Russia Past & Present with Peter Kenez

By David Michael Newstead.

Next year marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution and to reflect on the significance of those events I reached out to historian Peter Kenez. Kenez is a professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Cruz where he specializes in Russian history and the history of Eastern Europe. His books include The Birth of the Propaganda State, Varieties of Fear: Growing up Jewish under Nazism and Communism, and A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Recently, Professor Kenez joined me for an in-depth discussion on Russian history, politics, and propaganda.

David Newstead: There’s a new edition of one of your books coming out entitled The Soviet Union and Its Legacy. What are some of the main points of that legacy?

Peter Kenez: As far as the world is concerned, it’s one thing. And as far as the Russian people are concerned, it’s another thing. That is, the Russian people remember Stalin. A large number of them remember him very fondly, because Russia was propelled to be one of the two great powers. However silly it is, people do derive pleasure from being citizens of a major power. And that is what the Russian people today recall as the legacy of the Soviet Union. Namely, that “We were respected!” And people want to be respected. As far as the world is concerned, it was a great blow against Marxist ideology. People identify the Soviet experiment quite wrongly with Socialism of any kind. And that obviously is false on the face of it.

David Newstead: So, the Socialism of the British, the Swedish, and Bernie Sanders doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Socialism of the Soviet Union?

Peter Kenez: Certainly not!

David Newstead: One thing I did want to ask concerns your book The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization. Do you see any similarities between the propaganda techniques pioneered by the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago and the techniques of modern Russian?

Peter Kenez: No, I don’t. There are two kinds of historians: those who see patterns all the time and those to whom every event seems as something new. Now, obviously the similarities are always there. But how much stress are we going to put on it? My sense is that looking for the similarities is likely to confuse us, because our task is to look at the work as is. We should understand how effective propaganda can be and what are effective propaganda means.

Yes, obviously the Soviets were pathbreakers inasmuch as they believed that they were in possession of a blueprint for a perfect society. Consequently, for them to try to advocate for that blueprint seemed like a noble undertaking. So in their understanding, propaganda was not a dirty word.

Now, I think the power of propaganda goes only so far. What I mean by this is, it depends on your target audience. There is an audience that finds an appeal in what Donald Trump says. That doesn’t mean that he’s a superb propagandist. It means that he stands for something which resonates in the soul of many. So to ask “Who is the better propagandist?” it is pretty much an impossible question to me, because it does matter on your target audience.

In the Soviet case, this was not an issue. Because the success of Soviet propaganda was their ability to suppress every opposing point of view. This kind of approach to propaganda in the modern United States does not exist. And as far as I can tell in the foreseeable future, it could not exist. In Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Russia, it was easy to be a propagandist, because anybody who wanted to shout “What you are saying is silly. It’s not true!” was hit over the head. And that was that. It’s not that they were such clever propagandists. They had the means to suppress every opposing point of view. You know, it’s not that they hit on some brilliant ways to influence the human soul.

By the way, the Soviets were always convinced that the Americans in particular were much better than they were at spreading their message. But everybody thinks that the other side is the better propagandist. The reason for that is because as we live we find that people see the world differently and how can that be? How can that be that people don’t see what I see? The answer to this is, “Because they have been misled by propaganda!” And everybody always thinks that the other side is better at propaganda than their own side. The Russians were convinced that the Americans were very clever.

David Newstead: How does the Putin regime fit that description?

Peter Kenez: To be sure, the current Russian state has the means to achieve not complete uniformity and not a complete monopoly when expressing their views. But at the same time, what Putin has to say is that “We have been humiliated by the West!” This finds an echo in the current Russian soul. It’s not that they’ve been so clever as propagandists, but what Putin has to sell means something to the Russian people.

What is striking to me is how great a rebellion there is in the modern world against liberalism and Putin is not standing alone. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the regime in Poland, Erdoğan in Turkey, Netanyahu in Israel, the close results of elections in Austria. And Trump seems to be a parody of all that. But nonetheless, it’s a parody of something which is an international phenomenon. What I am saying is that Putin is not standing alone. It’s not that there is something called Putinism that is so extraordinary. It’s not attractive mind you. I mean, I’m no fan. But there is so much that is unattractive in much the same way: nativism, suspicion of foreigners, rebellion against liberalism, craving for identity. Brexit is another example. And Trump fits into this as a parody, but a parody of something that is genuine. I just saw the polls today as I was coming in here and Trump has something to sell. It’s not that he’s so clever as a propagandist. He represents something that reverberates in the soul of man.

David Newstead: Probably not our better angels.

Peter Kenez: We agree.

David Newstead: What’s the historical significance of a former agent of the KGB leading Russia? Recently, a harsh anti-terrorism law was passed there. And, of course, there’s the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party in America. Do these things relate to his background in your view?

Peter Kenez: I think that Putin was an ordinary Soviet man and his work for the KGB matters little.

David Newstead: Because a lot of your research has focused on Southern Russia and Ukraine, have you been paying attention to the current conflict there?

Peter Kenez: Very much so. I just wrote for the new edition new chapters on Putin and there, of course, Crimea comes up. What gave Russians today trouble was not the Ukrainians in Crimea, because there’s a rather small Ukrainian minority in Crimea. But in the Donbass region! The main reason that Putin found it necessary to take Crimea was that he assumed for good reasons that the lease for Sevastopol would not be renewed in 2017, which is the only base for the Russian Navy on the Black Sea. So, it had far reaching consequences.

David Newstead: Shifting gears some, I’m curious. Is the world still feeling the impacts of the Russian Revolution? And if so, how?

Peter Kenez: Every great historical event changes the world. The French Revolution changed the world. Hitler coming to power changed the world. In that sense, the Russian Revolution changed the world. There are continuities and there are abrupt changes. In the case of Russian history, the continuities are striking. But so are the changes followed by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

I do think that the 1917 Revolution was surely one of the great events of the 20th century. I cannot imagine Hitler coming to power without the Russian Revolution. I think that the German’s fear of Marxism and Communism was a major source of Hitler’s strength. This more than anything else enabled Hitler to come to power. And anti-Bolshevism was, of course, a main plank in his ideology. Without the Russian Revolution, that’s difficult to conceive.

This is not to blame Lenin for Hitler, but things are connected. You know, the famous Butterfly Effect of a butterfly flaps its wings in Asia and from this such and such things follow… The Russian Revolution was more than a butterfly. So, I don’t think that anybody would dispute that Nazism and Communism fed on one another, which is not to say that Nazism is like Communism or that there’s nothing to distinguish them. But the great communist appeal in the 1930s and, indeed during the Second World War, was precisely that the Soviet Union was the main bulwark against Nazism.

Let us just say, yes. The Russian Revolution was enormously significant. And even though after seventy years the Soviet Union disappeared, that does not mean it has not changed the world.

David Newstead: You’re well-known for writing several histories of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. And I wanted to ask your view on the legacy of the Whites and their relevance today?

Peter Kenez: Well, the interesting thing is those people who want to highlight the Whites in Russian history also look favorably on Stalin. The logic being, they wanted to make us great, they stood for Russia, and Stalin stood for Russia. So, you can have the White leader Denikin as a hero and Stalin as a hero at the same time. Obviously, what the Whites stood for has no future and they are really a throwback to a previous era anachronistic in the modern world. But inasmuch as they were passionate nationalists, they have an appeal. I mean, Denikin fought a war against Georgia, which was absurd. It was absurd given the fact that he also had to fight the Red Army!

David Newstead: One book I read said that the Reds outnumbered the Whites ten-to-one or something to that effect.

Peter Kenez: The Reds mobilized more people, it is true. They occupied more territory. The White Armies were much better led and much better organized. If a White Army and a Red Army met on the battlefield and they were the same size, the Whites were likely to win. And a large number of Red Army soldiers never ever saw combat.

Obviously, the Reds won. But it was not pre-determined. The Whites had things going for them, but they had more things against them since they lost. They were divided geographically. Their policy concerning the peasants was very stupid. If the peasants occupied land, the Whites took it back and returned to the landlords. Therefore, the peasants liked the Whites less than the liked the Reds and that’s very important. Anti-Semitism was also a great force for the Whites. Hatred of Jews and communists was a very powerful propaganda message for the Whites. And for Hitler, for that matter.

David Newstead: Tying the two together, I’ve heard the White Army loosely described as a proto-fascist movement.

Peter Kenez: Again, I shy away from comparisons. We have such a tendency to describe anything that we don’t like as fascist and that’s not very helpful for understanding the nature of that group. They were royalists. They wanted to bring back the old regime. And that’s not what fascism stood for. I mean, that they were anti-Semitic… Well, most people were anti-Semitic then. That’s not enough to make them fascists. To be sure, there is a continuity. Some of these White leaders ended up in Nazi Germany and contributed to their cause during the Second World War and they had a role to play. But in my mind, it’s not helpful to describe them as fascists. Resisting the modern age? Yes. Anti-Bolsheviks? Of course.

David Newstead: Do you have any closing thoughts?

Peter Kenez: You know, many people have made the point that the 20th century was from 1917 to 1991 in accordance with the existence of the Soviet Union. That is, the 19th century ended with the First World War and a new era started with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States becoming the only superpower. This century included the two world wars, included Nazism, included Communism, included all sorts of exciting moments.

Reads Part Two

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