wood’s claim that Putin has largely been reacting to world events rather than driving them? What does Mashani’s video reveal about the expectations Putin has created and how they are intertwined with his political popularity?

7. Mashani is very girly, while Sasha Chest is hypermasculine. What qualities does each artist praise Putin for? If you had never seen or heard of Putin, what type of person would you expect him to be, based on these songs? How does that compare to Putin as he actually is? How do the two artists’ gendered visions of Putin this help us think about the construction of gender in post-Soviet Russia? Can you make a connection between their gendered performances of themselves and the recent rise of homophobia in Russia?

8. Voina’s performance piece “Artists Flip Off the FSB” also has a clear message. What are your thoughts on this as a form of protest? How does it compare to Navalny’s crowd-sourced RosPil blog? How does it compare to the Soviet dissidents’ 1966 Constitution Day Protest? By adopting noms de guerre (false names) and putting themselves at risk of arrest, the Voina activists echo the actions of Vladimir Lenin and Vera Figner. Why do you think this form of revolutionary activity has resurfaced in contemporary Russia?

9. Both Voina and Pussy Riot rely on new media. Voina’s “cosmic dick” was erased by morning, but the act of creating it lives forever on YouTube. Similarly, Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” is not a straight recording, but a series of cuts edited together and overlaid with a separate audio track. How have new technology and the internet changed the landscape of protest in Russia, a country that lacks a strong commitment to free speech? How has the Internet changed these cultural protesters’ relationship to their audience? Who and where is there audience, and what are the repercussions of that?

10. In the “Punk Prayer,” Pussy Riot uses two very different types of music: punk rock and traditional Orthodox church singing. How do these two styles interact in the video? How does the juxtaposition of them work to enhance Pussy Riot’s message? Why do you think they chose the form of a “prayer” in the first place? How does this fit with the range of subjects they are protesting in this song? (It may be helpful to go through the video slowly and make a list of all the issues they raise. There are many!)

11. Pussy Riot likes to stage their actions at significant locations. Consider their use of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and of the 2014 Olympic site in Sochi, venues where they knew they would be attacked by police. What are the pros and cons of this strategy? Do you think it is wise? Why or why not?

12. “Chaika” is a very different production, in terms of the music and the video. Comparing this video to the others, how did Pussy Riot evolve from its origins to 2016? What has changed and what has remained the same in their activism and artistry? How do those changes relate to the consequences of their earlier actions? Do you find the more playful, coherent style of “Chaika” more or less effective than the raw, chaotic, “Punk Prayer” and “Putin Will Teach You To Love”? What are your predictions for Pussy Riot’s future?

13. Robbie Williams’ “Party Like a Russian” gives us an outsider’s view of Putin’s Russia. What do you make of this song and video? What view of Putin’s Russia does it present? How does it relate to the breakdown in relations between Russia and the West that Tony Wood describes? Is this song a protest, a xenophobic insult, a joke, or something else?

A Conscripted Army of the “Damaged”

One topic that was explored in Garrels’ book Putin Country that I would like to explore further in a discussion post is the relationship between Russian citizens and the military. Garrels points out that Russia’s military is still conscripted, meaning that there is a draft in place. While students may be apathetic towards politics, they surely are not apathetic towards the military, “Kids at Lyceum 31 were adamant that no one wants to go into the military, calling it ‘a waste of time’” (Garrels 110). She explains that this idea is cultivated early on with parents actively working to get their kids deferments and higher education being an incentive to dodge the draft. This relates to the military being so unpopular. Garrels uncovers some of the reasons why the Russian military is avoided. She claims that the military has an image of fighting “bad” wars, starting with Afghanistan and continuing into the Chechen wars (111). Stories and reports of ill-equipped soldiers who were sent into battle without proper care of their bodies or possessions. Furthermore, corruption runs rampant in the military as dedovshchina (military hazing), torture, and sexual abuse are common practices. Garrels claims that the Russian military “regularly has twenty percent fewer recruits than it needs” (110). As a result, the military is forced to conscript citizens who are in prison, “mentally unstable,” “suffered from alcohol and drug abuse,” or were “malnourished” (110). In a sense, Russia has a damaged conscripted army.

When reading this section, I could not help but think of the parallels with the American military. There was a similar relationship between citizens and the draft during the American War in Vietnam. Most people of privilege who could afford to go to college or dodge the draft was saved from fighting the unpopular war. This left the burden on many working-class citizens. Due to the drafts unpopularity, the military moved to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973. However, due to economic incentives to get people to enlist, the military continued to disproportionately target lower-income minorities to fight America’s war. This led Noam Chomsky to famously claim that the AVF is a “mercenary army of the poor.” Today, America’s military continues to fight against that distinction. But understanding how a nation’s citizens relate to its military is crucial in identifying social relationships. As Russia continues on a path nationalistic fervor, a strong military presence comes hand in hand. But what if no one wants to fight? 

A Few Discussion Questions to Consider

Does this distinction of a damaged military make the Russian military seem “weak”? 

Why do you think that the government does not intervene in the abuses of the military? Does the government have control of the institution, or is it an independent, outside institution?

What do you think will happen if the Russian government gets rid of the draft and moves to an All-Volunteer Force like the United States? 

And finally, in comparing the development of the American military to the qualities of the Russian military, is the military as an institution just an unpopular idea in the 21st century?

Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Putin’s Social Revolution (Week 13, Day 1)

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 13, Day 1. Our subject is Putin’s Social Revolution and our teaching assistant is Dante.

I have just a couple of quick announcements for you. Thank you to all who have submitted their three-page rough drafts! If you have not submitted yours yet, I encourage you to do so as soon as you can. I will turn those drafts back around to you with written comments ASAP. And if you have any questions, if you’d like to talk with me on Teams, or if want to send me another rough draft, I am happy to help you with any of those things. Just send me an email.

Looking ahead from here: Week 13, Day 2 (next time) is our last day with new material. We have a news article and some music videos. Hopefully you’ll find them fun! For our final class meeting, I would like us to get together one last time as a group on Teams. We’ll meet at our regular class time (2:20pm EST) on Monday, May 4. It should be on your calendar in Teams, so please look out for that. Please also remember to complete you Revolutions Timeline posts before then, so we can discuss them together. If anyone is unable to join a class video meeting, please email to let me know.

Today, we’re look at Social Revolution in Putin’s Russia, and we’re exploring it from two sides: Social Revolution made by Putin and Social Revolution made against Putin. Ann Garrels’ book Putin Country will help us understand why Putin is genuinely popular among Russians. To be sure, he doesn’t win elections by the wide margins that he claims. But he has consistently won a majority all four times he has run. The reasons behind this are complex, and Garrels will help us get a handle on them.

At the same time, there are citizens in Russia who are opposed to Putin. They have a variety of concerns. Pervasive corruption has enriched Putin and his allies at the public’s expense. Limits on free speech have progressed from silencing opposition journalists to censoring of the Russian internet to laws against staging mass public protests. And as you read, since 2013, the Russian government has passed laws discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community. Like Ludmilla Alexeyeva and her fellow dissidents, those who oppose Putin are a minority. But they are persistent, and so far, they have continued to find new ways to protest against Putin’s regime.

Individuals and organizations at the forefront of this opposition have faced serious consequences for their activism, which may again remind you of the Soviet dissidents, as well as figures from Imperial Russia like Vera Figner and Alexander Radishchev. In 2006, independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote a series of exposés about atrocities committed by the Russian army in Chechnya, was murdered, and her killers were never caught. The same year, the human rights NGO Memorial, which was started by former dissidents after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was forced to register as a “foreign agent” because it accepts funding from international sources. Official harassment has continued since then, but Memorial has found new ways to continue its operations.

Anti-corruption activists have faced similar difficulties. Boris Nemtsov, who served in Yeltsin’s government but became an opposition leader under Putin, was arrested several times for leading protests and assassinated in 2015. Protesters march every year on the anniversary of his death, and this year they added Putin’s proposed changes to the constitution to their list of grievances. Alexei Navalny, the subject of Julia Ioffe’s article, has also been arrested several times. Despite this, he continues to lead protests in person and spread his message about Putin’s corruption through his YouTube channel. Nemtsov and Navalny are the big names, but we should also keep in mind the thousands of ordinary Russians who take the risk of joining protests, themselves. Without their support, Navalny would be about as effective as the Decembrists, who didn’t think to include the masses in their movement.

As I hope I’ve made clear, there are strong social movements in support of Putin and in opposition to him, which makes the theme of Putin’s Social Revolution especially intriguing. Let’s explore it further through our discussion questions.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. Garrels starts by telling us about a woman named Irina Korsunova, a magazine editor in Chelyabinsk. Korsunova was educated in the West. She enjoys Western consumer goods and fashions, but she has a real chip on her shoulder about how the West sees Russia. Can you explain Korsunova’s complaint? How does it relate to Wood’s explanation of Russia’s troubled relationship with the west since 1991?

2. In chapter 3, Garrels interviews three people with different social positions: the middle-class, cosmopolitan Irina Korsunova, the elite former-oppositionist she calls V, and the steelworker Yura Kovach. All thee support Putin, and especially his annexation of Crimea. Can you unpack how Putin manages to court each of these constituencies? Last time, we looked at how Putin sells himself to Russian citizens. Now, we’re looking at how those citizens respond to him. What do these three figures add to our understanding of Putin’s popularity? Based on their reasons for supporting him, is this a stable “social revolution” or not?

3. Garrels returns to the issue of how international relations influence Russians to support Putin in chapter 18. This time, she focuses on how the sanctions imposed by Western Europe and the US are impacting ordinary Russians. She notes that the sanctions are restricting Russians’ purchasing power. How does she explain the fact that this has not had the intended effect of turning Russians against Putin, but rather has strengthened their allegiance to him? Do you think Americans would respond the same way, if the situation were reversed?

4. In Chapter 10, Garrels writes about students at an elite high school. She is surprised that they are so disengaged from politics. How might the growing importance of money in Russians’ access to education incline them to support the status quo? Is the students’ apathy really such worrying sign for Russia’s future? Or is it typical of high schoolers everywhere?

5. Consider Garrels’ description of the experience of voting in a Russian election on pp. 178-179. If this were your only experience of voting, how would it affect your relationship to politics? What do you think it would take to inspire these students to become more engaged? How does this add a dimension to the issue of Putin staying in power indefinitely?

6. In Chapter 15, Garrels addresses the issue of media freedom. What methods has Putin used to curtail criticism from the media? What are the pros and cons of anti-corruption journalist Irina Gundareva’s decision to take her journalism online? How will this change the audience to which she has access? On p.177, Garrels asks Gundareva why she takes the risks that she does. Can you analyze Gundareva’s answer? What makes her different from the students in the previous chapter, who didn’t want to get involved?

7. Another journalist Garrels interviewed says that the real problem for the Russian media isn’t censorship—it’s self-censorship. How does this self-censorship work? What makes it potentially a greater problem than official censorship? Remember the “Central Committee Resolution on the Journals Zvezda and Leningrad,” which criticized the authors Akhmatova and Zoshchenko. That document was pretty clear about why censorship was necessary and beneficial for the Soviet Union. Why do you think Putin has taken a different tactic in censoring the media today?

8. Garrels warns us not to dismiss Russians who believe state media reports as uneducated or stupid. She gives us an example: Tamara Mairova, a retired engineer. Make a close reading of Garrels’ description of Mairova on p.186-187. Why does Mairova choose to believe state media?  How has “free” Western media contributed to the problem? This might not be just a Russian problem, either. Can you relate it to the media environment in the United States in the past five years? Are we also at risk of a media breakdown?

9. Let’s turn to Julia Ioffe’s article “Net Impact,” about Alexei Navalny. Ioffe begins by describing a debate between Navalny and a Putin-friendly Duma deputy named Evgeny Fedorov. How does Navalny manage to make Fedorov look foolish? What does this reveal both about the role of new media in Russian politics and about Navalny’s personality? Do you think his personality will eventually undercut his activism, or is he precisely the right person for this role? Would you categorize Navalny’s crowd-sourced reporting as journalism or as politics by other means?

10. Before starting his blog, one of Navalny’s first political moves was to start a movement called Da (Yes)! What was “Da!”? How was it good training for his future as an anti-corruption blogger? How might the way it ended have prompted Navalny to turn to blogging? Can you assess the pros and cons of in-person vs. online activism? (This is similar to Question 6, and you may like to answer them together.)

11. After blogging for a while, Navalny started RosPil. RosPil’s success seems to counter Garrels’ claim that Russians are wary of getting involved in politics. How does its setup enable people to speak out against corruption without feeling like they’re doing anything too “political”? What are pros and cons of this model?

12. In many ways, Navalny comes across as a hero. But he has a dark side: his nationalism. It got him kicked out of Yabloko in the early 2000s, and it still influences his work today. Consider how Navalny explains his position on the last page of the pdf (first column). What do you make of his claims here? If you were a Russian who supported Navalny’s anti-corruption blogging, but found his nationalism unacceptable, what would you do?

13. Finally, let’s explore Jeff Sharlet’s article “Inside the Iron Closet.” Sharlet notes that in Western Europe and the US, there has been a steady increase in acceptance for LGBTQ+ people since the early 1990s. Why has Russia not followed that trajectory? How has Russia’s history in this period shaped its response to gay rights? How might the development of anti-Western attitudes that Garrels described have influenced Russians to accept anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric coming from their government?

14. Where is Putin in this story? We know that nothing becomes law in Russia without his approval, and at times he does speak in favor of homophobic agendas. But this doesn’t seem to be a top priority for him. How can we understand Putin’s approach here in strategic terms? How does it serve him politically? What do you think of how activist Elena Kostyuchenko’s explains this issue to Sharlet? Ultimately, does it matter whether Putin is genuinely homophobic? Why or why not?

15. One of Kustyuchenko’s actions was a kiss-in protest, which she and others staged at the Russian Duma. How does this relate to the activism of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s, particularly the 1966 Constitution Day Protest? In your analysis, is this form of protest more or less effective in contemporary Russia than it was in the Soviet Union?

16. Kostyuchenko says that LGBTQ+ activism in Russia follows one of two philosophies: educate or “stop trying to get everyone to like us.” Can you unpack these two ideas? What are the pros and cons of each? Which do you support and why? (You should answer this specifically for Russia, but you may answer it in a more global framework, as well.)

17. Russia’s 2013 anti-gay law is framed in terms of protecting children and families. How do the personal stories in this article undercut that claim? Many of Sharlet’s interviewees, particularly the ones with children, see emigration as their only option. What are the long term consequences for Russian society if the queer community goes into exile? Do countries with more enlightened perspectives have an obligation to pressure Russia to change its laws? Given the international situation, would that do more good or more harm?

Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Putin’s Political Revolution (Week 12, Day 2 (finally))

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 12, Day 2. Our subject is Putin’s Political Revolution, and we have no kitty teaching assistant today. I apologize for posting this video so late. I’ve had a ton of meetings this week! Hopefully you’ve been using the time to work on your papers. You should feel free to respond to this video at your own pace.

We have just a couple of quick announcements. Your three-page rough drafts of your final papers were due on Friday, April 24 on Sakai. As of the time of recording on Saturday, only four people have submitted those. If you didn’t get yours in yet, I’m not going to penalize you, but please do submit it as soon as possible! The sooner you get it in, h sooner I can turn it back around to you with written comments. If you have any questions, please email me. And keep in mind that if any anytime between now and May 10 you have any questions or want to meet with me or send me another rough draft, I will be happy to do that. Just email and let me know.

Looking ahead, we have just two more days of content after this one: Putin’s Social Revolution and Putin’s Cultural Revolution. Week 13, Day 1 is our last day with a substantial reading assignment. If you find yourself pressed for time, please focus on the excerpts from Ann Garrels’ Putin Country. The final day of class we are scheduled to discuss the Revolutions Timeline. I think what I’d like to do is make that a real-time day of class. If you’re able, please sign on to Teams at 2:20 on May 4. I’ll send you all an invitation so we can hang out and talk about the Timeline and consider our big takeaways from this semester. See you then!

Today we’re launching our mini-unit on Putin’s Russia. When we left off last time, Yeltsin was in charge, the ruble had crashed, and things were looking grim. One of Yeltsin’s major blunders was the First Chechen War, in which Chechnya tried to gain its independence and Russia fought back in an ineffective but very bloody way. This war “ended” (or at least paused) with a ceasefire in 1996. Something important to note is that this was a nationalist war. Chechens were fighting for independence on the same basis that, say, Latvians would have if their secession declaration had not been accepted by Gorbachev. After the ceasefire, Russia did not commit resources to rebuilding. And that created an opportunity for Islamist militants from elsewhere to show up and start winning recruits. Consequently, when the Second Chechen War began in the fall of 1999, it took on the character of a “holy war,” and that allowed Putin to frame Russia as a partner in the “war on terror.” Officially, the Second Chechen War ended in 2000, but there’s a sense in which it is still going on, through low level guerilla warfare and terrorist attacks. It’s worth considering these events within the framework of Imperial Russia’s long war to conquer the Caucasus in the first place, which we encountered through Pushkin and Tolstoy this semester.

Putin took over from Yeltsin in a manner that is hard to characterize as democratic. As you read, Yeltsin stepped down in December 1999, which meant that Putin advanced to the Presidency shortly before the 2000 election. He then won easily and pardoned Yeltsin for all his corruption. Publicly, Putin framed himself as everything Yeltsin was not: strong, stable, sober—the guy who was going to return Russia to its rightful position as a world power. And, indeed, during his first two terms, the economy stabilized and grew significantly, the standard of living went up (though wealth stratification remained), crime went down, and government proceeded more smoothly, thanks to new laws that pushed out minority parties. As Tony Wood explains, foreign policy remained a challenge, particularly around the flashpoints of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian War. But even during these events, Putin has managed to maintain the image domestically of a strong leader who stands up to threats from abroad.

At the same time, Putin has cracked down significantly on freedom of speech and other civil rights. He helped Kremlin-friendly oligarchs gain control of major media outlets and went after independent journalists. In 2006, NGOs that received funding from international sources were compelled to register as “foreign agents,” and that has had a chilling effect on their activities.

A new protest movement began in 2012, when Putin announced he would be running for president again. In 2008, he ran out his legal limit of two consecutive terms and to the surprise of some commentators, he stepped down. But in his place, his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, ran for president. When he won (which was never really in question), Medvedev appointed Putin Prime Minister and they operated as a “tandem.” During this time, the Duma changed the constitution to make the presidential term six years. So, when Putin announced he was running again in 2008, the prospect of 12 more years with him in charge was enough to get protesters out in the streets for the first time since 1991. Putin still won the election—again, this was never in doubt—and he won a second term in 2018. But despite new restrictions on free speech and the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015, the protest movement has not gone away.

This brings us to a point that I think is really important, though often hard for American students to understand. Russians know that what they have is not democracy. And a lot of them are really bothered by this. But at the same time, after Russia’s experiences of the 1990s—both domestically and internationally—many Russians have come to feel that “real” democracy either isn’t worth it or isn’t a luxury they can afford. The only stability and national pride they have experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union has come during Putin’s presidency. The persistence of protests seems to indicate that that may be starting to change, but it hasn’t done so yet. Hopefully today’s sources will help us understand this situation in more depth.

I thought it might be helpful to fill out the background on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As Wood explained, Ukraine spent the 1990s and 2000s pulled back and forth between Russia and Western Europe. In 2013, Ukraine’s pro-Western president negotiated an Association Agreement with the European Union, but that November, he lost an election to a pro-Russian candidate. When the new, pro-Russian president announced Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Association Agreement, pro-Western protesters took over Maidan Square in Kiev. This was in November 2013, and the protest lasted until February 2014, when, in response to police violence against the protesters, the Ukrainian parliament voted to depose the president. He fled to Russia, and without him, Ukraine turned back to the EU.

The day after the president was deposed, Russia sent troops into the Crimean Peninsula, which has a large population of ethnic Russians, and perhaps more importantly, a naval base that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Soon after, the “Republic of Crimea” held a referendum on joining the Russian Federation. Most people who were against it protested by refusing to vote; consequently, the measure was overwhelmingly approved. Then, rebels in two provinces in eastern Ukraine began fighting to secede and also join Russia. Russia supported them through various covert means, and those conflicts are ongoing. Through all of this, Ukraine expected help from the West. While there has been some saber-rattling and economic sanctions, it’s become clear that NATO and the EU are not willing to intervene militarily. So, Russia basically gets to keep Crimea. All of this created a huge boost in approval ratings for Putin at home, as has Russia’s intervention in Syria, which Wood describes in some detail.

One last note on Putin’s political revolution. In 2008, Putin was not willing to change the constitution to stay in power. His two-term limit is coming up again in 2024. In January, Putin announced a referendum on constitutional amendments, including one that consolidates the authority of the State Council, which was previously an advisory body. Russia watchers suspect that Putin may have himself installed as head of this council so he can continue to run the country indefinitely without being subject to further elections.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. Tony Wood’s main argument in Chapter 1 is that while Putin has managed to create an extraordinary political system in Russia over the past 20 years, this “managed democracy” is best understood as a continuation of processes that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. What evidence does Wood use to make this argument? Does he convince you? Why or why not? If he’s right, then is Putin not really a political revolutionary after all? Or should we conceptualize his political revolution in a different way? If Putin presidency does represent a maturation of the system developed under Yeltsin, then why has he worked so hard to promote himself as the “anti-Yeltsin”?

2. From 2000-2008, Putin combined a shrinking of political freedoms with a surprisingly strong commitment to abiding by the Russian constitution. When he won the presidency again in 2012, many Russia-watchers wondered if it would be the end of term limits and regular elections. But it wasn’t, and even now, despite the changes to the constitution proposed in January, Putin continues to maintain the framework of legality and legitimacy around his presidency. In your analysis, why does he do so? Why does he keep finding creative ways to stay in power that don’t violate the letter of the Russian constitution?

3. Wood points out that Putin’s economic policies combine neoliberal privatization with a strong role for the state, creating what economists have called an “upstairs-downstairs economy.” How do the state and private interests work together in this model? How does it respond to the difficulties of the 1990s and promote economic growth while ensuring stability? What makes this model so desirable for Putin, as a proponent of “managed democracy”? Do you think this model can work indefinitely, or will these interests eventually conflict?

4. In Chapter 5, Wood places a certain amount of the blame for the current breakdown in relations between Russia and the West on the West itself. The US’ drive to expand NATO into Eastern Europe and create a unipolar world order alienated Russia, which still thought of itself as a great power and expected to be treated accordingly. In your analysis, how could the West have done a better job in its approach to European geopolitics and avoid the adversarial relationship it has with Russia today? Would it have been possible in the long term to harness the good will of the 1990s and keep Russia as an ally rather than an enemy? Consider Putin’s political persona and political goals in your answer.

5. Wood argues that Russia’s actions in Ukraine since 2013 were not the result of long-held policy goals and, in fact, were not really about Ukraine at all. Rather, they were improvised moves aimed at the West, which has consistently rejected the idea of partnership with Russia. Essentially, Putin has been trying to show the US and the EU just how far he is willing to go to keep them out of his back yard, let alone his house. Given the economic and strategic costs Russia has incurred, Wood judges the outcome a defeat for Putin. But on the other hand, Russia is still holding on to Crimea, the civil war in the Donbass continues, and the EU shows no signs of making a more serious bid to help Ukraine. In your analysis, has Putin won or lost this conflict? Or are the results too mixed to declare anyone the winner? What about the Ukrainians: should they be angry at Russia, the EU, or both? What resolution, if any, can you imagine for?

6. Wood also analyzes the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. He points out that while Russian did interfere through misinformation campaigns, there were many more significant factors that contributed to Trump’s win over Clinton. Even so, he writes, “For many [liberals] it was more convenient—more emotionally accurate, too—to blame Trump’s ascent on an outside power, and implicitly to identify Trump himself as a foreign body.” (Wood, 142) What are the consequences of this mindset for Russian-American relations? What are the consequences for domestic politics in America? Why does Wood reject the term “New Cold War”? In your analysis, how can we overcome this impasse, assuming Putin remains in power for the next several years? Or should we give up the pretense of cooperation and return to an “old Cold War” mindset of mutual enmity with Russia?

7. Let’s turn to Putin’s “Address by the President of the Russian Federation”—the speech he gave after annexing Crimea in 2014. Make a close reading of the first 15 paragraphs. (I know that’s a lot, but there’s a lot to unpack here!) How does Putin use history to lay claim to Russian ownership of the Crimean Peninsula? How might a Ukrainian nationalist respond? What questions might we ask about this account, as historians? How does Putin’s use of history for political purposes here help us think about the stakes of local histories?

8. In this same part of the speech, how does Putin instrumentalize the history of the Crimean Tatars? Do you get the sense Putin really cares about their issues? If you were a Tatar, would you support Putin based on this speech or not?

9. According to Putin, how has Russia behaved toward Ukraine since 1991? He claims to be sympathetic, and even claims to sympathize with the Maidan protesters. But would he be so “sympathetic” to this kind of protest in Russia? And in fact, is he really that sympathetic to it in Ukraine? What vocabulary is he using here to delegitimize the revolutionaries? 

10. Putin also raises the issue of international politics. He raises the examples of the West’s behavior in relation to Kosovo, the Color Revolutions, NATO expansion, and the issue of weapons of mass destruction. That’s quite a list. What is Putin’s overall point in all this? How does he characterize the West’s behavior? Why does this offend him as the president of Russia? How does it give him permission for his own actions? Clearly, Putin is scoring political points. But is he entirely wrong? Given its own record, does the West have a solid basis for opposing the annexation of Crimea? Why or why not?

Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for the Revolutionary Collapse of the Soviet Union (Week 12, Day 1)

*Please note: This video came out pretty long. Please feel free to watch it at your own pace!

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 12, Day 1. Our subject today is the revolutionary collapse of the Soviet Union. We have no cat today, because they are both napping.

Last week I met with everyone except Owen to talk through your ideas for your final papers. Owen, if you’re watching this, please check in! I think everybody is doing really well with this assignment so far. I’m looking forward to reading your three-page rough drafts which will be due on Friday, April 24 at 5pm, submitted on Sakai. After you turn those in, I’ll send those back to you with written comments as quickly as possible, so you have the maximum time to work on your final drafts. As you’re writing, I encourage you to review the HIS 315 Writing Handout, which is on the course website. Capstoners, you’re on a different schedule; your next deadline is the full rough draft, which is due on Sunday, April 26. As always, please let me know if you have any questions on this assignment.

Today, we’re looking at a period of revolutionary transition: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of post-Soviet Russia. As you’ve gathered from our sources, this period presented a major upheaval in all three of our thematic areas: politics, society, and culture. Because this is some very complex history, I’m going to highlight major themes for you rather than dig into details. Please keep in mind that there is much more to this story than we can cover in this video!

In our study of Soviet dissidents, we explored the Brezhnev Era (1964-1982). As you may recall, this was a time of growing repression but also growing resistance, at least among intellectuals like Ludmilla Alexeyeva and her friends. It was also a period of stagnation. Economically, Soviet production slowed down due to a failure to modernize. And politically, the bureaucrats got older and more stuck in their ways. Brezhnev, like most of the Central Committee, was a beneficiary of Stalin’s social revolution who had risen through the ranks over decades and now stubbornly held on to power. One of the reasons we haven’t talked directly about Brezhnev in this class is that during his nearly 20 years in power, he didn’t do anything revolutionary. Reacting against the instability Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, he took a conservative approach and kept things steady. His repression of dissidents was part of that approach; after all, they were calling for change, which did not fit into Brezhnev’s ideology.

Most Soviet citizens were not dissidents. But as the excitement of the Thaw died down, they did begin to lose their sense of connection to the Soviet project. In international affairs, they were shocked by Brezhnev’s militarism, which included the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the deeply unpopular Soviet-Afghan War from 1979-1989. And domestically, they gradually came to think of official Soviet rhetoric as formulaic, without much actual meaning. That doesn’t mean they were opposed to Soviet ideals, but it does means they were becoming more distant from them. Alexei Yurchak’s chapter will help us think though that situation.

Brezhnev died in 1982, and in a sign of just how much the senior bureaucracy had aged, the next two Soviet leaders each died after about a year in office. Finally, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the position of General Secretary. He was considered a young hotshot because he was “only” 54! But Gorbachev’s real significance is that he envisioned himself as forward thinking radical reformer. He was a child of the Khrushchev Thaw, not Stalinism, and he wanted to create a Khrushchev-like revolution that would get the Soviet Union back on track.

Gorbachev’s two signature policies were perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Perestroika proceeded on two fronts. Economically, it involved massive new investment in modernizing Soviet industry, the creation of limited private cooperative enterprises for the first time since the 1920s, and an effort to increase efficiency though cash incentives. Politically, perestroika involved opening up Soviet elections to multiple candidates, also for the first time since the 1920s. Glasnost meant embracing a new level of transparency about the past and the present. Gorbachev himself revealed more of Stalin’s crimes, and investigative journalists were also allowed to dig into previously hushed-up stories.

In many ways, Gorbachev’s tragedy is that he was able to think outside box, but not far enough. Most of his reforms were good ideas, even necessary ideas. But his failure to think through the consequences, and to deal with them constructively when they arose, is a big part of why they resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perestroika failed to jumpstart Soviet industry and enabled to the election of a large number of opposition candidates. For the majority of citizens, glasnost-fueled revelations about the horrors of the Stalin Era and open discussion of contemporary social problems were deeply unsettling and only undermined their faith in the Party further. Gorbachev was trying to fix the Soviet  Union. Instead, he broke it.

By 1990, just five years after he took office, Gorbachev was universally hated. The extent of his reforms angered hardliners, while the limits he imposed when things didn’t go his way alienated progressives. Meanwhile, a new politician, Boris Yeltsin, came to the fore. Gorbachev initially considered Yeltsin an ally and appointed him to the new post of president of the RSFSR. This post was titular, but Yeltsin decided to make it real. Between 1988 and 1990, the Baltic Republics, declared their independence and the countries of the Eastern Bloc experienced a wave of peaceful revolutions that overthrew their communist governments. To his credit, Gorbachev did not invade, which saved Eastern Europe from potential violence. But Yeltsin, seeing that Gorbachev was spinning out, declared the sovereignty of the RSFSR. This was enough to freak out hardliners in the government, and when Gorbachev went on vacation in August 1991, they put him under house arrest and tried to stage a coup. It didn’t work, because they had no real support. But it fundamentally altered the relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, because Yeltsin was in Moscow making speeches about democracy while standing on a disabled tank, while Gorbachev was out of sight.

After the coup, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but it was over for him. Yeltsin went behind his back and signed an agreement forming the Commonwealth of Independent States, which most of the Soviet Republics joined. That left Gorbachev the leader of a Soviet Union that no longer contained any republics. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev formally resigned, and the Soviet Union came to a surprisingly peaceful end.

For the moment, Yeltsin was ascendant. But it turned out that he had already peaked. Untangling the wreckage of the Soviet Union was a difficult business, and Yeltsin was more a man for grand gestures than nuanced policy decisions. Though he played the perestroika game better than Gorbachev, it turned out he was not fully committed to democracy and still had some Soviet-style expectations. In 1993, facing political opposition, Yeltsin illegally disbanded the parliament. When the members refused to leave the building, Yeltsin brought in tanks and forced the adoption of a new constitution with stronger executive power.

In addition, the former Soviet republics and autonomous regions battled over borders and assets. The most significant of these struggles was the Chechen Wars. In the First Chechen War (1994-1996), the autonomous region of Chechnya fought for complete independence. It was very bloody, and both sides committed significant atrocities. The cessation of fighting in 1996 was more of a pause than a victory. The war resumed in 1999, and we’ll talk about it more next time, when we discuss the Putin Era.

Most significantly, Russia faced a major economic crisis under Yeltsin. Yeltsin took stabilization loans from the World Bank and IMF, but these organizations required implementation of “shock therapy”: strict austerity measures and privatization of state assets. This basically destroyed what was left of the Soviet economy. A few men with inside connections, soon to be known as “oligarchs,” bought up state assets on the cheap, milked them for cash, and became incredibly rich. Wealth stratification soared as this rough transition to capitalism threw millions of people into poverty. Russia also experienced a major public health crisis as underfunded public clinics found themselves unable to cope with rising rates of tuberculosis and the onset of an AIDS crisis fueled by drug addiction. Yeltsin kept taking loans, trying to throw money at these problems. Inflation soared until August 1998, when the government defaulted on its debts and the ruble collapsed. Eleven years after Gorbachev’s hopeful speech about glasnost, Russia looked like a failed state. This is the situation Tatyana Tolstaya writes about in her essay “The Price of Eggs.”

I’m sorry this is not a very uplifting story! I promise you things will get better for Russia next time. But it’s necessary to consider this historical context when analyzing our sources today. Let’s start by going back to Gorbachev.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. In the Conclusion to Alexei Yurchak’s book Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, which you read for today, the author tells us that while everyone was surprised and distressed when the Soviet Union collapsed, most people were also surprisingly okay, at least initially. He says that this isn’t ultimately that weird. We only think it’s weird because we’re used to thinking about the Soviet system in terms of binaries. Consider the list of binaries that Yurchak busts at the top of p.283. Can you analyze his claim? What does it mean to upset these binaries? How does his claim help us understand the Soviet Union’s collapse? How does it shape your thinking about the firm lines we’ve drawn this semester around different types of revolutions? How useful are these categories, in the end?

2. One of Yurchak’s major points in this piece is that official Soviet discourse—the standard phrases and slogans every Soviet citizen heard and repeated on a regular basis—had two dimensions, a constative dimension (what the words actually mean) and a performative dimension (the act of repeating the words). He writes, “In the late Soviet context, when authoritative discourse became hypernormalized, its performative dimensions grew in importance and its constative dimensions became unanchored from concrete core meanings and increasingly open to new interpretations.” (Yurchak, 285) Can you unpack his assertion? What does it mean for words to be more important as a thing you always say, rather than as a thing with meaning? Do we have anything like that in contemporary American culture? If so, does that mean our political system is in danger of collapse?

3. In Yurchak’s account, this performative shift in official Soviet discourse was a key feature of the Brezhnev Era. Then Gorbachev came along and messed things up by trying to return emphasis to the constative dimension of official slogans. Make a close reading of pp.291-292. According to Yurchak, why does Gorbachev’s effort destabilize things so profoundly? Why was it impossible to stop this process once it started?

4. Let’s bring these two threads together. How did the performative shift in late-socialist authoritative discourse both set up the collapse under Gorbachev and put citizens in a position to be okay when that collapse happened? In what way was this both exciting and traumatic for people? How would you feel if you found yourself in the midst of these events?

5. Now let’s turn to the speech “Gorbachev Challenges the Party (Glasnost)”. Can you find examples here of what Yurchak describes: Gorbachev trying to return authoritative Soviet discourse to its constative dimension?

6. This speech has some similarities with Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” in that Gorbachev has to admit that things are going wrong, and blame somebody for it, in order to argue for his program of reform. In the “Secret Speech,” Khrushchev blamed everything on Stalin, and exonerates the Central Committee. Gorbachev handles this differently. Find the paragraph that begins: “The principal cause—and the Politbiuro considers it necessary to say this…” Read that paragraph and the next one carefully. How does Gorbachev handle the issue of blame? Why do you think he chooses not to name anyone specifically, not even Brezhnev? Do you think Gorbachev’s framing of this issue is wise? Why or why not?

7. Speaking of the “Secret Speech,” once again we find ourselves talking about Lenin. Does Lenin play the same role for Gorbachev as he did for Khrushchev? What are the similarities and differences? Why do we always come back to Lenin? What are the pros and cons of doing so?

8. Gorbachev gives a pretty thorough accounting of the economic problems facing the Soviet Union. But he also talks a lot about social ills and moral ills. What do these terms mean to him? What connections does he draw between these factors and the failures of the Soviet economy? Would you classify his analysis as perceptive, naïve, ideologically driven, something else? If you were a Soviet citizen and you read this speech in the newspaper, how would it make you feel?

9. About halfway through the speech, Gorbachev also addresses the issue of political perestroika. Find the paragraph that begins: “There is also a need to give some thought to changing the procedure for the election…” Read that paragraph and the next one closely. Would you call this democracy? What role does Gorbachev maintain for the Communist Party? If this is not democracy, is it a good intermediate step? How is Gorbachev trying to balance between the old guard and the reformers here? Do you think such a balance is necessary, or should he go all-in from the start? Or, do you think we’re seeing Gorbachev’s own limits at work here?

10. Gorbachev concludes this speech on a hopeful note. Read the last paragraph carefully. How does this shape our understanding of Gorbachev as a political reformer? Do you think it was possible, after 18 years of Brezhnev and stagnation to achieve the goal he sets out here? Do you think Gorbachev believes it, or is he trying to convince himself, too?

11. Finally, let’s explore Tolstaya’s essay “The Price of Eggs.” Here, we get the average person’s perspective on the 1998 financial crash. When she first hears on the news that the market has crashed, what does she think? What does this tell you about average Russians’ relationship to economic changes? What options do people have at this point? What do you think it would feel like to live through something like this? How would it affect your perspective on both the past and the future?

12. Tolstaya finds herself in an angry crowd outside a store that has shut its doors. On pp. 209-210, she quotes people shouting about Clinton, Zionism, and George Soros. What does this reveal about Russians’ concerns about how their country’s place on the world stage has changed? After the break at the bottom of p.210, Tolstaya describes her shock at realizing that Russia still produces relatively little of the goods it consumes. What is the psychological impact of this revelation? What does it tell us about how Russia has developed under Yeltsin and under the guidance of the World Bank and IMF?

13. This is a problem that has come up again for Russians since the US imposed sanctions after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Can you analyze the fact that Russia still has this problem of low domestic production nearly 20 years later? What does that tell you about economic development, even though things improved so much in the 2000s? As a Russian, how do you think you would respond to a second Western-related economic crisis so soon after the first one?

14. Tolstaya turns on the TV and sees Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was Prime Minister from 1992-1998. Yeltsin fired him a few months before the market crash, then tried to reappoint him after. But Tolstaya doesn’t blame Chernomyrdin so much as she blames the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Make a close reading of the paragraph that begins on the bottom of p.211 and continues onto p.212. What’s her take here on the true workings of post-Soviet politics? Is this democracy as we know it?

15. During the televised call-in show, a woman screams at Chernomyrdin about the price of eggs. How does this woman’s outcry and Chernomyrdin’s response galvanize Tolstaya’s thinking about the whole situation? What conclusions does she draw? How are her worldview and her reactions shaped by the experience of living through the eras of Brezhnev and Gorbachev? Do you think Gorbachev’s effort to return to the constative dimension of authoritative discourse has made it harder or easier for her to live through these events?

Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Revolutionizing the Arts: Socialist Realism (Week 11, Day 2)

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 11, Day 2. Our subject today is Socialist Realism, which was the official aesthetic for Soviet arts that was established in the 1930s, and our teaching assistant is Dante.

This week, I’ve met with just about all of you to discuss you Research Questions and List of Sources for your final papers. I think these meetings have gone really well. It’s been great to see you all, and I’ve really enjoyed talking through your ideas with you! I still have not met with Liam and Owen. If you guys are watching this video, or if anyone who is in touch with either of them is watching and can pass on this message, please email me! It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to do with your paper, or even if you are feeling too stressed out to think about your paper. The important thing is that we should connect, and we’ll figure it out from there.

The next step in our final paper assignment is the three-page rough draft. This draft should include your Introduction and you Thesis Statement, as well as part of the body section of your paper. What I want to do is make sure you been able to identify your argument and see how you are working with primary sources, using them as evidence to support your claims. This is due on Friday, April 24 at 5pm and once again you should submit it on Sakai. I will send you back written comments as quickly as possible. If you want to have another virtual office hours meeting to talk through my comments, we can definitely do that. Just let me know.

Today, we’re taking our investigation of Soviet cultural revolution into the Stalin Era. Believe it or not, this is also the last day of our unit on Cultural Revolution! It feels to me like this unit went by really quickly. Still, here we are, and that means that it’s a good time to connect again with your Timeline Groups and coordinate your posts for this unit on the Revolutions Timeline. You have until the end of the semester to get your Timeline posts up. But you might like to get it out of the way now, before you get knee-deep in your final papers. It looks like we don’t have any posts up yet for Social Revolution, either, so while you’re talking with the folks in your Timeline Group, go ahead and coordinate on that, as well.

So, Socialist Realism: what was it? Well, that’s the million dollar question of Soviet cultural history. The sources we’re reading for today are going to help us explore that question. But first, let’s fill in the historical context. Last time, we discussed the various theories and experiments for establishing a new culture for the Soviet Union in the 1920s. We looked at the two major schools of thought: the Avant-Gardists and the “Proletarians.” The Soviet government didn’t take a side in this debate for the better part of the decade. But with the start of the First Five Year Plan and the Cultural Revolution through which Stalin created his new elite, it finally did. From 1928 onward, the Commissariat of Enlightenment (which was the equivalent of the Ministry of Culture) allowed the “Proletarians” to get the upper hand, led by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. It’s worth considering why that side was able to gain official favor. Thinking back over the “Ideological Platform of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians,” how did their approach to the arts fit with the state’s other priorities during this period?

Once the “Proletarians” had free rein, they quickly hounded the Avant-Gardists out of work. The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers demanded that all literature be immediately accessible to the masses, many of whom were just learning to read thanks to wide-ranging Soviet literacy campaigns. They declared that the literature of an industrial workers’ state must be about industrial labor and sent writers to visit factories and write about what they saw. But because this literature must educate its readers in Soviet values like collectivism, it shouldn’t have individual heroes or romantic subplots. Rather, labor itself should be the hero, and the characters should focus entirely on goals of socialist construction. A similar situation developed in music: the avant-garde was pushed out, and popular songs and jazz were declared to be examples of bourgeois decadence. New music had to be short, simple, easy to sing, and preferably have lyrics about the glories of labor. In visual art, the Leftist Art Arvatov promoted was removed from view and only the strictest realist images of workers and communist leaders permitted.

By the end of the First Five Year Plan, the result of these policies became clear: bad literature, music, and art. For all its political bona fides, “Proletarianism” was unable to generate anything inspiring in the arts. Hero-less novels about collective labor turned out to be boring and unartistic. Mass songs like “Life Has Become Better!” were fine here and there, but as the entire musical diet, they got on people’s nerves. And strict realism in painting was hardly more exciting. Since the “Proletarians” had also consigned all art of the “bourgeois” past to the dust bin of history, that left the Soviet arts scene just about barren. Something had to change.

The Second Five Year Plan period (1933-1937) is often seen as a time of pulling back from revolutionary fervor in terms of society and culture. As we’ve learned, Stalin ended the policy of promoting workers from the bench into higher education, and his new elite settled into privileged lives. Now that that the Soviet Union had been industrialized, urbanized, and modernized and taken its place among the leading nations of the world, Stalin felt that it needed to be a leader in culture, as well. And the low-quality art of the Cultural Revolution was not going to cut it. So, the Stalinist state pursued two avenues. On one hand, classics like Pushkin, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and painter Ilya Repin were reconceptualized as forward-thinking artists of the past, worthy of a seat at the Soviet table. And on the other hand, the Soviet art world was turned on its head once again by anew official policy.

This policy began in 1932, when the Central Committee announced that all “Proletarian” organizations would be disbanded and replaced by official creative unions. The Union of Soviet Writers formed almost immediately and scheduled its first all-Union conference for 1934. It was at this conference that Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov, whose brief included ideological affairs, announced that all arts must now adhere to the official Soviet aesthetic of Socialist Realism. All new works would be vetted by government censors, and anything that didn’t meet this standard would be banned. Among European censorship policies, Socialist Realism is unique in that it dictates not only what artists must not do, but also what they must do. Even so, as you’ve no doubt noticed, Zhdanov’s definition is rather vague. As a result, it became part of the work of organizations like the Union of Soviet Writers to look back through previous works that had received approval and create a new canon, from which more specific aesthetic principles could be derived. Valentin Kataev’s 1932 novel “Time, Forward!”, from which we’re reading an excerpt today is one such work. We’ll be discussing it through the lens of Western scholar Katerina Clark’s study The Soviet Novel, which also aims to explain Socialist Realism.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. Let’s start with our secondary source, chapter 1 of Clark’s The Soviet Novel. She begins by outlining two different versions of how Soviet literature developed, one created by Soviet scholars and the other created by Western scholars. How does each side tell this story? According to Clark, what is wrong with each version? How does ideology factor into these narratives? Given that we are dealing with a policy derived from official Soviet ideology, why is it important to look past that ideological framework? How will doing so help us understand Socialist Realism?

2. Clark explains that Socialist Realism was pieced together from two previous, competing theories: “proletarian realism” and “revolutionary romanticism.” What do these terms mean? What is valuable in each of them, from the perspective of the Soviet state? How do they relate to Belinskii’s ideas about the purpose of literature? How do they relate to the utopian experiments of the 1920s?

3. Clark describes the effort to bring the two theories together as “modal schizophrenia.” She asserts that Soviet novels feel kitschy and poorly written because they’re trying to bring together opposing tendencies. She describes these through a variety of terms:

  • The everyday + the heroic
  • Verisimilitude (being true to life) + the mythic or utopian
  • Complexity + simplicity
  • “What is” + “What ought to be”

Can you unpack these terms? What does it mean for literature to try to do any of these things? How does each side of the plus sign fit together (everyday/verisimilitude/complexity/what is OR heroic/mythic/simplicity/what ought to be)? What makes it so hard to work across the plus sign and bring these two sides together? Is “schizophrenic” the right way to describe this phenomenon?

4. Are these two tendencies ultimately incompatible? Is this a recipe for bad literature? Is the problem that Soviet novelists aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do, or that that they’re being asked to do something that isn’t possible?

5. According to Clark, the way Socialist Realism asked Soviet writers to think of the world does make sense with official Stalinist rhetoric. Soviet citizens in the 1930s were encouraged to think of themselves as living and striving in real time, but also to project themselves into the glorious future and envision future Soviet achievements as if they already existed. Why might this type of “vision” be particularly important to the Soviet project? Is it sustainable in the long term? Can it survive something like Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”?

6. Read through Appendix A and explain the steps of the Master Plot to yourself in your own words. (You don’t have to write this in your post. Just confirm that you understand each step). Now consider Valentin Kataev’s Time, Forward! Can you trace the steps of the Master Plot in the excerpt that I’ve assigned you? Does it make for a good story? Does it leave you with a sense of Soviet values and what it means to be a New Soviet Person? If you were a Soviet citizen, would you find it reassuring or annoying if every story you read, no matter what the subject, followed this basic story arc? Do we have literary genres that serve a similar function in our society?

7. The first section of “Time, Forward!” sets up a particular kind of rhythm. Read it out loud to yourself. You might find that its rhythm is similar to Mosolov’s Iron Foundry, which we listened to last time. What do you make of this echo of the avant-garde in Socialist Realism? How does it help to bring together the disparate elements of “what is” and “what ought to be”? We also get a lot of details about the production of concrete in this passage. Why might that be useful in a Socialist Realist novel?

8. What is the source of drama in this piece of the novel (the full excerpt I’ve assigned you)? You might find that you get pretty swept up in it. I know that I do. What’s the message here about the First Five Year Plan? What would a “good” Stalinist citizen like Pasha Angelina think of this? What would a “bad” citizen like Ekaterina Olitskaia think? If you were someone like the young Ludmilla Alexeyeva, how would your reaction to a novel like this help you think through your relationship to the government?

9. Because this novel is so realistic, there are some moments that are very revealing. For one, when the brigade first thinks they’ve broken the world record, everybody collapses with exhaustion. For another, when Smetana gets seriously injured, the brigade carries on without losing pace. Finally, almost at the end of their marathon shift, we learn that the concrete hasn’t actually been tested and may not be fit for use. What do these moments reveal about the ethos and methods of the First Five Year Plan? Why do you think Kataev included these less than flattering passages? How do they help to build up the mythology of Soviet labor?

10. The last passage takes place in the superintendent’s office, where the staff is putting together some propaganda materials. Georgii Vasilievich is writing an article, which we get a quote from. Find the paragraph that begins with “Recently we have noted two opposing currents…” and read it closely. What are the two sides in this debate? In what way is this reminiscent of Stalin’s Social Revolution? How does this novel, written in 1932, work to ensure that Soviet citizens understand the deposing of the “bourgeois experts” and creation of the new Stalinist elite in the right way?

11. Now let’s look at Zhdanov’s speech, “Soviet Literature—The Richest in Ideas.” The first five paragraphs of this speech are about economic successes, not literature. This seems weird. But then, in the sixth paragraph, Zhdanov starts talking about things that are not yet going so well economically. How is he exhibiting Socialist Realist thinking by setting up his speech this way? If this speech has a story arc, who is the hero?

12. Eventually, Zhdanov gets down to business. Find the paragraph that begins “The key to the success of Soviet literature is to be sought for…” Read that paragraph and the next two closely. Can you unpack his claims here? According to Zhdanov what role is literature expected to play in Soviet society? How does this compare to his assessment of “contemporary bourgeois literature” in the next few paragraphs? Is it fair to assess literature by its relationship to the economic basis of society? Is a corrupt or decaying society incapable of producing good literature? Will a thriving society always produce good literature?

13. Zhdanov quotes Stalin’s famous line that “writers are the engineers of human souls.” We might consider this metaphor itself, in light of the drive to build up heavy industry during the First Five Year Plan. But let’s look further. Find the paragraph with that quote in it. Make a close reading of the text from there up to: “This method in belles lettres and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.” What do you make of this definition? Why isn’t he being more specific? How might it be a good strategic move for Soviet officials to leave it just a little bit vague? Do you think that literature is really capable of “engineering” a human soul?

14. Throughout this speech, it’s clear that the Soviet state is now taking literature extremely seriously. What are the pros and cons of a government that cares that much about the arts? How might artists benefit? How might they be harmed? If you were an artist, which would you prefer: to be given strong support but also ideological restrictions, or to have the freedom to fully express yourself but also to starve?

Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for Soviet Revolutionary Rituals and Art (Week 11, Day 1)

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 11, Day 1. Our subject is Soviet Revolutionary Rituals, and our teaching assistant is Maggie.

We’ll start, as usual, with announcements. I’m looking forward to discussing your Research Questions and List of Sources with each of you on Monday and Tuesday this week. After that meeting, you should plan to start working on your three-page rough draft. Those are due on Friday, April 24 on Sakai. So, that gives you about a week and a half to work on them. I’ll send those back to you with written comments as quickly as I can. If you want to set up another virtual office hours meeting on Teams to discuss my written comments, we can do that, too. Just email me, and we can set it up.

This week, we’re making our final visit to the Soviet Era, to explore Soviet cultural revolution. Today, we’re focusing on the 1920s, which is going to fill in a gap for us. In our unit on Political Revolution, we discussed the Revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War, which ended in 1921. Then, in our unit on Social Revolution, we jumped to the First Five Year Plan, which ran from 1928-1932. We talked some at that point about the development of the Soviet economy in the 1920s, and how the shortcomings of the New Economic Policy, including a lack of social mobility, set the stage for industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, and the creation of Stalin’s new elite. But while those political, economic, and social developments were brewing, what was going on with culture? That’s what we’re going to explore today.

Based on you reading of “What Is To Be Done?”, it may not surprise you that Lenin didn’t have very strong ideas about culture. He was ultra-focused on politics and making the revolution a success. But there were other people around—Party leaders and sympathetic artists—who did have dreams for what Soviet culture should be like. The problem was, while everyone agreed that Soviet culture must be radically different from the past, beyond that they had quite different agendas. Because Lenin was preoccupied with the Soviet Union’s struggle for survival, the various factions that developed around the culture question got to spend the 1920s debating each and experimenting with different ways of implementing their ideas. This situation continued through most of the decade. After Lenin’s death, while Stalin worked on consolidating his power over his rivals, he also gave culture a pass. The period of experimentation ended with the coming of the First Five Year Plan. We’ll talk about what came next and how the state developed an official Soviet aesthetic next time. But today, we’re exploring some of the many experiments with revolutionary culture in the 1920s.

In doing so, we are examining two different areas of “culture.” Our secondary source, Richard Stites’ article “Bolshevik Ritual Building int h 1920s,” deals with culture defined as how people mark important moments in their lives. As Stites notes, the Bolsheviks were staunch atheists, but they made their revolution in a country where the vast majority of the population were practicing Orthodox Christians. This created a dilemma regarding how the new government ought to handle the urge for religious ritual—whether or not to replace it, and if so, how. The types of secular rituals the Bolsheviks tied to create and how ordinary people related to them raises some interesting questions about the Soviet state’s relationship to “the masses,” in whose name they made their revolution. We’ll talk about that more in a minute.

The other area of culture we’re working with today is culture defined as the arts. In this realm, two groups quickly formed around very different styles of art, and they spent the 1920s arguing vehemently with each other, while creating experimental artworks. The first group called itself the Avant-Gardists. They wanted to create works that were wildly experimental, using new sounds and visual juxtapositions, completely rejecting and invalidating the “bourgeois” art of the 19th century. They wanted to bring the sights, sounds, and technologies of workers’ lives into the realm of culture to make a brand new type of art that would speak directly to workers and validate their experiences. We have three sources on the avant-garde perspective: an essay by the visual artist Boris Arvatov, a podcast about Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, and Alexandre Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry.

The second group with a new vision for Soviet culture in the 1920s called itself the Proletarians. They were not proletarians, themselves; they were trained artists. But they claimed to speak in the name of the proletariat, to know what workers actually wanted, which, they asserted, was not what the Avant-Gardists had to offer. In their view Soviet culture must be “proletarian” in the sense of being immediately intelligible and appealing to workers, and ideally created by workers themselves, not professionally trained artists. We have two sources on the Proletarian perspective: “The Ideological Platform of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians,” and song that I’ve added to your list, Alexander Alexandrov and Vasily Lebedev-Kumach’s “Life Has Become Better.” You may recognize the title of this song from Stalin’s “Speech at the First All-Union Congress of Stakhanovites,” which he gave in 1935. The song was written later than the 1920s, but it is a good representation of the “Proletarian” style.

I think that’s all the contextual information we need. Now on to some discussion questions.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. All of our sources today speak to the Bolsheviks’ desire to use culture as a tool for creating a new type of person, the New Soviet Person, who thinks and acts differently from anyone who came before. Why do you think this was important to early Soviet thinkers? How does it shape our understanding of the Bolsheviks as revolutionaries that they didn’t want to just take power, they actually wanted to create a new culture? Is this a necessary part of revolution, or does it go too far?

2. In his article “Bolshevik Ritual Building in the 1920s,” Richard Stites explains that Soviet leaders figured out early on that they needed to come up with something to replace religious festivals and rituals in ordinary citizens’ lives. At first, they tried counter-festivals designed to parody religion and educate the masses in rationalism. But both the Komsomol Christmas of 1922 and the Komsomol Easter of 1923 were disasters in different ways. Stites claims the problem with these events was that “if the performances were salted with antireligious skits, they descended back to carnival; if they were not, they were dull.” (Stites, 298) What is your take on this problem? Could the Bolsheviks have come up with an effective secular replacement for these festivals? If so, what could they have done differently? If not, why not?

3. The Bolsheviks also sought to replace the Church’s life cycle rituals, particularly baptism, weddings, and funerals. Stites tells us that the most successful of the three was Octobering, which replaced baptism. Can you analyze the Octobering ritual? From the Bolshevik point of view, how does it work to not only replace the role of God, but correct other prejudices engendered by religion? Look through the list of revolutionary names on pp. 300-301. Which are your favorites and why? What values do these names convey? What do you think parents would be thinking in giving their child one of these names? Consider Stites’ meditation on the significance of names and naming: how would Octobering with these names help to create a cultural revolution?

4. Octobering, Red Weddings, and especially Red Funerals all ultimately fail to catch on. Why don’t they work as substitutes for traditional baptisms, weddings and funerals? What do the Bolsheviks gets wrong about rituals? What should they have done instead?

5. Unfortunately, we can’t listen to Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens. (If you’ve listened to the podcast, you’ll know why!)  Even so, what is the story of this piece of music? In what way does it make sense as the music for the new Soviet culture? In what ways does it not make sense? Maynes tells us that “Avraamov thought music was the ultimate communal experience.” Would you characterize this piece as communal? Why or why not?

6. Listen to Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry. What do you hear? (Brainstorm a list as you listen!) What emotions does it evoke in you? What images does it evoke? What features of the musical language identify this piece as avant-garde? How does it incorporate the sounds of the new Soviet life? Do you think factory workers would like to listen this piece? Why or why not?

7. Now listen to Alexandrov’s “Life Has Become Better!” Again, brainstorm a list of sounds, emotions, and images that come to you. How would you describe this piece? What aspects make it proletarian? How is it different form Mosolov’s Iron Foundry? Which do you think would be more appealing to workers and why?

8. Now that we’ve got the sounds in our heads, let’s look at the theories behind them. Start with Arvatov’s “The Proletariat and Leftist Art.” Arvatov begins by laying out the difference between “bourgeois art” and “proletarian art.” Read the first paragraph of the essay. Can you explain this difference, in your own words? Why doesn’t proletarian art exist yet? How will we recognize it when it comes into being?

9. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out there’s a third kind of art: Leftist art, which is the real subject of this essay. Make a close reading of the second full paragraph on p.239 (“Leftist are on the other hand…”) Can you unpack Arvatov’s ideas here? How is Leftist art different from the other two types, and how will it enable proletarian art to develop? Compare this to Lenin’s idea of the Vanguard Party in “What Is To Be Done?”. With this theory of Leftist art, is Arvatov being a good Leninist, or is he just finding a way to justify the art he likes to make?

10. One of the major differences between the Avant-Gardists and the Proletarians was on the issue of intelligibility. For the Proletarians, if workers don’t immediately understand a piece of art, then it doesn’t serve their interests. Look closely at the last paragraph on p.238 and the first paragraph on p.239 (starting from “They shout…”) How does Arvatov counter the Proletarians’ claim? Does he convince you that Leftist art can serve the proletariat’s interests?

11. Finally, let’s turn to the “Ideological Platform of the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM).” Points 1 and 7 together make a bold assertion about the goal of art. How does this fit with the Bolsheviks’ goal of using culture to create a new society? Would the Avant-Gardists necessarily disagree? Do you agree that this can be a goal of art? Do you agree that it is always the goal of art?

12. The Proletarians agree with the Avant-Gardists that there is “bourgeois art” and “proletarian art.” But the Proletarians have a different explanation for the phenomenon that Arvatov calls “Leftist art.” Make a close reading of Points 6 and 9. What point is RAPM making here? How does this demonstrate the difference in perspectives between the two camps? Which way would you characterize The Iron Foundry: Leftist art or bourgeois decadence?

13. On the last two pages, RAPM sets out its vision for the future development of proletarian art.  What role do they give to themselves? How does this differ from the role Arvatov gives to the Avant-Gardists? Which side do you expect to emerge triumphant from this debate? Which side has a better strategy? Which side promotes better music?

Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for The Intelligentsia II: Radical Revolutionaries (Week 10, Day 2)

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our video for Week 10, Day 2. Our topic is Radical Revolutionaries, and our teaching assistant is Maggie.

I’m going to try to keep this video on the short side, since our Week 10, Day 1 video was rather long. I just have one announcement for you: I’ve shared a document with you by email, the Final Paper Office Hours Sign Up sheet. Please click through to the document itself and sign up for a spot to meet with me via Teams on April 13. In these meetings, we’ll be discussing your Research Question and List of Sources for your final papers, so make sure you get those things drafted and submitted on Sakai by Sunday, April 12.

Last week, we traced the beginnings of the Russian intelligentsia in the first half of the 19th century. Today, we’re looking at how the liberal intelligentsia of the 1830s-1850s evolved into the radical intelligentsia of the 1860s-1880s. Historians often think of these groups in terms of generations. The first wave is referred to as the “fathers” and the second wave as the “sons.” This echoes the title of Ivan Turgenev’s famous novel Fathers and Sons, which deals with exactly this generational disconnect among Russian thinkers. We might alter that to “fathers” and “children,” because as we know from today’s primary source, women became an important part of the movement in the second half of the century.

As I hope you gathered from your reading, to impose a sharp division between these two waves is a bit too harsh. There was definitely an evolutionary process at work here. But we can also identify a sort of “Ok, Boomer” moment. The liberal intellectuals who came up in the first wave focused primarily on ideas, which they debated in their discussion circles and journals, than on actions. They tended to think in terms of the “essence” of Russian nation rather than concrete political ideologies. And insofar as they did try to take a hand in Russia’s development, they usually did so by going to work for the government, trying to create change from within. Indeed, it was members of this generation who helped to draft Alexander II’s Great Reforms.

The younger generation, as you read, was more expressly political, taking up ideologies like populism, anarchism, and socialism. It was their ideas about peasant socialism, worker socialism, and revolutionary violence that fueled the development of Russia’s first underground political parties in the 1890s and 1900s, including the Bolsheviks. As you read, think back to Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done?” and Trotsky’s “Terror and Militarization,” which we read in Week 4. Consider which of Vera Figner’s beliefs Lenin and Trotsky share, and which ones they reject.

Another major difference between the intelligentsia of the 1860s-1880s and their predecessors was that while they were more strongly committed to action, they were also much more skeptical of the government. They didn’t want to work for the state; they wanted to overthrow it. This had a lot to do with their experience of the Great Reforms. On one hand, they saw the extent to which the Emancipation, the great hope of the previous generation, fell short of bringing justice to the peasants. On the other hand, the creation of zemstvos in the countryside and local self-governing bodies in the towns gave them a sphere for local activism, even as educational reforms brought more women and non-gentry members into their ranks, and censorship reform gave them greater access to radical intellectual trends emanating from Western Europe, particularly socialism.

I think that just about sets the stage for our discussion today. I’ll give you some biographical information on Vera Figner, as well. Figner was born in 1852 into a family of provincial nobles and was educated at a school for noble girls on the model of Catherine II’s Smolnyi Institute, which is to say, she mostly learned literature and painting and how to be a proper lady. Her family was progressive, though, and they introduced her to the values of the first wave of the intelligentsia. Figner wanted to study medicine, but women were not allowed to do that in Russia, so she moved to Zurich. There, she met a group of radical Russian students and became interested in socialism. In 1875, she returned to Russia to join Land and Freedom (which is the same as Land and Liberty). At first, she worked as a medical assistant in a village, where she tried to radicalize the peasants. But when Land and Liberty split, she joined the more radical faction, the People’s Will. That’s where our reading for today begins.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. While the political ideas of the radical intelligentsia were diverse, they are broadly categorized as populism. This is interesting to discuss in our current political climate. Today, how do we tend to define populism? How did the Russian radical intelligentsia define it? Can we construct an overarching definition that encompasses both of these tendencies?

2. As Saunders recounts, the radical intelligentsia undertook their actions in the name of “the people”—meaning workers and peasants—but “the people” didn’t always follow their lead or welcome their allyship. How did experiences like the Kazan Square workers’ demonstration and the “Going to the People” movement of the mid-1870s influence the intelligentsia to turn away from grassroots activism among the masses?

3. The intelligentsia’s reaction to these experiences took two different forms. Some chose to follow Sergei Lavrov and others chose to follow Peter Tkachev. Take a close look at these two philosophies, as Saunders describes them on pp. 329-330. How can we read them as two different “lessons” learned? Which philosophy do you find more convincing and why? Lenin was a big fan of Tkachev; which ideas of Tkachev’s are familiar from “What Is To Be Done?”?

4. Let’s turn to Vera Figner’s memoir. I’ve asked you to start with her description of Land and Freedom’s split into the Black Repartition and the Will of the People. How do the names of these two factions reflect their ideologies? How can we make sense of the name “Will of the People,” given that this organization represented a step back from direct work with the masses? How does it help us understand their self-conception?

5. On pp. 73-75, Figner explains the ideology of the Will of the People. What are their main ideas? What is required of the members of the Executive Committee? Are these expectations reasonable for people who want to lead an underground revolutionary organization? Based on this description, how does this organization compare to the Decembrists? How does it compare to the Party Lenin describes in “What Is To Be Done?”

6. One issue that sticks out here is terrorism. According to Figner, how does the Will of the People feel about terrorism? How does this view fit with their decision to assassinate Alexander II? Figner returns to the theme of revolutionary violence on pp. 116-117. How does she justify it? Does she convince you of her perspective?

7. Figner’s narration of the assassination is really exciting. How does her account—both the events themselves and the way she describes them—give us insight into why people participate in underground political activities? Can you think of any parallels today?

8.  In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the Will of the People are really hopeful for change. It doesn’t happen that way. Alexander III demonstrates immediately what a reactionary he is. But Figner still doesn’t give up hope. Make a close reading of her reasoning in the section “The Significance of the First of March,” which starts on p.110. Can you unpack her thinking here? Do you find it noble or naïve? Is there anything the government could do at this point that would quell the revolutionary movement?

9. Figner devotes a section of her memoir to describing her friend and fellow-revolutionary Sofia Perovskaya, starting on p. 103. Like Figner, Perovskaya was a child of the nobility. Saunders tells us it’s hard to explain why nobles became radicals. What insight does Figner give us on this question?

10. What role does gender play in Figner’s description of Perovskaya? What does this tell you about her intellectual framework? What does it reveal about the limits of the radical movement? What questions did and didn’t they ask themselves?

Saunders also points out that women were still a minority in the revolutionary movement. But the ones who did participate, like Figner and Perovskaya, often took quite prominent roles. Why do you think those who joined became leaders?  

Vanguard Video! Leah’s Video for The Intelligentsia I: Revolutionary Awakening (Week 10, Day 1)

Hello, Revolutionaries! This is our first video for Week 10. I apologize that I am getting it to you a bit late. Our teaching assistant today is Maggie and our subject is the first wave of the Russian intelligentsia.

Let’s start with a few announcements. Thank you for your good work on the blog these past two weeks. There are a few of you who haven’t yet made any posts. If that applies to you, then you probably got an email from me at the end of last week. If I wrote to you individually, please respond. You don’t need to do you blog posts before you write back to me. My main concern is to find out whether you are okay, or you are having difficulties. So please write back and let me know what your situation is.

Second announcement: If you are in a group that has already posted your Midterm Media Projects, then you got feedback from me over the weekend. Overall, I was blown away by the fun, creative, thoughtful projects you all put together. If you have any questions about my feedback, please let me know.

Now that we’re done with midterms and on track with remote learning, it’s already time to start thinking about your final papers. I sent out that assignment by email on Sunday, and you can find it on the course website under Assignments, too. I scaffolded this assignment into a few different steps, to make it more manageable. Your first deadline is in one week. By Sunday, April 12 at 5pm, you need to come up with a Research Question and a list of sources you plan to use in writing your paper. Remember, you should only use sources from the syllabus. That means you can dig deeper into a question we considered together in class, or you can take sources from different parts of the syllabus and put them together to think of a new question. Either way, you have a week to figure out what you want to do. You should submit your Research Question and List of Sources on Sakai. I realize the 12th is Easter. If that’s a day you will be taking off from work to celebrate the holiday, you should plan to get your work finished the day before. I will meet with each of you individually on the 13th or 14th to talk through your materials. I will create a shared document sign-up sheet, so keep an eye out for my email sharing that with you in the coming days. If you are not able to do a video meeting on Teams, you should still sign up for a meeting, but let me know your situation. We can also do your meeting by phone. If you have any questions about the final paper assignment, please let me know!

Okay, let’s get to talking about the First Wave of the Intelligentsia. As you read, the intelligentsia began to emerge in the 1820s. Last week, in discussing Pushkin, we talked about the first half of the 19th century being the Golden Age of Russian literature. In a way, we might also think of it as the Golden Age of Russian culture and intellectualism, as well. Thanks to the policies of Catherine II and Alexander I, in this era Russia had a fairly large community of educated people who were interested in discussing their beliefs about Russia’s past, present, and future in a variety of ways. They discussed these issues in person by meeting in discussion circles at each other’s houses, and they also discussed them in print by publishing essays in various journals. This educated public was still a very small percentage of the population of the Russian Empire, but it was large enough at this point to be self-sustaining.

I’ve just said that Catherine II and Alexander I deserve credit for the emergence of the intelligentsia. But we should also give credit to Nicholas I. Although he was a more conservative ruler, his policies helped to shape the intelligentsia’s development. When we talked about the Decembrists way back at the start of the semester, I noted that they took some of their inspiration from the wave of nationalism that spread across Europe in the early 19th century, spurred on by the Napoleonic Wars. Nicholas I was also very much a nationalist. In fact, he summarized his regime’s core beliefs with the slogan: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality.” By this he meant that his subjects owed their loyalty first and foremost to the thee pillars that lay at the foundation of their society and defined Imperial Russia as unique among European states: the Orthodox Church, the absolute power of the tsar, and patriotism for the Russian nation. Today, we can easily identify that this last term as problematic, because Russia was a multiethnic empire. But in Nicholas’ era, which was also the era of the first generation of the intelligentsia, everyone agreed that the Russia had a “national essence.” Where they disagreed was on the nature of that essence and how it should influence Russia’s future.

Nicholas also shaped this first generation of the intelligentsia by putting limits on them. His defeat and harsh treatment of the Decembrists made political revolution unviable for the time being. In fact, many members of the intelligentsia worked for the government and hoped to reform it from within, rather than overthrow it. And he also instituted a robust censorship regime. His Third Department controlled all publications and monitored university curriculums, and don’t forget that Nicholas himself vetted everything Pushkin produced after 1826. This censorship regime pushed the conversations among the intelligentsia into the realm of literature and history. But of course, they were always really talking about politics.

Another important piece of the puzzle is the social composition of the intelligentsia. As Saunders notes, the majority of educated Russians were still members of the gentry. But a new group was also entering the scene: children of middle class families of merchants and free peasants, people well off enough to pay for their children’s education, but who lacked titles or access to court circles. This group was known as the raznochintsy, which means “people of various ranks.” It’s an awkward term for an awkward group; they didn’t have a clear place in society. Vissarion Belinskii, whose “Letter to Gogol” you read for today, is a member of this group. Their different background gave them a different perspective on the major questions of the day and helped to keep the debates among the intelligentsia vibrant.

The most important debates among the intelligentsia in this period was the debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. We’re going to use our primary sources to unpack their differing perspectives. As you read, Kireevskii started out as a Westernizer, but became a Slavophile. The essay we’re discussing today comes from his Slavophile period. Belinskii, on the other hand, was a Westernizer, as his letter makes clear. Something to keep in mind as you read: Nicholas I didn’t appreciate the Slavophiles any more than he did the Westernizers. Rather, he saw both groups as a threat, because they both sought major changes in Russian society and governance. Both groups were liberals, though with different aims in mind.

Let’s start with some questions about chapter 6 in Saunders’ Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform.

Leah’s Discussion Questions on Saunders

1. Based on your reading of this chapter, what are the main characteristics of the intelligentsia of the 1830s-1850s? How do they compare to the Decembrists, in terms of similarities and differences? What factors enable the intelligentsia to emerge at this particular moment in Imperial Russian history? Can you identify previous Political Revolutions and Social Revolutions we’ve discussed in this class that contributed to their appearance on the scene at this particular moment?

2. One of the major ways the intelligentsia discuss their ideas is by forming discussion circles. Look though Saunders’ description of these circles on pp. 157-159. What makes these circles so significant? In what ways do they expand the intelligentsia’s horizons? In what says do they limit them?

Think back to Lyudmilla Alexeyeva’s memoir about the birth of the Soviet human rights movement during Khrushchev’s Thaw. Remember, she described the kompaniya of the 1950s and 1960s as being like the 19th century intelligentsia. Based on what you’ve read, is her assessment accurate? If so, how might we expect to see this intelligentsia of the 1840s evolve over time?

3. Saunders notes that for this first generation of the intelligentsia, the way they discussed politics was by discussing literature. How exactly did this work? How effective of a political debate can you have this way? How might such debates have shaped the development of Russian literature? Do we do a version of this today when we debate popular culture?

4. As you read, by the 1840s, the intelligentsia had divided into two camps: Slavophiles and Westernizers. In your analysis, what are the main ideas of each group? What do they have in common and where do they differ? Are they more similar or more different? Did either group (or both groups) pose a genuine political threat to Nicholas’ regime?

Now I’m going to ask you some questions about the primary sources. I gave you the option to read either Kireevskii or Belinskii, though I hope that some of you were able to read both. When you write your blog post, you can just focus on the questions that pertain to what you read.

Leah’s Discussion Questions on the Primary Sources

1. Belinskii’s Letter to Gogol. As you read, Gogol became known as a progressive social critic and a Westernizer through his novels The Inspector General and Dead Souls. Both were satires: The Inspector General made fun of corrupt bureaucracy, and Dead Souls was a takedown of serfdom. These novels made Gogol a darling of the Westernizer intelligentsia. But in 1847, Gogol published a new book disavowing Westernism and saying that everyone got him wrong. Judging from Belinskii’s “Letter,” what exactly is he so angry with Gogol for? What does he see as Gogol’s real crime? How does this help us understand the intelligentsia’s values?

2. The basic message of Gogol’s 1847 book is: You all misunderstood me. Dead Souls doesn’t mean what you think it means. Does Gogol have the right to claim the final word what his work means? Or is Belinskii’s interpretation equally valid? How do we think about these issues today?

3. The heart of Belinskii’s Letter is his declaration of a writer’s duty to society. Make a close reading of thee long paragraph in the middle of p.258. According to Belinskii, what role must a writer play in society? Do you agree with Belinskii? Do writers have a social responsibility to speak truth to power, first and foremost? Why or why not? What are the costs and benefits of placing that duty on their shoulders?

4. Belinskii and Kireevskii take very different views on the value of rational thought. Their views are most clearly expressed in two passages. For Belinskii, read p.254. For Kireevskii, read the top half of p.177. If you read only one author, how would you characterize his views on the issue of rational thought? Do you agree with his perspective? If you read both authors, how do their ideas differ? Who do you agree with more and why? Or do you think they’re both wrong? How do we think today about Kireevskii’s assertion that rationality and enlightenment make us miserable?

5. Belinskii and Kireevskii also differ on the place of religion in society. For Belinskii, read pp.255-256. For Kireevskii, read p.194. How would you characterize each of their views? How do these views prompt the two writers to look to different parts of society to lead Russia into the future? How does this help us understand the differences between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles?

According to Kireevskii in this passage, the nobility may have forgotten the Orthodox way of life, but it has lived on in the peasantry. Orthodoxy pervades and gives meaning and unity to Russian peasant life. Is Belinskii’s perspective directly opposed Kireevskii’s, or can they work together?

6. Kireevskii argues that it’s a mistake to see Russian culture as a less-developed version of European culture. Rather, it’s an entirely different culture, springing from different historical circumstances. One of the key points of his argument is that while Europe’s intellectual inheritance comes from Ancient Rome, Russia’s comes from Ancient Greece. Look over pp.183-184. For Kireevskii, what are the major values that Europe has inherited from Rome, which he condemns? Although Belinskii was a Westernizer, would he entirely disagree with Kireevskii on this point? Do you agree or disagree that these values are harmful?

7. We’ve established that Kireevskii is not a big fan of Western rationality, which he associates with Roman ways of thinking. On pp.191-193, he contrasts this with what he calls Greek, or Eastern, ways of thinking. What values does he highlight as belonging to “Greek thought”? How do they differ from his characterization of “Roman thought”? What values does he attribute to each side? Does he convince you that “Greek thought” is better? Why or why not?

It’s notable in this passage that Kireevskii references a wide variety of European philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Fiche, Schelling, and Hegel. Is he suggesting that his own education was useless? Does he want Russians to stop studying these philosophers?

8. At various points in this essay, Kireevskii tells a highly suspect version of Russian history. For example, on pp.195-197, he claims that Russia was never subject to conquest, and thus Russians live harmoniously in a way that Europeans can never achieve. This is a fantasy. He knows it, his readers knew it, and we know it today. What do you make of his historical fantasizing as a form of argumentation? Does it undermine his claims? Or is it acceptable within the boundaries of a philosophical text?

9. Kireevskii closes with a long meditation on the differences between European and Russian ways of life, as he sees it. He sums up by declaring that Russia must look to its Orthodox roots to find a new way forward, which will be better than the path Europe is on. But he has a caveat. Read the last two paragraphs on p. 207. Can you explain Kireevskii’s vision in your own words?