Saturday, July 23, 2011

Karen Petrone's "The Great War in Russian Memory"

Karen Petrone is Professor of History at the University of Kentucky. She is author of Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin, editor (with Valerie Kivelson, Michael S. Flier, and Nancy Shields Kollmann) of The New Muscovite Cultural History: A Collection in Honor of Daniel B. Rowland, and co-editor (with Jie-Hyun Lim) of Gender Politics and Mass Dictatorship: Global Perspectives.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Great War in Russian Memory, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Great War in Russian Memory analyzes the World War I heroism of the character Grigorii Melekhov in Mikhail Sholokhov’s Soviet blockbuster novel Quiet Flows the Don. While this novel is usually considered a Russian Civil War novel, I look at how Sholokhov presented images of World War I honor and heroism to Soviet readers. Unlike previous scholars who argue that there was no World War I memory in the Soviet Union, I show that although the World War (1914-1918) was not officially commemorated by the Soviet state, there was considerable attention to the war that emerged on the margins of Soviet culture. My study returns the Soviet Union to its rightful place in the history of European memory of World War I by exploring the themes of religion and mourning, heroism and manliness, violence, and patriotism. These themes, which emerged all across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, also appeared in the Soviet Union at that time. The second part of my book demonstrates how the increasing militarization of Soviet culture in the mid-to-late 1930s led to the intentional repression of memories of the darker side of the war.

From page 99:
In Quiet Flows the Don, Melekhov also won the St. George cross…. Severely wounded in a battle with Hungarian hussars, Melekhov regained consciousness on the battlefield and was struggling to return to his unit when he encountered a wounded officer. “Grigory helped the officer to his feet and they walked on together. But with every step the wounded officer leaned more heavily on Grigory’s arm. As they climbed out of a hollow he seized Grigory’s sleeve and said through chattering teeth, ‘Leave me here, Cossack. I’m wounded in the stomach.’” Melekhov disobeyed this order. As “the eyes behind the pince-nez grew dull” and the officer fainted, “Grigory carried him, falling, pulling himself up and falling again. Twice he abandoned his burden, only to go back and pick it up, and then struggle on, as if in a waking dream.” One could read Melekhov’s determination to save the wounded officer as a lack of class-consciousness because he failed to recognize that the officer was an “enemy,” but one could also read it as a sign of his humanity, compassion, and determination to save life; for this exploit, he received the St. George cross, 4th class. In this episode, Melekhov doggedly pushed himself to the limits of his strength in order to save another, becoming a war hero who did not shed blood to earn a medal and a promotion to corporal. He jeopardized his own life to save the officer, even after he received permission to leave him behind. At the same time… he asserted his masculine superiority over the weak and fainting Russified German officer with a pince-nez.
This episode shows the ambiguity of Soviet memory of World War I; despite the fact that Sholokhov reveals Melekhov’s lack of class-consciousness, Melekhov’s endurance, his bravery, his refusal to give in, and his life-saving compassion make him a model masculine hero in the eyes of Soviet readers. Melekhov upholds traditional Tsarist honor and communicates the nature of that honor to a Soviet audience, presenting the Tsarist soldier-hero as an extremely attractive character. World War I memory in the Soviet Union was complex and contradictory.
Preview The Great War in Russian Memory, and learn more about the book at the Indiana University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue