‘Stalinist Russocentrism’: An Interview with David Brandenberger about the Second Russian Edition of his Monograph National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. viii, 378 p.)

Cover Page

Cite item

Full text / tables, figures


David Brandenberger holds a doctorate in history (PhD.) and is professor of Russian and Soviet history in the Department of History at the University of Richmond (USA). He is also an associate researcher at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” in Moscow. He is the author of books on the formation of Russian national identity during the Stalin era and on the infl uence that party propaganda and mass culture had on that process. In this interview, David Brandenberger discusses the arguments and methodologies that contributed to his monograph that was initially published in English and then in two Russian editions: National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), Natsional-bol’shevizm: stalinskaya massovaya kul’tura i formirovaniye russkogo natsional’nogo samosoznaniya, 1931-1956 gg. (St Petersburg: Akademicheskiy proekt, 2009) и Stalinskiy russotsentrizm: Sovetskaya massovaya kul’tura i formirovaniye russkogo natsional’nogo samosoznaniya, 1931-1956 gg . (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2017). Among other things, the author discusses how his thoughts on the topic of this book have evolved since its fi rst publication in light of scholarly debate and the increased availability of primary and secondary sources.

Full text / tables, figures

An Interview with David Brandenberger about the Second Russian Edition of his Monograph National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931–1956 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. viii, 378 p.)

— Brandenberger, could you begin the interview by telling us a bit about yourself?

— I grew up in an academic family in provincial America in a district that elected the notorious red-baiting anti-communist Joseph R. McCarthy to Congress in 1947. Perhaps for that reason, I cannot claim that my interest in Russian history and culture were initially piqued by the classics like F.M. Dostoevskii or L. N. Tolstoi. Instead, it was the Cold War, Ian Fleming’s James Bond and Ronald Reagan that initially drew my attention to things Russian. In this vein, one of my fi rst moments of mature political commentary came in 1983 when I protested Reagan’s labeling of the USSR as an “evil empire.” “Evil,” I precociously declared to my father at the time, wasn’t an analytical category. Worse, Reagan’s choice of words amounted to deliberately infl ammatory rhetoric that would not contribute to mutual understanding or the easing of international tensions.

Amused by my adolescent leftist sympathies, my father encouraged me to start learning Russian while still in high school at the local university where he taught physics. His advice proved transformative for me. Beginning Russian in 1986 or 1987, I continued to study the language at Macalester College, where I majored in history and wrote my senior thesis on the historiography on medieval Kyiv. Studying abroad in Moscow in 1991, I returned after college in 1992–1993 to teach English at Moscow State Linguistics University (the former Thorez Foreign Language Institute) while applying to US doctoral programs in History. Entering Harvard University shortly thereafter, I continued to study Russian while researching and writing my doctoral dissertation, spending some 15 months in Russia between 1996–1997.

Defending my dissertation and earning my doctorate in 1999, I then worked at Harvard between 1999 and 2003 as a lecturer and researcher. Since 2003, I’ve taught at the University of Richmond, but have continued to spend roughly a month in Russia every year. I’m am presently affi  liated as a researcher with the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” in Moscow.[1]

— How did you arrive at the subject of your fi rst monograph, National Bolshevism?

— The origins of National Bolshevism – which was based on my doctoral dissertation – stem from my long-standing interest in Russian national identity. At Harvard, I spent a year in graduate school studying 18th and 19th century Russian intellectual thought under Richard Pipes, where I found myself captivated by the Slavophiles and Panslavs. At the same time, I was working under Roman Szporluk on the modern scholarship on national identity formation, both in Eastern Europe and in comparative perspective. These studies proved to be very infl uential for me.

Eager to write my dissertation on the national question in theory and practice, I spent a lot of time thinking about how best to apply the writing of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Miroslav Hroch and others to the history of Russian-speaking society.[2] Resisting Pipes’s advice to focus on 19th century Russian conservative thought, I instead looked for an opportunity to study the emergence of Russian national identity at the grass roots under the infl uence of ideology, high politics and mass culture – an approach inspired by the work of Ronald G. Suny, Terry Martin, James von Geldern, Richard Stites and Jeff rey Brooks.[3] After months of reading, I fi nally stumbled upon a little-known article by A.N. Artizov, the present director of Rosarkhiv, on the writing of a key Stalin-era public school history textbook – A.V. Shestakov’s 1937 History of the USSR. This article provided me with clues that helped me to identify the precise moment when the party leadership began to interpolate russocentric thematics into public education, the press and offi  cial mass culture.4

With Artizov’s insights in mind, I began archival research on my topic in Moscow in 1996–1997. Over the course of many months, I conducted work in a number of former party and state archives and refi ned my thesis. During this time, I also learned a lot from collaborative work that I conducted with A.M. Dubrovskii while writing an article together for a British scholarly journal.5 This co-authored article became the fi rst of my signifi cant publications on the topic.

— What’s the basic argument of the book?

— I begin the book with the contention that a modern sense of national identity formed later in Russia than in other European industrialized countries. A constructivist, I cite scholarship that suggests that a mass sense of national identity at the grass roots is a relatively recent occurrance in world history and forms as a byproduct of mass politics, the popular press, widespread literacy, near-universal schooling and social mobility. Such scholarship suggests that such institutions and societal phenomena were able to homogenize parochial identities on the local and regional level into truly national ones only in the 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th.

In the Russian case, I note that although intellectuals in the 18th and especially 19th century spent a lot of time debating the question of what it meant to be Russian, they proved unable to reach a consensus. Their inability to answer this all-important question – combined with the tsarist empire’s low enthusiasm for democratic social movements – stymied the consolidation of an integral, coherent national community in Russia before 1917. Even the relatively late appearance of nationalist propaganda during the First World War did little to galvanize the society around a unifi ed notion of what it meant to be Russian.

If the imperial tsarist government had little interest in nurturing a mass sense of Russian national identity, the early Bolshevik state was determined to suppress what it regarded as Great Power chauvinism in society. Among Russians, they were interested fostering a broad sense of class identity rather than national identity.6

In looking at the early Soviet “propaganda state,” I periodize early mobilizational propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s into three phases. During the fi rst phase – the early to mid 1920s – the Bolsheviks attempted to rally the society to industrialize and defend the USSR through a materialist style of propaganda. That propaganda stressed class confl ict, anonymous social forces and other Marxist structuralism. The propaganda was predictably schematic and focused on idealized but generic representations of class. Attention was cast on groups of protagonists instead of individual heroes; and internationalism rather than nationalism or patriotism. The formation of a community based on a united, coherent sense of Russianness was discouraged during this time, insofar as the Bolsheviks saw such sentiments as a vestige of the ancien régime. Devoted Marxists, the Bolsheviks instead attempted to build a new community around class identity and revolutionary internationalism.

I contend that the test of this new propaganda line occurred in 1927, during the so-called war scare with Great Britain. During this diplomatic rupture with Britain, I argue that the Soviet leadership expanded its bid to mobilize society for industrialization with talk of war and defense of the USSR. But instead of stimulating a surge of popular support for the regime, this war scare instead inspired panic, hording, and defeatist rumors that swept across the country. Some peasants reportedly even looked forward to a British invasion that would topple the Bolsheviks and restore the monarchy.

I argue that this debacle, on the tenth anniversary of the October 1917 revolution, forced party ideologists and propagandists to look for new ways of increasing the accessibility of their schematic, bloodless, class-based propaganda. The transition to new forms of mobilization was not immediate, however. Between 1927 and the early 1930s, there appears to have been quite a bit of confusion over what might be more eff ective, but not involve ideological compromises. In the end, I believe part of the answer came not from the ranks of professional party ideologists and propagandists, but from journalists working in the youth newspapers and then the central party papers.

— So, does this mark the transition to a second phase of Soviet interwar mo-bilization?

— Exactly. By the early 1930s, Soviet journalists had demonstrated to Agitprop that a better approach to mobilizational propaganda would come from a renewed focus on individual heroism.[7] Generic, anonymous class analysis was to be replaced by individual, identifi able heroes of the revolution, civil war and socialist construction. These heroes were deployed in such a way as to serve as practical, accessible role models for admiration and emulation, fi rst in the press and then slowly in other forms of party propaganda and mass culture.

By 1934, strident individuals dominated what I call the second phase of Soviet mobilizational propaganda. This new stress on dynamic role models and heroes was complemented by a new-found emphasis on patriotism. Patriotism in the 1920s had been dismissed as a bourgeois surrogate – something that the capitalist world used as a masking ideology in order to distract workers from their class interests. During the early 1930s, however, at the same time, that individual heroism was being revived, we see a hesitant rehabilitation of the idea of patriotism as well, now called “Soviet patriotism.” Stalin argued in 1931 that if Marx had been right in 1848 that the workers did not have a fatherland, the situation in the USSR had changed since 1917, now that there was such a thing as a workers’ fatherland. Patriotism was, therefore, a legitimate emotion for the proletariat to feel in relation to the USSR.

So circa 1935–1936, I argue that the second phase of Soviet mobilizational propaganda was proving to be much more eff ective and accessible than the fi rst. New material revolving around heroism and patriotism, based on concrete material from the revolution, civil war and socialist construction, was fi nding real popular resonance within society for the fi rst time.[8]

— So, what then was the third phase of Soviet interwar mobilization?

— The third phase of interwar mobilizational propaganda is something I date to the second half of 1936 – the outset of the Great Purges. It’s well known that the purges had a devastating eff ect on the party, the military, the intelligentsia, and so on. What I argue is that wave after wave of purges between 1936–1938 also undermined the new mobilizational propaganda focusing on heroes and patriotism, as this witch hunt exposed many of the protagonists and heroic role models as enemies of the people.

As the purges consumed the new heroes and patriots, Soviet propagandists were forced to recall the fi lms, theatrical productions and books celebrating them. This paralyzed much of the propaganda line. Attempts were made to recut the fi lms, airbrush the pictures and rewrite the books.[9] But this was an unpredictable process, as the Terror proceeded in waves, rather than all at once. A book or fi lm reworked today might need to be recalled again tomorrow.

In the end, party propagandists, led by Stalin, were forced to retreat from their new emphasis on heroes and patriotism in party propaganda and return to the bloodless schematicism and anonymous social forces of the 1920s. This is most clear in the launch of the famous Short Course on party history, released in 1938.[10] Stalin attempted to justify this new emphasis on schematicism and anonymous social forces during the release of the Short Course, averring that the average party member and executive needed to have a better grasp on Marxist theory and that party history, therefore, ought to be grounded in more orthodox Marxist-Leninism.[11]

At the same time, that Stalin was attempting to redirect well-educated party members toward Marxist theory, he was encouraging propagandists and educators working within society at large to look to the prerevolutionary past for new sources of authority and legitimacy. Earlier stress on the classics in literature and the arts (as forerunners of Socialist Realism) was now fl anked by the rehabilitation of political and military greats of the pre-revolutionary period. Leaders such as Aleksandr Nevskii, Dmitrii Donskoi, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great were revived as examples of progressive leadership and hailed for their support of the centralization of state authority; military heroes such as Aleksandr Suvorov and Mikhail Kutuzov too were revived in order to recognize the precursors to Soviet martial pride.

This, I argue, marks the third phase of Soviet mobilizational propaganda – the ossifi cation of the party line and its replacement with an array of mobilizational exigencies focusing on the Russian national past. One might also note here other mobilizational exigencies of the period, particularly the party leadership’s continued expansion of Stalin’s personality cult.

It bears mentioning at this juncture that this new historical line was offi  cially called the “History of the Peoples of the USSR” and theoretically included the prerevolutionary histories of the other non-Russian peoples in its new grand narrative. In practical terms, however, these intentions went largely unrealized during the interwar years. Part of the reason for this stemmed from the purges, which made it diffi  cult to write non-Russian republican history without being accused of “bourgeois nationalism.” But equally important is the unavoidable conclusion that the development of these auxiliary narratives was just not a high priority. Indeed, the only non-Russian heroes to really receive public attention in the prewar period – those concerning Ukraine and Belarus – were discussed in the press only when the annexation of Polish territories in 1939 required historical justifi cation.[12]

After surveying this major russocentric shift in mobilizational propaganda between 1917–1937 in the fi rst three chapters of the book, the next four chapters examine how this new propaganda line was popularized within the public schools and mass culture and received within Soviet society. Such an approach foregrounds the complexities involved not only in the formulation of mobilizational propaganda, but in its transmission to the popular level as well as its reception at the grass roots.

Insofar as this set of dynamics underwent changes after the start of the Second World War in 1941, chapters eight through eleven trace the contours of the party’s mobilizational propaganda through 1945. Chapters twelve through sixteen, in turn, follow these processes into the mid-1950s.

— What does the emergence and trajectory of this form of mobilizational propaganda say about offi cial russocentrism under Stalin?

— Good question. My study of the politics of mass mobilization in Soviet society between the late 1920s and mid-1950s reveals that the deployment of Russian national heroes, legends and myths during this time was fundamentally pragmatic and etatist in nature. It was an attempt to augment the arcane and inaccessible aspects of Marxist-Leninism with populist rhetoric designed to bolster Soviet state legitimacy and promote a society-wide sense of allegiance to the USSR.

Two points are worth noting in regard to the intention and design behind this offi cial russocentric line. First, Stalin’s recourse to Russian historical heroes and symbols was far from inevitable and should be seen as a byproduct of historical contingency stemming from the failure of more thoroughly “Soviet” propaganda during the purges. Second, even pervasive russocentrism after 1937 should not be confused with offi  cial support for Russian state- or nation-building, much less nationalism, inasmuch as all three would have required a degree of institutional, political and cultural autonomy that the Bolsheviks never had any intention of granting the Russian people.

Instead, Stalin-era russocentrism should be regarded as instrumental and populist in design – gestures designed to mobilize rather than enfranchise. Noticeably absent, after all, was the creation of an independent institutional identity for the RSFSR that was separate from that of the USSR as a whole.[13] This discouragement of Russian state-building was mirrored in the party’s stance on Russian nation-building. Although a vast array of heroes, symbols and myths associated with the Russian national past were revived after 1937, these eff orts were selective and cautious, being designed to bolster the Soviet present rather than to encourage independent historical inquiry into the Russian national past. Tsarist centralization and empire-building were styled as necessary precursors to Soviet state-building, while leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great were used to legitimate the party’s preference for charismatic one-man rule. Age-old anxieties served to inform the new concerns of the 1930s, whether concerning the Oprichnina’s “just” suppression of internal enemies or Aleksandr Nevskii’s defensive struggle against an invasion of Teutonic knights. Prerevolutionary triumphs on the battlefi eld, as well as in science and the arts, provided Soviet-era commanders, artists and thinkers with a historical pedigree of sorts.

According to the quasi-Marxist paradigm that governed this revisionism, all of these historic individuals, reputations and accomplishments had been progressive within their historical periods and thus could now be rehabilitated in order to illustrate, explain and justify similarly progressive aspects of Soviet state and society. As I note above, these were rhetorical bids to mobilize rather than to enfranchise or nationalize.

— But if reinforcing the authority and legitimacy of the state was the goal, why rehabilitate heroes, symbols, legends and myths that were chiefl y Russian, rather than drawn more broadly from the history of the peoples of the USSR?

— Excellent question. This quixotic relationship with the Russian national past is best understood as a function of Stalin’s peculiar regard for the Russian people as a whole. Although famous for his valorization of the Russian people, Stalin was not a Russian nationalist and had historically opposed all eff orts to promote Russian self-rule. Instead, Stalin saw the Russians as a “state-bearing people” who unifi ed the society and served as the “fi rst among equals” and the “elder brother” within the Soviet family of nations. In Stalin’s mind, Russian culture, history and demographic strength was uniquely capable of reinforcing the authority and legitimacy of the Soviet state – much more so than that of the more particularistic national identity of the Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians, Kazakhs, etc. etc.[14]

— What, then, is the connection between Stalin’s russocentrism and the formation of a modern sense of Russian national identity among Russian speakers on the mass level of society?

— This issue relates to what I’d rather immodestly call the second major contribution of my book. I argue that that despite the fact that Stalin deployed the Russian national past in the USSR exclusively in the name of popular mobilization, this russocentric propaganda had an unpredictable, unintended eff ect within Russian speaking society at the grass roots. While doing my research, I found letters, diaries, secret police reports and postwar émigré interviews to reveal that many Russian speakers eagerly consumed Stalin’s celebration of Russianness and the Russian national past without connecting those issues to the broader subject of the Soviet present or future.

Indeed, many actively diff erentiated beloved Russian heroes, myths and legends from the more schematic, arcane Marxist-Leninist values and principles that they were paired with. This selective reception and internalization of russocentric propaganda and imagery during the Stalin era meant that by 1953, Russian speakers were in possession of a much more coherent and articulate sense of who they were as Russians than they had enjoyed in the years before 1937.

Put another way, the party’s attempt to reinforce the authority and legitimacy of the Soviet state through the selective co-option of Russian heroes, myths and legends resulted in something Stalin never anticipated: the formation of a mass sense of Russian national consciousness quite independent of Soviet socialist trappings. As such, although the emergence of this sense of national identity is tied to one of the greatest propaganda campaigns of the mid-20th century, it should also be regarded as an unintentional and even accidental byproduct of the general secretary’s populist fl irtation with the mobilizational potential of the Russian national past.

— What’s the methodology behind your study?

— Because I am interested in questions concerning group identity and public opinion, I contend that the study of mobilizational propaganda requires more than just a focus on the production of the offi cial line on high. A thorough investigation of propaganda requires attention to the agency behind not only its creation and production, but also a focus on its projection and dissemination in society. This is because one cannot just assume that messages from above are eff ectively communicated into society below without actually tracking them into educational institutions, the press and mass culture.

Were that not complicated enough, I also argue that it is also imperative to look at the popular reception of this mobilizational propaganda. Audiences are notoriously fi ckle and often selectively remember or misunderstand what they hear from authorities. So rather than to assume that the offi  cial line is transmitted eff ectively to the mass level, I actually track the reception of the line, using letters, diaries, memoirs, secret police reports and other sources off ering glimpses of popular opinion. This, in my view, gives the best possible data on the popular reception of offi  cial propaganda

Of course, it is necessary to concede from the outset that my claims in this investigation of popular opinion are necessarily modest – I only claim to present glimpses of the way the Soviet populace reacted to offi  cial mobilizational propaganda.

In our day and age, people have gotten very used to modern opinion polling, which provide huge amounts of data correlated according to rigorous social science methodology on all sorts of subjects, and segmented by race, class, educational background, profession, etc. There is no way, of course, to obtain such data for the Soviet 1930s – or any other part of the world in the 1930s, for that matter. That said, I argue that in studies of mobilizational propaganda, it remains important to make an attempt to gauge popular reception, even if the results are necessarily limited or fragmentary.[15] I argue that glimpses of popular opinion can be obtained if one harnesses letters, diaries, memoirs, and party and secret police reports, and if one conscientiously triangulates these sources against one another to reduce problems that each genre presents on its own.

Again, I’ll concede the limitations of this approach and the fact that the best anyone can expect is mere glimpses of opinion. Nevertheless, I argue that it is far superior to purely speculative approaches to the study of offi  cial propaganda and its popular reception.

— How would you say that the original arguments in National Bolshevism changed between 2002 and 2017, when the book reappeared as Stalinist Russocentrism?

— During my revisions to both the 2009 and 2017 Russian editions, I made many minor editorial changes to improve both the content of the monograph and the language in which it was expressed.[16] I also updated the text in order to bring it into alignment with new scholarship that has emerged in recent years. This was a task that I frankly dreaded, especially in regard to the 2017 edition, as I expected that as I re-edited the book, I’d fi nd an array of errors or obsolete perspectives that I would need to adjust or rewrite in order to refl ect new discoveries in the fi eld. Instead, I found that aside from routine updating, I didn’t need to alter any major elements of the book. Most of the literature on the subject published in the past decade in English, Russia, German and French either follows the arguments that I originally developed in the 1990s or advances positions that are completely compatible with my fi ndings. I found this positive resonance in the scholarly literature very satisfying. Pundits and journalists have not always been so kind.[17]

When the fi rst Russian edition appeared in 2009, it contained a new chapter in which I linked the contours of russocentrism to the purge of the third largest party organization in the USSR in 1949 – the so-called Leningrad Aff air.[18] In it, I argue that although there are a variety of factors that explain the purge of A.A. Kuznetsov, N.A. Voznesenskii, P.S. Popkov, M.I. Rodionov and a number of other prominent party offi  cials, their fate is partially explained by mistakes made regarding postwar russocentrism. It turns out that Kuznetsov and his comrades-in-arms misunderstood this mobilizational propaganda as encouraging a variety of nationalistic projects oriented around expanding the RSFSR’s institutional sovereignty (including the founding of a republican-level Russian communist party and the transfer of the republican capital to Leningrad). Stalin, of course, had no intention of supporting Russian nationalism, sovereignty or self-rule and purged the Leningraders in order to preclude any institutional challenge to the USSR.

The fi rst Russian edition also corrected a major mistake in the book’s English edition. In the original 2002 book, I credited A. A. Zhdanov with much of the editing of Shestakov’s 1937 History of the USSR. I did this because in the late 1990s, I found a heavily-edited copy of the Shestakov text in Zhdanov’s fond at the former Central Party Archive and searched in vain for anything similar in Stalin’s fond. I concluded that Zhdanov had been tasked by Stalin with curating Shestakov’s work and editing his text. Unfortunately, after the English edition had already gone to press in 2000–2001, I learned several more copies of the Shestakov text had been found in the newlydeclassifi ed 11th inventory of the Stalin fond. Subsequent analysis revealed that most of Zhdanov’s editing had been derived directly from Stalin’s work on the textbook – something that forced me to reassign credit for a number of important alterations to the Shestakov text in 2009.

In the second Russian edition of the book, published in 2017, I added another new chapter on dissent expressed between 1937–1937 about the emerging russocentric line. This chapter, based on an article published in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, demonstrated that members of the Soviet creative intelligentsia had strongly objected to the party’s new mobilizational propaganda, as it contradicted their moral commitment to the revolution and internationalism.[19] In this edition, I also made a number of revisions to the book’s account of the Leningrad Aff air in order to ensure that it refl ects my thinking on the subject after a decade of further work.

— What can explain the change in title from National Bolshevism to Stalinist Russocentrism? Was it changed at the request of R ?

— Good question. The decision to change the title of the book was entirely mine. Let me explain. In English, the term “National Bolshevism” is eye-catching and provocative. As a title, it captured my overall thesis about the intrinsically Marxist, socialist nature of this Stalin-era mobilizational propaganda, while at the same time distinguishing russocentrism from anything more genuinely nationalistic. Broad audiences read the book in English and found the term useful and enlightening.

Russian-speaking audiences, however, found the term “National Bolshevism” confusing and objected to its cooption from earlier authors such as N.V. Ustrialov, M.N. Riutin and M.S. Agurskii. Some specialists also found “National Bolshevism” to be diffi  cult to distinguish from the “national communism” practiced during the 1920s in places like Ukraine and Belarus. Others found the term unnecessarily provocative, perhaps in connection with the controversial “National Bolshevik” movement headed by E.V. Limonov between 1992–2007.

Frustrated by the distracting nature of the term in Russian, I retitled the book in its second edition in order to frame the entire book around my “russocentrism” neologism. Perhaps even better than its forerunner, this term captures key elements of my thesis while also distinguishing Stalin-era mobilizational propaganda from more genuine nationalist agitation. My hope is that the term “russocentrism” will ultimately be naturalized into Russian academic discourse in the same way as it has been in English over the past 15 years.

— How would you say that National Bolshevism / Stalinist Russocentrism challenges reigning impressions of Stalin and Stalinism in the historiography?

— In my study, Stalin is considerably less prescient as a historical agent than he is often described in the literature. Interested in indoctrination and popular mobilization, Stalin struggled to articulate a clear vision of how his Agitprop apparatus was to win Soviet hearts and minds in society during the 1930s, especially among his more ill-educated citizenry.

Agitprop as an institution, too, appears surprisingly clumsy as it stands at the helm of what is often referred to as the world’s fi rst “propaganda state.” This is a theme that I highlight in my second book – Propaganda State in Crisis.[20]

In the end, National Bolshevism / Stalinist Russocentrism presents a strikingly contingent history of Stalinist mobilizational propaganda between the early 1930s and the mid-1950s, in which the offi  cial deployment of russocentric but non-nationalistic mobilizational propaganda has the unintended consequence of precipitating the formation of a mass sense of Russian identity among Russian speakers within Soviet society.


1  David Brandenberger, “The ‘Short Course’ to Modernity: Stalinist History Textbooks, Mass Culture and the Formation of Popular Russian National Identity, 1934–1956” (PhD. Thesis, Harvard University, 1999).

2  Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Refl ections on the Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 1991); Miroslav Hroch, The Social Preconditions for a Rational Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the National Composition of Patriotic Groups Among the Smaller European Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Hroch, “From National Movement to the Fully-formed Nation: The Nation-Building Process in Europe,” in Mapping the Nation, ed. Gopal Balakrishnan (New York and London: Verso, 1996), 78–97.

3  Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993); Terry Martin, The Affi  rmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001); Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, eds. James von Geldern and Richard Stites (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Jeff rey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861–1917 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003

4 A.N. Artizov, “V ugodu vzgliadam vozhdia [konkurs 1936 g. na uchebnik po istorii SSSR],” Kentavr [Voprosy istorii KPSS] 1 (1991): 125–135. See also Istoriia SSSR: Kratkii kurs, ed. A.V. Shestakov (Moscow: Gos. uchebno-pedagogicheskoe izdatel’stvo, 1937).

5 D.L. Brandenberger and A.M. Dubrovsky, “ ‘The People Need a Tsar’: The Emergence of Na-tional Bolshevism as Stalinist Ideology, 1931–1941,” Europe Asia Studies [Soviet Studies] 50, no. 5 (1998): 873–892.

6 Indigenization programs (korenizatsiia), of course, did not apply to Russian-speaking society.

7  My analysis here runs parallel to an argument advanced in Matthew Lenoe, Closer to the Masses Stalinist Culture, Social Revolution, and Soviet Newspapers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

8  I examine this popular reception of Soviet mobilizational propaganda from the mid-1930s through letters, diaries, memoirs, secret police reports, as well as the popular consumption of new novels, plays, operas and fi lms, in my second major book, David Brandenberger, Krizis stalinskogo agitpropa: Propaganda, politprosveshchenie i terror, 1927–1941 (Moscow: R , 2017). Originally published as Brandenberger, Propaganda State in Crisis: Soviet Ideology, Indoctrination and Terror under Stalin, 1928–1941 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

9  See, for example, David King, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsifi cation of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997).

10 Istoriia VKP(b): Kratkii kurs (Moscow: Gospolitizdat, 1938).

11  See Stalin’s Master Narrative: A Critical Edition of the Short Course on the History of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks), eds. David Brandenberger and Mikhail Zelenov (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

12  Although some historians have recently argued that Ukrainians and Belorussians were also elevated to the status of “great peoples” between 1939 and 1941, this would seem to be a component of the campaign to justify the Sovietization of eastern Poland rather than an independent ideological development bent on valorizing the Ukrainian or Belorussian people, per se. Not only does the timing of the campaign point directly to the 1939 partitioning of Poland, but the historical parables that received the most publicity (e.g., 1654, Bogdan Khmel’nitskii, and the Polish Yoke) are too convenient to be merely coincidental. Of course, regardless of the reasons behind the promotion of “the great Ukrainian people” and “the great Belorussian people” between 1939 and 1941, these developments should be seen as fully compatible with the Russian people’s offi  cial designation as “the fi rst among equals.” See Serhy Yekelchyk, Stalin’s Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 21–26; Amir Weiner, Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 351–352.

13  Importantly, russocentrism after 1937 did not redress the profound institutional imbalance that lay at the heart of the Soviet system. As is widely known, the RSFSR was originally incorporated into the USSR without the bureaucratic institutions established elsewhere in Ukraine, the Transcaucasus or the other union republics. This denial of a separate party organization, central committee, academy of sciences, etc. had been a deliberate strategy to limit Russian infl uence in Soviet society during the early 1920s. Tellingly, this imbalance was retained after 1937 despite offi  cial paens to the Russian people as “the fi rst among equals.”

14  Erik van Ree, “Heroes and Merchants: Stalin’s Understanding of National Character,” Kritika 8:1 (2007): 41–65.

15  In this sense, I disagree with criticisms of my eff orts to track reception in my books – see, for instance, Viacheslav Menkovskii, [Retsenziia na Krizis stalinskogo agitpropa], Ab Imperio, 4 (2018): 380–389, esp.

16  K.A. Boldovskii, A.S. Konokhova, A.M. Dubrovskii, S. Maksudov and others helped with the text’s editing.

17  See, for instance, S. Beliakov, “Нация ex nihilo,” Novyi mir 10 (2010): 194-199; E. Politdrug, “Russkikh pridumal Stalin,” Sputnik i pogrom, 20 June 2014, October 1, 2019, https://sputnikipogrom.com/ society/14545/made-by-stalin/; etc.

18  The article was based on David Brandenberger, “Stalin, the Leningrad Aff air, and the Limits of Postwar Russocentrism,” Russian Review 63:2 (2004): 241–255.

19  David Brandenberger, “ ‘Simplistic, Pseudo-Socialist Racism’: Ideological Debates Over the Direction of Soviet Socialism within Stalin’s Creative Intelligentsia, 1936–1939,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 13, no. 2 (2012): 365–393.

20  David Brandenberger, Propaganda State in Crisis: Soviet Ideology, Indoctrination and Terror under Stalin, 1928–1941 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). Published in Russian as D. Brandenberger, Krizis stalinskogo agitpropa: Propaganda, politprosveshchenie i terror, 1927–1941 (Moscow: Rosspen, 2017).


About the authors

David Brandenberger

University of Richmond; National Research University “Higher School of Economics”

Author for correspondence.
Email: rushistj@rudn.ru

PhD in History, Professor of Russian and Soviet History in the Department of History, University of Richmond; research associate, National Research University “Higher School of Economics” (Moscow, Russian Federation).


  1. Anderson B. Imagined Communities: Refl ections on the Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1991.
  2. Artizov, A.N. “V ugodu vzglyadam vozhdya. Konkurs 1936 g. na uchebnik po istorii SSSR.” Kentavr, no. 1 (1991): 125–135 (in Russian).
  3. Brandenberger, D. “The ‘Short Course’ to Modernity: Stalinist History Textbooks, Mass Culture and the Formation of Popular Russian National Identity, 1934–1956.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 1999.
  4. Brandenberger, D.L., and Dubrovsky, A.M. “ ‘The People Need a Tsar’: The Emergence of National Bolshevism as Stalinist Ideology, 1931–1941.” Europe Asia Studies 50, no. 5 (1998): 873–892.
  5. Brandenberger, D. Propaganda State in Crisis: Soviet Ideology, Indoctrination and Terror under Stalin, 1928–1941. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
  6. Brandenberger, D., and Zelenov, M. Stalin’s Master Narrative: A Critical Edition of the Short Course on the History of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks). New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.
  7. Brandenberger, D. “Stalin, the Leningrad Aff air, and the Limits of Postwar Russocentrism.” Russian Review 63, no. 2 (2004): 241–255.
  8. Brandenberger, D. “‘Simplistic, Pseudo-Socialist Racism’: Ideological Debates Over the Direction of Soviet Socialism within Stalin’s Creative Intelligentsia, 1936–1939.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 13, no. 2 (2012): 365–393.
  9. Brandenberger, D. Krizis stalinskogo agitpropa: Propaganda, politprosveshcheniye i terror, 1927–1941. Moscow: ROSSPEN Publ., 2017 (in Russian).
  10. Brooks, J. When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861–1917. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003.
  11. Gellner, E. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, 1983.
  12. Geldern, J. von, and Stites, R. Mass Culture in Soviet Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  13. Hroch, M. The Social Preconditions for a Rational Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the National Composition of Patriotic Groups Among the Smaller European Nations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  14. Hroch, M. “From National Movement to the Fully-formed Nation: The Nation-building Process in Europe.” In Mapping the Nation, 78–97. New York; London: Verso, 1996.
  15. King, D. The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsifi cation of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.
  16. Lenoe, M. Closer to the Masses Stalinist Culture, Social Revolution, and Soviet Newspapers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  17. Martin, T. The Affi rmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.
  18. Menkovskiy, V. “Retsenziya na «Krizis stalinskogo agitpropa.” Ab Imperio, no. 4 (2018): 380–389 (in Russia).
  19. Ree, E. van. “Heroes and Merchants: Stalin’s Understanding of National Character.” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8, no. 1 (2007): 41–65.
  20. Shestakov, A.V. Istoriya SSSR: Kratkiy kurs. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoye uchebno-pedagogicheskoye izdaniye, 1937 (in Russian).
  21. Suny, R.G. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.
  22. Weiner, A. Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  23. Yekelchyk, S. Stalin’s Empire of Memory: Russian-Ukrainian Relations in the Soviet Historical Imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

Supplementary files

Supplementary Files
1. David Brandenberger

Download (788KB)

Copyright (c) 2020 Brandenberger D.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This website uses cookies

You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our website.

About Cookies