Rethinking the Stalinist Past

Myth, Memory, Trauma
Rethinking the Stalinist Past in the Soviet Union, 1953–70
Polly Jones   Yale University Press   362pp   £45

For students of Russian history and observers of Putin’s Russia, the rehabilitation of the Stalinist past and Josef Stalin’s resurgent personal popularity is a disturbing development. Ever since Stalin’s death in March 1953, his ghost has continued to haunt contemporary Russia. Polly Jones’ brilliantly researched study of de-Stalinisation in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras provides a timely reminder of previous efforts to come to terms with Stalinism. From the mid-1950s until the late 1960s the Soviet Union attempted to confront the trauma, shame and guilt of political terror and the suffering of a brutal war. Jones argues that de-Stalinisation, although frequently imperfect, witnessed genuine attempts to work through the moral and historical complexities of Stalinism. Although a missed opportunity, it nevertheless revealed obstacles to Stalin ‘memory work’ and binary positions to the Stalinist inheritance that are still with us today.

Myth, Memory, Trauma forces the reader to rethink established truths about de-Stalinisation. It follows the complex twists and turns in the dynamics of memory, from Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ in February 1956, his famous denunciation of the Stalin cult of personality, through to the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of Stalin’s birth in December 1969. In the process we explore the increase in ideological vigilance and cautious praise for Stalin in the freeze of the late 1950s, followed in 1961 by the revival of traumatic narratives and attacks on cult symbols after the 22nd Party Conference. There was no single, clear or fixed interpretation of the Stalinist past under Khrushchev. Away from the key moments of assault, Stalin’s image was unstable, subject to inversion and repeated reassessment. Political pressures meant negotiating a course between narratives of ‘glory’ and ‘guilt’. In Brezhnev’s early years, pro-Stalinist sentiment re-emerged as Soviet culture moved away from discussion of tragedy and trauma towards a celebration of Stalin’s achievements. Only towards the end of the 1960s was a stable discourse reached, albeit one which left Stalinism as an uncomfortable and unresolved issue in collective memory.

Jones’ approach combines history and literary scholarship and draws upon an impressive palette of published and archival materials, including internal party reports, discussions about official historiography and the correspondence of writers, journal editors and readers. Jones is at her most fluent when analysing literary texts, which explored the trauma of terror and the disastrous early months of the Great Patriotic War and the reception of these texts by readers and censors. These sources move the debate from discussions of de-Stalinisation within the elite to popular reactions.

Polly Jones provides one of the most sophisticated and nuanced analyses of the complexities of de-Stalinisation currently available. The Soviet Union never entirely silenced traumatic memories, although there were strict limits in which these could be expressed. Indeed the notion that repressing difficult memories was detrimental to the collective psyche enjoyed currency in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet this idea coexisted with a countervailing feeling that introspective or ‘gloomy’ discussion of war and terror was equally damaging. Although celebration of Stalin’s modernising project and victorious military leadership triumphed in the late 1960s and currently holds the ascendancy, it is worth remembering, as this important study argues, that this outcome was by no means certain.

Robert Dale is a British Academy, Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London. 

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week