Courtesy of the Department of Russian
This year’s Clifford Symposium, which took place from Sept. 21 to 23, centered on a topic of historical significance and, amid the turbulence of our present-day political landscape, renewed relevance. Entitled “The Soviet Century: 100 Years of the Russian Revolution,” the symposium consisted of panel discussions, screenings, and art performances across three days, allowing attendees to engage with material across a variety of mediums.
To celebrate the beginning of a weekend of inquiry and reflection, students, alumni and faculty enjoyed a Soviet Union-style dinner in Atwater dining hall, playfully renamed “Stolovaya No. 6” for the evening of Sept. 21.
In commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Middlebury School in the Soviet Union, Thomas Beyer, professor of Russian and East European Studies, shared stories about Middlebury students who traveled to Russia during the Soviet era.
“The first thing that happened and happened every year for the next 12 years and ruined my August and summer vacations was that of the 15 students, only nine of them received visas,” Beyer stated.
Students who studied abroad in Moscow in the fall of 1977 witnessed the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution, a Bolshevik uprising led by Vladimir Lenin that constituted the second part of the Russian Revolution and which was instrumental in dismantling the tsarist autocracy.
Kevin Moss, professor of Russian, reflected on his time spent at the Pushkin Institute, a public education center in Moscow, from 1981 to 1982. There, Middlebury students studied alongside students from all across Eastern Europe who were training to become Russian teachers in their home countries.
Amid the general animosity of the era, residential life allowed for considerable intercultural exchange. Students from each country presented performances at celebrations hosted by the institution, though they often suspected that their dorms were under government surveillance.
“In many ways, the capitalists and the socialists were kept apart at the institute. The directors from the capitalist countries would meet separately from the directors from the socialist countries,” Moss recalled.
“There were also some ideological clashes, particularly in ’85 and ’86 and ’88 and ’89 when the Soviet Union was already beginning to publish some people like Pasternak and thinking about Solzhenitsyn. In the early years, when the students would say that they had read in their literature courses Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn, the teachers would say, ‘Surely you don’t think they will become part of the history of Russian Literature.’”
Nevertheless, students did not hesitate to make their opinions known by defacing posters of leaders of the Soviet Union or hanging the posters upside-down.
Besides a constant brewing of tension, the Soviet era was characterized by a sense of rigid uniformity. Moss recounted that stores were all operated by the state and labelled with generic names such as “meat” or “fish.” Aisles contained singular products, and on the rare occasions that a unique product ended up on the shelves, customers would flock to buy it.
The rest of the symposium shifted from reflections on lived experiences to analyses of political and sociocultural frameworks. Panels throughout the weekend offered insights and interpretations of events leading up to and surrounding the Soviet era.
In the opening remarks of a lecture entitled “The Russian Revolution as a Utopian Leap,” President Patton offered a framework in which to appreciate the significance of the Soviet era.
“While discussion of the events of a century ago is far less burdened than it was during the Cold War era, it remains inherently political,” Patton stated. “There is not, after all this time, a single accepted narrative of the revolution and its meaning, and that itself is a fascinating thing to study. The interpretations have ranged and continue to range drastically depending on the individual’s political and philosophical views, nationality, social background and moment in time.”
President Patton then welcomed the keynote speaker, Mark Steinberg. A professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Steinberg specializes in the intellectual and social history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He showed the audience an image of “Angel of History,” a 1920 monoprint by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, which would come to symbolize the rise of the Soviet regime.
“For a lot of people who experienced the Russian Revolution, this seemed like a time of absolutely unbelievable possibility, like nothing anybody could expect with outcomes nobody could imagine,” Steinberg stated. “This was the possibility that one could overcome oppression. That one could overcome violence, in particular the oppressions and violence of an autocratic monarchy. One could overcome the inequities of the socioeconomic system, capitalism as some would call it.”
The Russian Revolution marked a moment in history when wreckage was replaced by the construction of something completely new. A sense of rebirth permeated the cultural landscape.
“This is why I think we find so many angels in the Russian Revolution,” Steinberg said.
During the question-and-answer session, students and faculty members pushed back against the concept of the Russian Revolution as a “leap” into utopia, suggesting instead that the political shift constituted a “fall” into problematic ideals.
The far-reaching effects of Soviet ideology were further explored in a panel entitled “The Revolution Abroad,” in which four historians gathered to discuss the reception of communist ideas in Japan, East Germany and France.
Max Ward, Assistant Professor of History at the college, explained the impact of the Russian Revolution on ideas of communism in Japan. The October Revolution led to a phenomenon dubbed “dangerous thought.”
“Communism was a crime of an ideological foreign threat,” Ward said.
Andrew Demshuk, assistant professor of history at American University, analyzed influences of the October Revolution in East Germany. Following that, Nicholas Clifford, Professor Emeritus of History, covered the obsession with Maoist thought in France from 1966 through 1980. During these years, many looked to Mao Zedong as a figure of communism more dominant than Khrushchev in the USSR. The largest of the Maoist groupings called themselves the gauche proletarians.
The Soviet era cannot be understood solely through its communist ideology, however. Political rhetoric and creative expression informed and at times challenged one another amid the turbulence of the times. Moving beyond a purely political analysis of the Cold War era, a panel entitled “Art in Revolution” explored the manifestation of Soviet thought in Russian music and literature.
Steven Richmond, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and former student at the Middlebury School of Russian, framed the discussion by outlining the role of censorship before and during the Soviet era. During the tsarist regime, Soviet leaders, whom he described as “creatures of censorship,” were involved in the underground press. In 1922, after the conclusion of the civil war, Soviet leadership created an official censorship bureau known as Glavlit. This new, centralized paradigm of censorship lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Next, Matthew Bengtson, Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, analyzed the role of Russian music from the mid-nineteenth to twentieth century. Drawing from his expertise in piano literature, he described the artistic landscape in nineteenth-century Russia as a “tug of war between cosmopolitans and nationalists” – those who looked to the West for inspiration and those who remained invested in local traditions. Tchaikovsky and Brothers Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein figured among the cosmopolitans, while the Mighty Five, Mili Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alexander Borodin represented nationalist interests.
German philosophy, particularly the works of Nietzsche, strongly influenced the public’s perception of music as an artistic medium. During an era in which an apocalypse felt imminent, artists were positioned as prophets and seers, and the ability of music to transcend mere representation rendered it as the highest art form.
“Music was abstract, and thus it could claim to be spiritual,” Bengtson explained.
He acknowledged the subjectivity of historical accounts, describing this era as “the most difficult period for us to relate to these days because the experience of the World Wars has informed our way of understanding the world. Of course, history is not written by the losers.”
The role of art in response to a shifting political landscape was a central theme of the panel discussion. Bengtson noted that the abstract idealism of music challenged the premise of a Marxian society, in which everything is supposed to be concrete. Reflecting on this contradiction, he posed an inquiry to the audience: “What happens to communist groups when they are forced to reject the notion of art?”
The rhetorical nature of this question mirrored the sense of open-ended exploration and multifaceted interpretation that characterizes the annual Clifford Symposium. Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this year’s series of discussions, screenings, and exhibits probed deep into past to reflect on questions that continue to bear relevance in the twenty-first century. The Cold War era may be behind us, receding further and further into our collective historical memory, but the art, cultures, politics and economics of Soviet times have left behind a legacy whose multiple meanings we are still trying to unravel today. In highlighting the significance of the historical rupture of 1917, this year’s Clifford Symposium served as a reminder to us all that the history books are never fully closed; that there is always more to remember, to interpret, and to boldly and rigorously question.