Rewriting history in Russia


By Mikael Storsjö 

Rewriting history in order to fit present needs is a temptation few authoritarian regimes seem to be able to resist. Another inevitable consequence of authoritarian exercise of power is the necessity of indoctrinating the population and especially unresisting youth.

Thus, what we can expect in Putin’s Russia is a new history book for schools. In August, a history handbook ­ for teachers titled “A Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006″  was presented at a conference for high school teachers where president Vladimir V. Putin spoke.    

“History of Russia. 1945-2007”

Now these plans have matured into further action, despite criticism from both domestic scholars and foreign observers. On Wednesday, December 26th, the Ministry of Education and Science will consider and adopt a new list of textbooks for teaching in schools next school year.  Among them is the “History of Russia.  1945-2007 “. This textbook is set up following the history handbook mentioned above. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta 25.12.2007 the new textbook is a shortly abridged version of the handbook, supplemented with teaching about the infamous “sovereign democracy“. All events during last eight years are interpreted from the perspective of official propaganda.

Some examples:  The abolition of direct elections of governors is justified by “lack of effective executive power in crisis situations“, demonstrated the school seizure in Beslan.  In the Yukos affair, the authors believe, “oligarchs finally buried hopes to preserve its control of the Russian state“.  Further, “in 2004, after the Yukos case the federal income taxes and charges, compared to 2003, increased immediately 133.8%“.

Nothing is mentioned about the sad truth that FSB killed almost all the victims in Beslan (as well as in Dubrovka). Nothing about how manifold the number of oligarchs has increased, and that the fortune of the new Russian billionaires has grown several 100 times during the Putin regime. Also, the impact of the rising oil price is conveniently forgotten, as well as the well-grounded conclusion that the authoritarian economy has destroyed a considerable part of the revenues of petrodollars. (Foreign Affairs: The Myth of the Authoritarian Model). And you might also question, how effective the executive power in Ingushetia has been since Murat Zyazikov was appointed president of the republic (well, this FSB general was appointed through a fraudulent election before the “reform” which made such farces unnecessary).

About the “sovereign democracy” the textbook authors argue: “Most of today’s countries deliberately delegated part of its sovereignty to international structures, or other states, having received security assurances in return and economic benefits.”  And just a few pages later is an example of such a state: “After the overthrow of Shevardnadze in late 2003, and Saakashvili’s victory in the presidential elections in early 2004, Georgia has become a country totally dependent on the United States.

Stalin portrayed as hero

Other pearls of the new Russian history writing are found in an article in the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat describing the new handbook. The article is presented here in a moderated version, with some quotations from the article “Yes, a Lot of People Died, but …” in New York Times 12.8.2007.

According to the new handbook, the administration of Stalin had many of the characteristics of the traditional despotism of the days of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. Stalin’s administration also “solved the problems of the modernisation of the state through the concentration of power and repression“.

The handbook portrays Stalin not as an extraordinary monster, but as a strong ruler in a long line of autocrats going back to the czars.

Thus, just like Chancellor Bismarck who united German lands into a single state by “iron and blood,” Stalin was reinforcing his state by cruelty and mercilessness. Strengthening the state, including its industrial and defensive might, he considered one of the main principles of his policy. According to the handbook, indirect evidence of this can be found in the memoirs of his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva. Every time he looked at her dress he always asked the same question, making a wry mouth: “Is this foreign-made?” and always cracked a smile when I answered, ‘No, it was made here, locally.”

Thus, Stalin followed Peter the Great’s logic: demand the impossible from the people in order to get the maximum possible. … Consequently, the result of Stalin’s purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortages of resources, loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline….

Once a modern industrial foundation was achieved in this way, “the character of Soviet society began to change, and the result of this development was the acceptance of the democratic values characteristic of developed states“.

Stalin is described as the “most successful” of the Soviet leaders, and his severe measures are understood as a way to turn Russia into a great power.

There is a chapter on Stalin’s terror in the history textbook, which focuses on the period between 1935 and 1937. The book mentions 800,000 executions and 18 million who were locked up in camps, but it does not give the total sum of the victims of the terror which continued until the 1950s.

The book sees the forced collectivisation of agriculture as an unavoidable step toward an industrialised state. The destruction of the “kulaks“, and the Ukrainian famine and its million victims are not mentioned at all.

Concerning the year 1940 the book notes that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania “joined the Soviet Union“, (voshli v sostav). In this connection it is not mentioned that the Red Army occupied the Baltic countries, that their leaders were imprisoned, and that the occupier organized “elections”.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 is mentioned in the book without legal or historical assessments. On the contrary, the policies of the Western powers are seen to be partly to blame for the events, and “many experts” are said to be of the opinion that “the Soviet Union had no option but to agree to a pact with Hitler“. By doing so Stalin managed to improve the country’s security.

Finland rejected proposals by Soviet diplomats to move the border for the sake of the security of Leningrad. The Soviet Union would only have taken “the prosperous area of Vyborg in return for another area twice as big in Kostamuksha”.

The handbook does not forget to put forward the false flag operation in Mainila, which was refused by Russian historians already in the 1990s. According to the handbook, the Soviet Union began the war against Finland on the pretext that the Finnish side had opened fire. Anyway, the writers concede the patriotic fighting spirit of the Finns, the slow progress of the Red Army, and the massive losses.

The Finnish chain of fortifications, the Mannerheim Line, was difficult to breach, and in addition, “Britain and France were beginning preparations to attack to help Finland. …..  Even Germany openly showed sympathy toward Finland.”  

On the 1990s the book notes that the declarations of independence by the Soviet republics “did not yet mean that they wanted to disengage from the Soviet Union“. The handbook quotes president Vladimir Putin as saying that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”.

Stalin popular still today

Well, in the West, Stalin is remembered for the numbers of his victims, about 20 million, largely his own citizens, executed or allowed to die in famines or the gulag. They included a generation of peasant farmers in Ukraine, former Bolsheviks and other political figures who were purged in the show trials of the 1930s, Polish officers executed at Katyn Forest, and Russians who died in the slave labor economy. Stalin’s crimes have been tied to his personality, cruelty and paranoia as well as to the circumstances of Russian and Soviet history.

But do the Russians need this new history writing in schoolbooks for children? Isn’t the authoritarian media enough to convince the people about the blessings of Stalin, strength and autocracy? That is implied by an opinion poll conducted in February 2006 by Public Opinion Fund. As to what people think of Stalin, we can judge by this:

If we speak as a whole of the role of Stalin in Russian history, was he positive or negative? Positive: 47 percent; negative: 29 percent; did not answer: 24 percent.

If Nazi-Germany would be described only in terms of building autostradas, stabilized economy, strengthening the national character, etc. – maybe the German chancellor Adolf Hitler would get as high ratings also today? Maybe higher – after all Hitler killed much less people than Stalin.

Mikael Storsjö
Helsinki, Finland
Kavkaz Center

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