Do the European Union and Russia share a similar difficulty in coming to terms with the memories of their political origins? This question comes up at the end of my second class session on The Politics of European Integration with 5 Russian Masters and PhD students at the European University of Saint Petersburg. We are discussing whether Jean Monnet, one of the EU founders, was primarily a technocrat, as is often argued, or a man more concerned with founding a new kind of European politics.
After reading a chapter of Monnet’s Memoirs, one student comments that he could be compared to the Aristotle of European integration. Others protest that this comparison is overblown. I argue that the memory of Monnet as a technocrat, often relayed by scholars, is unfortunate as it confirms the suspicion that the EU started as a vast technocratic enterprise hidden purposefully from the people. Its very origin is vitiated when in fact Monnet and other European leaders worked hard and unsuccessfully to establish a political community with fully accountable institutions in 1952 already. The project was defeated in the French National Assembly in 1954 and the establishment of the European Economic Community in 1956 indeed marked a step back from primarily political intents, but Monnet had nothing to do with this.
Am I wrong to think that this matters so much? I ask my students. Memory of origins strengthens or undermines legitimacy, one student shoots back, so it does matter. This gets us straight to the question of how to remember the transition from the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation’s founding. Opinions will not be easily reconciled on this topic, conversation to be pursued in another class.
Historian Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (2007) makes me revisit the issue the next day. One central character is Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov (1915-79), a Stalinist until Khrushchev’s Thaw. Simonov who supported the 1956 repression of the Hungarian Revolution, and opposed the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, spent the last ten years of his life literally agonizing, privately and semi-publicly, about his role in suppressing fellow writers. He became a strong supporter of poet Nadezdha Mandelshtam and facilitated the publishing of Mikhail Bulkagov ‘s subversive The Master and Margarita. Figes notes Simonov’s ability to question himself and to “change” in the 1970s. Apparently mostly forgotten by the young today, did a Simonov prepare the ground for the glasnost of the 1980s?