history of the soviet union

Mira Schendel, 1962, Photographic reproduction Thomas R. DuBrock


Commentary on the newly released book by Lincoln Secco.

“Class struggle is the historical key to understanding the end of real socialism” (Lincoln Secco).

In Prague, bookshops and antikvariáty they make up such a harmonious totality with the urban landscape that the book cases seem to extend the monumental inscriptions scattered throughout the city. I go through one of those glass doors, surprised by an image of Paulo Coelho, although my interest is quite different. I risk a request in English: the Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels. The young attendant's vacant look is intimidating, but I don't give up: Of the kommunistische Manifest, marx and Engels? No, there is not! I try to divert my attention to other volumes, but it's the seller's apathy that stops me. In the Czech Republic, the works of Marx and Engels have not been published since the revolution, explains an employee of the National Library to me later.

Since 1989, the countries of the East seem to be exorcising the communist experience. In Bohemia, properties and libraries, living witnesses of an aristocratic past, are claimed by their descendants. Ceauşescu's shadow lives on in the monumental palace he had erected in the center of Bucharest, while a thin layer of former officials silently watches over offices that have become archaic. In Hungary, the beautiful capital built on the banks of the Danube revives the dream of a Magyar empire pregnant with its people, proud of its past exploits, perpetual mobile of an ultraconservative nationalism, ingrained and reinvigorated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The old German confederation today makes up a strong and thriving state in the new and already quite worn-out euro zone, “From Maas to Memel/From Etsch to Belt”, as their hymn says.

Thus Yugoslavia, Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany, all these countries, some of them completely destroyed, “swept away socialism” in the 1989 revolutions, each one exposing its historical singularities, the paths and limits of that rupture. And, as Lincoln Secco observes, “the debate soon began whether 1989 was a revolution or a counterrevolution”. To which he adds: “in 1968, it was a matter of reforming socialism; in 1989, to abolish it” (p. 103). In 1991, the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics marked the end of an era. And yet mankind has not become the happier for it. But should she be?

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the entire world that moved in its orbit is at the heart of the questions proposed by Lincoln Secco, in his most recent book. Militant writing, the result of readings accumulated by a young wanderer in the city's used book stores – a fact that is expressed in the wide (and unorthodox) bibliography compulsed –, of the experience in the classroom, but also of the debâcles experienced in political life history of the soviet union it is a book without academic garb, written in the first person (when the situation allows it) and aimed at young people of all ages, interested in understanding our time from the longest and most solid communist experience.

The narrative was structured based on major themes that obey the chronological order of the facts, although digressions are not rare, in which the present, or more recent past, is juxtaposed with a more distant event. The first chapters are dedicated to the origins of the Soviet Union, then, to the revolutions that guided the year 1917, to the civil war that lasted until 1921, when “the formation of Soviet republics of free and voluntary adhesion”, according to Lenin’s proposal, at Declaration of the Rights of Working and Exploited People, from 1918, became a reality. However, under the control of the Bolshevik party, following a centralizing tendency – and of Jacobin inspiration – that remained until the end.

The cult of personality, rather, the debate on the question of the individual in the face of movements in history, seems unavoidable, and the author must revisit it at various times. Regarding Lenin, his indispensability in the course of events is reaffirmed, when recovering the emblematic disembarkation at the Finland station and his leadership in the Bolshevik revolution.

About Lenin and Leninism, the fortune surrounding the character and the concept crystallized under the brand of a Marxist theory that embraced the proletarian revolution. However, let us remember that, just yesterday (2015), the memory of the great leader was the subject of an unusual dispute that took place in Germany, about the pertinence (or not) of unearthing the head of his colossal statue for the exhibition “Revealed: Berlin and its Monuments”, inaugurated the following year.

The figure of Stalin is more complex and prone to contradictions, both for the character and for the historian who faces the difficult task of recomposing him.

In the chapter dedicated to the dispute for power, after Lenin's death, the author presents the main candidates for the position of leader of the party, in the light of their social origins: “Trotsky was the son of farmers, Zinoviev, of a milk producer, Kamenev , of a railroad builder and Bukharin, of a farmer couple […] with the exception of Stalin, they all had university education” (p. 38). Nevertheless, Stalin became the statesman feared by all – to get a sense of this aspect, just read the interview he gave to Emil Ludwig – and the greatest world leader after the Second War.

We know, however, that Stalin was tried and convicted after his death (1953), when Khrushchev made public the persecutions, purges and murders he carried out against his opponents. But, at this point, the reader should direct his attention to the different prisms and voices (Hobsbawm, Althusseur, Lukács, Togliatti...) that the author uses to evaluate Stalinism, a regime that, in the words of Jacob Gorender, killed more communists than capitalism itself.

Indeed, the second part of the book is devoted to the decline of the Soviet world after the publication of the Khrushchev Report, in 1956. The question is evaluated “retrospectively” as a “geopolitical error” (in 2005, the author observes, Putin will make the same analysis): “without Stalin and the Comintern and under the Cold War, collective leadership was the only possible one, but public criticism of Stalinism only weakened international communist unity. Hungary and Poland faced uprisings as early as 1956. China (1961), Albania and Romania pulled away from Moscow. O Cominform it was extinguished in 1956” (p. 68). From that point onwards, the facts rush into the present century, and the debate seems to get closer to the Glasnost (openness) than the meaning that Lincoln Secco intends to give to the Bolshevik revolution, for which he takes the French Revolution and the Jacobins as a paradigm, with its multiple developments, particularly in 1848 and 1870.

Such a perspective has a reason for being: the de-Stalinization occurred in the conjuncture of greater prosperity of the communist parties in Europe and, as Secco recalls, in Latin America. The 1917 Revolution had affected all social structures, from the most elementary, that is, the structures that move daily life and its material bases, to the structures of thought. And this change did not take place only in the Soviet Union, but in the entire socialist bloc. In fact, it touched on the international political debate.

The author also notes that the split provoked by Khrushchev in the 73th Congress of the CPSU, with its short and medium-term developments in the socialist bloc, also affected the capitalist countries, so that “hope for the future has become the nightmare of the XNUMXst century. Mass left parties, established trade unions and a self-confident working class all declined. Fascist movements returned and neoliberalism attacked the welfare state” (p. XNUMX).

To define, in a few words, history of the soviet union, it is better to use the expression taken from Lucien Febvre: history, science of the present. Braudelianly, Lincoln Secco invites us to look at the Soviet experience in different temporalities and spatialities. Deep layers emerge in the nervous time of the Revolution, however, ruptures and permanencies make the historical soil move in the short XNUMXth century. The historian's gaze is the vanishing point in the writing presented here.

By way of “Preface”, as it is certainly an introduction by the author, the intentions of the book are explained: a study of synthesis, “the work of a non-specialist”, written, however, by a researcher endowed with encyclopedic knowledge about the subject. theme. In the concluding chapter, the historian puts his craft to the test: the writing of the history of the soviet union it does represent a political act.

The nature of the edition also says a lot about the author's choices and deserves a few words. Published by the publisher Maria Antonia, which carries in its logo the provocative image of an armed man, with a pack of books at his feet, the writing presents itself as an intellectual inspiration, due to the questions it raises, but also as a weapon against the erasure of history.

And if the form of the book can say as much as its content, it is not too much to observe that the edition was completely prepared by young Marxist groups who have a leadership in Lincoln Secco. Of all this political, intellectual and militant effort at the same time, the reader only feels the absence of complete bibliographical references in the footnotes, which would do well not only to the richness of the readings and fights waged by the author, but also to the love that he never renounced books.

*Marisa Midori Deaecto is a professor at the Department of Journalism and Publishing at the School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Empire of Books: Institutions and Reading Practices in São Paulo in the XNUMXth century (Edusp).


Lincoln Secco. history of the soviet union. São Paulo, Editora Maria Antonia, 2020.



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