'What Is interesting in Russia Is the Mixture of the New and the Old'
Professor Graeme Gill from University of Sydney has conducted the seminar on ‘Symbolic politics and social constructions of past’ at HSE Moscow. He presented the paper ‘Symbols and Post-Communism: an inherent ambiguity?’ and talked about how the transformation of communist regimes created an imperative for the development of a new system of symbols to legitimise the new status quo.
The seminar was organized jointly by the HSE School of Political Science and the Research Council on Political Ideas and Ideologies of the Russian Political Science Association. Professor Gill focused on the ways the country deals with the communist past. The paper argued that the way this is done is shaped not only by the circumstances of the transformation of the communist regime, but also by the way that regime came into existence in the first place.
Graeme Gill very much enjoyed his visit to HSE and interacting with the students and staff. He states that ‘as one of the top institutions in the country, HSE has excellent students and staff, and that was reflected in the quality of the questions and discussion. Retaining contacts with the HSE will be a high priority.’
Professor Gill has long been interested in Russia. He says that his interest originated in 1965 when a long report appeared in Australian newspapers about the overthrow of Khrushchev and the nature of the new Brezhnev-Kosygin leadership. ‘This piqued my interest because it made Russia seem both interesting but also remote. From then on, I read whatever I could about the Soviet Union, and then when I went to university I did a course on Soviet politics and learnt some Russian history. A fascination was born!’
According to Professor Gill, there is significant interest in courses on Russian politics and history. The last time he taught a course on Russian politics, it attracted 200 students and was one of the largest courses in the department. ‘I found the following books very useful for people seeking to understand Russia: Richard Sakwa, Putin Redux; Stephen White, Understanding Russian Politics; Vladimir Gel’man, Authoritarian Russia; and, of course my book, Building an Authoritarian Polity. Russia in Post-Soviet Times.’
The main sources for his book were a combination of official speeches and documents, the contemporary media, the writings of observers of the Russian scene, and a significant amount of just walking around the Moscow streets observing the changes.
In Professor Gill’s view, one of the most interesting things about the contemporary Russian scene is the way in which the society comes to grips with its Soviet past. Part of this is the way in which the symbols of the Soviet period are handled. Some symbolic aspects of that Soviet past remain relatively unchanged; some of the architecture (such as Stalin’s ‘seven sisters’) remains much as it was during the Soviet period while Lenin still lies in his mausoleum and a number of Lenin statues still stand around the city, but other Soviet buildings have undergone significant renovation, such as the former Moskva hotel in Moscow, now the Four Seasons. Many buildings retain the hammer and sickle, and some red stars remain on the Kremlin. The national anthem is the former Soviet anthem. But much has also changed.
The streetscapes in the centre of the city are unrecognizable compared with their Soviet counterparts, and much of the language used by Russian leaders is very different from their Soviet predecessors, although there are some continuing themes. So what is interesting is this mixture of the new and the old, and the way this is forever changing.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service