Power, Politics and Performance in Russia: Collective Memory and the Cult of Stalin

By Elliot Goat

“It took me years to make sense of my own history, and Russian society will take a similar time.”– Vladimir Ashurkov, Russian opposition politician

In collaboration with Theatre Royal Plymouth and the Sputnik Theatre, on Thursday 14 January the Frontline Club presented a staged reading of Grandchildren: The Second Act by Alexandra Polivanova and Mikhail Kaluzhsky as part of its Power, Politics & Performance in Russia series.

Told through a series of overlapping testimonies, Grandchildren explores how people construct and ultimately justify the actions of family members who – as members of Stalin’s inner circle or of the secret police – contributed to the atrocities and purges of the Soviet era.

Chairing the subsequent debate that covered the performance itself and the question of collective memory, BBC foreign correspondent Gabriel Gatehouse began by asking the panel what parallels they saw between the period depicted in the play and contemporary Russia.

John Freedman, theatre critic and former theatre critic for The Moscow Times, said that one of the strengths of the piece was that it “points no fingers, it has no answers, it does not say somebody is guilty or innocent.”

“What it messes with is life and the reality of a life that people live. Any one of us can look back into our own pasts and find difficult moments that we rationalise.”

And it was this, said Freedman, that causes him to despair, “because I see the same thing happening now. People around me are finding the exact same answers to similar questions.”

Writer and broadcaster Oliver Bullough stressed that each nation seeks to define itself by its past, but that in the case of Russia it is far harder to simplify into didactic terms and to challenge the narrative that has already been established. “People need stories to live their live by,” he said, “in order to make sense of it.”

Touching on a recurring theme that a lack of lustration – a process of reckoning akin to the Nuremberg trials – was one of the primary causes of the current situation in Russia today, Vladimir Ashurkov, a prominent opposition politician and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, said this is perhaps best illustrated by the resurgence in mass support for Stalin.

Russians have a long history of authoritarianism, said Ashurkov, but key is the role that government plays. “It can take steps to bring people closer, to make sense of their history and to be in touch with reality.”

He added that, over the past 15 years, the Russian government has sought to rehabilitate the cult of Stalin as a means of inspiring and imposing a new wave of xenophobia and nationalism.

Freedman touched on the building of this Stalin brand as an increasingly powerful tool: “What I see is people using the name of Stalin, using the picture of Stalin, as a sign to say ‘this is good, this is strong, this is part of the Russia I want’ – and running towards that.”

Alexandrina Markvo, a leading figure of the Moscow art scene currently living in exile, added that this use of the Stalin-myth as a tool for propaganda was resoundingly clear when you examined the teaching of history in schools across Russia, and specifically the way in which Stalin is presented.

On the subject of complicity, one audience member reiterated the panel’s earlier argument that the historical divide between victims and perpetrators had become far harder to define in Russia, and – over the course of 70 years of Soviet rule – had frequently become interchangeable. He argued that this had made it more difficult to point fingers of guilt, and suggested instead the existence of a complex of collective guilt versus collective innocence.

Ending with the question of whether Russia had entered a period akin to that under Soviet rule, speaking from the floor, artistic director of Teatr.doc Elena Gremina said: “Of course not, because the current government is much more dangerous and, in a sense, much more anti-people, and anti-state than even the Soviet government.”