I’m in Tampere, Finland, at a conference on the idea of a ‘post-Western West’ sponsored by some European colleagues. I must admit that it’s extremely refreshing to be the only American — and in particular the only American academic — in the room, both because among Americans there’s a shared political context that I rather easily get darn tired of talking about (war in Iraq, Patriot Act, terrorism, yada yada yada) and because among American social scientists there’s a shared disciplinary context that I often find rather stultifying. It’s just so nice to be in an environment where people aren’t obsessing about the “scientific” character of their enterprise, spending all of their time on self-justificatory methodological justifications, or engaging in tired old controversies about whether state actors are driven by material interests or systemic imperatives or ideas . . . snore . . . but instead are just grappling with complex issues from a variety of perspectives and trying to think together about them. Instead of “here are 46 reasons why genealogy is a legitimate form of social science” we got “here’s a genealogy of ‘the West’ in the British tradition” and “in Chinese debates ‘the West’ played such-and-such a role” and “is there actually a difference between a ‘civilization’ and a ‘civilizational identity’?”

Don’t get me wrong — I engage in more than my fair share of methodological self-justification. But sometimes it’s just nice to ditch it and just talk about stuff with really intelligent colleagues. Getting outside of one’s disciplinary context — or participating in a deliberately interdisciplinary gathering like this one — is one way to do that.

But that’s not actually what I wanted to blog about. Instead, I want to very briefly talk about the place I went this afternoon: the Lenin Museum, the only museum devoted to Lenin that exists outside of Russia. It was founded in 1946 by the Finnish-Soviet Friendship Society, which I can only assume was an arm of the Soviet government, and it’s about the most transparent example of pro-Soviet propaganda you can imagine.

The whole museum consists of two exhibition halls. Hall One is a relatively linear biography of Lenin’s life, featuring facsimile documents, famous sayings, and copies of Lenin’s books in multiple languages, together with a couple of sculpture and some paintings (Lenin addressing the People’s Congress of Deputies, Lenin meeting with the other party leaders to plan some tactical operation, etc.). It’s a pretty simple story-line: Lenin was brilliant (as evidence by images of his school report-cards), radical (much is made of the number of times that the Czarist regime harassed him, threw him in prison, or sent him into exile), a sincere Marxist, and a successful revolutionary. Oh, and he died from overwork since he defied his doctor’s orders and kept acting on the people’s behalf until he keeled over. [His “political testament” is also prominently featured, with the famous paragraph about how Stalin shouldn’t be the General Secretary of the Party highlighted; I’ll go out on a limb here and speculate that this particular exhibition-piece wasn’t original to the 1946 layout, but was added later.]

Hall One is pretty straightforward hagiography. Hall Two shifts the emphasis a bit, and introduces a fascinating bit of geopolitics: the hall’s whole theme is that Lenin always wanted Finland to be independent, that the Soviet Union always prized Finland’s independence, that there is nothing whatsoever in Soviet doctrine or Soviet foreign policy that in any way infringes on Finland’s sovereign status and national self-determination. The point is made in numerous ways: selected quotations from various pamphlets and newspaper articles that Lenin wrote, a number of letters that he wrote to Finnish comrades, and so on. Also prominently features is the fact that Lenin was sheltered by Finnish Communists at several times during his exile, and the fact that important party congresses were held in Finland (when it was still part of the Russian empire) — including right in Tampere itself. The room could have been titled “Lenin, Friend of the Finns — brought to you by the regime Lenin founded, also a friend of the Finns.”

What makes this all so fascinating is that it’s pretty transparent geopolitical propaganda, especially since Finland’s situation during the Cold War — formal neutrality combined with a general deference to Soviet wishes in many areas — gave rise to a derisive adjective (“Finlandization“) that represented at the very least a rather strained form of “national independence.” “We let you have your own flag and language, but don’t make any trouble for us in public” doesn’t sound like “self-determination” to me.Yes, this is traditionally what great powers have done to smaller states on their borders, and yes, the Soviet Union wasn’t even the most egregious practitioner of this kind of sham independence. That’s not what astounds me. What astounds me is the presence of a museum devoted to establishing a narrative that is so at variance with the situation at hand that everyone should have been able to see through the party line.

Let me be clearer: I’m not amazed that state authorities tried to legitimate their situation; they always do that. I’m not amazed that they went about it by deploying the common stock of symbolic and rhetorical resources available to them in the international system (such as “national self-determination”) as it presented itself to them; after all, that’s how public legitimation works. What I’m amazed by — even though much of my empirical work depends on it — is the fact that sense is made out of those resources even in rather egregious violation of what I’d very much like to consider the “interocular trauma test” in which something is so bloody obvious that it just hits you right between the eyes. Like the fact that Finland was basically a Soviet satellite for the whole of the Cold War.

I know, I know, I’m being inconsistent here; if I’m a consistent social constructionist then there can’t be any such thing as an interocular trauma test — especially for something like “national self-determination” which is even more obviously conceptually dependent than, say, ‘the solar system’.

But it’s always surprising to be confronted with a kind of public sense-making that is so wildly at variance with the other elements of the combination of social facts on the ground that’s it hard to imagine anyone ever giving it even a minimal amount of credence. And try as I might, never having lived under or in the immediate vicinity of the kind of oppressive regime represented by the Soviet Union, the notion of a dominant public transcript that people pay lip-service to but never publicly question — so brilliantly described by Czeslaw Milosz and theorized by James Scott — remains a purely conceptual notion for me. The present political environment in the United States has certainly narrowed the range of public debate in many ways (particularly in the major public media outlets — three cheers for the blogosphere as an alternate avenue of expression!) but the domination of the dominant transcript seems somehow less absolute than I imagine it must have been in order for something like the Lenin Museum to flourish.

I’m concerned now about the fate of the republic, but that has more to do with the rise of a permanent state of exception in our legal and military systems than it does with the specific contours of the public sphere. When they build a “Museum of Anti-Terrorism” and start locking people up if they publicly disagree with it, then I’ll really be worried.

One further note: it was cold in Finland today. I don’t mean cold in the sense of “better put on a jacket, it’s a bit chilly”; I mean cold in the sense of “the air temperature in Tampere today was -17 Celsius, which is about -3 or -4 Fahrenheit, plus there was a pretty stiff breeze blowing — and when I walked a couple of blocks to get from place to place my beard and mustache would freeze and quickly develop icicles.” And humans manage to live and thrive under such conditions, which I really find amazing.

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