Bryan Gigantino is also involved in a podcast project called Reimagining Soviet Georgia, which our readers can find here. For updates on podcast episodes, follow them on Twitter @ReimaginingG.
Between 1989 and 1992, socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union came to an end. A “transition” to a better life was promised. But such a life never came. Democracy, capitalism, and freedom were not just hollow phrases, but harbingers of devastation: for the vast majority, not only did life not improve, it worsened.
Millions faced stark declines in life expectancy, living standards, and incomes, while many others lived through ethnic cleansings and hellish wars. Western governments, international financial institutions, and other soothsayers of globalization peddled myths of progress to people watching their entire world collapse. Although ideals of liberalism and westernization were always an elite phenomenon, any idyllic dreams in the population of market-driven prosperity or democratic empowerment were eventually outpaced by a longing for the lost stability of the socialist period. This was not nostalgia but common sense.
This dynamic paralleled a long simmering political shift in the West: since the 2008 financial crisis, the post-Cold War liberal consensus has collapsed. In the US and Europe, politicians and bureaucrats with careers and institutions on the line have fought against the reascendence of the dual “illiberalisms” of right and left: nationalism and communism. Attempts to undermine the return of so-called “totalitarian” politics have been executed in part through legislation regulating historical memory. The 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, for example, as well as other methods of criminalizing Europe’s communist past1The Criminalisation of Communism in the European Political Space after the Cold War by Laure Neumayer (2018), have turned the equivocation of Nazism and Soviet Communism into a binding agent of modern European politics. Vanquishing the historical memory of socialism is one key strategy being used to save a dying liberal order.
But now the tide is turning in the opposite direction. Over the past thirty years, Soviet and other archives from the Communist world have opened. Many historians believed undeniable truths about the evils of socialism were waiting in the archives, that it was just a matter of exposing them to give Marxism one final, historical indictment. But this reckoning never happened. On the contrary, historical writing on state socialism and the Soviet experience is more nuanced today than ever. Every year, more and more studies of the Soviet Union appear with more clarity, depth and archival support. These studies reassessing socialism have also been animated by the existential and political decay of the West.
But during the Cold War (1950–1991) such nuanced studies were harder to come by. The study of the Soviet Union, Sovietology, developed within the context of an ideological struggle between capitalism and socialism. Sovietologists celebrated the virtues of liberal democracy and economic markets, while academically undermining the Soviet system’s legitimacy.2Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts by David Engerman (2009) The use of the “totalitarian model,” a concept popularized by Hannah Arendt in her 1951 book Origins of Totalitarianism, was common. Nazism and Soviet Communism were equated as indistinguishable, meanwhile American realities of racial segregation, poverty, and mass incarceration were ignored. This reductive anti-Communist view was dominant among US Soviet scholars, but cultural and political shifts in the 1960s would help change that. In particular, the rise of the New Left played a role in shifting US political culture. Although this new generation of Marxists were less concerned with the Soviet Union than those who came before them, they were crucial in popularizing Left wing politics within society at large, especially in universities. Even the fortress of anti-communism – Sovietology – was touched by this socio-political renewal. As the shadow of McCarthyism started to shrink ever so slowly, some academics found the space to approach Marxism and socialism in ways that for decades had been taboo.
Revisionism, Ron Suny, and the Nation
In the 1970s a tendency called “revisionism” began pushing back on the then mainstream Sovietology in US and European universities. Lewis Seiglebaum, Moshe Lewin, and other revisionists, even if not Marxists themselves, embraced Marxism as a legitimate subject worthy of serious engagement on its own terms. Socialist states were no different: instead of using their study to further US foreign policy goals, they should be investigated in more honest ways. These approaches pushed revisionists to oppose using the totalitarian model and to support US détente with the USSR. They added social texture and detail to a Soviet story told too often in broad strokes. Leading revisionist of Soviet history Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote a book in 1974 entitled Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union, 1921-1934 that explored the upward social mobility of workers in the early Stalin years. In the book she argued that for the beneficiaries of the Soviet system under Stalin “this seemed a real-life fulfillment – however distorted, from the standpoint of Marxist theory – of the promise that the Revolution would bring workers to power.”
Another important historian in the revisionist school was Ronald Suny. Unique among Soviet scholars in the late Cold War years, he was deeply, and self-admittedly, influenced by Marxism. Suny explains in his own words how the revisionists
moved quickly from political to social history, and by focusing on popular forces in the revolution, dismantled the view of the October Revolution as a conspiracy or coup d’état and recognized that Stalinism, as brutal and wasteful as it was, had significant popular support.
Suny’s major contribution to the revisionist turn was his writing on nationality. Over the course of decades, he traced the trajectory of the national question in Russian and Soviet history, mostly from the view of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Suny brought the non-Russian periphery to the center of the Soviet story, combating Russo-centrism and the erasure of Soviet multiethnic life.
His 1972 book The Baku Commune: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution 1917-1918 was an exceptional revisionist intervention. Baku, the present-day capital of Azerbaijan, was both a stronghold of Bolshevism and the Russian Empire’s invaluable epicenter of oil production. An influx of capital in the late 19th and early 20th centuries underwrote chaotic oil-led industrialization and the rise of an ethnically stratified class society. Baku’s multiethnic proletariat was dominated by skilled Russians and Armenians, with most less skilled workers coming from elsewhere. The majority of capitalists were Europeans or Armenians. Meanwhile, destitute and unskilled Turkish-speaking Muslims (today called Azeris) lived in miserable poverty. This tenuous social makeup exploded into ethnic conflict between Armenians and Muslims on more than one occasion. But socialist politics made deep inroads with the working class of Baku. In 1918, as waves of revolutionary activity were sweeping through the Russian Empire, the Baku Soviet was founded. It was led by the Tiflis-born “Caucasian Lenin” Stepan Shahumian and lasted from April to July of 1918. It came to a close when Ottoman forces advanced on Baku, forcing the soviet’s leaders to flee. The Baku Commune reconceptualized the very meaning of the Russian Revolution: Bolshevism was not just a politics of European Russia but resonated deeply in the imperial periphery.
Suny’s approach to history followed in the footsteps of Benedict Anderson’s 1983 study of nationalism Imagined Communities. Nationhood is constructed. It is something rooted in material life and rendered real by conscious political imagination. Suny used this constructivist approach to reconceptualize “national histories” in the South Caucasus. While doing so he emphasized the role of the region’s long-standing diversity and cosmopolitanism. It is no surprise then that his major works on the modern histories of Georgia and Armenia received backlash in the respective countries for not being “nationalist enough.” In a 2018 personal reflection on his Making of the Georgian Nation (1988), Suny explains how the book “emphasized how Georgians had existed and even benefitted from the multiplicity of peoples who came through and settled in Georgia, including Russians, Jews, Muslims, and Armenians.”3Thanks to Ron Suny for personally sending his unpublished 2018 note Why I Wrote Making of the Georgian Nation
This focus on centuries of multiethnic interaction as a lens to understand national development did not sit well with Georgian nationalists.
Similarly, in his 1993 Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History, Armenian nationhood is explored through the tensions and fractures of class, politics, territory, and religion that complicate the Armenian national imaginary. In both the Georgian and Armenian cases, the end of the USSR incentivized reductive nationalisms precisely because they helped legitimate territorial claims in a moment when borders were being negotiated by force. The nuance of Suny’s writings is far more helpful in complicating the historical legitimacy of borders than it is for reinforcing strict territorial boundaries of centuries-old ethnic demarcation.
He also faced controversy with his more recent They Can Live in The Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide (2015). Although the book is foremost a response to those who deny the 1915 Armenian Genocide, it also critiques intentionalist arguments – that the Ottoman state planned the genocide in advance, similar to the Third Reich’s Final Solution of the European Jewry. Suny explains that the Armenian Genocide was contingent, and “the fate of the Armenians was directly tied to the social disintegration and political radicalization of the Ottoman leaders that accelerated with the coming of war.” While in retrospect the Armenian Genocide appears overdetermined, “there was nothing inevitable about the decisions and the consequences of the decisions that the Young Turks took in the late Winter of 1915.” Even with his own intimate connection to the horrifying events – Suny’s great-grandparents were two of its victims – he contests the view that an anti-Armenianism of the Ottoman leaders alone can explain the social, political and historical causes of the Armenian Genocide.
While Suny spent decades publishing a voluminous oeuvre on Soviet and Russian history, post-Soviet politics, nationalism, and the South Caucasus, he had also been working intermittently on a book that connects the central themes of his career, through the early life of one infamous Georgian Bolshevik: Josef Stalin.
Suny on Stalin
Suny’s newest book Stalin: Passage to Revolution is his magnum opus. In roughly seven hundred pages, it tells the story of how between 1890 and 1917 the young son of a shoemaker from the provincial Georgian town of Gori on the periphery of the Russian Empire developed from a well performing seminarian, to a romantic, poetry-writing Georgian nationalist, into a committed Marxist, traversing the terrains of intellectual debate, practical organizing, and the revolutionary underground. Stalin was a worker-intellectual, the fusion of grit and intellect that defined the quintessential Bolshevik militant.