Staunton, November 23 – Debates about the Russian and Soviet past often make it sound as if everyone in that country today must be the descendant either of one of those who tortured or one who was tortured, but in fact, two Moscow commentators say, most Russians are neither the one nor the other, a fact of life that complicates such discussions.
Recently, Viktor Militaryev writes on the Svobodnaya pressa portal, historian Yury Moskovsky pointed out that “the overwhelming majority of [those] who are today’s citizens of Russia are neither descendants … descendants of ‘hangmen from the NKVD,’ or descendants of ‘the innocent victims of bloody Stalinist repressions” (svpressa.ru/society/article/136625/).
The Moscow commentator for his part suggests that one might extend Moskovsky’s argument and point out that “the overwhelming majority of [Russians] are not descendants of noblemen, priests, capitalists, the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, bureaucrats or officers … or even descendants of pre-revolutionary workers.”
Instead, “the overwhelming majority” of Russians are “descendants of pre-revolutionary peasants.” They ancestors came from the village to the city “no earlier than the 1930s, the time of collectivization and industrialization. And among this majority, no small part arrived in the city after the war and then in the 1960s and 1970s.”
That fact, Militaryev says, is “extraordinarily important” for two reasons. On the one hand, “80 percent of the citizens of Russia inherited from their peasant ancestors one and the same cultural system.” And on the other, they are not participants in the debate about the past in the same way as those more directly involved.
“A large part of both Soviet ‘hangmen’ and Soviet ‘victims’ at least until the beginning of the Great Fatherland War were urban residents,” a small part of the population. The majority was and remains outside of this, the Moscow commentator says, except of course for the victims of mass collectivization.
But because of the intervening war and because memory tends to pass out of its “hot” phase after two generations, he continues, most Russians base their common memory on the war and define themselves in terms of the post-war past and the current situation. Thus they are most upset not by collectivization but by the post-1991 destruction of collective farms and all the talk about “farming.”
This “general selectively positive relation to the Soviet past” explains much about the present, he argues, including the fact that the peasant “majority” hates the oligarchs and is convinced that “’thievish privatization’” must be revised but had a positive attitude toward Putin and “a loyal one to the institution of business.”
It also has behavioral consequences, including the readiness of Russians to say they are Orthodox even though they don’t go to church and the fact that “every labor collective” in the country continues to function much like a “redistribution” committee of the kind that existed under serfdom. And it defines Russian concerns about justice.”
Moreover, this peasant commonality gives the basis for the formation of a political nation, albeit with one exception: the fact that those who study any field in any detail do discover that those who went before them in fact were “shot, imprisoned, emigrated, or hid from censorship and falsely pretended to be loyal to Soviet ideology.”
“What is to be done with this martyrology?” Militaryev asks, and then says, he does not know the answer. But he insists that everyone must recognized that there is a fundamental contradiction between the peasant majority’s view of the past in which they were not primarily “hangmen” or “victims” and that of the minority whose ancestors were one or the other.