Bryan MacDonald posted an interesting thread on Twitter today, which serves as a useful indicator of why it’s worth following RT as well as other more ‘mainstream’ journalistic outlets and why the former can occasionally provide a welcome counterpoint to the latter.
Those who follow Russia-related news will be aware of the regular complaints of the Western press that Vladimir Putin is working day and night to rehabilitate the memory of Joseph Stalin. I’ve dealt with this issue before, pointing out what egregious nonsense it is. Unfortunately, my influence on public debate appears to be approximately zero, so the idea that Putin is busy promoting Stalin continues to gain traction. As Bryan points out, both The Washington Post and The Guardian have recently run stories on the matter. Let’s take a look.
First, The Washington Post published an article entitled ‘Putin’s Dangerous Campaign to Rehabilitate Stalin’. Despite the headline, the article struggles to find real evidence to back its claim that Putin ‘aims to position himself’ as ‘Stalin-lite’. The best it can come up with is some alleged parallels between the two (they are both ‘strong men’), and the following:
Putin’s most direct discussion of Stalin came in a 2017 interview with filmmaker Oliver Stone. Putin compared Stalin to Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte, saying that “Stalin was a product of his time,” which can be understood as excusing his flaws.
Well, I suppose that it could be understood that way if you’re absolutely determined, but it’s not a lot to go on. Despite this, the article concludes:
increasingly, the Russian president is actively rehabilitating the Soviet dictator’s record, working to paint him as a strong leader who saved the world from fascism. The goal is to bolster Putin’s own “strongman” leadership style in the eyes of ordinary Russians.
And then we have The Guardian, which this Wednesday produced a piece with a remarkably similar title: ‘Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rehabilitating Stalin: We must not let it happen.’ This subtly shifts the blame for neo-Stalinism from Putin himself to Russia as a whole, but nevertheless holds the regime guilty for allowing Soviet nostalgia to re-emerge. For, according to author Irina Sherbakova,
Vladimir Putin’s rise to power came accompanied by a new version of patriotism relying on ‘heroic’ and ‘bright’ aspects of the Soviet past. An image of Stalin as a strong leader who had ensured victory in the second world war and led a Soviet superpower re-emerged. Television propaganda again worked hard to create that image. The millions who perished in waves of political repression were pushed to the margins of collective consciousness. … Putin may be a focus of much concern across the world, but in Russia, it is obvious to many of us that our country’s return to democracy will be impossible as long as we fail to condemn Stalin and the system he created.
Speaking of a ‘return to democracy’ in Russia may strike some as a little odd. I’m guessing that Ms Sherbakova is thinking fondly of the 1990s. But that’s just by way of digression. The more important questions are whether the Post and the Guardian are right that a) Stalin is being rehabilitated in Russia, b) this is the fault of the Russian state, and of Vladimir Putin more personally, and c) allowing the possibility of any ‘heroic’ achievements by the Soviet state – most notably victory in the Second World War – inevitably leads to a whitewashing of Soviet repression. Fortunately, in his Twitter thread Bryan points us to a document which provides an answer, namely a statement issued yesterday by the Permanent Commission on Historical Memory of the Council of the President of the Russian Federation. It’s worth translating this in full:
We have heard that monuments to I.V. Stalin are being constructed in towns in Russia.
Those of our fellow citizens and those political forces, who are prepared to forget and even justify the death and deprivation of freedom of millions of our compatriots, incite both bitterness and sympathy. Those who were victims of political repression, the deportation of peoples, collectivization, and the Holodomor, were often the best in the country. These repression are firmly connected to the name of I.V. Stalin.
And those who erect monuments voluntarily or involuntarily justify these repressions. These fellow citizens of ours are also victims of that regime: they’ve lost their sense of sympathy for our deeply suffering country.
We do not call for the establishment of monuments to I.V. Stalin on private plots of land to be banned. But civil servants of all levels must know that it is impermissible to allow state or municipal land or buildings to be used for this purpose. Such acts not only contradict morality and respect for our deceased, innocently suffering predecessors, but also contradict official state policy.
As is noted in the Concept of State Policy on the Immortalization of the Memory of Victims of Political Repression, confirmed by the Government of Russia on 15 August 2015, ‘Attempts to justify the repressions by the particular circumstances of the time or generally to deny them as a fact of our history are impermissible.’
In his speech at the opening in the centre of Moscow of the grandiose ‘Wall of Grief’ – a memorial to the victims of political repression, our head of state V.V. Putin said that, ‘When talking about the repressions, death and suffering of millions of people, there can be no justifications of these crimes.’
We believe that our children and grandchildren, through dialogue and joint interpretation will reach a common assessment of an era which was tragic for Russia, and for all the peoples of the 20th Century Soviet Union – an era of revolutions, wars, repressions, but also heroic accomplishments of the people, the most important of which was victory in the Great Patriotic War. In the meantime, we cannot allow the desecration of the memory of the victims of the past century.
In answer to our questions above, what this makes clear is that a) yes indeed, there are moves afoot to rehabilitate Stalin, but b) the Russian state isn’t too fond of these and is pushing back against them, and c) it’s perfectly possible to take pride in the Soviet victory in the Second World War while condemning Stalinist repressions – the idea that celebration of wartime victory inevitably morphs into rehabilitation of Stalin simply isn’t true.
Of course, a statement from a more or less unheard-of commission on historical memory isn’t quite the same as a statement from the President himself. One might object that such commissions are just sops which the state provides to establishment liberals to keep them happy. Nevertheless, if senior officials seriously objected to what was being said in their name, one imagines that they’d soon put a stop to it. And the message is pretty clear, and underlined by reference to both official state policy and Putin’s own words. Wouldn’t be great if the Washington Post or The Guardian could pick up a story like this and write about it, rather than publishing yet more articles about how Putin is rehabilitating Stalin? And if they don’t, can they really complain if we have to turn to RT to find out about it?