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Crafting a Suitable Past

The Kremlin’s new brand of patriotism requires a blinkered view of some of the 20th century’s most savage events. by Gregory Slysz 25 March 2009 In February 1931 Joseph Stalin delivered a speech to industrial managers to counter the mounting criticism of the brutality of collectivization and of the breakneck speed of the First Five Year Plan. In justifying the pace and nature of Soviet industrialization, he said, “To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beaten. … One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered because of her backwardness.” Stalin proceeded to reinvent Soviet history, abandoning much of the Marxism that had underpinned it since the revolution and instead opting to rehabilitate Russia’s imperial strongmen like Ivan the Terrible, upon whom he sought to model himself.

History appears to be repeating itself in Russia. Ever since emerging in 2000 as Russia’s dominant politician, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin has encouraged similar “patriotism” to obliterate the memory of what he and many in Russia have seen as their country’s humiliation at the hands of the West. And he has manipulated history to do so. Having lamented the Soviet Union’s collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he set himself the task of reviving Russia’s greatness, as he saw it, decrying the Yeltsin era as a disaster and lauding the days of Soviet international power. This necessarily has involved revising some of the more uncomfortable truths of the past, especially of the Stalinist period. Stalin, however, stamped such an indelible identity onto the Soviet Union that to celebrate Soviet achievements, it is essential to underplay his crimes. The revival in 2000 of the old Soviet national anthem is one thing, but giving Stalin a makeover as a tough but misunderstood leader who turned the Soviet Union into a superpower is another.


Vladimir Putin’s approach to the Soviet Union’s murky past has been somewhat ambivalent. While at times distancing himself from Stalinism, attending in October 2007, for instance, a service to commemorate the victims of Stalin, he has sought to relativize Soviet history. At a conference with history teachers a few months earlier, he stressed that as terrible as Stalin’s crimes were, “in other countries even worse things happened. … We have fewer dark pages than do some countries. … We have never used nuclear weapons against civilians and we have never dumped chemical weapons on thousands of kilometers of land as was the case in Vietnam. We can’t allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us.” He went on to warn publishing houses to “become more responsible” in what they promoted, otherwise “the state should play a greater role in this respect.”

These were no idle threats, as truths that do not fit into the new version of Russian history are suppressed. For instance, a potential publisher has backed away from a translation of Orlando Figes’ new work, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, and theater owners have shown little interest in screening Andrzej Wajda’s recent film, Katyn.

Commemorations of the Soviet victory during the “Great Patriotic War” offer particular opportunities to honor the achievements of both the Soviet Union and Stalin and are protected from rudimentary historical scrutiny that exposes Stalin’s prewar and wartime follies. It has even been recently suggested by Yury Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general, that questioning the Soviet Union’s central role in defeating Hitler or dismantling Red Army war memorials should be punishable by law.

Yet Russia’s current high-school history curriculum, as the guidelines devised in the wake of the aforementioned conference state, is implemented “in accordance with the objectives of protecting and strengthening our state sovereignty [and] rearing citizens who are patriots of Russia.” Among the new reinterpretations of past events: the “Katyn assassinations” were a justified response to the alleged mistreatment of Red Army soldiers in Polish prison camps after the war of 1920; the brutality of Stalin’s industrialization and purges, though not denied, was necessary in difficult circumstances; the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was necessary to ensure national security; and the famine in Ukraine during collectivization was not an act of genocide and that calculations by Ukrainian authorities of the number of victims (internationally recognized as 5 million to 7 million) have been based, according to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, “on a manipulation and falsification of facts.” Leaders who destroyed Soviet power are condemned outright.

Objective history books like Igor Dolutsky’s National History, 20th Century have been taken off school shelves, and those whose views are at odds with the new historiography face censure. For instance, in December the human rights group Memorial, whose work has included documenting Stalinist-era abuses and the gulag system, had its offices in St. Petersburg raided by security forces and its huge archive confiscated.


What is striking, and at least slightly worrying, is that such nostalgia isn’t merely a pipe dream devised in the Kremlin but is reflected by public opinion. Poll respondents, for instance, have consistently named Stalin as one of Russia’s great leaders, revealing that few Russians are prepared to condemn him unequivocally. In December, a national survey organized by a Russian television channel to determine Russia’s greatest historical figure produced the most striking results yet. Stalin came in third, trailing turn-of- the-century autocratic reformist Prime Minister Peter Stolypin and the medieval prince and slayer of German invaders, Alexander Nevsky. Undoubtedly a degree of manipulation of votes occurred by a station owned by the state, given the convenient result for a government that wants to be seen both as autocratic and reformist as well as exhibit a degree of anti-Western bravado. But for Stalin to come in third in a poll in which millions of people voted was astonishing. Anne Applebaum, the journalist author of Gulag: A History flippantly suggested that “had the poll been completely free, I expect Stalin would have come in first place,” so pervasive she believes is the current level of political indoctrination.

This nostalgia for the past is somewhat puzzling, given that there are few families in Russia today untouched by Soviet, especially Stalinist, oppression. Moreover, Russian culture, its great music, literature, and artistic traditions were crushed, its churches and monasteries turned into stables and warehouses, or reduced to rubble. For Stalin, Russian culture was a purely utilitarian commodity, wheeled out when it served a specific political purpose. Ivan the Terrible, for instance, was rehabilitated during the 1930s only because his murderous methods of state construction rang a bell with Stalin. Concentration camps, cattle truck transports of the condemned, inhuman treatment of prisoners all predated Nazi Germany and operated on a much larger scale in the Soviet Union. So why this fondness for things Soviet?

The answer to this may lie not so much in an outright conviction in the virtues of the Soviet Union but more in an identity crisis that the collapse of the Soviet Union provoked among Russians. Numerous unanswered questions about the identity of the Russian nation resurfaced, having been hidden from public scrutiny by Soviet propaganda. “Who were the Russians?” “What were the appropriate borders of their state?” Historical relativism, while a crude and unsophisticated method of analyzing history, has served to deflect public attention from Russia’s uncomfortable past while enabling the “new” Russia to claim a historical moral high ground. For most other Soviet republics, the process of constructing a new national identity ran smoothly, frequently facilitated by a deep-rooted anti-Russian feeling. The Baltic states, for instance, eased into their post-Soviet identity effortlessly, reclaiming their heritage, which had been so wantonly pillaged by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. Not so Russia. Russians may have actively participated in the destruction of the Soviet Union, but they were less sure than other former Soviet citizens as to what was to replace it. Moreover, as Russia plunged in the years that followed into greater economic and political turmoil, more people saw the demise of the Soviet Union as something to lament rather than to celebrate.

As the historian Geoffrey Hosking noted in his Russia and the Russians, “Russian nationhood … has never existed outside the framework of empire, which has left it stunted and underdeveloped.” The current Russian leadership certainly sees Russia as a leader of some “greater” entity, whether of a multiethnic empire or of a civic/linguistic federation. Notwithstanding the speedy revival of Soviet methods of governance that have reversed some of the democratic reforms made after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the recourse to Soviet cultural nostalgia has had little to do with a desire to re-create a Soviet socialist state, but more with resurrection of a strong Russian nationalist state. It is not Stalin’s communist baggage that appeals but rather his imperial legacy that turned Russia into a mighty state. Stalin for Putin and for many Russians appears to represent what Ivan the Terrible represented for Stalin.

It is understandable why Russia feels aggrieved by the loss of international influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And one can even have some sympathy with the view Putin declared in Munich in 2007, that the creation of a unipolar world and the use of “unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems … [but] have caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension.” All countries politicize their histories while pretending not to do so. But if history teaches anything, it is that nothing good can come from basing a national identity essentially on lies and half-truths. As Nina Khrushcheva stated, “The moral measure of a nation is not how it celebrates its victories, but how it comes to terms with the dark corners of its past.”
Gregory Slysz is chairman of the history department at Davies, Laing and Dick College in London.
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