Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Soviets and Confederates: Across the Bloody Chasm?

I'll preface this post by noting that despite it and my previous one (somehow) linking Bedford Forrest to Orthodox Iconography, I AM STILL AN AMERICANIST, and have not yet been converted to studying Russian history. Speaking of iconography, a happy St. George's day to you all!

So, the UK History Department had its yearly awards ceremony this afternoon, and, lured by the promises of a free reception afterwards I decided to drop in. No, it was really because one of my old professors from Transylvania, Ken Slepyan, was giving the afternoon's keynote (because historians can't do anything without a's in the rules somewhere). He spoke from his 2006 book about the myths and realities of WWII Soviet partisans, and as the talk went on, I couldn't help thinking about connections between the partisan experience and that of the Confederate soldier. When he was working on his dissertation at Michigan in the early nineties, Slepyan was the first historian - Russian or Western - to access the Soviet military archives' partisan records. He found that the copious unit and personnel files in Moscow did not quite mesh with the popular memory of the partisan fighters...sound familiar?

It seems, that, like the Confederate fighting man, there was a marked split in partisan demographics between 1939-42 and 1942-45. Originally, the partisans consisted of the local elite, the intelligencia, those most connected to the Party, indeed many Party members. The local peasants, whose primary concern was survival and who felt little ideological connection to the Party, stayed out for the most part. In this same way, recent scholarship (including some of our own at Chickamauga) has found that the first Confederate enlistees were likewise young, ideologically committed to secession and the extension of slavery, and were financially connected to the institution. The poor farmer from the backwoods avoided enlistment until conscripted and, according to scholars like Mark Weitz, would often be the first to desert. The difference between the two? In '42 the war started going well for the Soviets and the peasants rallied to the cause (actually fulfilling some of the "people mobilized for war" propaganda that had been put out by the USSR earlier in the war) behind some crafty propagandizing and the loosely-defined concept of "Motherland." In '63, however, the war started getting worse for the Confederacy and the "cracker" gave up the Cause when he saw that the government's assurances that he could protect home through army service failed to pan out along with his wife's corn crop back home that hot, dry summer.

The connections don't end with the wars, though. In fact, they get better after them. When Slepyan and other historians finally explored the archives, saw the reality behind the situation, and published their findings, they challenged a popular memory of the partisans as the people's saviors, Robin Hood types with a cavalier dash (John Hunt Morgan, much?). This revision also challenged the party-line historiography that, from what Prof. Slepyan says, seems to be some sort of hybrid between D.S. Freeman Lost Causeism and 1950s triumphalist Consensus. In the popular mind, though, there is great confusion and some feeling of betrayal by the new histories. Just as the Civil War was for the South, WWII was a foundational event in Soviet (and by extension Russian, Belarussian...) national identity. The losses in both societies were so heavy, so intense, (and let's remember that the USSR's losses were heavier than in any American war) that the people needed a heroic history lesson to justify the horrific sacrifice.

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, the people had the institution of the state to justify the war. The people's sacrifice validated the Soviet system and the state itself was a monument to those slain. But after the collapse, the people lost that institutional monument, and only had the constructed memory of the partisan heroes of the Great Patriotic War to keep the dead, living. The Confederacy, of course, did not outlast its war experience, but it did construct the Cult, Mythology, or Religion of the Lost Cause with the same goal of validating the collective suffering by sanctification and whitewashing historical reality. Now, as the Soviet WWII mythology is being challenged by scholarship, many there are as angered as Confederate memorializing white Southerners have been for the half century since their own traditions were revised. Both groups fear that absent their traditional understanding of the heroic fighter the shared societal sacrifice will be cheapened and potentially forgotten. They fear that the academy will, in effect, re-kill their ancestors along with the myth.

It was a fascinating presentation that I have only touched the surface of here, and even that poorly. I intend to reflect on this some more, and hope for some engaging comments to keep the conversation going. And, finally, a word to Dr. Slepyan: if you should want to see how another people react(ed) to having their historical myths busted, drop by a SCV meeting some time.

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