Yuriev Day. Sergei V. Ivanov 1908.

Reviews Serfdom in Russia 150 years later. Structures live on

Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie (NLO) [New Literary Observer] (2016) no. 5–6.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2017: 1-2, pp 116-117
Published on balticworlds.com on June 19, 2017

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Serfdom, or crepostnoye pravo, was abolished 156 years ago in Russia by Alexander II. The nineteenth-century Russian liberal and socialist thinker Alexander Herzen spoke of this system as a kind of internal colonialism. Unlike the US and Western Europe, where the master–slave relation often ran along ethnic lines and thus resulted in different ways of dealing with the past, depending on the ethnic group, the master—slave relation in Russia was class-based, essentially feudal. The land belonged to the aristocracy and the peasants belonged to the land. When these peasants were freed (“emancipated”), the resulting conflict involved class more than ethnicity.
When the Russian intellectual organ NLO (New Literary Observer), in an extensive double issue on slavery, recently thematized this historical chapter it did so from a variety of perspectives, ranging from articles on how slavery is represented in Soviet film to its presence in French and American history. But the big question in all of this is of course: How has this historical fact, on the one hand, been handled by Russian society, and, on the other hand, continued to exert a hidden influence on the Russian view of humanity, power relations, democratic reforms? And what is the difference between the way this heritage is handled in Russia and the way it is handled in countries such as the US and France?

Despite such fundamental differences, the historian Peter Kolchin, one of the contributors to the issue, holds that the former slaves in every one of these countries, without exception, remained on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Emancipation did not immediately lead to equality, but rather to poverty, misery, and oppression. This fundamental similarity should of course not be forgotten, yet there are large differences of degree. Ron Eyerman, a professor at Yale, says that slavery has, in the form of a cultural trauma, laid the foundation for a variety of cultural identities. In the United States, says Eyerman, slavery is “inscribed in the very landscape”. He traces racial as well as gender conflicts back to the phenomenon of slavery. Like Habermas, he sees modernity — which, despite slogans of equality for all, did not immediately abolish slavery, but rather in some cases even led to national expansionism — as an unfinished project, an ongoing struggle for liberation whose progress is slow and hard-won. Criticizing modernity for slavery is like criticizing the doctor because you got sick.
Numerous views are possible about how all this happened — and is still happening — in the US, but what cannot be disputed is that a clear attempt to think through the far-reaching societal consequences of slave ownership exists nationally, among both whites and blacks.
The same process is visible also in France. As Polina Kuzmicheva shows, since the turn of the millennium there have been clear attempts in the country to integrate this “painful and shameful” chapter into the country’s history. In 2001, a law was adopted that declared slavery to be a crime against humanity, and since 2006 the victims of slavery have had a day of remembrance (May 10). At the same time, a conversation is taking place about how to “revolutionize memory” and write a more nuanced history than the francocentric one — that is, how to include more perspectives than those based on the notion of France as a civilizing, enlightening force.

The same can hardly be said of Russia, and this is the fundamental difference. Discrimination was not abolished, but rather became increasingly complicated, says Jan Levchenko, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “The eerie silence” that prevailed during the mass murders of the Bolshevik Revolution, he claims, is broken these days only to “settle accounts”. There is no current consensus, even within homogeneous social groups, nor is there an “everyday language” for talking about the darker chapters of the national history, especially those structures that secretly made these darker chapters possible. Attempts in the 1980s to discuss Stalin’s regime, including its roots in the earlier history of the country, quickly devolved into a general dispute concerning the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the public eventually stopped paying attention.
Today, the Russian intelligentsia, from academics to opinion journalists, has become entangled in personal battles and is rarely able to reach out to anyone other than the small clique of the initiated. At the same time, the state-run media are interested in nothing other than an image of the country as stable and steady. To admit mistakes or crimes in the country’s past means, as it does in all semifascist regimes, to appear inconsistent and weak. The conversation is conducted by a marginalized core of academics, under pressure from both the state and the flight of intellectuals to foreign countries.

For the ordinary Russian, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of serfdom passed more or less unnoticed. The same will most likely not be able to be said of the big upcoming 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik coup, which already is being celebrated in various ways. Here, from literature to the alternative press, there is an attempt to bring meaning to the past and reflect on contemporary implications of the coup. Olga Slavnikova’s significant novel 2017, where the revolution is staged in a kind of historical carnival of memory by dressed-up masses, and then gets out of control and becomes an actual revolt, is once again relevant this year. But at the same time it is as if the revolution, just as in the novel, took place in a void: questions about what kind of society it was that led to it and what kind of society it created in turn often become, publicly, questions about the leaders’ personalities, or empty clichés about the soul of the Russian people.
In what way did serfdom affect the Russian Revolution, both in terms of the alternative type of power possessed by the peasant class and in the problematic relationship of the Soviet powers to the land-owning peasants? To what degree was collectivization a return to slavery, instead of to the peasant communes in which many 19th-century Russian socialists had placed their hopes?
The NLO’s double issue on slavery spans several centuries and countries, and of course offers, as usual, more questions than answers. But it suggests undeniably that there is a systematic, direct relationship between how different people viewed each other 150 years ago and how they look at each other today. Herzen would probably have been surprised at how little has changed since his day in the Russian relationship between power and the individual. It is symptomatic that his own memoir — of the struggle for peasant emancipation and against abuse of power by the tsars — remains such a modern read today.≈

  • by Maxim Grigoriev

    Born in Moscow and raised in Stockholm. He has studied comparative literature at Södertörn University and worked as a translator of Russian literature and as a freelance critic and novelist. His prize-winning collection of short stories Städer [Cities] appeared in 2014.

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Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie (NLO) [New Literary Observer] (2016) no. 5–6.