Let’s Cancel the Party and Call It a Night

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Car parked in central Petersburg, 8 July 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

Given the sheer numbers of reactionary/counterrevolutionary events and incidents happening in Russia every day, and the equally astronomical quantities of reactionary/counter-revolutionary statements and actions committed by Russian officials high and low (e.g. East Aleppo) over the past couple of decades, it seems a nasty farce to commemorate, much less celebrate, the centennial of the Russian revolution(s) this year.

Present-day Russia and Russians have no copyright on revolution, and this stricture applies equally to self-identified “revolutionary” or leftist Russians, who have nothing to teach or say to anyone about revolution.

Clear the current Russian built and symbolic landscape of all the post-revolutionary tat and kitsch (nearly all of it reactionary, because what could be more anti-revolutionary than a cult of personality like the one generated around the dead Lenin) that clutters it physically and nominally (e.g., Insurrection Square in Petersburg), and you would find the wildly reactionary country that actually occupies the vast expanse between the Gdansk Bay and Chukchi Peninsula.

It’s another matter that there are lots of Russians who, pluckily and smartly, individually and collectively, have been trying to overcome this black reaction in bigger and smaller ways over the “miraculous” years of the successive Putin regimes.

Unfortunately, however, their voices have mostly been muffled by the din of counterrevolution issuing from the Kremlin, the State Duma, and the post-Soviet Russian state’s ever-proliferating set of security forces and regulatory watchdogs, and by their own would-be allies among the brand-name liberals and leftists, most of whom have been concerned with promoting their own social and cultural capital, not making common cause with boring math instructors like “mass disorder stoker” Dmitry Bogatov or, more surprisingly, with the country’s endlessly resourceful independent truckers and other inspiring grassroots freedom fighters, none of whom have the time or the inclination to commemorate the famous revolution that, arguably, went counterrevolutionary more quickly than you could say Jack Robinson. TRR

He Had a Way with Words

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Leader of World Proletariat with Female Gate Attendant Reflected in Security Mirror, SUV, and New Year’s Tree, December 18, 2016. 11 Lomanaya Street, Petersburg

Politics begins where there are millions, not where there are thousands; not where there are thousands, but only where there are millions does serious politics begin.
—Vladimir Lenin, “Speech at Russian Communist Party Congress,” March 7, 1918

We can identify something similar in rhetorical repetitions. They can act to unfold the “plot,” move the presentation along, develop and refine the arguments. In a word, they can serve the progressive or narrative movement of oratorical discourse. They also generate a kind of “dam” by provoking and intensifying expectation, since the “denouement,” explanation or conclusion at which the speaker drives, and with it the fulcrum bearing the main weight of the speech, is propelled forward. Building a phrase or passage can also be achieved by different means, with the same goal of transferring the main weight to the end. These progressive repetitions can be distinguished from others, which, on the contrary, suspend movement, not by building up its pressure, but by turning it inside itself, as it were, forming a kind of motionless whirlpool, whose funnel, figuratively speaking, swallows and absorbs all our attention. Obscuring the horizon, they cut off our sight lines, thus cancelling the aspect of motion. Precisely this type of repetition prevails in Lenin’s discourse and is characteristic of it, as we have seen in the examples cited. As I indicated in my analysis of these examples, Lenin’s preference for this kind of repetition has to do with the very essence of his discourse. He appeals neither to feelings nor imagination, but to will and determination. His discourse does not deploy a panorama for passive contemplation. It does not serve as a guide, leading the indifferent tourist along. It fights the listener, forcing him to make an active decision, and, to this end, it pins him against the wall. “Don’t move! Hands up! Surrender!” That is the nature of Lenin’s discourse. It does not allow for a choice. I would argue this is the specific essence of oratorical discourse, in particular, of the political speech.
—Boris Kazansky, “Lenin’s Discourse: An Attempt at Rhetorical Analysis,” LEF 1 (5), 1924: 124

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Tapestry Rug Portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, April 27, 2017. Kuznechnyi Market, Petersburg. The rug was probably woven in Central Asia in the 1920s or 1930s.

 

Photos and translations by the Russian Reader. Texts excerpted from a special 1924 issue of LEF entitled “Lenin’s Language,” featuring essays by Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, Lev Yakubinsky, Yuri Tynyanov, Boris Kazansky, and Boris Tomashevsky, and edited by Vladimir Mayakovsky. The English translations of the essays and Mayakovsky’s introduction, “Don’t Merchandise Lenin,” which was excised by censors from the original magazine, will be published in a special edition of a print journal later this summer. Watch this space for more details as they become available.

Oriole

I have a confession to make. I am almost exactly the same age as the wonderful Soviet movie We’ll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, Stanislav Rostotsky, dir., 1968), which was filmed during the fiftieth anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is simply the best movie I have ever seen in any language about the value of and balance between formal education and sentimental education, about the conflicts between teachers and pupils, and misunderstandings amongst the generations. It also has plenty to say, mostly between the lines but fairly boldly, about the Soviet Union in its middle age, the teaching of history, the fading revolutionary legacy, and importance of solidarity and “foolish” resistance, and it does all of it in a way that is not trivial or boring or predictable even for a second. The film features a wonderful ensemble cast of mostly teenage actors led by the beloved Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Irina Pechernikova. Pechernikova never became as famous for a number of reasons, but she is as wildly charming here as Audrey Hepburn during the same period. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one hundred minutes of heartfelt cinematic magic with lots of real, not made-up, lessons to teach audiences. In Russian, with English subtitles.

At the film’s bleakest moment, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s character, a middle-aged bachelor history teacher and Second World War veteran who still lives with his mother, sings and plays the following song, “Oriole.”

The song’s lyrics are based on three stanzas (the first, third, and fifth) of a poem by the OBERIU poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, “In This Grove of Birch Trees.” Zabolotsky wrote the poem in 1946, the same year he returned to Moscow after eight years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia as a victim of Stalin’s Great Terror.

The full poem, which is considerably bleaker than the already gut-wrenching song lyrics suggest, reads as follows.

Nikolai Zabolotsky
In This Grove of Birch Trees

In this grove of birch trees so white,
Far from woe and misery,
Where the pink morning light
Unblinkingly shimmers,
Where, like a transparent rush,
Leaves shower down from tall limbs,
Sing to me, oriole, a song of anguish,
The song of my life.

Gliding over the forest glade
And eyeing people from a height,
You have selected a wooden,
Inconspicuous pipe.
So that, in morning’s bloom,
After visiting the dwellings of men,
You can greet my morn
With your chaste and humble matins.

But, after all, in life we are soldiers,
And at the limits of what the mind can stand,
Atoms quake and shudder,
Tossing up houses like a white whirlwind.
Like maddened windmills,
Warriors wave their wings around.
But where are you, forest hermit, oriole?
Why have you gone silent, my friend?

Ringed round by blasts,
Over abysses you fly,
Over the river, where the reeds turn black,
Over the ruins of death you glide.
A silent rover,
You guide me into the fray,
And the lethal cloud unfolds
Above you as you make your way.

Beyond the great rivers,
The sun shall rise, and in morning’s gloom,
My eyelids singed,
I shall fall dead to the ground.
Cawing like rabid ravens,
All trembling, the guns shall fall silent.
And then your voice shall sing
Inside my shattered heart.

And over the grove of birches,
Over my birch grove,
Where, an avalanche of pink,
The leaves shower from tall boughs,
Where, touched by a droplet divine,
Cold grows a bit of blossom,
The morning of solemn victory shall dawn
For centuries to come.

1946

You can find the original Russian text of the poem here or here, among other places. Petersburg critic, poet, and translator Valery Shubinsky has written an excellent critique of the poem, “The Last Battle,” which I hope to translate and publish under separate cover when I find the time.

Photos and translation by the Russian Reader

Karl Liebknecht, Warmonger

Petersburgers have lately been up in arms over a decision, by the municipal toponymic commission, to name a newish bridge over the Duderhof Canal, amid the new estates in the city’s far southwest, the Akhmat Kadyrov Bridge. The decision was recently confirmed by the city’s governor, Georgy Poltavchenko.

Little do Petersburgers suspect (or, rather, care) that for almost the past one hundred years they have been living cheek by jowl with a munitions plant named in memory of German socialist and anti-militarist Karl Liebknecht. TRR

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[Modern militarism] wants neither more nor less than the squaring of the circle; it arms the people against the people itself; it is insolent enough to force the workers . . . to become oppressors, enemies and murderers of their own class comrades and friends, of their parents, brothers, sisters and children, murderers of their own past and future. It wants to be at the same time democratic and despotic, enlightened and machine-like, at the same time to serve the nation and to be its enemy.
—Karl Liebknecht

Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC. Photo by the Russian Reader

Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC is a leading machine-building enterprise of the military-industrial complex, supplying the army’s demand for empty armor-piercing tank ammunition shell casings.

The company manufactures advanced products for military use, popular on the international arms market, works on state defense orders and in cooperation with other plants, and produces non-military products and consumer goods.

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The Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant is the only company in Northwest Russia specializing in the production of artillery shell casings.

We successfully execute important state commissions and make a significant contribution to the defensive power of our country and friendly nations.

Source: Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC. Photo courtesy of the company’s website. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Russia is interesting from this point of view. The high state of tension in its international position has forced it to introduce universal military service, while as an Asiatic-Despotic state it is faced with an unequalled internal conflict. The internal enemy of Tsarism is not only the proletariat, but also the great mass of the peasantry and bourgeoisie, even indeed a large part of the nobility. Ninety-nine per cent of Russian soldiers are by class position bitter enemies of Tsarist despotism. A low level of culture, national and religious conflicts, and also contradictions in economic and social interests, together with the more or less subtle pressure exercised by the extensive bureaucratic apparatus as well as the unfavourable local organization, the inadequately developed transport system and other things: all these represent an important check on the development of class-consciousness. There exists a much attacked system of elite troops, who are provided with every facility: the gendarmerie, for example, and especially the Cossacks, which effectively constitute a special social class on account of their good pay and other material provision, of their extensive political privileges, and of the arrangement by which they live in a semi-socialist community; they are thus closely bound in an artificial way to the ruling classes. In this way Tsarism tries to secure a sufficient number of loyal supporters to offset the ferment which has penetrated deep into the ranks of the army. And to all this, to these “watchdogs” of Tsarism, there must be added the Circassians, and other barbarian peoples living in the empire of the fist, who were loosed over the land like a pack of wolves in the Baltic counter-revolution, together with all the other numberless parasites on Tsarism, the police and their accomplices, and the hooligans and black hundreds.

But if in the bourgeois-capitalist states the army based on universal military service and designed as a weapon against the proletariat represents a frightful and bizarre contradiction, the army based on the same system under the despotic Tsarist system of government is a weapon which is necessarily turned more and more with crushing weight against the Tsarist despotism itself. The experiences of the anti-militarist movement in Russia can therefore only be applied to the bourgeois-capitalist states with the greatest of care. And if the efforts of the ruling classes of capitalism in the bourgeois-capitalist states to bribe the people to fight against itself—to a great extent indeed with money actually taken from the people—are finally doomed to failure, we already see before our very eyes how the desperate and pitiable attempts of Tsarism to buy off the revolution by bribery are suffering a rapid and wretched fiasco in the tragic world of Russian finance, in spite of all the attempts of unscrupulous international capital to save the régime. The question of financial loans is certainly an important one, at least for the tempo of the revolution. But if the revolutions cannot easily be made, it is even less easy to buy them off, even with the means available to the big capitalists of the world.

Source: Karl Liebknecht, Militarism & Anti-Militarism 

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Our Company
When it was founded on October 15, 1911, Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC was called the Parviainen Russian Society for the Manufacture of Shells and Military Supplies. Subsequently, it had a number of other names featuring the phrase “Karl Liebknecht Mechanical Plant.” By decree of the Council of People’s Commissars, the company was nationalized on June 28, 1918. In different periods of its history, the plant has been part of the Soviet Ministry of Machine Building (First Chief Directorate), the Department of Munitions and Special Chemicals at the Ministry of Industry, the Committee on the Russian Defense Industry, and the Russian Ministry of Defense Industries (from 1992), the Russian Federal Economics Ministry (from 1997), the Russian Munitions Agency (from 2000), and the Department of Munitions and Special Chemicals at the Russian Industrial Agency of the Ministry of Industry and Energy. From August 2008 to the present, the company has been been overseen by the Department of the Conventional Weapons, Ammunition, and Special Chemicals Industry in the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Source: Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Modern-day street view of the Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
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“Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant JSC.” Sign at the plant’s main entrance. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
“No one is forgotten, and nothing is forgotten.” Part of a memorial to plant workers killed during WWII, in the plant’s courtyard. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
Another monument, without a signature (perhaps the founder of the factory).
“Another monument, without a legend [sic], (perhaps the founder of the factory),” writes “liubliupiter,” the user who shot and posted these photos of the plant and its premises. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
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Ironically, the brother and sister-in-law of the plant’s founder, I. Parviainen, Peter and Anna Parviainen, sheltered Vladimir Lenin at their house in the village of Jalkala, near the resort town of Terijoki, just across the then Russian-Finnish border, in August 1917, when the Provisional Government put out a warrant for Lenin’s arrest. Likely as not, however, this is probably not a monument to Peter Parviainen’s industrialist brother, but to Karl Liebknecht, of course. Courtesy of Citywalls.ru
The revamped Karl Liebknecht Plant of the future. Courtesy of Wikimedia
An illustration of a revamped Karl Liebknecht Plant of the future. Courtesy of Wikimedia

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Resolution Adopted by an Assembly of Workers at the Old Parviainen Plant, April 13, 1917

We, the 2,500 workers of the Old Parviainen Plant, having gathered on April 13 for a general plant assembly and discussed the current situation, have resolved as follows:

1) We demand the removal of the Provisional Government, which acts only as a brake on the revolutionary cause, and hand over power to the Soviets [sic] of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies;

2) Relying on the revolutionary proletariat, the Soviet [sic] of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies must put an end to this war [my emphasis], which has benefited only the capitalists and landlords and weakened the forces of the revolutionary people;

3) We demand the Provisional Government immediately publish the secret military agreements entered into by the previous government with the Allies;

4) That a Red Guard be organized and all the people armed;

5) We protest the issuing of the so-called Liberty Loan, which actually serves to subjugate rather than liberate;

6) That the printing presses of all the bourgeois newspapers leading the campaign of hatred against the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and the workers’ press be requisitioned and handed over for use by workers’ newspapers;

7) Pending the requisition of the printing presses, the following newspapers should be boycotted: The Russian Will, The New Times, The Evening Times, Speech, The Day, The Little Newspaper, The Kopeck, The Living Word, The Modern Word, The Petrograd Gazette, The Petrograd Leaflet, The Petrograd Newspaper, and Unity;

8) We protest against England’s interference in our domestic affairs and the detention of emigrants;

9) That all food products be requisitioned for the needs of the masses, and fixed prices be set for all consumer goods;

10) That peasant committees immediately seize manorial, demesne, imperial, and monastic lands, and the tools of productions be handed over to the workers;

11) We protest the withdrawal of revolutionary troops from Petrograd;

12) That it be recognized the Provisional Government can in no way arrange for the issuing of pensions to former ministers and their families, indigenous enemies of the people.

Source: media.ssu.samara.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader

The so-called Old Parviainen Plant was located on the Vyborg Embankment. Correspondingly, the so-called New Parviainen Plant, the current Karl Liebknecht Leningrad Mechanical Plant, was located on Chugunnaya Street, roughly two kilometers to the east. TRR

Source: Wikipedia

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The Red Guard of the Old Parviainen Factory, circa 1917. Courtesy of Fotografii starogo Sankt-Peterburga (Photographs of Old Saint Petersburg)

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Landwehr Canal, Berlin

The canal where they drowned Rosa
L., like a stubbed out papirosa,
Has almost virtually gone wild.
So many roses have moldered since that time,
It is no mean feat to stun the tourists.
The wall, concrete forerunner of Christo,
Runs from city to calf and cow
Through fields blood has scoured.
A factory smokes like a cigar.
And the outlander pulls up the native gal’s
Frock not like a conqueror,
But like a finicky sculptor,
Getting ready to unveil
A statue fated to live a while
Longer than the reflection in the canal
Where Rosa was canned.

Source: Radio Svoboda. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Rosa Luxemburg memorial at the site where she was thrown—either dead or alive—into the Landwehr Canal, Berlin. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Back to the Future: Why Putin Criticizes Lenin

Factory wall, Krasnoye Selo, October 25, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
Factory wall, Krasnoye Selo, October 25, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Alexander Reznik
Back to the Future: Why Putin Criticizes Lenin
RBC
January 26, 2016

Vladimir Putin has condemned Lenin for ideas that, in the president’s opinion, led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the ideas were those of Stalin, whom the head of state has avoided criticizing.

The Flow of Thought
On January 21, 2016, Vladimir Putin gave rise to another round of quasi-historical debate. Summarizing a discussion on reforming the Russian Academy of Sciences at a session of the Council for Science and Education, the president reacted to an excerpt from a poem by Pasternak, as quoted by the head of the Kurchatov Institute:  “He managed the flow of thought[s] and, only thus, the country.”

Pasternak was writing about Lenin, and the president ventured his opinion of Lenin, too.

“It is right to manage the flow of thought. Only it is important that the thought leads to the desired result, not as it did in the case of Vladimir Ilyich. But the idea itself is correct. Ultimately, the idea led to the Soviet Union’s collapse, that is what. There were many such thoughts: autonomization and so on. They planted an atomic bomb under the edifice known as Russia. It did, in fact, blow up later. And we had no need of world revolution.”

Thus, consciously or not, the president marked the anniversary of the death of the Soviet Union’s founder. Many observers were quick to detect a hidden message in his remarks and once again raised the question of burying Lenin’s body. (Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, had to quickly announce that this issue “was not on the agenda.”) It is more likely that the remarks, delivered as the curtain was falling on a boring meeting, were  made on the spur of the moment.

Putin had obviously specially prepared for his speech at the January 25 interregional forum of the Russian Popular Front in order to smooth over the impression made by his previous remarks. Replying to a question about Lenin’s reburial, he outlined his views on socialism in more detail. He admitted he had always “liked communist and socialist ideas,” and he compared the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism to the Bible. Later, the president mentioned mass repressions, including the “most egregious example,” the execution of the tsar and his family, the “breakdown of the front” during the First World War, and the inefficiency of the planned economy. Finally, Putin separately addressed the question of why, from his viewpoint, Lenin had been wrong in his dispute with Stalin over the nationalities question: Lenin had wanted “full equality, with the right to secede from the Soviet Union” for the republics.

“And that [was like] a time bomb under the edifice of our state,” said Putin, literally repeating what he had said in an 1991 interview. To strengthen the effect, he mentioned the transfer of Donbass to Ukraine.

Who Planted the Bomb and What Kind of Bomb Was It
Historians will find it difficult to ignore that in the first instance Putin has mistakenly attributed to Lenin the idea of autonomization, which meant the inclusion of territorial entities in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. In reality, on December 30 and 31, 1922, Lenin dictated a few notes, which were included in the leader’s so-called political testament.

“I suppose I have been very remiss with respect to the workers of Russia for not having intervened energetically and decisively enough in the notorious question of autonomization, which, it appears, is officially called the question of the Soviet socialist republics,” wrote Lenin.

His secretaries called these notes a “bomb,” so evident was their explosive effect, since they were directed against the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), Joseph Stalin, who was accused of a “Great-Russian nationalist campaign.” As a centralist principle, Lenin wrote, autonomization was “radically wrong and badly timed.” It was necessary to “maintain and strengthen the union of socialist republics” and be more sensitive to the nationalism of “oppressed peoples.” The union’s republics were granted the constitutional right to secede from the Soviet Union.

Formally, Lenin’s policy was approved, and thanks to the policy of indigenization, which historian Terry Martin has christened “affirmative action,” the 1920s were the heyday of national cultures. But by bypassing the Constitution and Party Congress resolutions, Stalin’s project gradually emerged victorious. By the late 1980s, the federal principles of Soviet power had been discredited as a screen concealing Moscow’s omnipotence as the center. So it is, at least, naive to believe that the presence of the constitutional right to secede from the Soviet Union (and Lenin’s responsibility for it) played a crucial role in the disintegration of the Soviet state.

At the Russian Popular Front forum, Putin clarified that, from the outset, he “had in mind the discussion between Stalin and Lenin about how to build a new state, the Soviet Union.”  His speech showed that Putin’s attitude towards Lenin’s revolutionary project as a whole was not very different from that of establishment experts and commentators. Liberals, conservatives, members of the opposition, and “patriots” can forge a bond in their rejection of socialism, radicalism, and similar -isms. It suffices to carefully examine the responses to Putin’s speech to notice that dislike of Lenin is quite sincere and sometimes jealously competitive. Setting aside conservative fetishists of all things Soviet, sympathy for Lenin, on the other hand, remains the bailiwick of leftist intellectuals.

Putin’s activist dislike of Lenin is noteworthy, given his demonstrative neutrality towards Stalin. In Putin’s view, although Stalin was a dictator guilty of mass repressions, he de facto rejected Lenin’s revolutionary maximalism. We cannot rule out that the president has taken into account the growth of public sympathy for Stalin, warmed by the economic crisis and political developments in Syria and Ukraine.

Interest in the topic of the Soviet Union’s collapse may well be regarded as the hint of a veiled threat to today’s Russia that at some point can be used as the ideological basis, for example, of a public mobilization against “enemies.”

A Revolution for New Needs
The excitement generated by the statements of leading politicians about the distant past casts a negative light on Russia’s intellectual and political culture. The centennial of the 1917 Revolution is approaching.  We can hardly expect success from the government’s project of reconciling the Whites, Reds, and Greens, as proposed by the culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky. Rather, the symbolic resources of the Russian Civil War will be exploited for the production of more and more new conflicts, as was the case with the Great Patriotic War. On the lines of the Banderites, it will be easy to construct new imaginary enemies of Russia. The president has discovered one such group of national traitors, revolutionaries and especially Bolsheviks. It will be harder to find heroes, but here the market, which previously has been successful in selling the image of Admiral Kolchak, will lend a helping hand.

In these memory wars, academic scholarship, which cultivates the specific language of dialogue and therefore seldom provides simple and definitive answers to debatable issues, will hardly be heard. Thus, Pasternak’s line about “managing the flow of thoughts,” which flustered Vladimir Putin, takes on a particularly alarming ring.

Alexander Reznik is a senior researcher at Perm State University and a member of the Free Historical Society. Translated by the Russian Reader