Diverging Collective Memories as a Political Resource: A Case Study of the Russian Communist Party
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Diverging memories of the communist past undoubtedly fuel both domestic conflict and strain foreign relations across the post-socialist space. Differing assessments of Soviet history were arguably a major factor contributing to the outbreak of hostilities between the post-Maidan Ukrainian government and the breakaway Donbas region. Ukrainian, and more recently, Polish decommunization laws have put further strains on the already problematic relations with Russia.
But the possibility that differing memories of the past might not lead to conflict, but contribute to common political goals, should not be overlooked. A good example of this dynamic can be found in the historical narratives within the ranks of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) – an important semi-autonomous player in Russian politics and consistently the second-largest parliamentary force. By explicitly associating itself with its predecessor, the Party was forced to give an account of the Soviet past and its attitude towards it.
From its inception in 1993, and at least until 2004, the CPRF was home to three ideological groupings: “orthodox Marxist-Leninist” revivalism, “social democracy,” and statist “nationalism.” Each faction presented a very distinctive perspective on the Soviet past. Unreconstructed “orthodox Marxist-Leninists” stressed the all-round superiority of the ancien régime, by comparing the realities of post-transition Russia to superior measures of Soviet military power, foreign policy clout, economy, and public order. Their more radical representatives concluded that a “[new] regime should be like the one under Stalin [...] a modern Stalinism is the foundation for overcoming the current crisis.”
“Social democrats,” by contrast, were not loath to criticize the system’s more odious features: pervasive lawlessness, dogmatism, and inequalities. However, while admitting that a return to a planned economy and one-Party system was undesirable, they argued for retaining certain guiding Soviet values, especially “collectivism, brotherly help, social security for workers, and democracy.” These principles had, in their view, underpinned Soviet achievements in education, heath, science, and culture.
The “nationalist” faction, in turn, saw the Soviet experience as a superior incarnation of Russian political culture, which values self-sufficiency, a powerful defence sector, and strong leadership. “Nationalists” attributed the shortcomings and crimes of the Soviet system to the distorting influences of crude Marxist class theory (a foreign import), to the nefarious activities of foreign agents, and to outright traitors. At times, “nationalist” historical narratives took on a disturbingly anti-Semitic colouring.
On the surface, these divergent memories of the Soviet past – undergirding significantly different political programs – threatened the unity of the Party. But CPRF factions had strong incentives to hold together. Unity gave the CPRF national visibility; splinter parties (of which there were a few in this period) failed to attain more than fringe following. The Party’s size also allowed it to stand its ground and remain semi-autonomous in the face of the Yeltsin and early Putin regimes (whose parties-of-power did not attain a majority until the Duma elections of 2007). And, perhaps most importantly, the three factions together shared a most valuable advantage: the CPRF was commonly accepted as the successor to the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of members were automatically reenrolled in the CPRF, while popular identification of the Party with its predecessor (and hence, with the Soviet regime) allowed it to capitalize on increasing popular nostalgia.
Given these incentives for unity, how were the potentially divisive effects of incompatible factional narratives neutralized? For one thing, these historical narratives were framed not against each other, but against the opposing narrative of the Yeltsin and early Putin regimes, which in these years took a decidedly critical view of the Soviet experience (and attempted to capitalize upon anti-communist campaigning). Further, the level generality and vagueness (as well as the logical inconsistencies embedded in conspiratorial thinking – which pervaded these narratives) made explicit contradictions between factional narrative difficult to pin down. Finally, the central Party institutions consistently upheld a non-interference policy in factional memory politics; historical claims were rarely made unified discussions, statement, and platforms. This prevented historical memory from crystallizing into a contested and politicized issue.
But more than neutralizing their potential divisiveness, the Party was able to capitalize on divergent historical narratives, using them to maximize overall CPRF among the electorate. By differentiating between audiences, CPRF factions were able to speak to a more varied demographic. Thus, for example, “social democrats” were more likely to engage with youth, projecting an image of a hip, modernized CPRF which had, nonetheless, retained its counter-cultural credentials.
CPRF factions also appealed to individuals on different levels of authority. “Orthodox Marxist-Leninists” evoked traditional authority in their replication and repetition of Soviet ideological clichés and their attendant historical narratives. “Social democrats” by contrast, appealed on the grounds of rational authority, by holding up their technical qualifications (as able Soviet administrators), specialized knowledge, and pragmatism (arguing for the retentions of only those Soviet principles and practices which worked). “Nationalists,” finally, evoked charismatic authority by exploiting romantic themes (such the Manichean struggle of good against evil) and selectively drawing upon elements of the Soviet past which retained their emotive appeal (for instance, victory in the Great Patriotic War).
This excursion has demonstrated that aside from clashing with one another, different narratives of the past may also work as instruments for political cooperation, such as in facilitating a “catch-all” electoral strategy. If anything, this suggests that collective memory is even more politically potent, capable not only of supporting attacks on political opponents, but also of building complex political alliances in divided societies.
Thus, in analyzing the memory politics in the post-Soviet space, pitched and sometimes violent “memory wars” should not preclude researchers from considering if opposing narratives of the past are part of a larger hegemonic strategy (at least at the national level of analysis).
Antony Kalashnikov is a late-stage DPhil student in history at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. His publications on Soviet ideology and memory politics have appeared in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Nationalities Papers, and Kritika: Exploration in Russian and Eurasian History. He will be starting a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta (Canada) in September.
 This post represents a summary of my argument in Antony Kalashnikov, “Strength in Diversity: Multiple Memories of the Soviet Past in the Russian Communist Party (CPRF), 1993-2004,” Nationalities Papers 45.3 (2017): 370-392.
 Albert Makashov and A. Prosvirin, “Monakh i voin (Beseda generala Al’berta Makashova s igumenom Aleksiem (Prosvirinym),” Zavtra, January 19, 1999.
 Valentin Kuptsov, Izbrannye vystupleniia (1991–2001) (Moscow: Parad, 2001), 164-165.