16Lecture11 min

Andrei Zorin: “Enlightenment is hard”

Historical memory and the responsibility of intellectuals

Experts: Andrei Zorin

Text expansion for the Lecture

Andrei Zorin: “Enlightenment is hard”

Historical memory and the responsibility of intellectuals

00:18 – 04:19 Which version of history won out in the new Russia?

One cannot say there was a certain idea that caught on completely. Different versions were put forth, but none clearly won out. The most popular was to deny the Bolshevik period, to claim direct continuity from the Russian Empire or the Bolshevik-ousted Provisional Government. Obviously there are practical difficulties here too. In the legal sense it’s totally impossible. Well, how? What about Poland or Finland, not to mention other things? In Communist circles the idea was that we still had the bulk of the USSR. Some broke away, the USSR remained. Some left, but there was still the USSR: that was legal continuity.

I think a certain line had gradually been worked out. It had already been put forth in perestroika, but in the ’90s people claimed that everything had always been good. The symbolic gap between the USSR and pre-1917 Russia was retracted, erased. It was all a single lineage, and I think this version won. It became, in any case, the official version.

Recently appeared the new issue of Kyiv Rus, not articulated before. Supposedly it was always one state, there was no break between Kyiv Rus and Muscovy, and no symbolic rupture between Muscovy and the Russian Empire, nor between the Empire and the USSR.

With regard to the Soviet legacy, there was an obvious workaround: the 1917 Revolution was something terrible, a break in historical continuity, but the Soviet state that was resulted was something great, we could develop it. In their time they said, “The Revolution was made by Jewish Freemasons, and therefore we will never give away its achievements to anyone.”

This ideology to restore everything wasn’t whiting out the USSR era, but symbolically rehabilitating it. “Nothing was ever destroyed.” The memory was being eradicated. The symbolic erasing out of the USSR era, the restoration of legal succession through the time it was disrupted, that saw exceptionally intense reflection. What did those 70 years happen for? What did we do, and why are we refusing that heritage?

There was an idea for the well-known Christ the Savior Cathedral, a project to make a wire frame at the full size, but just a tiny chapel inside it. It would be a symbolic memorial of the cathedral and its destruction. But the drive to forget about the destruction was always there.

When they restored the Iberian Gate, Christ the Saviour Cathedral, this making of full-size replicas meant to say that the USSR destroyed nothing. It was wonderful, and we should forget about destruction: all beautiful things that were, still remain.

04:19 – 06:13 What do we celebrate on November 4?

Of course, the idea was to set the date very carefully, to leave it around the school break, so that people don’t notice it much, so that things could be done traditionally, on a small scale. As a result, the date was wrong. The difference in the 17th century was 10 days, not 13. The holiday should have been on November 1 not the 4th. But alright, this is trivia that bothers no one.

Much more important was the symbolic content of the event. What did happen on that day? The national elites, boyars etc., who swore fealty to Prince Vladislav, were expelled from the Kremlin by the angry masses. Instead some Cossacks, militias, etc. came together. This was not what the authorities aimed to celebrate. They had other ideas in mind when they sought a date to shove into November. As a result, the holiday is stillborn symbolically.

For the radical nationalist opposition, it proved very convenient. They ran with it at once. Like always, it could be done with symbolic meaning. Giving the nationalists a special holiday was very convenient. It couldn’t be changed back: if it stops being a state holiday, the day still remains, it can be celebrated, there is already a tradition, symbolic meaning around it. The state ideologists gave a huge gift to nationalist radicals.

06:13 – 08:06 What’s going on with the terror memorial?

In the Soviet era, you couldn’t talk about the repressions. It was forbidden. It would slip out at times, but it was a no-go area. Not only can you talk about it now, people talk constantly. Official propaganda constantly mentions people were repressed.

On the other hand, this repression has become normalized: “That’s what happened to us. Yes, mistakes were made. We admit bad things were done sometimes, but it was a great country nonetheless.” This has been clearly stated, it’s the official refrain.

The aim of this official duality about Stalin, is to describe the terror, make it seem less historically unique and avoid comparison with German fascism, and say how violence has always been around, but now we – executioners and victims – must joyfully make amends, come together. “It happened. Now let’s forgive and forget”, etc.

Indeed, you can’t deny that every country has its bloody pages, internal conflicts. History is full of blood, etc. The question is really how we perceive Stalin’s terror. Do we see it as something completely beyond the pale, normal, etc., or like “Well, you know, things happen.”

This official thinking leads to this: let’s erect a statue of Dzerzhinsky and a memorial to the repressions, embrace everyone. Let’s embrace the heirs of the murdered and the heirs of their killers. It’s fine, because we are one country.

08:06 – 09:33 What do culture and science need the state for?

In the humanities, non-interference by the state is not just more beneficial, it’s the only possible situation. If the state starts to interfere, the humanities exist only in survival mode. Just as it was the whole Soviet era. I remember how I chose my own field. I wanted to study Russian cultural history for political reasons: in the USSR I knew I’d never go abroad. I couldn’t study anything outside Russia properly. There was no alternative to Russian history, I was a prisoner.

It was a rational calculation. The 20th century was out of the question, unthinkable, due to all the ideology. The 19th century was too close, Lenin was already active then. But if you go too far back, then you have problems with religion; you couldn’t study ancient Russian culture without religion, and that would be bad.

It was possible to find something in between in the 18th century. This era concerned the authorities less, they clamped down less.

09:33 – 11:18 What was or wasn’t done in culture in the 1990s, 2000s?

There was underfunding, poverty, institutional collapse. But also, institutions remaining from the USSR could not adapt to different conditions. The system that created them was too much part of their genes.

Nonetheless, things started to flourish right away, new institutions were founded, especially where not much capital was required. In capital-hungry rounds things were worse, but where little money could be invested things were much better, more interesting.

Institutions for independent culture funding did not appear. Institutions that would favor it, various institutions. A few foundations do exist, they do something for education, culture, providing support. Plus, many obvious measures needing few resources were taken. Why didn’t they abolish the system of state attestations for the sciences? This could have been done with one stroke of the pen. It is still here, it continues to stifle the sciences to this day.

A number of important cultural institutions were founded, but in each sphere one can count them on one hand. Cultural life cannot survive on just 3–4 institutions. It needs a strong base of the best, the second tier, the third, the fourth. Without this complex hierarchy of working institutions, independent culture cannot thrive.