The culmination of this process occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, on the one hand, the policies reached their culmination as a means of affirming the ideological role of heritage; on the other hand, the display of exemplary conservations and achievements of heritage experts, such as the paradigmatic conservation of the historical towns of Vladimir and Suzdal’, played a pivotal role. These towns, after their restoration, emerged as prime destinations, showcased to foreign tourists. These combined efforts by experts and heritage practitioners were used to create a positive image and raise the prestige of the Soviet state in the international arena, particularly in interactions with Western countries (Bekus 2020).Bolshevik Ideology in Shaping Heritage Conservation Practices
The Bolsheviks’ heritage policies were shaped by two important and somewhat contrasting features of their ideology. Firstly, they viewed the Russian Revolution as a historically necessary and logical outcome of a continuous process of societal and political development. Secondly, the Bolsheviks wanted to break from the past and focus entirely on building a Communist future. They looked at everything, including history, through the lens of how it could contribute or hinder the goal of creating a new civilization and society. This approach inevitably led to distinguishing historical continuity as “desirable,” meaning that which supported the Bolsheviks’ ideas about society’s progress, or “wrong” or “negative,” meaning that which questioned these ideas and had to be contained and disregarded.
This made heritage very closely intertwined with historiography, over which the Communist leadership exerted total control, aiming to expose “desirable” historical continuity through the “correct” understanding of the past. Thus, the mechanism of heritage conceptualization consisted of the appropriation of heritage from previous periods and its infusion with new interpretations informed by ideology to ensure “desirable” historical continuity.
In practice, this conceptualizing mechanism resulted in everything that belonged to ancient times being considered valuable, “heritagized”, assimilated, and appropriated by the Soviet regime. According to the decree of Narkompros
as early as 1918, everything that belongs to history, i.e. the “past,” and culture, i.e. “art” (the houses and collections of nobles in the first place, but even churches, which later were considered “ideologically alien”), was rendered as “monuments belonging to the working people,” i.e. heritage. Subsequently, this “mass” underwent the process of “re-signification:” it was stripped of components that conveyed capitalist, aristocratic, or Orthodox values and assigned a new social and interpretative identity according to entirely new social and aesthetic criteria, to align with the new ideological system and corresponding interpretation of history. As it was done, for example, with the monument originally erected in the 1870s to honor the defenders of the town of Kungur against the rebellious peasants led by Emelian Pugachev
, which underwent a major resignification in 1923, when it was renamed to honor the peasants who had fought against serfdom and became one of the sites for commemorating Pugachev himself.Authenticity as Ideological Framework
However, the most intriguing aspect was the distinction between “proper” and “improper” heritage, where the concept of authenticity, entirely informed by ideology, served as the yardstick for assessments. “Proper” heritage, that which conveyed “desirable historical continuity,” was considered authentic, in contrast to “improper” heritage, which was regarded as false. The ranks of proper and authentic heritage, for instance, included monuments of the people’s struggle against oppressors (e.g. places of the first workers’ strikes, or sites associated with the names of new heroes who had fought against tsarism in the past, like Emelian Pugachev), as well as sites associated with famous revolutionaries and ideologists of the Revolution (e.g. Lenin, Herzen, etc.). Palaces and famous collections were declared the “people’s patrimony,” with access to them open to everyone, and were used to educate working people and promote the ideas of Communism.
On the other hand, “absolutely untrue” heritage, characterized as “survivals of the old system” (Baller 1984, 59) and associated with “negative” historical continuity (63), was to be completely disregarded by the new Communist society – either destroyed or abandoned. This was the fate of religious and cult monuments (hundreds of thousands of such structures were turned into cattle barns, granaries, and cinemas or simply destroyed), as well as the so-called “bourgeois heritage,” which could not be adapted to the functions of educating the working people (for example, the houses of the nobility, which were masterpieces of architecture and art, were turned into communal flats propagating communal lifestyles). Thus, as González (2016) emphasized, the main purpose of heritage was to inculcate ideology and contribute to the creation of a “new man” and a new civilization.
However, the pinnacle of the process of conceptualizing heritage in the Soviet period was not the infusion of “already existed” and “incorporated” heritage with re-signified meaning, but rather the creation of an entirely new heritage that, from its inception, would imbue the ideology and contribute to the building of the Communist future. The comprehensive project to construct the Moskva-Volga Canal, entirely through the forced labor of Gulag prisoners, perfectly exemplified this concept. It realized the idea of conquering space and nature, propagated a vision of a prosperous future for the working class, and encompassed the rehabilitation of those who supposedly opposed this future into new, “proper” Soviet citizens by subjecting them to grueling forced labor. For this “newly created heritage” (Baller 1984, 66) the Soviet state compulsively fashioned a stylistic framework, which in visual and plastic arts (such as painting, sculpture, film, and photography) was commonly referred to as “Socialist Realism” and the “Stalinist Empire style” in architecture. Whereas the former meant to erase the boundary between reality and its representation (Groys 1994, 159), the latter intended to mix pseudo-historical “classical” styles, symbolically and visually linked the Soviet state to the great empires of the past and ensure “desirable historical continuity.”