The two sides of oppression (?)

In the recollections of both Pasha Angelina and Ludmilla Alexeveya, getting together with groups of like-minded young people played a pivotal role in their early adulthood. Both women were about twenty when Komosol meetings and kompaniya helped solidify their respective identity. Angelina says, “…the future of our country and our own future. They were bright and limitless, and they were inseparable” (Angelina, 308). Her story goes on to show her devotion and, as other posts have noted, marked synthesis with the state.

Alexeveya’s experience is a near ideological opposite. The socio-political resolve of the members is similar, but the subversive nature of the kompaniya directs the energy of participants inward to intellectualism and individualism, though still in the name of the state. She says, “we wanted to believe that we would be able to recapture [the old intelligentsia’s] intellectual and spiritual exaltation…to lay claims to [their] values” however, “we were not interested in sacrificing ourselves for a cause” (Alexeveya, 97).

It seems like the cruelties of Soviet power had been successful in quieting resistance, though it still developed. There’s a lot of questions about the experiences of these two women, but I wonder about the relationships that tied each woman it the state: Pasha was tied to the state through labor, work in which she took pride. Ludmilla was bound by threat and resistance of the Supreme Soviet, KGB, etc. After twenty-odd years, Lumilla says, “I was ready to put my life down for the group” (Alexeveya 294). Both seem to have their lives encompassed by the state. Were both oppressed?

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Khrushchev and the Kompanii

Several weeks ago, we discussed the nature of de-Stalinization and the extent to which it constituted a legitimate period of (albeit, limited) liberalization for the Soviet Union. Although the restriction of public dissent in the wake of the Twenty-Second Congress of the Communist Party prevented a truly collective, cathartic release suggested that the strain of de-stalinization envisioned by Nikita Khrushchev and the elite of the Communist Party was little more than a political ploy, Ludmilla Alexeyeva complicates this perception in “The Thaw Generation”.

As indicated by the subtitle of her book, Alexeyeva is concerned with those individuals who grew skeptical of the Soviet state during the era of de-stalinization. In the introduction of the text, she recalls that following Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’, “Young men and women began to lose their fear of sharing views, knowledge, beliefs, questions. Every night we gathered in cramped apartments to recite poetry, read ‘unofficial’ prose, and swap stories that, taken together, yielded a realistic picture of what was going on in our country. That was the time of our awakening” (Alexeyeva, 4). This phenomenon, identified by Alexeyeva as the beginnings of Soviet Russia’s ‘dissident’ intelligentsia, seems to have only been possible due to the questioning of the state unintentionally invited by Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin.

Alexeyeva also stresses that these dissenting voices, unwittingly encouraged by the Khrushchev ‘thaw’, carry far more historical significance than they are often credited with. Although the ‘Kompanii’ themselves “emerged in a flash in the mid-1950’s, stayed vibrant for a decade, then faded away” (83), Alexeyeva nevertheless asserts that these informal associations of discontents represented the “Soviet human-rights movement in its gestation stage” (97). Said movement would persist despite the conservative backlash of the Brezhnev era, and would prove an invaluable ally to the foreign press, thereby making the domestic transgressions of the Soviet Union the subject of international censure.

The question I would pose to you all is this: Do we find Alexeyeva’s testimony regarding the emergence of an intellectual counter-culture in the post-Stalin era to be convincing and compelling? If yes, how should we alter our conceptions of the significance and nature of de-Stalinization?


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Revolutionary Quiz (Just for fun!)

Now that you’ve developed substantial expertise on revolutionary change in Russia, you may be interested in assessing your political bona fides. Have fun with this handy quiz form Arzamas Academy!

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“What is to be done” in Stalin’s Russia?

I am curious as to how one might consider Stalin’s creation of a new Communist elite a fulfillment of some of the points Lenin outlines in his 1902 pamphlet “What is to be done?” Did Lenin have in mind the creation of such a new Red elite? Does Lenin’s reluctant stance on terror come to fruition in Stalin’s 1937 terror?

I would argue that Pasha Angelina’s autobiography denotes a realization of some of the ideas conceived in Lenin’s  “All-Russian” newspaper which would help workers interpret current events and identify structural problems in Russian society. Angelina’s autobiography can only be described as such in a loose manner. Even Angelina admits that Soviet “…lives are so inextricably linked to the live of [their] state and party…” that her biography is situated within a larger, state biography, a term she herself uses on page 321. Is this not a fulfillment of Lenin’s project? The idea that a worker situates their life in the official narrative of the state/communist party seems to me the direct fulfillment of Lenin’s newspaper project. Whereas locals in Donbass only offered Angelina resistance and ridicule, the party offered her something she could relate to and get behind. I am tempted to question, then, whether Angelina’s autobiography should  be considered her own, or merely a small part of a larger biography, that of the Soviet state itself. Angelina seems to prefer the latter notion.

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What “specific qualifications” qualified Stalin’s cadres for Soviet leadership?

In “Stalin and the Making of a New Elite,” Fitzpatrick argues that Stalin believed his new cadres to have “specific qualifications that were essential for Soviet leadership.” (1992, 150). Fitzpatrick goes on to claim that Stalin’s Great Purge was a means of switching out the old cadres, who were not qualified, for the new cadres, who were qualified. The exact mechanism of this switcheroo is not my concern here, rather, I wonder about the specific qualifications that made the new more suitable than the old. Perhaps it was their proletarian background that made the new cadres qualified. Maybe their descent made them loyal to the party and hostile to the party’s enemies Maybe it was their specialized technical education that made them perfect cogs for Stalin’s rapid industrialization program. But what makes loyal, capable, and knowledgeable cadres fit for leadership specifically? What made Pasha Angelina, for example, fit to lead her tractor brigade?


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Imperialist Dreamers

It is hard to read about Russian imperialism and without comparing it to what I readily know about western European imperialism.* My sense of European imperialisation is characterized by the exploitation of primarily natural resources and secondarily, the exploitation of a native labor force. In the case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Caucus, Buskovitch says, “Commercial motives played some role in the planning, for trade with and through Iran was assumed to be a viable path to enormous profits….” and goes on to say the lack of infrastructure meant that motive was essentially fruitless (Buskovitch, 263). Bushkovitch sounds unconvinced that trade or resources played a major role in Crimean annexation, and certainly does not suggest any commercial motives in the Finnish, Jewish, or Manchurian (except maybe the railroad). I am also unconvinced that economy played a large role in these efforts. I think looking back at Potemkin’s letter to Catherine II (1780) reveals some of the spirit that guided the militaristic expansion in the late nineteenth century:

“It is your duty to exalt the glory of Russia. Look what others have acquired without opposition: France took Corsica; the Austrians, without war, took more from the Turks in Moldavia than we did. There are no powers in Europe that would not divide Asia, Africa, and America among themselves. The acquisition of the Crimea can neither strengthen nor enrich you, but it will give you security. It will be a heavy blow, to be sure, but to whom? To the Turks! a still more compelling reason for you to act. Believe me, you will acquire immortal fame ·such as no other sovereign of Russia ever had. This glory will open the way to still further and greater glory: with the Crimea will come domination of the Black Sea; it will be in your power to blockade the Turks, to feed them or to starve them.” (Cracraft, 250).

Russia’s imperial effort was social — its purpose was to pronounce dominance and superiority over people. Similar spirit is seen in the suppression of Jewish intellectual and administrative ambition. The Russian imperialism is characterized by its militant grip on the dominance of the state — the Romanov nobility.

It does not surprise me then that Bushkovitch can account for the rise of intelligentsia and populist movements brewing in the Caucus, Ukraine, and the Kazakh.


*I feel like comparing Russia’s political and militaristic moves to Europe in a very strict sense like this does some injustice to Russian history. However, the Russian ambition to emulate the showy power of western Europe complicates this, it is almost as if Russia was begging to be compared to Europe. I am still unsure if it is a decent way to assess the nature of their imperialism.

Also, for fun, here’s a painting I found that is by Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian serf that bought his freedom through his creative merit and became a vocal socialist. I found out that the painting is a direct replica of a painting by a Russian artist, Karl Bryullov, who was nearly a polar opposite of Shevchenko — of privileged birth and as an adult, an aristocrat and noble. I don’t know why Shevchenko produced this exact duplicate but I think the image is interesting.


Dream of a Grandmother and Granddaughter, ~1840. Image courtesy of the exhaustive Encyclopedia of Taras Shevchenko’s Works.

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Anti-Russian Sentiments from A Russian Count?

Tolstoy seems to be very anti-Russian in Hadji Murat. He paints the Nikolai I as an idiot who does not take religion seriously (67), which probably would have been a big deal for an early Christian Anarchist. On the other hand Tolstoy makes a point to show Hadji Murat as a devout muslim (98 and 52), unlike Shamil who views his prayers as an obligation alone (86). A lack of religious devotion is not the only way in which Tolstoy disparages the tsar, he makes a point to show that the tsar takes pleasure in terrifying people (66) and cheats on his wife, regardless of the morality of it (67).


Should we view this as an indictment of the Russian system? Did Tolstoy view Russia as a nation led by bad Christians devoid of any morals?

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Serfdom promoting economic success?

In the introduction to A Life under Russian Serfdom, Boris Gorshkov writes that Purlevskii’s understanding of freedom is not only “as the ability to pursue one or another occupation but as liberation from serfdom”(2005,19). Gorshkov is arguing that Purlevskii’s story presents a crisis though the source of such is not purely economic. He says, “[d]espite serfdom’s capacity to facilitate economic development and accommodate many of the serfs’ needs, serfdom became increasingly viewed as a social and moral evil”(2005,18). Purlevskii himself wrote that when, in 1826, he had enough money to buy his freedom he did not, “whether because serfdom did not restrain the freedom of my commerce and my access to loans, or because I could not withdraw from my business activities the money necessary for buying my freedom, I can hardly say now”(Purlevskii 2005,97). In this way, Purlevskii himself seems to at least entertain the idea that his decision to remain in serfdom when presented with the option of liberation was based on economics, not because of his economic success but because of his economic dependency.

How do we understand Gorshkov’s seeming sidelining of the economy of serfdom as a repressive force?

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Similar Reasoning between Radishchev and Catherine

The Madariaga reading seems to suggest that Empress Catherine II believed that education and free inquiry would lead people to support her absolute monarchy. She attacked vices such as “ignorance” (92), she had the power to censor books but did not use it much before the french revolution (94), and she even had French political works translated into Russian (95) which increased the audience within Russia. Radishchev seems to look at things is a similar way, even saying in “Torzhok” that “To prohibit foolishness is to encourage it. Give it free reign; everyone will see what is foolish and what is wise. What is prohibited is coveted.”

Seeing these two agree fundamentally on how information should be treated is surprising given Catherine II prosecuted him and sent him into exile. It also seems to indicate that Catherine may have become less confident in her belief that, through education, people would realize that absolute rule is what is best for Russia. Was this a reflection of her own realization, or a lack of belief in her own people being able to see the same “truth” that she saw?

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Why did Catherine prosecute Radishchev, when she herself had a plan to emancipate the serfs?

In 1783, Catherine allowed individuals to operate private printing presses, on the condition that the individuals register their press with and submit their work to the censor. According to Madariaga (1990, 98), this innovation represented Catherine’s desire “to encourage social forces to be active and show enterprise in as many fields as possible, rather than maintain state control and subsidy.” The diffusion of printing presses generated an unprecedented level of writing activity coming from the bottom-up, from noble and non-noble writers, instead of from the top-down, from the authority of the empress herself. One social force which Catherine did not encourage, was that of revolution. We see her negative disposition towards revolution in her prosecution of Radishchev and her comments on his work, Journey, which she saw as “trying in every possible way to break down respect for authority and the authorities, to stir up in the people indignation against their superiors and against the government.” (Riha 1969, 278).

Why did Catherine choose Journey as her first target? Riha introduces Journey as an “abolitionist tract” (1969, 261). Shouldn’t Catherine have been sympathetic to Radishchev’s anti-serfdom sentiments? We all know that Catherine herself had an unpublished plan of emancipation. Moreover, Madariaga mentions that Radishchev advances his ideas by the “well-known device of finding some papers which prove to contain a plan for the emancipation of the serfs.” (1990 193). If this device was well known, then published attacks on serfdom must have had precedent before Radishchev’s Journey. Indeed, Catherine herself held the real plans, while writers printed imaginary plans on state-encouraged presses. Why did Catherine crack down on Radishchev? I will make a case for her reasoning in the next paragraph.

Catherine evidently saw some existential threat in Radischev’s writings, and I think the threat comes from Radishchev’s reasoning. His account argues for human equality by natural law, and renounces all forms of slavery as unnatural and unjust, including despotism. Radishchev’s arguments not only attack serfdom, but also autocracy, which is shown to enslave its people by the same argument. Radishchev, therefore, attacks Catherine and her authority directly. We remember, of course, Catherine’s responses to Montesquieu, where she argued that autocracy was necessary to govern the Russian Empire. Catherine saw her autocratic government as necessary for the success of Russia. Radishchev, on the other hand, reasoned that Catherine’s government was unjust for the same reason that serfdom was unjust: human equality by natural law. Radishchev’s arguments, then, did undermine Catherine’s authority, even though the two felt the same about serfdom. Que the broilings of the French Revolution, Russia’s conflict with her neighbours, and the Pugachev rebellion, and Catherine’s reasons for harsh censor become apparent.

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