Tag Archives: memorials

Russia fails to remember Stalin’s victims

‘Fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ gets a lot of attention nowadays. But the thing about propaganda is that it’s best when it’s true. Likewise, media bias doesn’t normally consist of publishing identifiably false information. It more normally consists of slanted analysis and a confusion of fact and comment, combined with a highly selective choice of stories – it’s not that the stories are untrue, it’s just that one chooses only to publish those stories which support one’s political line while ignoring others which don’t.

Let’s take the example of the Russian state and its alleged rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin. In June of this year, the Western press seized upon a statement by Vladimir Putin during an interview with film director Oliver Stone in which he said that Russia’s enemies were using ‘excessive demonization’ of Stalin to attack Russia. The Times of London reported this, as did The Washington Post, the New York Times and, it goes without saying, RFE/RL. The story was in many cases combined with coverage of a Russian opinion poll which listed Stalin as the greatest person in Russian history to generate headlines like that of a photoessay in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Russia’s Reembrace of Josef Stalin.’

Now, it is of course true that Putin did tell Oliver Stone what was reported. And it is true that Stalin topped a poll of greatest Russians. But how many reporters covered other stories which pointed in a direction other than ‘Putin and the Russian people are reembracing Stalin’? Take, for instance, Putin’s attendance at the opening of the Sretenskii monastery, which I mentioned in a previous post, and which given the monastery’s dedication to the ‘New Martyrs’ had considerable symbolic significance? How many Western media outlets covered that story? According to Google: the BBC – no; The Guardian – no; The New York Times – no; The Los Angeles Times – no; The Washington Post – no; and RFE/RL – well, do I really need to say?

So what about the big Stalin remembrance story this week? You haven’t heard about it? Don’t be surprised. It didn’t feature in the English-speaking press. On 27 September, a new Garden of Memory opened at the former Butovo firing range to commemorate the 20,000 people executed there during the Great Terror of 1937-1938. There has been a memorial at Butovo since 2007, but it has now been expanded and a wall has been added listing the names of all the 20,000 known victims. But you wouldn’t know about it if you relied on the BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, and all the rest of them, none of whom uttered so much as a word about it as far as I can tell. (Nor for that matter did RT, apparently. Make of that what you will.) The New Times instead chose to publish a long piece about how the people of Crimea were coming to regret their decision to reunite with Russia. For all I know, everything the New York Times chose to say about Crimea is true but, like I said, it’s what stories you choose to publish.

butovo
Priests bless the memorial to the victims of the Great Terror at Butovo

Continue reading Russia fails to remember Stalin’s victims

Items of interest

Other matters – including the need to complete an article for an academic journal – have kept me from blogging for most of this week. In lieu of a new post, here are links to, and brief comments on, some articles published in the past few days which I found interesting.

  • Canada ready to re-engage with Russia, Iran, despite differences, Dion says. Canada’s new foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, gave an interview to the Ottawa Citizen. According to the newspaper, ‘The foreign minister also indicated a new approach to Russia is coming. Dion said [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau is “certainly not happy” with Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and the new government will reiterate that point with Moscow. But he added: “We also need to think about our national interests because Russia is our neighbour in the Arctic.”’ I am not expecting a massive change in policy, but this interview does at least suggest that Canada will finally be willing to talk to the Russians about matters of mutual interest, and that is a step forward.
  • Heritage minister promises ‘prompt decision’ on victims of communism memorial. Another new Canadian minister, Mélanie Joly, now in charge of Canadian heritage, met Ottawa’s mayor Jim Watson this week, and discussed the controversial proposal to erect a monument to the victims of communism next to Canada’s Supreme Court building. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the proposal is very unpopular in the capital. According to the Ottawa Citizen, Mme Joly promised Mayor Watson that she would consult further before making a decision and ‘Watson said he and Joly had a “very good discussion” on the victims of communism monument. “I expressed our city’s position that there has to be greater accountability and that the site that was chosen by the previous government is not appropriate and is out of scale”.’ I am mildly optimistic that this project may not now go ahead in its current form.
  • The economics of rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. Yuri M. Zhukov, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, has analyzed which municipalities in Eastern Ukraine experienced uprisings in the spring of 2014 and compared that information with data concerning language and industrial employment. He concludes that there is little evidence of … a “Russian language effect” on violence’, but that there was a clear correlation between uprisings and large-scale employment in machine-building, metals industries, and mining. In other words, economics were more important than language in determining whether people joined the rebellion. What I found more interesting, though, was what Zhukov left unsaid. For his research rests on an assumption that local factors were the key variables, and his conclusion likewise suggests that local economics were the driving factor in the rebellion. In short, the roots of the rebellion lay in Ukraine, not in Russia.

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.