Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy
The exiled Russian historians Aleksandr Nekrich and Mikhail Heller, in the introduction to their book Utopia in Power, wrote that in the great wars of history, defeat for the losers has always meant more than extermination or slavery. It has meant, and means,
that the conquerors write the history of their wars; the victors take possession of the past, establish their control over the collective memory.
In the Soviet utopia, they argued, manipulation of memory in the service of power was carried to a level previously unknown to mankind. Following the formulas of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, history was rewritten in order to deprive citizens of the faculty of memory, which makes people human, and to allow those who controlled the past to do what they wished.
Their book was written in 1982. The dramatic changes that have happened since then owe much to the efforts of Russian historians such as these two to keep the national memory alive. In a tenacious guerrilla warfare against the official version of the past, they recorded testimonies, rescued documents, fought for the physical preservation of monuments, and sometimes even managed (as Nekrich did with his book on the German invasion of Russia, which appeared toward the end of the thaw) to print accounts of the recent past which questioned the wisdom of the top leaders.
These historians must find ironic satisfaction in the fact that the official Soviet press is now energetically engaged in the reconstruction of the national memory. Pravda publishing house has embarked on an ambitious project to reprint the works of previously banned Russian thinkers. Bukharin, who challenged Lenin’s and Stalin’s vision of socialism, has been rehabilitated, his works published and discussed. The official version of history as the inevitable and triumphal march to the Soviet utopia has been quietly abandoned; with encouragement from above, the Soviet intelligentsia discuss paths that were not taken but might still be open, and even alternative utopias, visions of hope in the current confusion.
This ferment of interest in history’s losers has affected Western historians of Russia as well. Steven Cohen’s book Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917 has been followed by a number of studies suggesting that the outcome of the Russian Revolution was by no means as predetermined as has been believed; that there were other strands in Russian radical thought, and in the Bolshevik party itself, which might have resulted in a more humanist form of socialism. In Russia, the search to find pointers to the future by resurrecting the past makes sense: ideas and movements have a better chance of succeeding if they are rooted in a national experience. Russian intellectuals, painfully aware of their ignorance of their own traditions, are turning to Western scholars for help (for example, Cohen’s book on Bukharin was published and was widely read in Russian translation in Moscow two years ago).
It is disturbing therefore that some of the most stimulating recent work in …