Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas:  jgo.e-reviews 7 (2017), 3 Rezensionen online / Im Auftrag des Leibniz-Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung in Regensburg herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Verfasst von: Roland Cvetkovski


Steven Maddox: Saving Stalins Imperial City. Historic Preservation in Lenin­grad, 1930–1950. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015. 284 S., 17 Abb., 2 Tab. ISBN: 978-0-253-01484-9.

Tradition was the unquestioned and probably most unconscious authority that have structured people’s lives for centuries. When during the French Revolution the idea of cultural heritage, patrimoine, emerged most impressively it at first appeared as some kind of tradition’s sophisticated version, as a conceptual materialization of what had formerly been stabilizing daily routine all along. But actually it turned out differently. Once in the hands of the powerful, the notion of cultural heritage very soon changed into a tool of invasive politics and strategic identity formation on a grand scale. All the more astonishing is that in moments of revolution it was precisely this idea of safeguarding and conservation which always came to the fore; the Bolsheviks and their determination to leave the old behind and to turn to the new instead were no exception. In his well-written book Steven Maddox addresses this paradox of conflating neglected past and auspicious future in focusing on historic preservation in wartime and postwar Leningrad.

He unfolds a fascinating story of a Petersburg/Leningrad preservation movement which started already in the 18th century but did not gain momentum until around 1900 when a group of art historians, archaeologists and museum workers managed to reach a broader public for their concerns. Even though their activities preached to the converted after 1917 the Soviet authorities did not succeed in adopting a consistent policy for the protection of historic monuments, not least because proletarian internationalism reigned Bolshevik politics during the 1920s. The commitment to the imperial past became a significant element in their ideological program only in the 1930s when Stalin turned to the mobilization of history in general as a means of patriotic education which simultaneously effectuated a more coherent preservation strategy.

In the wake of the war, however, the situation changed again in several respects. During the 872-days siege the permanent bombing by the Germans who were eager to raze the city to the ground first massively reinforced the Leningraders’ efforts to preserve their city’s cultural heritage. The threat of total annihilation of its historic monuments mobilized both party and population to act in concert in order to contrast German barbarism with Soviet cultural superiority. Then, after the siege had been lifted in January 1944 preservation activities were additionally fueled by the decision, again both of the party and the population, to commemorate Leningrad’s heroic resistance against the German aggressor. The survivors for one could not and did not want to forget what they had gone through just as they wanted to bear in remembrance the almost one million people who fell victim to German warfare. For the party, in turn, the Leningraders’ fierce resistance as well as the breaking of the siege became monuments in themselves because both documented in the most convincing way Soviet victory over the fascist enemy. But in the course of the Cold War Stalin finally disconnected commemoration and preservation, Soviet patriotism was not allowed any more to be represented by a particular event. Thus from early 1949 on a new text started to pervade the narrative of the tragic siege by molding it into a story of an all-Soviet victory under the leadership of Stalin. Whilst a veil of silence was cast over the Leningraders’ heroic campaign which was lifted again only after Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th party congress in 1956, preservation and restoration, however, still continued, the concern about the city’s monuments remained unabated.

The Leningraders’ struggle for preservation, their indomitable will to keep and to restore their city’s face is a powerful expression of how historical consciousness becomes a visual manifestation of both local and national identity. Surprisingly enough, this complicated transformation process from text to stone runs like a common thread through the city’s history in the first half of the 20th century irrespective of the political vicissitudes it underwent – historical awareness, so it seems, appeared as an inner indelible necessity pressing constantly outward for emanation and materialization. But, of course, it is not this anthropological-metaphysical aspect of the story Steven Maddox develops, he instead addresses its much more vulnerable surface, particularly the impact Soviet authorities had to ascribe a specific meaning to the relics of the past. At first blush he tells a story about identity formation, as the author himself holds, inasmuch as Soviet authorities made out of the local cultural heritage an object of exclusively Soviet patriotism. But this kind of identity forging was a logical outcome of a political and social system solely based on coercion; it was a process mostly generated by party and state interest.

But Steven Maddox also offers another story of resistance, a perhaps less classical story about how and where ideology exactly operates. Needless to say, working on and preserving façades, restoring buildings and re-erecting monuments did not primarily indicate a substantial Soviet commitment to the tsarist past. It expressed the authorities’ will rather to control its form as well as to police its use because this was the most visible way to manifest their ideological grip on the present and, at the end of the day, to legitimize themselves. By instrumentalizing history and historic preservation the Soviets compelled loyalty from the population again and again hoping to actually win them over. And true, ideology usually defined as an infiltration process permeating first all spheres of society, then gradually lodging itself in the people’s minds and having them finally act as if it were out of their own conviction always implies a so-to-say enforced inward movement: In the end it strives to penetrate into the individual’s intimacy. But in Leningrad’s case this mechanics did not take full effect, quite the contrary, ideology here was a communication mode at best. As, for example, the preservationists argued that it would enhance Soviet reputation enormously if the authorities restored the suburban palaces although the Germans had leveled them to the ground and made their reconstruction both technically and financially almost impossible, the discussion had nothing to do with Soviet patriotism; preserving and commemorating was still a sign of the Leningrad population’s adamant local historical identity as well as of its insistence on local heroism, respectively. In a way this book inverts the perspective, even when one considers that Leningrad represents a special case: ideology, although wavering, could not but operate only on the surface and – it stayed there.

What is most deep is the skin, the famous French essayist Paul Valéry once wrote in another context, but obviously it was in this ambivalent sense that ideology here operated, too: the visibility of history remained the visibility of history. The unbroken preservationist idea, the preservationists themselves, Leningrad’s monuments, but also the party’s lingering preservation policy tell this story of constancy and surface.

Roland Cvetkovski, Cologne

Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas:  jgo.e-reviews 7 (2017), 3 Rezensionen online / Im Auftrag des Leibniz-Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung in Regensburg herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Verfasst von: Roland Cvetkovski



Zitierweise: Roland Cvetkovski über: Steven Maddox: Saving Stalin's Imperial City. Historic Preservation in Leningrad, 1930–1950. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015. 284 S., 17 Abb., 2 Tab. ISBN: 978-0-253-01484-9, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/erev/Cvetkovski_Maddox_Saving_Stalins_Imperial_City.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

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