Lincoln in the Soviet Union

The other day my students brought in newspaper articles about the Civil War that were published in the New York Times between 1961 and 1965.  They were allowed to search any topic and then had to write up a brief analysis of what they discovered.  I asked them to staple the articles to their analysis so I could spend some time with their sources.  In our discussion about Lincoln this interesting little article came up which reports on a Moscow radio broadcast that references the president. The article was published on February 14, 1961:

Tribute Paid to Lincoln in Moscow Broadcast

Abraham Lincoln, the Moscow radio said today, is a name “dear to the heart of the Soviet people.”  A broadcast beamed at North America and heard here declared that the Soviet people “can sympathize with and understand Lincoln’s democratic views and his sincere and deep sympathy for the working people.”  “Today, when the peoples of all countries see as the main task the struggle to preserve peace,” the broadcast went on, “we return to the words of Lincoln.  Let us strive to do all that will achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  “We honor the great President and United States citizen because he represented the revolutionary and democratic traditions of the American people, traditions which found expression during difficult years of the struggle against fascism.”

What followed was a nice discussion about why our supposed ideological enemy, during the Cold War, would honor one of our presidents.  One student suggested it was a clever piece of propaganda designed to undercut the American peoples’ self confidence.  In other words, if the Soviet people revere one of our own than than Americans may doubt that there is such a wide gulf between the two nations.  Another student argued that it was an attempt on the part of the Soviet Union to reach out in hopes of cooling tensions during the height of the Cold War.  Finally, another student hesitantly made the point that perhaps the Soviets really do revere Lincoln.  What followed was some very awkward silence, but I decided to ride it out in hopes that the conversation would continue.  The problem, it turned out, was that some of the students had difficulty considering such a possibility.  Even though they were born after the end of the Cold War they’ve been trained to remember this period by those who did experience it for different lengths of time.  We talked a bit about the connection between the plight of the slaves and how the working class fits into communist ideology.  I also reminded them that a large contingent of African Americans traveled and even settled in the Soviet Union as an alternative to the experience of living in a Jim Crow society.  It seems safe to suggest that hey would have brought strong views of Lincoln with them, but I am going to have to go back and check out Glenda Gilmore’s recent study to see if she has anything to say.

One of the more interesting points of discussion that came up was why Americans have such difficulty acknowledging that other nations are interested in our Civil War.  It’s true.  We see nothing unusual about history courses devoted to the study of another country, but we rarely imagine students in other countries studying our own history.  For those of you in the classroom who are interested in exploring this theme I highly recommend Dana Lindman and Kyle Ward’s History Lessons: How Textbooks From Around the World Portray U.S. History (The New Press, 2004).  The book is broken down by events and each section includes short excerpts from various history textbooks from around the world.  They make for some wonderful classroom discussions as students try to understand the reasons behind the various interpretations.

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10 comments… add one

  • jfe Jan 28, 2010

    IIRC, wasn't the American unit which fought on the left-wing side in Spain called the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade”? Didn't Marx himself write approvingly of Lincoln? (The modern neo-Confederates like to indulge in guilt by association with this.)

  • margaretdblough Jan 28, 2010

    Kevin,

    History is very much a matter of perspective, including which stories get told and how they get told. My late maternal grandfather was Scots (he didn't come to the US until he was an adult) and he stoked my interest in this when he told me that the textbooks that he had as a boy, which had to be approved in London, had a nasty tendency to refer to British defeats and English victories.

  • bobhuddleston Jan 29, 2010

    Check out Civil War History 8:4 (December 1962) for Ada M. Stoflet, trans., “The Civil War – Russian Version (I): from the Soviet Encyclopedia (357-364) and Joseph A. Logsdon, “The Civil War—Russian Version (II): The Soviet Historians” (365-372)

    • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2010

      Thanks Bob. I have most of the old CWH journals – will definitely check it out.

  • Sherree Jan 29, 2010

    Kevin,

    In the 1970s–there at Mr. Jefferson's university–I had a friend who was from Hungary. He was eleven years old when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. He saw people murdered and put in jail by the Soviets. When he got old enough to do it, he defected to the US. That is the reality.

    There is no doubt that the brutality of slavery, Jim Crow, and the continued racism in the United States bear much in common with “fascism”, in certain ways. For this to be confused, even in the slightest, with the supposed “egalitarian” nature of the Soviet Union is false history. The segregated South was brutal. The gulags of the Soviet Union were brutal, too. Marxism works in theory. So far it is an abysmal failure when implemented.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2010

      No disagreement here. I think the point is that it is important to remember that our own icons are often exported elsewhere and interpreted in ways that may surprise. As you well know, some Americans on the political Left were seduced by the Revolution, including African Americans. Most backed away once Stalin's brutality surfaced along with other problems. That Lincoln continued to be referenced into the 1960s perhaps reflects the continued idealism of the Soviets.

      • Sherree Jan 29, 2010

        Thanks, Kevin, for clarifying. The depth of the brutality that the Soviets inflicted upon their own people was staggering, as was the depth of the brutality inflicted upon Americans by other Americans through the institution of slavery. Both are wrong in the broadest sense of the meaning of the word, and both are indefensible on any level.

  • toby Jan 29, 2010

    Am I wrong, but would this have been close the Inauguration of President John F. Kennedy? Perhaps it was a reminder of a previous holder of that office.

    Marxists also celebrated “bourgeois revolutionaries” like Jefferson, Adams and Mirabeau, whom they regarded as essential precursors to the success of communism. Lincoln was regarded by many historians at the time as the President who enforced capitalist norms on the agrarian South, and would therefore been (unconsciously) really advancing communism, whose triumph was inevitable.

    It was also an era when the Russian leadership was willing to harness nationalism to advance its own foreign policy agenda. Castro and Ho Chi Minh began as nationalists before turning to marxism. Incorporating a hero of the enemy into the pantheon tends to lead to a sense of false security in ones adversary. To Russians, it would tend to reinforce belief in their government's peaceful intentions.

    So I think both of your students made good points. There was probably enough sincerity in communists praising Lincoln that the Russians themselves did not see it as ultimately deceptive.

  • Sherree Jan 30, 2010

    Kevin,

    I thought about this topic some more, and something about it really bothers me. In the 1970s I had in my circle of friends, a Russian couple, a Hungarian couple, and the man from Hungary who witnessed the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by the Soviets, and whom I referenced in the above comment. All five of these men and women were intellectuals, and all five defected from the Soviet Union, since there was no other way at the time to escape the repressive Soviet government. Their experiences were authentic and not filtered through American Left/Right ideology. The broadcast that you referenced was no doubt Soviet doublespeak to undercut American ideas of freedom. That there were men and women in the Soviet Union who admired Lincoln is so. They were not allowed to express that admiration, however. That is the crucial point. The total lack of freedom of speech in the Soviet Union was one reason, among many other reasons–including imprisonment or death for those who did not tow the party line–that people defected.

    During this time period (the 1970s) my Hungarian friends and I attended a performance of Russian dancers at UVA. The man who introduced the dancers (and who was a member of the Communist Party) said that the Soviet Union and the United States were both great countries, and that the Soviet Union had had to deal with difficult problems itself, such as the “problem” that the US had had with the “Indians”. In other words, this man praised the US for decimating Native nations, and made a favorable comparison to the Soviet Union. I was astonished at this statement, as were many other people in the audience. My friends were not astonished, however. They were quite accustomed to this type of talk. Apparently, this man was just not very adept at doublespeak. And that is exactly what was required in the Soviet Union at the time–doublespeak in a truly chilling and Orwellian way. Plus, I think that this man truly did admire what he seemed to see as American efficiency in exerting absolute power over indigenous nations.

    I know that you are not disagreeing with me, Kevin. I just want to add this anecdote from the past because it might aid your students in their analysis. There are plenty of books that document the horrific acts that took place in the gulags, and throughout Soviet society. Those books would provide context in analyzing any type of public message that came out of a nation that suppressed freedom of speech. American hypocrisy, when it comes to living up to the American idea of freedom, is a legitimate topic as well. Members of the Communist Party of what was once the Soviet Union were not (and are not) in any position to point out that hypocrisy, or anything else about America, however. (BTW, my friends did indeed admire Lincoln, as did I.)

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