Russia – Past, Present and Future

THE OFFICIAL VIEW

“As Russia marks the centenary of the October Revolution, President Vladimir Putin has urged the society to end discord over the Soviet era,” reported the TASS news agency[1] on 21 December 2017.

“This year, the centenary of the October Revolution, we have been seeking to encourage the society to abandon confrontation, to see themselves as a single society and realize that we are continuing our common centuries-long history,” Putin told a session of the Council for Culture and Art.

“Whether we like certain years or not, but there was everything there – bad things, but also a lot of good things that should not be forgotten,” he said.

[Excerpt …]

Johnson’s Russia List
2017-#239, Friday, 22 December 2017, Item 1

HOW RUSSIA REPRESSES THE PAST

Nikita Petrov (Memorial)

Every spring, buses covered in portraits of Joseph Stalin appear on the streets of Russian cities. His face replaces ads for cell phones, soft drinks, laundry detergent, and cat food. With each passing year, the dictator gets more handsome and more glamorous; a portrait of him in his gorgeous white generalissimo’s jacket has become especially popular. He casts his stern gaze on the citizens, as if to say, “Remember me? I’m here, I didn’t go anywhere – and don’t you forget it!” 

The ads aim to remind the country of the dictator’s role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. For those who would rehabilitate Stalin, that victory is their final argument, their last chance to drag the tyrant out of oblivion and put him back on his pedestal. They use it to make excuses for the dictator, to wash his hands of the blood he shed, and to recast him as the saviour of the motherland during the hardship of the war years. The victory, in this version of history, legitimizes and justifies the entire repressive Soviet regime.

In the eyes of the Stalinists, admiration for the tyrant ought to be public and compulsory. That’s why they’ve chosen such an assertive way to inject the dictator into public space. Many want to go even further. There’s talk of erecting monuments to Stalin. There are annual calls to restore the city of Volgograd’s Soviet-era name: Stalingrad. Newly published histories in Moscow’s bookstores perpetuate the mythologized image of Stalin as a strict but fair ruler. Their titles – The Other Stalin, Stalin the Great, Stalin: Father of a Nation – say it all. There is even a new popular literature attempting to justify the actions of Victor Abakumov, Lavrenty Beria, and other odious leaders of Stalin’s secret police. The monsters of Stalin’s era are coming back from the dead. And some of Russia’s leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, are exploiting the ideology of Stalin’s era to serve their own ends.

Shadows of the Past

At first glance, the resurgence of admiration for Stalin seems surprising. The leader of one of the 20th century’s bloodiest regimes, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of between ten million and 12 million people in peacetime. At least five million of these died of starvation and disease in 1932-33, during a famine caused by the mass collectivization of agriculture. (Because the records are so scanty, accurate numbers are hard to determine. Some historians put the famine’s death toll even higher.)

The most intense period of deliberate killing, although it saw fewer overall deaths, came during the Great Terror, which took place in 1937-1938.[2] At Stalin’s direction, the Soviet secret police, known as the NKVD, killed hundreds of thousands of former kulaks (well-off peasants, stripped of their property during collectivization) and other “anti-Soviet elements,” along with members of ethnic minorities, especially Germans and Poles, who might be tempted to betray the Soviet Union. All told, nearly 700,000 people were shot in a roughly 15-month period that began in the summer of 1937. Many others were sent to the Gulag, the vast system of labour camps spanning the Soviet Union that held over 1.5 million people by the start of World War II.

***

Despite this bloody history, Russian authorities today avoid giving official assessments of either the Soviet past in general or individual Communist leaders in particular. That was not always the case.

In 1987, during the period of liberalization known as glasnost, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in which he said that Stalin had committed “enormous and unforgivable” crimes. Today, such a clear statement would be unthinkable. In 2000, during his first inauguration as president, Putin set the new official tone, declaring that “there have been both tragic and brilliant pages in our history.”

[Excerpt …]

Nikita Petrov is Deputy Director
of Memorial’s Centre for Research and Education (Moscow).

Johnson’s Russia List
2017-#239, Friday, 22 December 2017, Item 31

The full text is available as “How Putin distorts Russia’s Soviet Past — Do not Speak, Memory!” in the January-February 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs (translation by Bela Shayevich).

NOTES

[1]  The official news agency TASS uses an acronym, unchanged since Soviet times: the letters represent the words “Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union”.

[2]  Those shot at Sandarmokh were killed in 1937-1938. For NKVD and Politburo documents from the Great Terror, see the Bukovsky Archive.