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They also made us work: Russian peasants' memories of war, occupation, and the Holocaust

Join us for an evening with Alexander Nakhimovsky who will speak about the language of the Soviet peasantry and what it reveals of their world view. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, there were about 100,000,000 Russian peasants, 82% of the Russian population and by far the largest socio-economic group in Europe. By contrast, scholars, engineers, school teachers, lawyers, doctors, and everybody else in intellectual professions--and these include Tolstoy, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Mendeleev, Sikorsky, Malevich, Lenin, and others of similar prominence—amounted to less than three million. In spite of horrific child mortality and primitive medical care, the peasant population was growing rapidly. Russia's manifest destiny – it was believed – was to populate and weave together the Eurasian land mass from Central Europe to the Pacific Ocean. But during the four tragic decades from 1914 to 1954 Russia's peasant population was decimated, and her manifest destiny twisted into a bad imitation that limped along for anther several decades before collapsing, suddenly and completely. Russia had failed to fulfil her manifest destiny.

This vast decrease in the peasant population was brought about by WWI, the Civil War, the famine of 1921-22, collectivization and de-kulakization, labour camps, the famine of 1932-33, the famine of 1946-47, and – above all – by the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. There were also tens of millions of peasants who migrated to the cities in search of a better life – and to carry out poorly conceived and incredibly wasteful industrialization projects. This migration was on such a scale that, throughout the Soviet Union, it led to the development of a uniform urban vernacular very different from educated Russian yet bearing no trace of local peasant dialects.

All through the Soviet period up to the 1980s, the peasantry was one of the most censored topics in scholarly and political discourse. Only in the 1990s were the constraints lifted. Scores of researchers--linguists, ethnographers, historians, and sociologists—at once started looking for, and recording, peasants who remembered pre-kolkhoz life and language. (In the late 1930s, and especially after the war, traditional peasant speech was no longer transmitted from generation to generation.) At this point, a great number of autobiographical narratives have been transcribed and published. The central historical experience within these narratives is collectivization and de-kulakization, which was also the central interest of the interviewers. Relatively few narratives touch on occupation and the Holocaust. Nevertheless, those that do open an important window on a part of Soviet history that has been mostly avoided. In 1941-42 German armies advanced 1000 miles into Russia. The occupation lasted, depending on where you lived, from a few months to two years. Everyday life during that period, with its gradations from resistance to passive acceptance to collaboration, remains a difficult topic in Russia. Svetlana Alexievich wrote a great book about Russian women in combat, but not about Russian women who cooked for German officers and watched--sometimes in horror, sometimes with guilty excitement--the execution of their Jewish neighbors. Vasily Grossman in his novel Life and Fate created powerful images of the Holocaust in Ukraine but only hinted at Ukrainian and Russian collaboration. Russian peasants' narratives, with their masterful simple realism, add depth and nuance to the story.

This event is organised by Pushkin Club and all are welcome.

Alexander Nakhimovsky grew up in Leningrad, USSR. After wasting a few years, including a stint in the Soviet Army from which he was honourably discharged with the rank of sergeant, he received an MA in mathematics from Leningrad University (1972). He also studied both at the Herzen Pedagogical Institute and at Tartu University, where Yury Lotman was one of his teachers. He emigrated to the US in 1975 and received a PhD in linguistics from Cornell University in 1982, with a graduate minor in Computer Science. He taught Linguistics and Russian 1979-85, co-authored three Russian language textbooks and published a number of articles on general and Slavic linguistics. In 1985, to avoid long commutes on winter roads, he joined the Computer Science department at Colgate University, where his wife was already a professor of Russian Literature. He taught at Colgate in the Computer Science Department until 2013, and as Director of the Linguistics Programme until 2018. He is the author, co-author, or editor of a number of books and articles on computer technologies and Slavic linguistics. His most recent publications are on the history of the Russian language in the 20th century. He has a forthcoming book on the language and history of the Russian peasantry.