AJP Taylor liked to talk about the moments when ‘history failed to turn’, but like most other historians he was obsessed with chronology. His narrative histories contain implicit and explicit assumptions about how we divide the past into periods. In the newsletter of the Slavists’ international organization (the Association of East European, Eurasian and Slavic Studies), Lewis H. Siegelbaum recently explained why periodization is important to historians — but is a ‘big snooze’ to everyone else.
I think that Siegelbaum meant that sociologists and political scientists, with their tendency to describe snapshots and to explain them with reference to theories, do not care about the dynamic movement — the change over time — which is the historian’s usual way of looking at the world. But the general public also has its assumptions about periodization, at least with reference to the recent past. People routinely talk about the particular integrity of decades, or about pre-Blair or post-war, or about how the world changed at particular moments in living memory: the German surrender at the end of the Second World War, the election of Margaret Thatcher, the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.
The accessibility of history partly derives from our common ways of thinking about historical time. But in certain fields of historical study, questions about periodization are highly complex and are fraught with political tension.
When I was an undergraduate, a favourite essay question was about the origins of Stalinism. Did Stalin betray the Revolution? In other words, were Stalinism and Leninism different things? Did Stalinism mark a turn away from the liberations of 1917, or was the Revolution itself the original sin: was it the turning point to mass political violence? Nowadays the bigger debate is about how to date the end of Stalinism. Did the Second World War create a new kind of Stalinism, which historians call late Stalinism? After all, it brought with it the need to reconstruct and reconfigure Soviet society in the wake of mass destruction. Or did Stalinism always conform to the same basic ethic, which could only be eliminated after Stalin’s death in 1953? Was the real turning point only reached in the period after March 1953, the so-called ‘Thaw’, when the old Stalinist edifice finally started to melt? If there was a thaw, was it an unstable event, with subsequent ‘refreezes’ and further times of melting? Or should we just dispense with the metaphor altogether, and seek other ways of thinking about the end of Stalinism?
Talk about it too much, and it sounds trivial. In an excellent recent essay, Denis Kozlov and Eleonory Gilburd remind us of what is at stake. They show that the term ‘thaw’ carried real moral status in the 1950s and 1960s, at least for the intelligentsia: it offered the possibility of the ethical renewal of Soviet socialism, while for their ‘conservative’ opponents, ‘thaw’ signified little more than dirty slush. Kozlov and Gilburd also point to the range of cultural references which ‘thaw’ conjured up for contemporaries, going far beyond the title of the novel that gave the era its name, Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw.
By shifting the focus away from historians and back towards contemporaries, Kozlov and Gilburd restore some grandeur to the ‘thaw’ debate. And this has a moral dimension for today. Ultimately, ‘the Thaw’ invites us to consider whether Stalinism ended at all. Read some journalists, and they will tell you that Russia is Stalinist today. Why might they say this? What could they possibly mean? Far for being a ‘big snooze’, periodization and turning points provide the hidden frame of how we see the world.
(Image: Wikipedia Commons)