Stalinism, again

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the alleged rehabilitation of Josef Stalin’s reputation in Russia. The latest event to generate fears of a revived Stalinism is the appointment last week of a new education minister, Olga Vasilyeva. Vasilyeva is a historian of the Russian Orthodox Church who has been criticized for making supposedly positive comments about the Stalin era.  The Moscow Times cites a Moscow teacher, Tamara Eidelman, as complaining that, ‘Vasilyeva’s appointment is a sign of the general atmosphere in the country toward faux patriotism and Stalinism. And that, sadly, will of course also impact schools.’

Two comments in particular by Vasilyeva have drawn attention. First, she remarked that, as found by archival research, the number of people repressed in the Stalin era was not as great as reported in the journal Ogonyok in the glasnost era. Second, she commented that the Soviet Union had viewed national history and patriotism very negatively until the early 1930s, but following a speech by Stalin in 1931 matters changed, and the Soviet authorities began to encourage patriotic sentiments and restored the teaching of history in universities.

This hardly makes Vasilyeva a Stalinist. First, she is correct in saying that archival research in the 1980s and 1990s revised the numbers killed in Stalin’s repressions decidedly downwards, from the 20 million claimed by Robert Conquest in his book The Great Terror to a figure now generally accepted by historians of about 800,000 executed between 1921 and 1953 (of whom 700,000 were killed in 1937-38), plus 6-7 million who perished in the  famine of 1932-33, and perhaps 100,000 who died in the deportations of Chechens and other nationalities in 1944. These numbers are still horrific, but clearly not as large as previously claimed. Second, Vasilyeva is correct in pointing out that the Soviet government’s attitude changed in the 1930s, becoming decidedly more favourably inclined towards patriotism. This was part of what some historians call the ‘Great Retreat’, which saw the Soviet Union turning its back on revolutionary ideas and becoming more conservative in attitude. Whether this was a good thing is, of course, a value judgement; and even if it was, it shouldn’t be used to water down the crimes of the Stalin era. But the basic facts are right.

It is also worth noting that while Vasilyeva has praised the rehabilitation of the Orthodox Church in the last decade of Stalin’s life, she has also denounced Stalin’s repression of the Church prior to that. According to one article she wrote:

In summer 1937, by Stalin’s command, an order was given to shoot all the confessors who were in prison or in camps within four months. … One by one the hierarchs were killed, crowning their deeds as Confessor-Martyrs by shedding their blood for Christ. … The year of the “Great Purge” and the following year 1938 were the hardest for the clergy and laymen—200,000 repressed and 100,000 executed. Every second priest was shot. … But the Orthodox Church put up a strong resistance to the totalitarian regime.

Vasilyeva is said to be a conservative of an Orthodox, nationalist bent. Reading between the lines, it appears fairly clear that she regards positively the conservative turn taken by Stalin in the 1930s in the era of the ‘Great Retreat’. I think that here we face a very difficult issue in Russian historical memory. Must one condemn the Stalin era completely, in every respect? Or is it acceptable to pick out some positive features, while condemning the rest? I don’t think that there are easy answers. It is, to a certain extent, a matter of tone, degree, and context. In this respect, Vasilyeva’s comments are very different to those of Stalin apologists such as, say, Nikolai Starikov. Vasilyeva is also factually correct in a way that Starikov is not. Certainly, there are grounds to question whether the appointment of a conservative Church historian to the position of education minister is appropriate, and to wonder to what extent Vasilyeva will try to impose her views on the education system. But talking about Stalinism doesn’t per se make one a Stalinist.

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Kremlin killings?

The front page of Sunday’s edition of The New York Times bears the headline ‘More of the Kremlin’s Critics are Ending Up Dead’. According to the long article which follows: ‘Muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistle-blowers and other Russians who threaten that image are treated harshly — imprisoned on trumped-up charges, smeared in the news media and, with increasing frequency, killed.’ The article then cites Gennadi V. Gudkov, ‘a former member of Parliament and onetime lieutenant colonel in the KGB’ as saying, ‘The government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies. … It was not just Litvinenko, but many others we don’t know about, classified as accidents or maybe semi-accidents.’

I have two serious doubts about the Times article. First, it makes a claim about an ‘increased’ frequency of state-sponsored murder without providing any evidence that such murders are indeed more frequent than in the past. The article mentions 13 deaths. The great majority of these occurred before Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. This is hardly evidence of an ‘increasing’ frequency of state-sponsored murder

Second and more importantly, the article fails to provide evidence that most of the people it mentions did indeed die unnatural deaths and also died at the hands of Kremlin assassins.

There is certainly an element of truth in the article. It seems clear that the Russian secret services were responsible for the death of at least one of those mentioned – Ibn al Khattab – while a second – Sergei Magnitsky – died in police custody. It is also not unreasonable to claim a link between Russian intelligence and the death of Alexander Litvinenko, while the death of another person mentioned – Alexander Perepelichny – undoubtedly seems suspicious. Had the New York Times limited itself to those cases, it would have been on much more solid ground. Unfortunately, it goes beyond them and includes several more cases in which people apparently died of natural causes, or in which evidence of a link between the Kremlin and the death in question is not provided.

Take, for instance, Oktai Gasanov, who was connected to the company Heritage Capital, which Russian police accused of fraud – a case which led to Magnitsky’s imprisonment and death. But Gasanov died while the alleged fraud would have been still in its early stages. There was no reason for the Kremlin to be interested in him. Furthermore, The New York Times lists his cause of death as ‘heart failure’. Similarly, the article mentions the deaths in 2016 of two former officials of the Russian sports anti-doping agency, Nikita Kumaev and Viacheslav Sinev. I haven’t been able to find details for Sinev but Kumaev is said to have died of a heart attack. In neither case does The New York Times or any other source I have found provide any evidence that either man’s death was other than natural. There has been speculation that Kumaev was about to ‘reveal all’ about Russia’s doping policies, and perhaps The New York Times thinks that he was murdered to stop this. But if so, it doesn’t say so, let alone provide any proof.

In two other instances, the article mentions people who clearly did suffer unnatural deaths, but without giving any indication of why it thinks these deaths were linked to the Kremlin. The first case is that of Ivan Kivelidi, a business killed by cadmium poisoning in 1995. As The New York Times itself admitted at the time, then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin ‘expressed outrage over Mr Kivelidi’s death’ at a Cabinet meeting, and attended his funeral. The second case is that of Mikhail Lesin, who died of ‘blunt force trauma’ in a Washington hotel room in 2015. But Mr Lesin was a Kremlin loyalist, not an opponent. The New York Times wants us to believe that Russian intelligence killed both Mr Kivelidi and Mr Lesin, but it provides no evidence, and it seems rather unlikely.

There is a case to be made that the Russian state has been involved in some extrajudicial killings. But the lack of evidence produced by The New York Times in the majority of the cases this article lists makes its overall thesis very unconvincing.

Hamadan

The announcement that the Russian air force has begun to use the Hamadan airfield in Iran to bomb targets in Syria makes me wonder if somebody in the Russian Ministry of Defence has a sense of history. It is 100 years to the week since the Russian Army abandoned Hamadan to Ottoman forces during the First World War.

The Russian Expeditionary Corps under General N. N. Baratov occupied Hamadan in December 1915 as part of a campaign to prevent pro-German forces from seizing control of Persia. In spring 1916, Baratov advanced into Iraq in an effort to relieve British forces surrounded by the Ottomans at Kut. After the British surrendered in April 1916, Baratov retreated back into Persia and concentrated his forces at Hamadan. On 3 August 1916, the Ottoman 13th Corps under Ali Ihsan Bey commenced offensive operations in Persia, and on the night of 9-10 August, Baratov abandoned Hamadan, never to return.

cossacks in persia
Cossacks in Persia, First World War

Trump’s Ukrainian connection

‘Donald Trump has a responsibility to disclose campaign chair Paul Manafort’s and all other campaign employees’ and advisers’ ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities.’ So says Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook. This follows allegations in The New York Times that Manafort received millions of dollars in cash payments while serving as an advisor to the Ukrainian Party of Regions prior to the 2014 revolution which drove the party and its leader, President Viktor Yanukovich, from power.

Mook’s demand builds on previous allegations linking Trump to leaked documents from Clinton’s email server, which were supposedly hacked by the Russian intelligence services.  The Democratic tactic appears to be to convince the American public that Trump is some sort of puppet of the Kremlin, who if elected would sell out American interests to Russia.

Unfortunately for this narrative, the most important fact is that the source of Manafort’s alleged money isn’t actually Russian – it is, or rather was, Ukrainian. Nevertheless the Clinton campaign and some of the media are tying the case to Russia by calling the Party of Regions ‘pro-Russian’. This is a misnomer. Yanukovich and his party were only pro-Russian to the extent that they were not Ukrainian nationalists or avidly pro-Western. They drew most of their support from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, especially although not exclusively in the south and east of the country. They passed legislation which gave minority languages, including Russian, some legal recognition; they renewed Russia’s lease on the naval base in Sevastopol; and they opposed NATO membership for Ukraine. But that was about the extent of their pro-Russianness.

Yanukovich, in fact, resisted Russian efforts to persuade Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union, and was far from being opposed to closer relations with Western Europe. One of the major reasons why Yanukovich’s November 2013 decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union caused an uproar was that he himself had been promising such an agreement for a long time. Had the EU offered him acceptable terms, he almost certainly would have signed up. Russia found Yanukovich to be a very unreliable partner, and he was certainly not a mere ‘Kremlin stooge’.

It seems that the Russians actually found it easier to do business with the supposedly pro-Western Yulia Timoshenko in her time as Ukrainian Prime Minister than they did with Yanukovich. It is worth noting why Timoshenko ended up in prison – for signing a gas supply deal with Russia which allegedly betrayed Ukrainian interests in favour of Russia. Yanukovich’s government, in other words, imprisoned Timoshenko for being too pro-Russian!

The division of pre-Maidan Ukrainian politics into pro-Western and pro-Russian camps is overly simplistic. The competing political groups in the country represented different oligarchic and other interests, whose primary concern was promoting those interests, not pursuing alliances with this or that foreign power. As a Russian official once put it to me, ‘Yanukovich isn’t pro-Russian, he’s pro-Yanukovich’.

Similarly, the Party of Regions wasn’t pro-Russian, it was pro-Party of Regions. Paul Manafort denies taking cash payments from the party, saying that ‘the New York Times has chosen to purposefully ignore facts and professional journalism to fit their political agenda.’ But even if he had actually taken the money, it wouldn’t have proved that he had ‘ties to Russian or pro-Kremlin entities’, because the Party of Regions wasn’t such a thing. It may suit the Clinton campaign to use this story to suggest that Trump and the Kremlin are closely connected, but this story doesn’t show anything of the sort.

Friday book # 31: Icebreaker

This week’s book is Victor Suvorov’s controversial Icebreaker, published in 1990. In this Suvorov claimed that Stalin was planning to attack Germany in 1941, and thus that the German attack on the Soviet Union could be seen not as an act of aggression but rather as a pre-emptive strike.

icebreaker1

A few years later, there were several revelations from the Soviet archives which at first glance appeared to lend some credence to Suvorov’s thesis. I have clipped several newspaper articles about these in my copy of the book, including the 1995 piece from the Moscow Times below. Subsequent studies by historians such as Gabriel Gorodetsky, however, have thoroughly debunked Suvorov’s thesis, and I don’t know of any serious historian who still supports it.

icebreaker2