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By John Helmer, Moscow

Evgeny Dobrenko (lead image, left) is a letter-perfect demonstration of several things he appears, despite years of learning at universities from Odessa to Durham (North Carolina) and Sheffield (Yorkshire), not to have heard of.  

In the academic world, like any other business, it’s the money which does the talking, pays the piper, calls the tune.  Upward mobility it is called less musically by sociologists. That means ambition fulfilled – promotion up the professorial ranks,  rising wages,  bonuses, and holiday trips which require conformity and usually a kindly attitude towards the world in return for more of its rewards.  

Downward mobility is the reverse – ambition blocked, wages declining, unkindliness toward  those individuals, institutions and states which are blamed for the individual’s fate and resented for his obscurity.   Evgeny Dobrenko blames Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin.

Starting with a surname from the Russian word meaning kind,  Dobrenko has suffered grievously from them.  He started well enough, upward for a Jewish boy from  provincial Odessa   to the Russian State University of the Humanities in Moscow,  a creation of the first flush of Boris Yeltsin’s administration and of Americans arriving to dismantle the Soviet state, army, banking system, and culture. Born a decade after Stalin’s death, Dobrenko managed only two years in Moscow before moving to Durham, where the university called Duke is situated. The years flew by with fellowships promising promotion and employment at more prestigious places that didn’t materialise. Dobrenko got his taste for the feast, but not a tenured seat at the table.  As he dropped professionally  downward, he took jobs at Nottingham, then Sheffield university. It was from there Dobrenko, a US citizen, has been watching Putin from afar. Between Stalin and Putin Dobrenko has detected no difference at all.

The explanation for this is also Dobrenko’s apology for himself. “The Soviet state”, he concludes, “magnified the flaws of the Russian Middle Ages… after a short pause [Yeltsin] Russia returned with such irrevocable readiness to the same fantasies of imperial grandeur and phantom pains… The country created by Stalin did not escape this past which has remained as its present. Putin’s Russia returned… in a natural fashion to late – but still not bygone – Stalinism”.

The “phantom pains”, Dobrenko explains, include “anti-liberalism, anti-modernism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism… inflicted on the country, just as any autocrat transforms his personal complexes into a national agenda (such a link can be easily traced in Putin’s Russia)”.

This is conventional Russia hating and war propaganda except for an unusual twist —    Dobrenko is the director at the University of Sheffield  of the Prokhorov Centre for the Study of Central and Eastern European Intellectual and Cultural History. Named by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov and created with money from Prokhorov’s Moscow foundation in 2014, the University of Sheffield didn’t announce the philanthropy then or since. University officials refused this week to disclose how much money Prokhorov paid seven years ago and continues to pay today. According to the Centre website, its “strategic priority” is to address “the ideological bases for conflict and barriers to cooperation and the bridges that have been built, and could be built, towards greater understanding and collaboration.”  

Under Dobrenko’s direction, Prokhorov’s money was recently spent on a lecture at his Sheffield centre  from a likeminded Russia war propagandist, Peter Pomerantsev; he also originates in Soviet Ukraine and is now based at an English university. Pomerantsev’s paymasters at the London School of Economics include several US government agencies, and through Ukrainian agencies  several NATO governments.  From the piper to the tune, follow his money trail here.    

Dobrenko’s pipers are similar; his tune is more long-winded. His new book, entitled “Late Stalinism, The Aesthetics of Politics”, is published by Yale University Press.  It recently competed for the Pushkin House best-book prize, and lost

Left: The cover of Dobrenko’s book. Right: Irina Prokhorova, chief paymaster of the Prokhorov Fund in Moscow. She has been reported in the Financial Times as a “new face” of the Russian opposition, and “one of the loudest critics of Russia’s actions in Ukraine” – “she, and not her brother, should be the anointed challenger to Mr Putin.”  For the archive on how Prokhorov made his money, starting with the 1996 Kremlin fraud known as the loans for shares scheme, read this.

The research costs were paid for, Dobrenko acknowledges, by a US-funded think tank in Washington, New York University, the European Commission, the Austrian defence ministry, and an Italian think tank paid for by the European Union states.

A Prokhorov Foundation spokesman said Dobrenko “has never received any salary or other financial remuneration from the Prokhorov Foundation or the Prokhorov Centre either directly or indirectly via the University of Sheffield or any other third party.”  The spokesman added:  “Dr. Dobrenko kindly took on the function of organizing the Prokhorov Centre program at Sheffield University on a volunteer basis.”

The Foundation says that it “annually provides financial support to the Prokhorov Center project in Sheffield (UK) in the amount of 3,450,000 rubles (34,000 pounds sterling) in the form of financial assistance: 1. For a visa fee, travel, accommodation (for 6 months) to two Russian researchers. 2. For travel and accommodation of Western scientists for public lectures. 3. To the international scientific conference.”

Speaking of other Russians not himself (nor Prokhorov), Dobrenko explained last month in London, that “to understand today’s resentment, anti-liberalism and anti-westernism, you need to go back to the late Stalinist period. People are nostalgic for the USSR but can’t point out exactly why. It certainly wasn’t because of the repressions, the famines or the deficits of the Brezhnev era. The pinnacle of the golden age was late Stalinism. Now the train of the Russian state is on the same track but moving backwards. You know exactly what will happen.”

What will happen?

Dobrenko is no military expert — it hasn’t dawned on him that the Russian military is magnitudes stronger today than it was before Stalin’s Red Army purge began in 1937, let alone at the moment in June 1941 when the German invasion began.  Against the Russians, the European states and the US are correspondingly weaker than they have ever been.  

Dobrenko is also no political or economic expert. He portrays Russians as “masses” of “simple folk” and “semi-urbanized peasants”, most of whom have been arriving from their rural villages to the big cities in the Putin generation, just as they did in Stalin’s. Their primitive mentality, Dobrenko told a Russian interviewer early this year,  “determines the demand for a certain type of leader…A leader who has humanistic attitudes and a liberal agenda is a loser in the minds of the population… When a culture of intolerance and intolerance is reproduced in a country from generation to generation, the attitude is fixed for confrontation with the civilized world with a single change of only forms and objects. Yesterday it was hatred for Poles, Jews, and Germans; today it is hatred for LGBT, for liberal discourse, for the protest movement, for Ukrainians.”

All Russians have “violent tendencies. This is set up by a repressive educational system which forms a certain model of child behaviour. If you bring up a boy in the spirit of ‘you’re a man, you have to defend your homeland as a soldier…’ you will get a person who will talk about ‘our Crimea’, about the ‘fifth column”, etc. There are similar psychotypes everywhere, but in Russia it is the most common psychotype that forms a political culture, creating a critical mass.”

Dobrenko’s evidence for this is 75-year old Russian poetry, films, theatre, music and painting, and the state and party officials who supervised them when World War II ended. His book’s chapters move haphazardly between these genres, and with a time sequence running backwards and forwards  between 1945 and 1953. Dobrenko’s method, though, isn’t to let the Russian artists or the culture commissars of the time speak for themselves from their diaries, letters, friends, or in direct interviews with those still alive. They mean only what Dobrenko says they mean.

What Dobrenko means himself is far from clear. The new book runs for 509 pages and is a translation and condensation from the original Russian book which runs for 1,312 pages. The table of contents includes chapter 2 titled “From Metaphor to Metonymy: The Political Tropology of Historicism”; chapter 3, “Three Resolutions about Beauty: Ideological Conscientiousness as Device”; chapter 4, “Meta-Stalinism: The Dialectics of Party-Mindedness and the Party-Mindedness of Dialectics”. The finale requires the German dictionary as well as the English: “Gesamtkriegswerk: Cold War Hall of Mirrors in the Ministry of Truth”.

Actually, the G word isn’t in the German dictionary – Dobrenko made it up to combine the words for “overall”, “war” and “work”. As for “truth”, Dobrenko’s claim is that the Cold War was a Russian lie, unprovoked by anything the western allies said, did, or planned to do to Moscow. Soviet uses of the term “were truthful in that they reflected better than anything else the Soviet traumas, complexes, anxieties, and phobias, the real political aspirations of the regime…”

For his evidence, Dobrenko starts by explaining, there is the “cultural text [which] contains in its concentrated conceptuality not just traces of the past, but also an integral picture of how people thought and imagined things in a particular moment of the past… In addition, history reveals itself to us in the form of a cultural text… our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious.”

So much for the evidence. Then to Dobrenko’s conclusion: “the historical sequence transitioned into the hierarchical one. By the logic of post hoc ergo propter hoc, there arose the notion a nation that there is a political history beneath which social history happens…”

The peculiarity of Dobrenko’s chapter on the battles composers Vano Muradeli, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev fought is that Dobrenko castigates Andrei Zhdanov, the chief culture commissar, for speaking to a hall full of musicians about “atonality” and “dissonances” without “embarrassment”.  Zhdanov, like Stalin, still holds the advantage over Dobrenko that he and Stalin had listened to the music with their own ears. Unembarrassed, Dobrenko provides no evidence he has heard the music himself.

The Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow – at left,  the lower box where Stalin used to watch operas and ballets mostly without being observed from the audience or from stage; for his entry and exit he used a door flush to the wall in the lobby which was also invisible. No Soviet or Russian leader attended the theatre as often. That on January 26, 1936, he walked out of a performance of Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, is better known than the music which Stalin is not the only classical music fan to dislike. The photograph of Stalin with his wife (left), Vyacheslav Molotov (right) and others in the theatre box is a very rare one, taken in 1936.

Dobrenko ends his book brimming with hatred for the country upon which he makes his living, coaching its enemies to go to war. Accordingly, he can’t conclude the lesson with Stalin. It’s Putin now – and if Stalin’s “ministry of truth”  draws Dobrenko’s diagnostic list – “megalomaniac”,  “Machiavellian fantasies”, “warped suspicions”, “persecution complex”, and “baroque pompousness” —  Putin’s Russia is an identical madhouse in which everything we take for granted in the west works upside down or back to front.

“How does culture work?” Dobrenko told Novaya Gazeta in uncharacteristically concise words  —  “Like elevators. In the West, elevators are working, lifting people up. If the elevators are turned off, as they are in Russia— well, yes, everyone will sit on the ground floor and read social realism. In the West, culture works for growth; totalitarian regimes work for the archaic.” Putin is “like Stalin a fanatic of power. And money is just a way to have power. It’s just that Stalin didn’t need this method. He owned one-sixth of the land, why would he need a beaver coat? Putin’s problem, I think, is that he knows what Stalin ended up with, and understands perfectly well how he himself will end up.”

Moscow Times, a publication of the Dutch Foreign Ministry, is one of the few English-language papers to review the book.    It repeats Dobrenko’s line that between Stalin and Putin there’s no difference.  “Russia in 2021 is still, in some way, stuck in 1953.”

Some Russian academics have found fault. “While important similarities exist between late Stalinism and contemporary Putinism, do important differences not exist as well?” wrote the Finland-based Anatoly Pinsky.  Then he put his finger on Dobrenko, not as the historian or psychologist of the Soviet intelligentsia, but as a prime  example of it. Read this book, recommends Pinsky, “as a primary source with which to approach the history of the post-Soviet intelligentsia. A representative thereof, Dobrenko casts himself as alienated both from the Russian ‘masses’ (a term used often in the book) and from the Russian authorities. In this regard, he resembles his esteemed predecessors, dating back to the nineteenth century.”

That’s to say, Dobrenko is a throwback, half alive, half mummified. “We are proud to do our part, in some small way,” the Prokhorov Foundation spokesman said, “to further the study of the historical and cultural ties between Eastern and Western Europe as well as to create an opportunity for Russian scholars to engage with their international counterparts.”  

In the lead illustration, the poster on the wall is from Mikhail Prokhorov’s campaign for the presidential election of 2012 when Vladimir Putin replaced Dmitry Medvedev. Prokhorov drew   8% of the votes cast, less than half of the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.   Prokhorov’s slogan in the poster means: “We demand more”. At the University of Sheffield the main telephone switchboard operators and the receptionist at the modern languages department say they have never heard the Prokhorov name and don’t know how to connect a call to the Prokhorov Centre. A half-dozen university officials, including the listed co-director of the Prokhorov Centre, Henk de Berg, and the professor of Russian, Neil Bermel, also refuse to answer questions.

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