Russian history

The state, and revolution, Part II: View from a Public Square Closed to the Public

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

This is the third and final installment of “The state, and revolution,” following the introduction and “Part I: The Revolution Reshuffled.”

The new age needed only the hide of the revolution—and this was being flayed off people who were still alive. Those who then slipped into it spoke the language of the Revolution and mimicked its gestures, but their brains, lungs, livers and eyes were utterly different.

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1960), trans. Robert Chandler (2006)

Scholarly interpretations of modern revolutions used to revolve around the idea of the state as the main structure for understanding them—mostly in national, sometimes in comparative, perspective. Since the last decade of the Cold War, however, many of the revolutions, which used to be known as English, French, American, Chinese, Irish, Russian, or Cuban, have been gradually placed in a different kind of order: like Grossman’s words, they began to enter into dialogue with other post-revolutionary legacies, aligned on an imperial meridian, put on a global scale, or, on the contrary, shrunk to the space of a single house. While some of the national labels have disappeared behind inverted commas, the very idea of ‘revolution’ has recently been replaced by a new interest in civil wars and the ‘roads not taken’. Peace itself is increasingly seen as a postwar pretext for new disputes over sovereignty, and the hybrid realities of paramilitary violence are being examined in terms of their effects on mass migration. This kind of revisionism is no longer just a reaction to the supposed end of history, but arguably, the beginning of a new response to the issues we are all facing in the present.

In contrast to this academic trend, most public responses to the latest centenaries are still wrapped in national flags, or at least, in national kinds of silences. In March 2016, I was briefly in Dublin, just before the centenary of the Easter Rising. A minimal common narrative of events appeared to have emerged, as the city was preparing for a large crowd, many of them from abroad.

1 Dublin airport 2016 photo dg

A stack of books on 1916, Dublin Airport (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

2 Dublin 2016 parade announcement

Poster announcing the parade (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

Some public history projects even revived the language of revolution to establish a connection between the events of Easter 1916, modern Irish sovereignty, and other world events. In Parnell Square, a uniformed “Patrick Pearse” read aloud the 1916 Proclamation every day at midday.

In 1916, one of the buildings in Parnell Square, the Ambassador Theatre, had served as the backdrop to a famous photo marking the defeat of the Rising by the British, who posed with an inverted Irish flag, which they had captured from the Citizen Army. In 2016, an exhibition by Sinn Féin used the building to show some original objects from the revolution, and a reconstruction of Kilmainham Gaol,  where the sixteen men of the Rising had been executed.

3 Parnell Square

The Ambassador Theatre at Parnell Square (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

Visitors were encouraged to take selfies and portraits while listening to recordings of their last words, and it was particularly striking to see a mother doing a photo-shoot of her children in front of the sandbags.

4 Ambassador 2

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

What a contrast to Russia where, in April 2017, nobody was reading the April Theses aloud, neither in St. Petersburg nor in Moscow. Granted, Moscow’s Red Square was certainly not as central to the revolution as Petrograd’s Palace Square had been, but it was, still, an important site of revolutionary action in November and December of 1917. Since the Bolsheviks had transferred the capital here, channeling the older, Muscovite center of Russian power, it remained the symbol of Soviet and now post-Soviet claims to global influence. Yet the one set of events that epitomizes this universal aspiration does not suit current plans. Instead, as always at the end of April, preparations were in full swing for the celebrations of an anniversary that the government felt more comfortable with: the Victory of 1945. In April 2017, the public square was therefore routinely closed to the public.

One of the visitors to the Square that month was Richard Bourke, professor of the history of political thought and co-director of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London. He had travelled to Moscow to attend a conference at the Higher School of Economics. Bourke’s recent intellectual biography of Edmund Burke places Burke’s responses to the revolutions of his age in an imperial, transatlantic, and party political context, disentangling Burke from his later image as a rhetorician of reaction. With Ian McBride, Bourke has recently also co-edited the Princeton History of Modern Ireland, and, with Quentin Skinner, Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. I could not miss this occasion, therefore, to ask a few questions about the contrasting revolutionary legacies in Ireland and Russia, as they engage with the burden of anniversaries of 1916 and 1917.

Standing by the walls of the Kremlin, near a plaque marking the place where the eighteenth-century author Alexander Radishchev had been held prisoner before being deported to Siberia, offered a compelling setting for the discussion. The view of one-way traffic beneath the Kremlin towers, and a reference to W.B. Yeats, concludes these reflections on the politics and ethics of commemorations.

Video by Kseniya Babushkina


“Well, that is disappointing. This is my first visit, but when I arrive, it transpires that the Square is closed to the public.

Revolution as a foundation for political legitimacy—prudentially, that has to be discarded in Russia, surely; I can’t imagine the current government wanting to embrace it. Secondly, and equally challenging, there is the communist legacy itself: the attitude to capitalism and private property. Since attitudes to the original ideology have been so utterly transformed, what is there for the establishment today to take ownership of? 

For its part, Ireland is full of commemorations. So, in this case, historians tend to greet such festivities as an irresistible opportunity to publicize their views, and to generate putatively deep, manifestly more penetrating analyses than politicians can muster… whereas I think that risks ending up with a confusion of roles.

Before the Good Friday Agreement—before, that is, the current settlement of the Irish problem—commemoration had the power to rock the state. It was, in other words, a very serious thing. So, the peaceable passing of 2016 in Ireland is, from a political point of view, entirely gratifying.

The political utility of 1917—one can’t see that quite so readily at all. Hence, presumably, the reluctance to celebrate.

I see commemorations as essentially pieces of political theatre. I don’t regard directing them as the business of the historian. Presumably, in the Russian case now, a shared narrative is far more difficult to achieve by comparison with Ireland. There is a will to disavow the revolutionary legacy without that having ever been overtly articulated. On the other hand, in the recent Irish case, the Southern Irish state’s commitment to abjuring certain versions of the 1916 legacy during the thirty years of the Troubles [1968–1998] had already passed, and consequently the need for revolutionary disavowal had (as it were) already been “worked through” the polity by 2016.

With Ireland, you have to remember, in 1966—and that was just two years before the ‘reinauguration’ of the Troubles in 1968—and then over the next thirty years, the Southern state had to disown much of the legacy of 1916 for the next three decades. So, with the end of the Troubles, as a result, a certain distance between the Southern Irish state and the history of its own militancy was possible. Also, generally speaking, a mood of collaboration around a possible shared narrative emerged. There was a commitment all round to manufacturing—because these are essentially manufactured stories—to manufacturing a liberal, cosmopolitan vision: excavating the diverse roles of peoples in 1916; children in 1916; women in 1916—so a diversified picture, by comparison with the original “16 Dead Men” narrative. It was a sort of attempt to bring all parties on board: the British state could have a role, because they’d accepted all that now; Irish republicans could have a role; we could pretend that Northern Irish Protestants might have a role; we could pretend that we can fully acknowledge that the First World War at the time was a far bigger event in Irish history than 1916 had been—certainly, considerably larger numbers died. In effect, there was a mood of opening up to these diverse possibilities. Actually, it was quite a constrained vision, to be honest. But nonetheless, the self-congratulatory story was that tremendous “openness” was prospering, then and now. Having said that—having just put it critically—I was there in Ireland at the time for the centenary celebrations, and in truth I don’t think it was at all badly done. There was no inappropriate pomp: I went with my children, and it was perfectly inoffensive to be there. I am no purist: states habitually resort to such rites of passage, and it’s just a matter of coming up with productive versions of the fanfare—a conducive version of it.

There is one poem, just a single poem, which has had as large an influence on the interpretation of the events of 1916 on subsequent historiography as any other document or text—and that is, of course, W. B. Yeats’ poem of that title: ‘Easter 1916’. Many, many historical studies of the period invoke its version of what transpired. The final stanza poses a rhetorical question: Was it needless death after all? So, the poem has a provocative question at its very heart. And, in a way, that has the effect of casting doubt on the whole enterprise: it seems it was needless death, a vain exercise! That’s another way of asking: Was this whole undertaking without any positive justification? But then there’s a gear change in the poem, which amounts to proclaiming that, given the fact that a ‘terrible beauty’ has indeed been born, the national poet has no choice but to lay claim to the legacy of this martyrdom, and that’s what the author proceeds to do in the poem.

I am currently working on a book, which is on the relationship between the philosophy of history, on the one hand—that is to say, fundamental views about what drives the historical process, and its direction of travel—and, on the other hand, the effect of one’s philosophical commitment to a given vision of the kind upon one’s investment in particular historical narratives. So, basically, I am concerned with conceptions of progress, specifically the notion that history is progressing—a perspective that emerged in the eighteenth century as a basic, almost a priori assumption about historical development. I am interested in the connection between that assumption and the impulse to read events themselves as progressive or retrogressive. That amounts, in turn, to an interest in the very idea of being “on the right side of history” in the familiar sense—of deeming oneself to be making the right moral choices because these choices coincide with the overarching directionality of history. It is fascinating to reflect on how this mode of thinking about our world first emerged, and now frames our approach to the past and the future.

Despite the long shadow cast by the philosophy of history, practicing historians ought to think more multi-perspectivally about the past, and therefore in less partisan and party-driven ways. I think that’s an honorable vocation for historians, though it’s not always the one they choose.”

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

The state, and revolution: A site-specific view of centenaries. Part I: The revolution reshuffled: Statelessness and civil war in the museum

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

The introduction to “The state, and revolution” can be found here.

Museums and libraries are the kinds of places that promise to transport you to any other time or place. But some people experience their structure as a constraint on their imagination. One reaction to their static and state-centered character might be to give up on the structure of museums altogether and resort to watching films instead. It is not surprising that this medium was most successful in marking the first decade after the October Revolution—celebrating it as a leaderless movement, without an obvious protagonist and certainly no national teleology. In fact, most of today’s museums have embedded films in their displays. Yet if you want to resist path-dependent constraints in interpreting revolutions, films are hardly a solution: they are the products of fixed scripts, of a specially built set, narrative music, and so on. (October was first performed to the sound of the Marseillaise, before new tunes could be composed).

Is a museum of the revolution necessarily an oxymoron? As a type of space, most museums have the advantage of being physical sites. In such places, visitors can recognize what they thought of as ownership of the present as a mere tenancy, which places them not only in a subordinate relationship to the landlord, but also in an imaginary relationship to the previous tenants, who may even have left things behind. From then on, it is up to them how many degrees of separation they establish between themselves and this past.

The Russian Revolution exhibition at the British Library—its interior designed in the style of a grand opera set — is one example of this kind of possibility. The Communist Manifesto is placed at the entrance as a relic of one of the Library’s most famous users, yet it is as feeble a guide to the Russian Revolution as Rousseau had been to the French. If anything, the curators emphasise, the Manifesto discouraged the Communists of its time from transporting ideas of revolution to unsuitable locations like Russia. Like the gimmicky poster of a Bolshevik, it functions merely as a hook, because what you find instead of a party line is an aspect of the revolution as the product of a social process of intellectual contagion. Connoisseurs of magical realism will appreciate this opportunity to trace how the revolution as an idea “became” an event in and through the library itself. What sorts of studies in the library collections led Lenin, who, between 1902 and 1911 identified himself to the library as Jacob Richter, supposedly a German subject of the Russian empire, to call for a revolution in Russia six years later under the more ubiquitous pseudonym of Lenin? For Marx, contemplation itself had been a kind of action, since he preferred a Victorian library to the barricades of Paris. But where did Marx’s theories of how to “change the world” connect to the Bolshevik practices of terror and violence? The exhibition hints at the unlikely friendship between the Victorian library curator Richard Garnett, Dostoyevsky’s first English translator, Constance Garnett (his daughter-in-law), and the exiled Popular Will activist Sergei Stepnyak. Without connections like this, would Lenin have found sufficient reading material on “the land question”?

Finally, how did readers decide where to change the world? Ideas did not just migrate from book to book in a Republic of Letters, nor were they confined to their author’s “home” states. In a postwar world governed by new frontiers, visas, and immigration detention centres, it was the librarians who mattered. In the twentieth century, you are more likely to find a folio edition of counter-revolutionary thoughts than a revolutionary manifesto, but the exiled socialists made sure that ephemeral pamphlets also got collected. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had been a librarian in St Petersburg before the 1905 revolution, working together with Nikolai Roubakine, who is introduced in this exhibition only as a social statistician of the late Russian empire. As an exiled revolutionary of 1905, Roubakine had started a new library in Switzerland, which also supplied Lenin with reading material during this time of his exile.

Instead of a state withering away, the visitor is confronted with the notion of a civil war that is only “Russian”  in inverted commas. The protracted statelessness of the “white émigré” exiles in the West coexisted alongside a Bolshevik-run Soviet apparatus in the East, which was eventually signed out of existence in a Byelorussian forest with the Belavezha agreement of 1991, as Katie McElvaney reminds us in her timeline. At the end of the magic, there is also the reality of censorship. Apparently, in 1922, a British library consultant concluded that some materials calling for revolution beyond Russia were not “desirable to be released to readers.” We may not know if the Library caused this or any other revolution, but we can certainly see that it had tried not to cause it.

To get away from issues of representation to the memory of revolutionary action, however, I had to travel further, to Finland, where, in March 2017, Tampere University had organized a conference called “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919.” Like many attendees, I was struck by the range of new insights into the Revolution that Russia’s former periphery offers, through the transnational perspective of the First World War in the work of Richard Bessel, and the concept of civil war as contextualized by Bill Kissane. Formerly an underdeveloped outpost of the Russian Empire, Finland had risen to the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy by the time of the Revolution. As such, it was the first post-imperial polity to gain sovereignty from the Russian empire, by Lenin’s decree—and to keep it, for the most part.

In the summer of 1917, Lenin was in Tampere as he worked on The State and Revolution. Eleven years before that, he had his first fateful encounter with Stalin here. The site of their encounter, a former Workers Hall, is the space for a newly redesigned Lenin Museum, which first opened here in 1946, under the close watch of Soviet authorities—one of the more visible effects of what is now called “Finlandization.” Its new curators have resorted to a combination between history and humor to tell the story:

Reproduced with kind permission from the Lenin Museum,

The rest of the Lenin Museum has little to do with Lenin, and more to do with the history of Finnish democracy and the vicissitudes of European integration, after decades of civil war, partial Soviet occupation, and collaboration with National Socialism, before the gradual emergence of a Finnish brand of Social Democracy.

Seeing the city itself, surrounded by its stunning landscape, also offers other opportunities to reflect on how ideas might relate to the places in which they are formulated. How could this ethereally calming landscape inspire someone to work on a book called The State and Revolution? Could Lenin have instead become a twentieth-century Lake Poet?

9 Tampere Lake 1

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

10 Tampere Lake 2

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

11 Tampere Lake 3

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

As I walked through a working-class neighborhood of today’s Tampere, I noticed that its outer lake was still frozen, so I borrowed some skates to have a final look at the skyline: two days, two seasons. Lenin, of course, had missed the Finnish ice-skating season, with the revolution gaining speed in Petrograd just as the ice had begun to thicken. I thought about the remarkable contrast between the long-term outcomes of the revolution for Finland and for Ukraine—another imperial province, but with a much shorter history of post-imperial sovereignty, and an incomparably higher death toll in the twentieth century. This is a complex issue for historians, and one which, perhaps, will always call for the assistance of a writer like Vassily Grossman.

In the Labor Museum, a three-year long exhibition (2014–17) marks the cultural memory of the revolution of 1917 from the perspective of the Finnish Civil War of 1918, which the exhibition laconically identifies to its visitors as “a short, but traumatic and sorrowful period.” This exhibition is a unique, if slightly quixotic, place. The visitor will look in vain for any kind of partisanship here, with the Reds or the Whites, the Russians or the Finns, workers, peasants, or bystanders. What they see is a memorial to civil violence, a focus on human experience. It is challenging to try to capture a war inside the walls of a museum, but Tampere has clearly learned from commemorative practice in France and other countries, with their focus on reconciliation. The site of the museum belongs to one of the largest cotton weaving halls in the Nordic countries, Finlayson & Compagnie, a focus of socialist mobilization in 1917. The last Finnish factories were closed in 1995, but the company continues selling its products in Europe. Founded by the Scottish industrialist James Finlayson, it is also a reminder that a civil war always has not just local and imperial, but also trans-imperial dimensions. At the museum, I met social historian Richard Bessel, a first-time visitor to the city, and social theorist Rebecca Boden, who has recently moved there.

Rebecca Boden is a professor of critical management. She is interested in the effects of regimes of accounting and management on sites of knowledge creation, and the relationship between individuals and the state. She recently joined the University of Tampere as the Director of Research of the New Social Research Centre. Professor Boden also attended the conference “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” held at the University of Tampere in March 2017.

I’ve never lived in this part of the world, and as a British person, I know very little about it. So what strikes me is how little people brought up and educated in Britain know about Central and Eastern Europe. I’ve felt ashamed about some of the questions I’ve had to ask about the Finnish Civil War, in terms of understanding this part of the world. And I suspect, during my upbringing, it was during the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, so Central and Eastern Europe as very much an unknown quantity to people in the West.

What’s interesting to me is, in Britain, you’ve got a reversal of trends in history. There is greater and greater interest in British history, especially British imperial history, and that becomes dangerously xenophobic, and insular, and parochial. And I think the thing for Finland is—and I can say this as an outsider, they never would, because they are quite humble, quiet, understated sort of people generally—Finland has so many interesting things about it, it is such an interesting geopolitical space, it achieved so much so well, that I am urging people to get to know the Finnish story quite urgently.

A lot of the quiet places—very far from anywhere, on the periphery, small population, very thinly spread—they have to move themselves to make themselves heard.  All the isomorphic tendencies, policies and practices and cultures tend to move in the other direction. And it would be quite good to have the quiet places listened to. But part of it is, the quiet places have to find their voice. And that’s partly what I am doing, helping Finland to find their voice and engage with the outside world in a really proactive kind of way.

Richard Bessel is professor of twentieth-century history at the University of York. He works on the social and political history of modern Germany, the aftermath of the two World Wars, and the history of policing, and is currently co-editing, with Dorothee Wierling, Inside World War One? The First World War and its Witnesses (Oxford University Press, 2018). In March 2017, he travelled to Finland to attend the conference on “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” at which he delivered a keynote lecture.

I’ve never been to Finland, and it’s just a really interesting place to come to. And I thought it would be an interesting intellectual challenge to try to think about revolution and its relationship to the First World War, if not globally, certainly focusing more on Eastern Europe rather than on Western Europe.

I am finding Tampere very interesting, and … this is my first time in Finland! To be in a city which, as we see here, had such a fundamentally different history, with violence right in the middle of it. The differences, I just hadn’t thought about the differences to that extent. What in many ways looks and feels similar to Sweden, but then you scratch the surface, and you realize it’s not. And that surprised me, I hadn’t really quite expected that.

As I get older, it becomes more important both to me and also to colleagues: we talk about our families a lot. When I was younger, I wouldn’t do that professionally. When I was younger, we wrote history in the third person, and now we use the first person.

I’ve just been working through a book, an edited collection on ego-documents of the First World War, with a colleague of mine, which is also very much about the East and the South.

There is one question that I always wanted to get it on an exam, but nobody would allow me to do it. And the question is: when did the twentieth century begin?

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

How Victory Day became Russia’s most important Holiday

by guest contributor Agnieszka Smelkowska

At first, Russian TV surprises and disappoints with its conventional appearance.  A mixture of entertainment and news competes for viewers’ attention, logos flash across the screen, and pundits shuffle their notes, ready to pounce on any topic. However, the tightly controlled news cycle, the flattering coverage of President Vladimir Putin, and a steady indignation over Ukrainian politics serve as reminders that not all is well. Reporters without Borders, an international watchdog that annually ranks 180 states according to its freedom of press index, this year assigned Russia to a dismal 148th position. While a number of independent print and digital outlets persevere, television has been largely brought under state control. And precisely because of these circumstances, television programming tends to reflect priorities and concerns of the current administration. When an ankle sprain turned me into a reluctant consumer of state programming for nearly three weeks, I realized that despite various social and economic challenges, the Russian government remains preoccupied with the Soviet victory in WWII.

Celebrated on May 9th, Victory Day—or Den Pobedy (День Победы) as it is known in

Ivan's Childhood

Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962)—the child protagonist encounters the reality of war.

Russia—marks the official capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945 and is traditionally celebrated with a military parade on the Red Square. During the few weeks preceding the holiday, parade rehearsals regularly shut down parts of Moscow while normal programming gives way to a tapestry of war-related films. The former adds another challenge to navigating the already traffic-heavy city; the latter, however, provides a welcome opportunity to experience some of the most distinguished works of Soviet cinematography. Soviet directors, many veterans themselves, resisted simplistic war narratives and instead focused on capturing human stories against the historical background of violence. Films like Mikhail Kalatozov’s Cranes are Flying (1957), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) or Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are widely recognized for their emotional depth, maturity and an uncompromising depiction of the consequences of war. Unfortunately, these Soviet classics share the silver screen with newer Russian productions in the form of Hollywood-style action flicks or heavy-handed propaganda pieces that barely graze the surface of the historical events they claim to depict.

The 2016 adaptation of the iconic Panfilovtsy story exemplifies the problematic handling of historical material. The movie is based on an article published in a war-time Soviet newspaper, which describes how a division of 28 soldiers under the command of Ivan Panfilov distinguished itself during the defense of Moscow in late 1941. The poorly armed soldiers who came from various Soviet Republics managed to disable eighteen German tanks but were all killed in the process. The 1948 investigation, prompted by an unexpected appearance by some of these allegedly dead heroes, exposed the story as a journalist exaggeration, designed to reassure and inspire the country with tales of bravery and an ultimate sacrifice. Classified, the report remained unknown until 2015 when Sergei Mironenko, at the time director of state archives, used its findings to push against the mythologization of Panfilov and his men, which he saw as a sign of increasing politicization of the past. His action provoked severe, public scolding from the Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky that eventually cost Mironenko his job, while Panfilov’s 28 (2016) was shown during this year’s Victory Day celebration.

Panfilov's 28.jpeg

Panfilov’s 28 (2016): Soviet heroism in modern Russian cinematography.

Many western commentators have already noted the significance of Victory Day, including Neil MacFarquhar, who believes that President Putin intentionally turned it into the “most important holiday of the year.” The scale of celebration seems commensurate with this rhetorical status and provides an impressive background for a presidential address. The most recent parade consisted of approximately ten thousand soldiers and over a hundred military vehicles—from the T-34, the venerable Soviet tank to the recently-developed Tor missile system, which can perform in arctic conditions. Predictably the Russian coverage differs from that presented in the western media. The stress does not fall on the parade or President Putin’s speech alone but extends to the subsequent march of veterans and their descendants, emphasizing the continuation between past and present. The broadcast of the celebration, which can be watched anywhere between the adjacent to Poland Kaliningrad Oblast and Cape Dezhnev only fifty miles east of Alaska, draws a connection between Russia’s current might and the Soviet victory in the war. Yet May 9th did not always hold its current status and only gradually became the cornerstone of modern Russian identity.

While in 1945 Joseph Stalin insisted on celebrating the victory with a parade on the Red Square, the holiday itself failed to take root in the Soviet calendar as the country strived for normalcy. The new leader Nikita Khrushchev discontinued some of the most punitive policies associated with Stalinism and promised his people peace, progress, and prosperity. The war receded into the background as the Soviet Union put a man into space while attempting to put every family into its own apartment. Only after twenty years was the Victory Day officially reinstated by Leonid Brezhnev and observed with a moment of silence on state TV. Brezhnev also approved the creation of a new Moscow memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in the war—a sign that Soviet history had taken a more

Tomb of unknown soldier image copy

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Aleksandrovsky Sad, Moscow – Russia, 2013. (Photo credit: Ana Paula Hirama/flickr)

solemn turn. Known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Могила Неизвестного Солдата), a bronze sculpture of a soldier’s helmet resting on a war banner with a hammer and sickle finial pointing towards the viewer symbolizes the massive casualties of the Soviet Union, many of whom were never identified. Keeping an exact list of the dead was not always feasible as the Red Army fought the Wehrmacht forces for four years before taking Berlin in April of 1945. Historians estimate that the Soviet Union lost approximately twenty million citizens—the largest absolute (if not proportional) human loss of any state involved in WWII. For this reason, in Russia and many former Soviet republics the 1941-1945 war is properly known as the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная Война).

The victory over Nazi Germany, earned with a remarkable national sacrifice, was a shining moment in otherwise troubled Soviet history and a logical choice for the Russian Federation, a successor state of the Soviet Union, to anchor its post-ideological identity. Yet the current Russian government, which carefully manages the celebration, cannot claim credit for the popularity that the day enjoys among regular people. Many Russian veterans welcome an opportunity to remember the victory and their descendants come out on their own volition to celebrate their grandparents’ generation. This popular participation has underpinned the holiday since 1945. Before Brezhnev’s intervention, veterans would congregate informally and quietly to celebrate the victory and commemorate their fallen comrades. Today, as this war-time generation is leaving the historical stage, their children and grandchildren march across Moscow carrying portraits of their loved ones who fought in the war, forming what is known as the Immortal Regiment (Бессмертный полк). And the marches are increasingly spilling into other locations—both in Russia and worldwide. This year these processions took place in over fifty countries with a significant Russian diaspora, including Western Europe and North America.

Immortal regiment photo

The Immortal Regiment in London, 2017. (Photo credit: Gerry Popplestone/flickr)

This very personal, emotional dimension of the Victory Day has been often overlooked in western coverage, which reduces the event to a sinister political theater and a manifestation of military strength.  The holiday is used to generate a new brand of modern Russian patriotism precisely because it already resonates with the Russian public. People march to uphold the memory of their relatives regardless of their feelings towards the current administration, views on the annexation of Crimea, or attitude towards NATO. Although this level of filial piety can be manipulated, my Russian friends seem to understand when the government tries to capitalize on these feelings. Mikhail, my Airbnb host, who belongs to the new Russian middle class, and who few years ago carried a portrait of his grandfather during the Victory Day celebration, remarked that the government attached itself like a “parasite” to the Immortal Regiment phenomenon because of its popularity. The recent clash over the veracity of the Panfilovtsy story also given many Russians a more nuanced understanding of their history even as some enjoyed the movie’s action sequences. Additionally, the 1948 investigative report that Mironenko had posted online, remains accessible on the website of the archive.
At the same time, many Russians are genuinely frustrated with what they perceive as the western ignorance of their elders’ sacrifices or what seems to them like the Ukrainian attempt to rewrite the script of the Victory Day. In this respect, they are inadvertently playing to their government’s line. This interaction between the political and the personal, family history and national narrative occurs in every society but in Russia seems particularly explicit because the fall of the Soviet Union shattered Soviet identity, creating an urgent need for a new one. While the current administration is eager to supply the new formula, based on my recent experience in Moscow, Russian citizens are still negotiating.

Agnieszka Smelkowska is a Ph.D candidate in the History Department at UC Berkeley, where she is completing a dissertation about the German minority in Poland and the Soviet Union while attempting to execute a perfect Passata Sotto in her spare time.

Sovereignty Without Borders: Discussing Afghanistan’s Cold War History with Timothy Nunan

Interview conducted by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

Timothy Nunan’s recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (2016), sets global Cold War history on an Afghan stage. It is not, however, the familiar story of the decade-long war between the country’s Soviet-backed communist government and the U.S.-backed Islamic mujahidin. In this account, foreign visions for Afghanistan clash instead in the cedar forests of Paktia, the refugee camps of an imagined Pashtunistan, and the gas fields of Turkestan.

This is an Afghanistan of aid workers and technocrats. While American modernizers and European humanitarians play important roles, Nunan foregrounds Soviet development experts and their protracted attempt to fashion a successful socialist nation to the south. Afghanistan was a canvas across which these different foreign actors sketched out their aspirations for postcolonial states. But modernization, socialism, and humanitarianism all foundered on conceptual errors about the nature of Afghan territory, errors whose consequences were often devastating for Afghans.


Cambridge University Press, 2016

When we follow the misadventures of development projects in Afghanistan, a second salient story emerges: the rise and fall on both sides of the Iron Curtain of a certain romance with the idea of the Third World nation-state. By the late 1970s, foreigners’ disillusionment with their attempts to mold Afghanistan resulted in the inversion of international mechanisms once designed to promote postcolonial sovereignty. Countries like Afghanistan were suddenly put on trial, exposed, and shown to be unjust.

In providing a nuanced look into shifting sites of postcolonial sovereignty, Nunan’s account of scholars, engineers, militants, murderous border guards, and traumatized orphans highlights the importance of juxtaposing histories of ideas with the real encounters that unsettle them.

JHI: How did you come to this project? Did you hope to revise popular misconceptions about the history of Afghanistan?

TN: Clearly, concerns about the ethics of humanitarian invention and the prospects of building a “functional state” in Afghanistan reflect what was going on while I was writing the book. But I did not sit down intending to write a history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, or Afghanistan at all. I came to this topic from the north – from the Soviet Union and the study of Soviet Central Asia. I originally thought I would write on the thaw in the 1950s and 1960s in Soviet Central Asia, to look differently at a story usually centered on Russia. However, when I arrived at the archives in Moscow and, later, Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) many of the files I discovered from the 1950s were wooden and bureaucratic. I struggled to think of how I could turn this archival material into a manuscript that would speak to broader concerns.

But in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, I found, for example, the long transcript of a conference in Moscow in 1982 to which Afghan socialist feminists were invited to talk about what a real women’s movement would look like in Afghanistan under conditions of socialist revolution. As I spent more time on Afghanistan, I became aware of the files of Komsomol (Soviet Youth League) advisors, which took me down to the village level. Quickly, I found myself being able to write a certain version of the history of Kandahar or Jalalabad in the 1980s, which seemed much more exciting and current.

JHI: In the first chapter, “How to Write the History of Afghanistan,” you map out in fascinating detail the epistemological framework of the Soviet area studies and development studies apparatus that facilitated, but also was at times in friction with actual Soviet development projects. As you point out, Soviet Orientology developed alongside anti-Western-imperialism, not as an accomplice of it – a hole in Edward Said’s map of Orientalism.

Today, the unipolarity of scholarship is striking and the Soviet knowledge apparatus has largely been forgotten. What happened to this alternative body of expertise with the fall of the Soviet Union? Do we see parallels emerging today that could challenge Euro-American hegemony over the narration of the history of the Third World?

TN: Soviet Orientology was very different from how graduate students [in Western Europe and North America] are trained to think about Orientalism. Anouar Abdel-Malek, the author of the entry on Orientalism in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, was an Egyptian Coptic Marxist who came out of the same social background as Edward Said. But rather than challenging the Soviet Orientalist establishment, as Said did in the U.S. context, he was embedded in it.

Alfrid Bustanov, Masha Kirasirova, and others are doing outstanding work on how Russian and Soviet Orientological traditions affected nationalisms inside and outside the USSR, but there is still an enormous amount of Soviet scholarly engagement we don’t know much about.

The question of what happened afterward is a very good one, especially as we ponder what might come after this moment and the problems with the global history approach. Within the former Soviet space, after 1991, institutions of Soviet Orientology suffered from significant funding shortages and positions were cut, and many of the people I interviewed felt embattled.

I spend a lot of time reading mujahidin publications from the 1980s, mostly in Persian, and even when these journals translate works of propaganda written by Saudi scholars, they cite Russian orientalists such as Vasily Bartold. The Soviet Orientological tradition appears to have been received, processed, and understood by actors working in the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world. In Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria – places that were strongly aligned with the Soviet Union – there were academies of sciences that employed dozens of people. What was it like to be a member of one of these institutions in Syria after 1970, or in Afghanistan after 1955, or 1978 or 1979? These are important stories that I was only able to gloss in Humanitarian Invasion, but which I hope future works will elucidate.


Timothy Nunan

JHI: Some of the most interesting sources you use are interviews with these Soviet Orientologists who worked in and studied Afghanistan, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you track down these scholars, and how do you deploy their stories in the book?

TN: I wanted to access Soviet subjectivity of experiences in Afghanistan beyond the archive. What did Soviet Uzbeks and Tajiks think about Afghanistan? Did they suddenly convert to Wahhabism? Did they feel some special bond with Afghans?

The interviews would have been impossible without a yearbook that Komsomol advisors had produced about themselves around 2006. When I arrived in Dushanbe in summer 2013, I started Yandex-ing [Russian Googling] these people to find out where they were. One person responded and that led to more introductions. Their networks ran all the way from Kiev to the border of Afghanistan, and I was able to travel widely around the former Soviet Union to interview many of them. By talking with these people I identified figures and turning points that distilled the themes they themselves emphasized.

JHI: In your introduction, you write that you hope to cast Afghanistan not as the “graveyard of empires,” as it has often been known, but as the “graveyard of the Third World nation-state.” Just as the former has more to do with the foreign empires than with Afghanistan itself, the latter speaks to the idea of the Third World nation-state as it was championed by foreign actors and transnational bodies – and their eventual disillusionment with it. Could you elaborate on the life and death of the international romance with the Third World nation-state? What role did Afghanistan play in shaping it?

TN: Afghanistan gained its independence from the British Empire in 1919, and the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize it. But what did this recognition mean? From 1914 to 1945, countries could become independent, but in many cases didn’t have the geopolitical wherewithal to make this sovereignty meaningful. Furthermore, there was no significant international forum not already dominated by the imperial powers. This changed after 1945 and especially after 1960, when not only did independent nation-states have a forum, the United Nations, in which they could gain representation, but there were also new rules within that international organization that allowed them to effect a certain kind of power not commensurate with their GDP or whether or not they had nuclear weapons. We might point to 1960 as a turning point, when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly affirms the independence of colonized people as a human right, and when “civilization” is erased as a criterion for admission into the United Nations.

This lack of commensurability between sovereignty at the United Nations and geopolitical heft began to have real effects on international society. Throughout the mid-1960s and especially from the 1970s onward, many Third World nation-states, including Afghanistan and often sponsored by the Soviet Union, began to realize that they could sponsor resolutions against Israel, the Portuguese empire, apartheid South Africa – and attempt to delegitimize entire states’ right to exist. By the mid-1970s, in addition to this power, however symbolic, at the United Nations, nations were taking control of their destinies with armed force. Broadly speaking, if you had enough Soviet or Chinese weapons, you could push back the imperialists and eventually gain enough power at the level of international organizations to delegitimize groups that disagreed with you.

However, Afghanistan was one of the turning points against this mood, starting in the late 1970s. European actors became disillusioned with this Third World nation-state form through events like the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the late 1970s, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Often, post-colonial sovereignty seemed more like an excuse to murder ethnic minorities and political dissidents than to realize a vision of freedom. Arguably, China’s post-1970s Chinese détente with the United States was a factor, as well. Leftists saw that China no longer offered a viable vision of revolution, but was just a lackey of American finance capital and imperialism. Many of the intellectuals who went on to found humanitarian NGOs had lost faith in the USSR as a revolutionary force since the Prague Spring, or, at the very latest, the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

In short, by the late 1970s, these East Asian and Southeast Asian fantasies of the future were discredited. One place these groups turned was humanitarian action, rather than the Third World nation-state, as a new form of political organization. But the old tools of delegitimization and Third World politics were applied in reverse to places like Afghanistan. Forums pioneered for use against Israel or South Africa, such as the UN Special Rapporteur and human rights investigations, were flipped. It was suddenly no longer the oppression of black Africans or Palestinians qua colonized subjects but rather the oppression of Afghans qua humans under a Third World socialist regime that constituted the supreme crime within international society. The reversal of this Third World logic onto Third World nations is one of the key themes of the book.

JHI: One of the overarching themes of the book is sovereignty: sovereignty as it was imagined and sovereignty as it was performed. Could you flesh out for us some of the major disjunctions between the ways different foreign actors, as well as Afghan politicians, conceptualized Afghan sovereignty, and acts of sovereignty that were carried out on the ground?

TN: The Afghan government was extremely ambitious in claiming that other countries were parts of it, yet was very weakly territorialized. From 1947 onward, when Pakistan is formed, Afghanistan does not recognize its own entire eastern border. One official Afghan government map has a disclaimer on it saying “this map was composed in great haste and none of the information on it should be taken to be reliable.” There’s an odd mix of hyper-ambition and total insecurity. The indeterminacy of the border also creates catastrophic consequences for people living around it.

In the 1980s, Soviet border guards extend the Soviet border regime hundreds of kilometers inside Afghanistan, and murder Afghans within Afghanistan’s borders. Children are another interesting lens. On one hand, the Soviet Union says that children are the future of the nation and need to be educated and mobilized as symbols of the nation’s future. Orphans, especially, are taken to the Soviet Union. From the Soviet Union’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with this. Insofar as states have a right to exist and defend their borders, it then follows that the state has a right to mobilize its citizens–men, in particular–to defend those borders and weave protection of the state with the citizen’s life-cycle.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, humanitarian actors like Amnesty International become concerned with children having the right to a nationality and the right not to be trafficked out of the nation-state of their birth. And yet, those deploying this humanitarian logic, who are often concerned with diagnosing children as traumatized, have no problem taking the children out of their familiar contexts to receive medical treatment. Here we see two different logics of what the Third World nation-state project is supposed to be about: the solution for creating a national future, or the problem causing people to be traumatized for life.

Nunan Image JHI Blog.jpg

Prior to Afghanistan becoming a battleground between the Soviet Union, the Afghan mujahidin, and the European NGOs embedded among them, it was famous for being an ‘economic Korea’ where Western powers competed with the Soviet Union to offer more effective forms of aid to Kabul. Pictured here is an exhibition for a West German-managed agricultural and forestry project in eastern Afghanistan, the Paktia Development Authority. Photograph courtesy of Christoph Häselbarth

JHI: We’re in a moment of deep suspicion not only toward internationalism, but also toward humanitarianism. In this context, a particularly timely thread of the book traces how states, Leftist activists, and eventually NGO workers envisioned social justice and moral responsibility toward distant people in need. What is the landscape of conviction in Humanitarian Invasion? Where does it intersect with expertise, on one hand, and geopolitical strategy on the other?

TN: While I see the humanitarian groups that I look at most closely – Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) – as entangled in this geopolitical game, I don’t view them as having had nefarious intentions. Many of the groups that enter the Afghan theater via Pakistan in the 1980s initially try to stay very distant from a geopolitical focus. But there are different trajectories that these groups follow, with the Swedes trying to adopt a more consistent anti-imperialism and the French flirting with explicit engagement in politics.

Regardless of specific anti-imperialist or anti-totalitarian politics, new regimes of intervention are created from the late 1970s onward. Rather than saying, “OK, the Afghans or Cambodians have had their socialist revolution, now they should finally be free from foreign interference,” NGOs embed themselves in trans-border resistance movements that reframe those Third World citizens as subjects of new internationals regimes of governance. NGOs are able to diagnose Afghans as traumatized or suffering from disease, and this becomes grounds for further intervention, or shipment of supplies into a country without consulting its government. Over time, this contributes to a shift in which the dominant optic employed when engaging with Third World populations is not so much that of the guerrilla fighter but of the traumatized individual, the wounded girl. This reframing wasn’t intentionally nefarious, but did reframe subaltern actors as non-political.

There is a strange boomerang effect to all of this. In the 1980s, identifying trauma or certain types of wounds became a carte blanche for aiding armed insurrections in Third World countries–as in the case of Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. Today, however, as scholars like Miriam Ticktin have shown, refugees have to demonstrate exactly these kinds of wounds in order to gain the right to stay in European countries. In both cases, a discourse centered around individual, often corporeal trauma became the litmus test for whether states could maintain control of their borders, but a procedure that once allowed Europeans to insert themselves into Afghanistan now allows Afghans and others to claim a (marginal) space in European settings. Pushing back, governments like Germany have sought to classify entire countries, and specific provinces of Afghanistan, as “safe countries of origin” or “safe zones” from which it becomes procedurally impossible to file such an asylum claim. The boomerang, then, is that Europeans are grappling with these humanitarian claims in an obviously political way, even as the turn toward humanitarianism was itself motivated by an exhaustion with traditional left-right politics in the first place.

JHI: So the Soviets, while pursuing a parallel project, never really bought into the humanitarian discourse?

TN: Yes, though this does not mean they lacked something. The Soviets had a strong interest in childhood as a stage of life that is political and is protected, not, as we would put it, a stage of life that is protected and therefore should not be political.

Russian critiques of the creation of humanitarian protectorates in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Libya and Afghanistan hold that humanitarian action without a strong central state is nonsense. Syria is the most dramatic instance of where these impulses are contrasting again. The Russian government claims that Syria is a sovereign member state of the United Nations that has invited Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (not a state) to aid it in an act of collective self-defense—something permitted under the United Nations charter. Russia also provides humanitarian aid to government-held areas in Syria through its Ministry of Defense. In contrast, Russian diplomats would argue, Western media have conspired with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to portray the jihad against Damascus exclusively in terms of traumatized children, the destruction of Aleppo, and so on. Now as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the tension has to do with the legitimacy of post-colonial states and reading the Syrian people’s aspirations not solely in terms of geopolitics or trauma.

JHI: Humanitarian Invasion gives an account of global actors making decisions with global repercussions, but it is at the same time firmly grounded in a particular place. So, where do you see global history heading as a field, and where does this book fit? What are the potential risks of global history?

TN: Obviously, Humanitarian Invasion is not a history of the world or of every place in the world. Rather, the book’s central concern is shifting meanings of postcolonial sovereignty during the Cold War. The Afghan-Pakistan borderlands form a particularly rich location to examine how this idea of the Third World nation-state was changing over time, precisely because so many different actors brought their own conceptual baggage to it. I would welcome anyone who wants to write a history of the Cambodian-Thai borderlands or, indeed, much of Ethiopia during the 1980s. MSF, in fact, had a larger presence in the Cambodian-Thai theater than in the Afghan one, and it would be fascinating to understand what difference it makes when these NGOs are collaborating against the Vietnamese, who had been their heroes only a decade before.

Yet as historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have pointed out, the intensive language training and multi-archive projects of many global historians depend on the extensive resources that only wealthy American and Western European universities possess. One way we can correct this imbalance, learn from colleagues in other countries, and maintain a spirit of humility about our work is to remember, even while working on so-called global themes, that events are still taking place in actual places with local histories, and never to insist on a hierarchy in which NGO actors are more important than national stories.

For example, writing Humanitarian Invasion, I was not able to explore as much as I would like how Afghans themselves changed their political language to respond to the surge in humanitarian ideas (and funding streams) that emerged in the 1980s. I would have liked to probe more how much the massive changes in the 1980s actually affect the ways Afghans talk about politics and what they expect from an Afghan state, what needs they expect to be met by international organizations. How ideas and discourses are transmitted from North to South or South to North is a major interest for global historians today, and that’s an area where “local” scholars with a knowledge of Pashto and a deeper knowledge of regional political thought would be a great contribution.

JHI: What is your current project, and how did it evolve from Humanitarian Invasion?

TN: I would have liked to consider, more seriously, Afghan socialists as thinkers. What did socialism actually mean to them? How did they, on the front line of an Afghan national jihad and the emerging global jihadist movement, understand political Islam? The current project looks at how socialists in the Soviet Union and allied left-wing groups such as the Afghan Communists and Iranian Tudeh Party understood political Islam or Pan-Islamism, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamists took violent control of states in the 1980s.

In 1914, the Russian orientalist Vasily Bartold writes that Pan-Islamism is totally bogus, that it’s a political program created by the Ottomans with German support. Fast-forward 60 or 70 years, and there’s enormous anxiety about Islam not only destabilizing client states such as Afghanistan or Syria, but also infiltrating the Soviet Union itself. I was shocked to discover a 1983 publication by an Adjarian nationalist from southwest Georgia describing Muslims as “something that crawled out of a trash heap, who need to be weeded out of our garden” – things you expect to hear from Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, or Steve Bannon today. I became really interested in how the Soviet Union and Russian scholars go from viewing Pan-Islamism as a potential ally in fomenting an anti-Western and anti-colonial global front, to viewing Muslims and Pan-Islamism as inherently opposed to the interests of the Soviet Union. In doing so, I hope to provide a unique perspective on contemporary concerns about the threat, real or imagined, of Muslim unity and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.

The editors wish to thank Timothy Nunan for his graciousness in granting this interview.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at


The Brain-for-Itself: Soviet Psychoneurologists Debate the Psychophysical Problem

by guest contributor Jamie Phillips

At a meeting of the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists in Moscow in 1930, the Chairman of the Society, Aron Zalkind, appraised the current the state of their field in the Soviet Union, and spoke in particular about the work of the Institute of Higher Nervous Activity at the Communist Academy: “here they not only work experimentally,” he said, “but also sometimes philosophize” (Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk [ARAN], f. 351 op. 2 d. 25 l. 23ob).


Workers at the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, part of the Communist Academy, Moscow, 1931. It is not immediately clear from their behavior to what extent they are philosophizing. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 15)

Such a remark might evoke Monty Python-esque images of a workday never begun, of materials left untouched on tables, as white-robed scientist-philosophers pace about the lab in anticipation of the eureka moment. Coming from Zalkind, however, these were words of praise. Soviet psychoneurologists frequently bemoaned and disparaged what they saw as the naïve empiricism of their Western scientific counterparts, their lack of theory, their reluctance to philosophize. And nowhere was this truer than at the Communist Academy, and its Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists, formed in 1928 with the express goal of bringing ideological direction to the scientific study of psyche, brain and behavior, and of uniting the work of these sciences into a materialist, dialectical theory of the human.

But what was a materialist—let alone dialectical—theory of the psyche? The Soviet Union in this period saw some rather spectacular attempts at reductive explanations of the psyche through correlations in the structures of the brain. Most famously (or notoriously), a group of researchers at the Moscow Brain Institute spent several years cutting Lenin’s brain into thirty thousand little slices in search of the material substrate of his genius, and claimed to find it, at least in part, in an exceptional development of the pyramidal cells of the third layer of the cerebral cortex. Around the same time, the psychoneurologist Vladimir Bekhterev issued a proposal for a “Pantheon of the USSR,” a Pantheon of Brains, in which the brains of outstanding dead Soviet individuals would be displayed in glass cases, alongside their biographies and list of works, with accompanying diagrams and explanations to demonstrate the correlation between them. Such a Pantheon, Bekhterev suggested, would serve both to advance scientific understanding of the brain and psyche and as “propaganda for the materialist view on the development of creative human activity.” (V. M. Bekhterev, “O sozdanii panteona SSSR,” Izvestiia, June 19, 1927).

For all the fanfare of such endeavors—and they seem to have been greeted enthusiastically by both government and public—doubts remained. Bekhterev’s own brain, removed from his skull mere months after its proposal for the Pantheon (and intended, ironically, to be its first occupant), proved in death to be rather unremarkable, in mute defiance, as it were, of the ideas of its living predecessor, as if to say, ‘What, after all, is there to see here?’

Человек и Природа, 1929-02, П???????????? ?  Проблема анатомийеской основы одаренности и мозг В. И p. 16 cropped.jpg

The material substrate of his genius: microphotographs of slices of the brain of Lenin (right) and an “ordinary person” (left). From N. I. Prozorovskii, “Problema anatomicheskoi osnovy odarennosti i mozg V. I. Lenina,” Chelovek i priroda No. 2, 1929, p. 16.

The claims made of Lenin’s brain provoked skepticism as well. A discussion in the Presidium of the Communist Academy briefly considered whether it might be possible to put the brain back together again to subject it to other methods of study. “They’ve shredded it to smithereens,” one lamented, “the conclusions are negligible, and the brain is lost” (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 188 ll. 36-39). More than mere empirical questions, there were conceptual concerns about the overly “mechanistic” understandings of the psyche that such explanations offered. Where in these big or small cells, to paraphrase one objection, was class consciousness? (ARAN f. 350 op. 1 d. 269 l. 8). Such research might be useful, it was argued, but was in need of ideological direction, a push toward more “dialectics.” They didn’t philosophize enough, it would seem, or they philosophized badly.

It was in the context of such concerns that, in late 1928 and early 1929, philosophers, psychologists, physiologists and others came together at the Society of Psychoneurologists-Materialists for a discussion between mechanists and dialecticians on the psychophysical problem. The transcripts remain preserved in the archive of the Communist Academy in Moscow (ARAN f. 350 op. 2 d. 337, 393). They make for dense and at times inscrutable reading; a full exegesis would require volumes. But a brief consideration might provide some insight into what—if anything—came of this meeting of minds and brains.

Comrade V. N. Sarab’ianov, a mechanist philosopher, gives the principal paper. Are our thoughts, or ideas, our sensations, he asks, material or not? When Marx says that “being determines consciousness,” does he mean to oppose consciousness to being, in the sense that consciousness is not being, is not objective, spatial, material? Absolutely, as Sarab’ianov affirms: he opposes them. That which in itself is objective, a physical act in the body, Sarab’ianov continues, , is for me subjective, a psychical act. To the disappointment of the reader, he then launches into a long disquisition on primary and secondary qualities, from Locke and Galileo to Plekhanov and Lenin. (Sarab’ianov’s preferred example, fitting for the circumstances, was the quality of red-ness). But his point, in effect, comes to this: subjective phenomena are immaterial and cannot be objectively observed, and the only path to an objective materialist science of the psyche is through what is directly observable in the body and behavior. The dialecticians’ attempts to treat the psyche as “objective being,” Sarab’ianov contends, prove essentially wrong-headed.

The dialecticians, in turn, counter that


What is there to see here? A cabinet full of brains in the Institute for the Study of Higher Nervous Activity, Moscow, 1931. (Image Source: Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Akademii Nauk, f. 350 op. 1. d. 1077 l. 18)

Sarab’ianov has confused the ontological problem with an epistemological one, and that the mechanists fail to understand, as one dialectician puts it, “the development of the world,” the emergence of new orders of lawfulness at different stages of development. The mechanists, they argue, conceive of the world only in terms of physical and mechanical forms of motion, and either attempt to reduce the psyche to primary elements, to the brain and physiology, or—what amounts to much the same—isolate consciousness from the world, and render it unintelligible. Either way, they are “unwitting idealists,” for they ignore the problem of the psyche as a distinct property of highly organized matter, as a distinct property of that specially organized piece of matter called the brain. The problem with the mechanists, the psychologist-dialectician Iu. V. Frankfurt asserts, is that they cannot imagine that matter can think. They fail to understand the brain as a thinking thing; they fail to understand the brain, he says, as a “thing in itself and for itself.”

Does any of this make any sense? Certainly, there is no eureka moment here—or in the discussion that follows—and indeed the prevailing sense is of an immense confusion. The psychophysical problem is not solved. Rather, what we begin to see is that they are in fact posing different questions. At the risk of stretching Frankfurt’s use of the term here (though not, I think, the stakes of a broader intervention), the problem of the brain ‘for-itself’ for the dialecticians was not, in the first instance, a question of matter and sensation, but of the possibility of conscious and purposeful action, of the active role of consciousness, as they liked to say, in human behavior. It was a problem of the place of the psyche in the world.

In this respect, we might begin to see how a push towards “dialectics” could point to a different approach to the brain, and to what a materialist explanation of the psyche would be. On one hand, it entailed a turn away from the physical and immediately observable as the privileged form of explaining the psyche: thinking the brain as a thinking thing, the demonstration of “substrates” and “correlates” in itself was of no explanation at all. On the other, it focused attention, above all, on the question of development, and the relation of the brain to the structure of consciousness. Posed in this way, the question to be answered was not one of how the brain produced ideas and sensations, but rather of why, of the role of thought and affect in conscious human activity. In this vein, a number of Soviet psychologists in these years would turn to evidence from the clinic, from child development, and even from socialist construction, to understand the development of specifically human higher psychological functions. As Alexander Luria would later say of the work done in this period by Lev Vygotsky (himself one of the participants in the psychophysical discussion), it was a question of how “history ties new functional knots in the cortex” (Luria, “L. S. Vygotsky and the Problem of Localization of Functions,” p. 391).

The fate of that research is a story for another time. The idea here is not that such attempts to rethink the brain came out of this one discussion, or even that they had much to do with dialectics as we might understand it. Rather, it is to consider how such attempts at “ideological direction” may have raised significant questions about what it is we can see, and what it is we explain, when we look at the brain—dead or alive. In this respect there is still perhaps some value in not only working experimentally, but also, sometimes, philosophizing. And, just maybe, in thinking historically as well.

Jamie Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in modern European history at NYU. His dissertation examines the history of psychoneurology as a total science of the human in early twentieth century Russia, and its relation to the project of creating a ‘New Man.

Further reading:

For more on the dispute between the Mechanists and Dialecticians, see David Joravsky, Soviet Marxism and Natural Science, 1917-1932 (Routledge, 2009)

For lighter fare, join Joy Neumeyer as she takes A Visit to Moscow’s Brain Institute to explore what’s left of the Pantheon in a delightful article for Vice.