Russia: Was Stalin So Bad?

By pushing a patriotic view of history and the humanities, the Kremlin is reshaping the Russian mind.

In Russia, the ghosts of the past refuse to die. This month, several hundred mourners gathered in the Moscow suburb of Butovo at a mass grave of 20,000 victims of Joseph Stalin’s purges. As priests chanted a liturgy for the dead, mourners hauled up a giant pine cross cut from trees on the Solovetsky Islands, a notorious gulag. “Russia must never forget what happened here,” says 81-year-old Olga Vasiliyeva, whose engineer father was shot in 1937 as an “enemy of the people.” “We cannot gloss over the crimes of Stalin; otherwise we will end up repeating them.”

The Kremlin, it seems, doesn’t agree. Russian President Vladimir Putin told a group of history teachers last month that though Russia’s past had “problematic pages,” they are fewer and “not as terrible as those of some others.” Regardless, he said, it was the teacher’s duty to make schoolchildren “proud of their motherland.” To that end, the government has embarked on a campaign to change the way history is taught to Russian schoolchildren.

Earlier this year, the Russian Academy of Education commissioned a major review of key history textbooks. But historians complain that new guidelines issued by the academy are designed to whitewash the atrocities committed by Stalin and downplay the Soviet Union’s loss of the cold war. “The Kremlin thinks it would be much easier to consolidate the society around pleasant memories of history, rather than around negative facts,” complains one of the editors, historian Isaak Rozental. “Their approach is not to study history but to use it.” One new state-approved text, “A Book for Teachers: The Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006,” describes Stalin as “the most successful leader of the U.S.S.R.” Of the estimated 25 million killed in the purges and in collectivization, it notes, with chilling blandness, “political repression was used to mobilize not only rank-and-file citizens but also the ruling elite.” The new history is much tougher on Boris Yeltsin-who led Russia’s chaotic post-communist transition in the 1990s-denouncing his “weak” and “pro-Western” policies.

This effort to rewrite Russian history comes on the heels of Kremlin attempts to push its views of a great resurgent Russia into every sphere of science and the humanities. Russia’s most high-profile scientific venture of recent years used its famous research submarines to plant a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole last month as part of an effort to claim the potentially resource-rich area for Russia. And the Kremlin’s best-funded humanities program creates a new Russian Institute to promote spoken Russian and Russian culture around the world, and particularly in former Soviet states.

Could this new wave of state-sponsored patriotism lead to a closing of the Russian mind-with intellectual debate going the same way as free speech and opposition politics? Gleb Pavlovsky, director of Moscow’s Center for Effective Politics and one of the Kremlin’s chief ideologists, scoffs at the idea. He argues that any controversy generated by the new history textbooks shows that “intellectual life in Russia is alive and well.” “It is impossible to create a state ideology in an information society,” he says. “But what the authorities do want is to define the debate-to shape what is considered politically correct and what is not.”

Indeed, authors of the new teachers’ handbook appear to have the explicit aim of reversing what one of its editors, Alexander Filippov, calls a “propaganda offensive” directed from both inside Russia and abroad. The old, Yeltsin-era books dwelt too much on the evils of Soviet rule, he argues, which implied “Russia has no place in the company of the so-called civilized nations,” and also that Russia, “as a successor of a totalitarian regime, is doomed forever to repent for this regime’s real or invented crimes.”

For Russians, free historical debate is often a bellwether of freedom itself. When Nikita Khrushchev denounced the crimes of Stalin (in secret) to the 1956 Party Congress, he began a brief thaw that allowed Russians to speak, travel and work more freely. The thaw would end under Khrushchev’s successors, and it was not until Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost in the 1980s that Russian historians were allowed to explore the full horrors of previous Soviet rulers. Today, Russian bookstores are full of books that expose everything from the private life of Catherine the Great to the memoirs of Leonid Brezhnev’s interpreter. “Modern Russian society is unbelievably hungry for history,” says Eduard Radzinsky, Russia’s most popular historian. Now, says Radzinsky, Putin’s chief ideologue, Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, is “demanding that historians create a new ideology for them, fitting their regime.” While some older members of the Russian intelligentsia have resisted such calls, Soviet nostalgia has taken root in a younger generation that has been encouraged to believe efforts to promote Western-style democracy in Russian are Trojan-horse attempts to weaken the country.

In short, the Kremlin campaign is working. According to a poll last month by the Moscow-based Levada Center, 54 percent of Russians between 16 and 19 believe Stalin was “a wise leader,” and a similar number thought the collapse of the Soviet Union was “a tragedy.” (Two thirds also thought that America was a “rival and enemy” and 62 percent believed that the government should “deport most immigrants.”) “Many of my classmates believe that some kind of Soviet golden era existed before the West came in and destroyed everything,” says Fillip Kuznetsov, an international-relations student at Moscow University. “They also believe the state is justified in doing anything it likes to its citizens in the name of some great cause.”

Putin himself has begun to rehabilitate Soviet history. He told a conference of history teachers earlier this year that Russia “has nothing to be ashamed of” and that it was time to “stop apologizing.” He added it was America that dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima and napalmed Vietnamese jungles. Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group sees the new glorification of the Soviet past as both a danger and a missed opportunity. “The Kremlin has a perfect example in Germany of how a nation actually grew powerful by thinking through its mistakes,” she says. “Instead, they are going to stuff kids’ minds with lies again.” If that means steeping a new generation of children in the great-power myths of the Soviet world, where dissent was equated with “treachery” and political repression with “strength,” then the ghosts of Russia will continue to lie uneasy.

With Anna Nemtsova in Moscow
Newsweek International  August 20-27, 2007

By Owen Matthews.

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