Tag Archives: communism

The New Martyrs

No doubt you have come across the opinion that Vladimir Putin is resurrecting the cult of Josef Stalin. An example is this recent comment in the Ottawa Citizen:

In Putin’s world, Stalin was the hero who liberated Europe and under whose leadership, the occupied Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus and other Soviet satellites, prospered thanks to Soviet benevolence. Putin has crafted himself as Stalin’s heir, and as such, there’s little room for the ‘truth’ about the 30 million who were murdered by Stalin’s regime, let alone any other inconvenient fact about Soviet occupation or mass repression.

Last week, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to assess how true this may be. On Sunday morning we visited the Sretenskii Monastery in downtown Moscow. Like many other institutions of the Orthodox Church, it was destroyed during the Soviet era. In November 2013, a decision was made to rebuild it, and just a little over three years later, in May 2017, the new church in the centre of the monastery was consecrated.

sretensky
Sretenskii Monastery, Moscow

Continue reading The New Martyrs

Advertisements

Putin on communism

On Monday, Vladimir Putin followed up last week’s denunciation of Lenin with a long exposition on what he thought of communism. Given that Putin’s political ideology is a matter of considerable, often ill-informed, speculation, his answer to a question about Lenin at the regional forum of the All-Russian Popular Front in Stavropol is a really important ideological statement. So below is my (somewhat quick and rough) translation of the key segment.

My own interpretation of this statement is that Putin:

  • approves of socialist ideas (equality etc) in the abstract, but feels that communism failed to put them into practice.
  • disapproves of Soviet methods of government, particularly political and religious repression, and definitely doesn’t like Lenin.
  • sees some advantages in state intervention in the economy, but not on the scale practised by communism. He comes across as favouring a European-style mixed economic system.
  • is willing to countenance limited regional autonomy, but nothing more, and is strongly opposed to confederal ideas of a state made up of equal members. He strongly opposes regional secession.
  • regards Ukraine as an artificial construct.
  • puts a great emphasis on the state and the harm that communism did to it in Russia. Again and again, Putin returns to the state and the idea of statehood (gosudarstvennost’). A strong state emerges as a primary value.

Anyway, this is what Putin had to say:

[When I worked in the KGB] I wasn’t one of those who became a party member because I had to, but I can’t say either that I was an ideological party member, my attitude towards it was one of caution. Unlike many public servants I wasn’t a public servant with a party point of view. But unlike many of them I didn’t throw away my party card, I didn’t burn it. … It’s still lying around somewhere.

I liked a lot, and still like, communist and socialist ideas. If you look at the Code for the building of communism, which was widely distributed in the Soviet Union, it strongly resembles the Bible. This is not a joke, it’s like an excerpt from the Bible. The ideas are good: equality, brotherhood, happiness, but the practical embodiment of these remarkable ideas were far from those laid out by socialist utopians like [Henri de] Saint Simon and [Robert] Owen. Our country did not resemble the City of the Sun.

Everyone accused the Tsarist regime of repressions. But what did the establishment of Soviet power begin with? Mass repressions. I won’t talk about the scale, but simply of the most appalling example: the destruction and shooting of the Imperial family together with their children. Perhaps there was some idea that it was necessary to eradicate, as it were, any possible heirs. But why kill Doctor Botkin? Why kill the servants, people generally of proletarian origin? For what purpose? In order to cover up the crime.

Remember, we didn’t use to think about this much. Very well, they fought against people who resisted Soviet power with arms in their hands, but why kill the priests? In 1918 alone, they shot 3,000 priests, and in ten years 10,000 of them. In the Don region, they threw hundreds under the ice. When you start to think about it, and you get new information, you evaluate many things differently.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, in one of his letters to Molotov, I think, wrote – I can’t quote him exactly – that the more reactionary representatives of the bourgeoisie and the priesthood we shoot, the better. You know, this approach doesn’t tally with some of our former ideas about the essence of power.

And the role of the communist, Bolshevik party in the collapse of the front in the First World War is well known. What was the result? We lost to a country which lost, since several months later Germany surrendered, and we ended up losing to losers, a unique occurrence in history. And for what purpose? For the sake of seizing power. How should we, knowing this today, evaluate this situation which brought enormous, simply colossal, losses to the country.

And then there’s the economy. Why did they move to the New Economic Policy (NEP)? Because the existing requisitioning of farm produce wasn’t working, it couldn’t. It couldn’t supply the large towns with food. So they moved to a market economy, then quickly got rid of it.

You know, what I am saying now are my personal deductions, my own analysis. A planned economy has definite advantages, it allows general state resources to be concentrated to fulfil very important tasks. In this way, health care questions were resolved – an undoubted service of the communist party of that time. So also were questions of education solved – an undoubted service of the communist party of that time. So were decided questions of defence industrialization. I think that without this concentration of general state resources, the Soviet Union could not have prepared for war with Nazi Germany. And there was a great probability of defeat with catastrophic consequences for our statehood, for the Russian people and for the peoples of the Soviet Union. So these are all definite pluses. But in the final analysis, insensitivity to changes, insensitivity to technological revolutions, to new technological structures led to economic collapse.

And finally, the most important thing, which is why I said that we must look in a different way at the ideas which the then leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, formulated. What were we talking about? What was I talking about? About how a mine was placed under the building of our statehood. What did I mean? This: I had in mind the discussion between Stalin and Lenin about how to build the new state, the Soviet Union.

If you are a historian, you should know that Stalin formulated the idea of a future Soviet Union based on autonomy. In accordance with this idea, all the subjects of the future state should join the USSR on the basis of autonomy with broad powers. Lenin criticized Stalin’s position and said that it was inopportune and incorrect. Moreover, he promoted the idea of the entry of all the future subjects of this state – and there were then four: Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and southern Russia, the Caucasian Federation as it was called, you know better than me.

So he, Lenin, said that the state, the Soviet Union, should be formed on the principle, as he said (I may be mistaken, but the idea is clear), of complete equality with the right of secession from the Soviet Union. And this was a slow-acting mine under the building of our statehood. Moreover, the ethnicities of a multinational but in essence unitary state were given boundaries and territories, and these boundaries were drawn completely arbitrarily, and in general without any foundation. Take Ukraine. Why was it given Donbass? To increase the percentage of proletarians in Ukraine, in order to have social support there. It’s such gibberish, you understand? And it’s not the only example, there are many more.

Cultural autonomy is one thing, autonomy with broad state powers is another, and the right to secede is a third. In the final analysis, this combined with ineffective economic and social policies led to the state’s collapse. And this is a slow-acting mine. And what is it if it is not a slow-acting mine? That’s exactly what it is. And bearing in mind the possibilities of today, we must simply attentively analyze everything which happened in the past. But one can’t smear everything which happened in the past with black paint or look at everything which happens today in bright colours. One must attentively and objectively analyze it in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and to build our state, economy, and society in such a way that the state only gets stronger.

Goodbye Lenin

The city of Donetsk has a Lenin district, a Kalinin district, and a Budyonny district. It has a Lenin Avenue, Ilich Avenue, Alexander Ulyanov Street, Mariia Ulyanova Street, Kalinin Street, Kiubyshev Street, Frunze Street, Kirov Street, 18th Party Congress Street, Red Guards Street, Budyonny Street, Budyonny Partisan Street, Proletarian Street, Red Proletarian Street, Engels Street, and many, many more commemorating the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, and communist heroes past. A law passed by the Ukrainian Parliament this week prohibits all of these. The law bans the promotion of communism, the use of communist symbols (such as the hammer and sickle), and ‘names of streets, squares, enterprises, institutions and organizations who used the names of leaders of the communist regime, the names of the USSR, Soviet Republics, USSR, names associated with the Communist Party congresses, etc.’ Communist symbols, it says, ‘may be used only in the museum, works of art, for the purposes of research and/or as a description of historical events.’

Under the new law, were Donetsk ever to be reintegrated with the rest of Ukraine, all of the place names above would have to change, as would countless others like them in Donetsk and many other towns and villages. As the price of reconciliation, the inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine would have to accept a wholesale rewriting of their history.

What lies behind this sweeping piece of legislation? A couple of reasons come to mind. One has to do with values, another to do with identity. First, some Ukrainians see the survival of a so-called ‘Soviet mentality’ among a significant part of the population (disparagingly referred to as ‘Sovoks’) as a serious obstacle standing in the way of their country becoming a liberal, democratic, Western society. The prevalence of Soviet values in Eastern Ukraine is seen as a major cause of the insurrection there. Supposedly, Ukraine can only achieve its goal of becoming a European country by adopting a new set of values and turning its back decisively on its Soviet past. Second, some other Ukrainians, especially in Western Ukraine, regard communism as an alien, foreign, primarily Russian, ideology, which suppressed and even attempted to exterminate Ukrainian identity. To promote that identity in independent Ukraine, Soviet symbols must be eradicated.

These positions are not completely unreasonable. As I wrote in a previous post, ‘I cannot think of anything positive to say about Lenin, consider communism wrong in theory and disastrous in practice, and view the continuing Soviet mentality as something which Ukraine would be better off without.’ But, as I also wrote, ‘I understand that other people see things differently.’ Attempting to force upon such people a vision of history which they do not share is bound to cause conflict.

In that previous post, I was talking solely about the destruction of Lenin statues. The new law goes far beyond that. It is an assault on the historical identity of a sizeable part of the Ukrainian population. More importantly, it is an assault on the identity of those who are currently in rebellion against the Ukrainian government, many of whom view the Soviet Union as having had some positive characteristics (such as guaranteed employment and social welfare) and as having saved the people of Ukraine from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. By outlawing this version of history, the new law places yet another obstacle in the way of national reconciliation. How can we expect the people of Donetsk to agree to end their rebellion if this means that they must agree to the suppression of their history? Even if the makers of the law are correct that communist symbols are undesirable, the way they have chosen to deal with them is entirely counterproductive.

Moreover, it would be ill-advised even without the ideological element, if only because it is likely to result in injured local pride. Imagine that you live on 18th Party Congress Street. Its name might mean nothing to you, and in principle you might be willing to change it. But if the government in Kiev, 700 kilometres away, which you already dislike, orders you to change it, there is a good chance that you might bristle at the idea. And imagine how you would feel if Kiev then tells you that you have to change every other street name in your neighbourhood as well. From the start of the current crisis, the people of Donbass have been demanding a greater say over local affairs. It’s hard to see how they would tolerate intrusion of this sort.

In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa contrasts two visions of Ukraine: the ‘monist’ and the ‘pluralist’. The first seeks to create a country with a homogenous identity. The second believes that Ukraine would be better off celebrating diversity. Sakwa argues that the war in Donbass is largely a product of attempts to impose the first vision at the expense of the second. One might have hoped that the war would have taught those in authority in Kiev that a new approach was needed. Instead, the law outlawing communist symbols suggests that they have decided to double down, and to exploit the emotions created by the war as an opportunity to advance their agenda with extra zeal. They have a choice: either they can continue to pursue their monist agenda, or they can seek reconciliation with Donbass in order to reunite the country. They cannot do both. It seems that they have chosen the former.

Exploiting the victims of communism

One of the issues currently stirring the passions of residents of Ottawa is a sudden proposal by the Conservative government to erect a memorial in the country’s capital to the victims of communism. The project is meeting with enormous opposition. The plans for the memorial were ‘sprung on everyone and announced with no consultation whatsoever,’ declared the city’s mayor Jim Watson. He and others object to the proposal for a number of reasons:

  • It had long been planned that the site in question would be used to construct a new building for the Federal Court, to be known as the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Judicial Building. Trudeau, of course, was the father of the current opposition leader, Justin Trudeau, and is much hated by the ruling Conservatives.
  • Although the memorial is a private project, the Federal Government has pledged $3 million in support, as well as giving the land, worth at least $1 million.
  • The design is huge and ugly. Ironically, it is just the sort of brutalist, concrete monstrosity that the communists used to construct.
  • The memorial lacks the connection to Canada normal for public monuments in the country’s capital.
Proposed design for the memorial to the victims of communism
Proposed design for the memorial to the victims of communism

Monuments shape how we view our past. They are always political, whether deliberately or unwittingly. The zeal which Canada’s Conservative government is showing for the memorial for the victims of communism is indicative that it endorses the politics of this memorial. But what are these?

In the first place, remembering the victims of communism serves to perpetuate the Cold War division of the world into bad guys (communists) and good guys (us). It reinforces the West’s sense of moral superiority, and thus justifies contemporary political action in support of Western goals. If I may be excused for sounding all Gramscian, it is part and parcel of the maintenance of Western hegemony (which is, or is not, a good thing depending upon your point of view). The fact that the Conservatives wish to memorialize the victims of communism, but not the victims of capitalism, or imperialism, is no accident.

I think, however, that there is more to it than that. The private group promoting the memorial is Tribute to Liberty. Its Board of Directors contains leading members of the Canadian communities of Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, Czechs, and Slovaks, but no Russians. Russians probably suffered more from communism than any other nationality in Europe, but they are not represented. They are, it seems, not the victims but the guilty party. As one article about the memorial puts it, ‘The announcement [of the winning design for the memorial] comes at a time when Russian authorities have ramped up a campaign to sanitize Soviet history including denials of the violent occupation of former Soviet republics, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Russia’s occupation of the Finnish former eastern province of Karelia continues through to the present day.’ For some, it seems, the memorial is as much about keeping people angry at the Russians as it is about its alleged subject.

Eastern Europeans did not for the most part choose to live under communist rule, but millions of them did participate willingly in communist institutions. The police services of Poland were run by Poles; those of Hungary by Hungarians; and so on. The Soviet Union owed its existence to the revolutionary action of the Latvian riflemen; its leaders included a Georgian (Stalin) and several Ukrainians (Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Chernenko). Yet this is not how Eastern European nationalists view the history of communism. Rather it is seen only as something imposed upon them by Russians. This memorial to the victims of communism helps to re-write history to reflect that point of view.