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.