Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The rehabilitation of Stalin: how is it possible?

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, SonyISBN 9781601643285)

As I wrote in my previous posting, the process of rehabilitating Stalin is under way in contemporary Russia, despite readily available evidence of his enormous crimes. This trend was detected quite early by such Russian commentators as Vladimir Volkov and Alexander Yakovlev. Now, in preparation for the 65th anniversary of victory in the "Great Patriotic War", Russian officials plan to display images of Stalin on billboards in Moscow. The cult of Stalin continues to divide Russian society.

The fact of rehabilitation may seem absurd. How can a tyrant and mass murderer be rehabilitated when his crimes are well described and well documented?

One clue comes from Arseny Roginsky, head of the Russian human rights organization “Memorial”. He points to a peculiar feature of the memory of the Russian people about Stalin’s terror. With a few notable exceptions like Solzhenitsyn’s The GULAG Archipelago, it was a remembrance of victims, but not of crimes and criminals.

The memory of crime presupposes both a victim and a criminal, both of whom can be named. In the case of Stalin’s terror, naming victims was relatively easy: all those who were executed, died in camps, or were starved to death in the 1933 famine. Naming the criminals was far more complicated, above all because many of the high-positioned perpetrators of collectivization, artificial famine and the 1937 terror later fell victim to a new round of purges. Further, many ordinary survivors and non-survivors of that grim epoch were tainted by being informers or otherwise collaborating with the terror state. For many people, naming the criminals and separating them from the victims becomes nearly impossible. All the more so because, in contrast to the Nazi crimes, where most victims were “others” (Jews, Poles, Russians, etc.) and not German nationals, in Stalin’s terror most victims were fellow Soviet citizens. As a result, somewhere in the mid-1990s many Russians began to think that there is practically no difference between the guilty and the innocent, so that pointing at criminals or perpetrators is a useless and fruitless exercise that only perpetuates hostility and bitterness. I have personally heard this argument from many people.

This uncertainty and doubt about historical memory was aggravated by another factor: the disappointment of many Russians by the mid-1990s in liberal democracy. Most of those who embraced this political ideal in the late 1980s and early 1990s hoped that it would quickly bring prosperity and a good life. But not only did post-Soviet capitalism and the Yeltsin government not bring quick prosperity, but prices rose sharply and most people became impoverished. Quite illuminating in this connection is the widespread condemnation by Russians of the economic policies of the late Yegor Gaidar (so-called "architect of Russian market reforms"), who is widely blamed for bringing economic disaster to Russia.

Beside economic devastation, the collapse of the Soviet system brought a rise in crime, alcoholism, drug addiction and other social vices. Many people felt cheated and started looking back at the Soviet era with nostalgia. This nostalgia spread even to Stalin, the bloodiest of Soviet leaders, who became for many the personification of law and order.

When the Putin government came to power, it took advantage of this nostalgia to promote the cult of Russian national glory throughout history, a cult rooted in the Russian people’s sense of being citizens of a great power in the world. The figure of Stalin became an integral part of this emergent ideology, because it was in his reign that there took place the greatest Russian military triumph of the last century, victory in World War II. The bloody tyrant became, for authorities and people alike, the leader of the forces of ultimate good which gloriously vanquished ultimate evil. For the general public this primitive scheme proved appealing, because it presented history in a simplistic black and white way while facilitating pride in themselves and their country. Not that the terror was completely forgotten, but the memory of it was pushed to the periphery of consciousness.

Most Russians seem to agree with this reappraisal of Stalin. But not all do. Many people in Russia and in the Russian diaspora resent any rehabilitation of Stalin, who along with Ivan the Terrible (who by the way is now considered by some Russians to be a saint) is one of the two bloodiest tyrants in Russian history.

Now, as never before, it is important for the anti-Stalinist minority of Russians to stick to their principles and beliefs, which are completely supported by facts and common sense. They must resist the temptation to conform to the pressure of Russian state ideology and of their compatriots, and must preserve the true historical knowledge of this tragic period, remembering not just the victims but the criminals as well. And they must share this knowledge and memory with the rest of humanity.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stalin in contemporary Russia

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

The end of the Soviet Union was preceded by a flood of materials that portrayed in graphic detail the bloodiest period of the Soviet era, Stalin’s rule from 1924 to 1953. Because of these revelations, the Soviet state and the Communist Party lost whatever legitimacy they had. It seemed that the Soviet system, or at least its Stalinist period, was so discredited that it could never be rehabilitated.

This conclusion turned out to be premature. A mere 15 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the moustached tyrant was again favoured by both the authorities and much of the population. Stalin’s approval rate among the general public went as high as 53%. In a recent contest on the Internet, in which the authorities invited the people to choose the historical figure that would personify for them “the name of Russia”, i.e. be Russia’s national symbol, Stalin came third. For a while he even ranked first.

In a recent Russian high school history textbook, covering the period from 1945 to 2006, Stalin is proclaimed “the most effective”of Soviet leaders. His reign of terror, in which at least 20 million people died, is described as a necessary means for running the country effectively.

Monuments and bas-reliefs to this monstrous dictator have been built or restored. Unbelievable as it is, an icon depicting this persecutor of religion together with a woman saint was painted and put up in a church near St. Petersburg.

Russia’s leadership, including Vladimir Putin himself, while recognizing the terror and occasionally paying tribute to its victims, mostly stresses his achievements as an effective leader, builder of a superpower, and victor in World War II.

This rehabilitation is happening while Russians have ready access to many volumes on Stalin’s terror and repression, his forced collectivization, and the artificially created Ukranian famine. The human rights organization “Memorial” is preserving and promoting the memory of Stalinist terror. Paradoxically its historical documentation shares the bookstore shelves with numerous newly published apologies for Stalin, some of which deny terror and repression under Stalin altogether, while others shift the blame for terror to Stalin’s enemies while reducing the number of terror victims to between half a million and a million and a half, compared to the real number of 20 million to 25 million. Most of the people prefer the apologetic works to the documentation of Stalin’s terror.

How can this be happening? In my next post, I will propose an explanation.