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National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956.

National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956. By David Brandenberger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. xv plus 378 pp.).

At a reception for Red Army commanders during World War II, Stalin famously praised the Russian people as "the most outstanding nation of all the nations in the Soviet Union." "I raise a toast to the health of the Russian people," he declared, "not just because they are the leading people, but because they have a clear mind, a hardy character, and patience." (pp. 130-131) This statement marked the culmination of an ideological shift in which the Soviet regime exchanged proletarian internationalist rhetoric and symbolism for russocentric imagery. Historians have long been fascinated by the apparent "great retreat" from communism and revival of Russian nationalism under Stalin beginning in the mid-1930s. Yet few scholars have sought to analyze the origins and nuances of this shift or to assess the reception it found among the Russian-speaking Soviet public.

David Brandenberger's monograph, National Bolshevism, seeks to fill this gap. Using archival and other sources that were unavailable to Western scholars before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he analyzes the formulation, dissemination, and reception of a "russocentric form of etatism" (p. 2) in Stalin's Soviet Union. Brandenberger argues that it was not genuine nationalist sentiment that induced the Soviet leaders to turn to "national Bolshevism"; rather, they used Russian history and russocentric images to promote an etatist agenda and build support for the communist state. The result, ironically, was something Stalin and his comrades never intended--the emergence of a popular sense of Russian national identity.

This mass Russian nationalism, Brandenberger argues, was something entirely new in Russian history. In an introductory chapter, he makes the case that there was no "articulate, coherent sense of mass identity" (p. 10) in Russia before the Stalinist era. During the first world war, Russian soldiers showed little interest in fighting for their homeland; the allegiances and loyalties of the overwhelmingly peasant population were regional and local rather than national. In the 1920s, the regime actively discouraged Russian national pride and treated tsarist history as an unfortunate and oppressive prelude to the Soviet era. Yet secret police reports in this period revealed that much of the population was apathetic--even hostile--toward Bolshevik goals. Brandenberger sees the 1927 war scare, in which a series of foreign policy setbacks led the regime to fear imminent capitalist attack, as a pivotal moment in the Bolsheviks' ideological evolution. Aware that calls for proletarian solidarity would not suffice to rally the population, the Soviet leaders began to search for a new basis for mass loyalty.

They found it in Russian history. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the regime began to celebrate the virtues of the Russian past. The Stalinist leadership rehabilitated prerevolutionary military and cultural figures, while championing the Soviet state as the natural heir of the tsarist empire. In a move away from the equality of all Soviet nationalities promoted by Lenin, Stalin now described Russia as "first among equals" (p. 43)--a revolutionary vanguard nation leading the other Soviet peoples to socialism. Brandenberger argues that this russocentric rhetoric was meant to supplement, not replace, proletarian internationalism. Along with tsarist-era heroes, the regime also promoted leading figures of the revolution and civil war as models for Russians to emulate. But as the escalating purges of the 1930s claimed more and more Soviet-era heroes, pre-revolutionary figures became the focus of Soviet propaganda. The Russian masses, meanwhile, overlooked the nuances of Stalinist ideology and welcomed the new rhetoric as the outright promotion of Russian nationalism; for some, the shift even became a license to express chauvinist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic views.

Largely thanks to its adoption of "national Bolshevik" ideology, Brandenberger argues, the regime was successful in mobilizing popular support in 1941. The war saw the spread of russocentric language and imagery, not just in official propaganda but also among ordinary citizens. In letters home, front-line soldiers compared Hitler's invasion with earlier incursions by medieval Teutonic knights and Napoleonic troops. Civilians kept up their spirits by reading Tolstoy's War and Peace and the memoirs of tsarist military heroes. By the postwar period, ordinary Russians deftly wielded the tropes of Russian nationalism. Citizens now routinely referred to the Russian "national character," which was said to be exceptionally heroic, patient, and self-sacrificing. The terms "Soviet" and "Russian" had become virtually synonymous. Between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s, in short, the Stalinist regime had created modern Russian nationalism.

While scholars have known for some time about the Stalinist regime's turn to russocentrism, Brandenberger has made an important contribution by highlighting the impact of this shift on ordinary Russians. Using sources such as student essays, museum comment books, and personal diaries, he demonstrates that the Russian public rapidly learned to speak the language of national Bolshevism. Brandenberger also offers an intriguing look at the political machinations underlying the regime's ideological twist and turns, including Stalin's personal interventions in debates about culture and history. Among other fascinating tidbits, we learn that Stalin criticized the 16th-century tyrant Ivan the Terrible for showing too much kindness to his enemies.

Although Brandenberger's argument about the Stalinist roots of modern Russian nationalism is compelling on many levels, some readers may be left wondering why, if there was virtually no popular Russian nationalism before 1917, ordinary Russians so enthusiastically adopted the russocentric rhetoric of the Stalinist regime. Particularly in light of the emphatic Soviet rejection of Russian nationalism in the 1920s, the eager popular embrace of prerevolutionary heroes and themes in the 1930s seems to suggest the prior existence of a reservoir of common images and symbols of Russianness. Proletarian internationalism, which the Bolsheviks promoted vigorously for nearly 20 years before turning to russocentrism, never managed to evoke such enthusiasm--a fact that Brandenberger attributes primarily to the complex and abstract nature of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Yet I am not convinced that the complexity of Marxism alone can explain the greater appeal of nationalism. Such quibbles aside, National Bolshevism deserves praise for shedding new light on the evolution of Russian identity and significantly advancing our understanding of the Stalinist state and its popular underpinnings.

Adrienne Edgar

University of California, Santa Barbara
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Author:Edgar, Adrienne
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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