Tag Archives: Stalin

Book review: The Long Hangover

Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent on The Guardian, has a new book out, entitled The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past. It advances the thesis that … and this is where I run into a problem because he never explicitly says what his thesis is. But it’s sort of something like this: in an effort to unite the Russian people and raise the country’s patriotic spirit, Vladimir Putin has focused on a narrative of victory, above all victory in the Second World War. This focus has contributed to a situation in which Russians have failed to come to terms with the negative aspects of their Soviet past. This in turn helped to provoke and sustain the war in Ukraine.

I say ‘sort of something like this’ because it’s never fully developed. Instead, what Walker gives us is a series of stories of events he has witnessed and people he has interviewed. Weaving them together is the theme of historical memory. These stories are all rather negative in character, in the sense that they focus entirely on the bad aspects of Russia’s (or more often the Soviet Union’s) past. Walker, for instance, visits Kalmykia and discusses the deportation of the Kalmyks in the Second World War; goes to Chechnya and discusses the Chechen wars of the 1990s as well as the deportation of the Chechens in 1944; goes to Magadan and visits old Gulag sites; and goes to Crimea and talks about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars.

The patriotic mood associated with celebrations of victory in the Second World War have made Russians unwilling to confront these dirty secrets of their past, Walker claims. This, he suggests, goes a long way towards explaining Russia’s behaviour today. Walker rounds off his book with descriptions of his visits to war-torn Ukraine and of his interviews with rebel soldiers and leaders. Essentially, he says, Russians are suffering from a ‘long hangover’ from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin’s efforts to unite the nation by celebrating victory in 1945 is making it harder for the country to get back on its feet by perpetuating this hangover. Simply put, the idea is that if you celebrate 1945 then you start thinking that maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad after all, and next, before you know it, you’re starting a war in Ukraine.

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Stalin, Paddington, and the Press

What do Josef Stalin and Paddington Bear have in common? Answer: The Russian Ministry of Culture has tried to ‘ban’ films about them – or at least that what recent headlines would have you believe. The truth is a bit more complex.

The Stalin story relates to a decision by the Ministry of Culture to withdraw a licence for the release of the movie Death of Stalin, pending further investigation. It is debatable whether this really constitutes a ban. Culture Minister Vladimir Mendinsky claims that viewers might consider the film ‘an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past’, something which you might think was richly deserved. Given Mendinsky’s reasons for objecting to the film are political, an outright ban would be legally problematic since the Russian constitution prohibits censorship. This perhaps explains the ministry’s statement that is subjecting the film to further review rather than prohibiting it. Mendinsky says that it would be ‘extremely inappropriate for this picture to come out on the screens on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the historic victory in Stalingrad.’ This leaves open the possibility that the film may be given a licence once that anniversary is over in February.

Regardless of what happens, the Ministry of Culture’s action is quite indefensible. I haven’t seen the film as it hasn’t been released in Ottawa where I live (for commercial reasons, I imagine, not censorship). But I have read the graphic novel on which it’s based, and there’s no doubt that it does indeed mock the Soviet leadership at the time of Stalin’s death. It also distorts history in certain respects – e.g. portraying Soviet citizens being gunned down by soldiers during Stalin’s funeral. But mockery and bad history aren’t reasons for refusing to licence a film. It’s satire, for goodness sake. Writing in Vzgliad, Pyotr Akopov claims that it’s not for foreigners (Death of Stalin is a British film) to satirize Russia – only Russians can do that. This again is a pretty poor argument. Nobody is forcing anybody to watch this film. If you don’t like foreigners satirizing your country, just don’t go see it. Don’t ban it.

The Death of Stalin episode reveals a hyper-sensitive, paranoid, and authoritarian strain in Russia’s cultural elites (several film directors were among those who asked the Ministry not to licence the film). Is Russian identity and national pride really so fragile that the country can’t tolerate some mockery of Stalin’s Politburo (who, let’s face it, were hardly paragons of virtue)? I don’t think so. The Ministry should rethink its actions.

The Paddington case is different. In this instance, the Ministry of Culture attempted to postpone release of the movie Paddington 2. It has the right to do this with foreign films if it thinks that the timing of the release will adversely affect sales of tickets to Russian movies. Given Paddington 2’s success in Europe and North America, the Ministry obviously worried that it would attract viewers who might otherwise have gone to see something made in Russia – thus the decision. In the end, though, consumer outrage forced the Ministry to back down and a licence was released for the film to show from 20 January.

This was a clear instance of economic protectionism, completely unrelated to politics. Unlike the Stalin case, there was also no question of the film being forbidden. The plan was merely to postpone its release for a couple of weeks. It was a pretty dumb idea, but not as insidious as the case of Death of Stalin.

This, however, did not stop the British tabloid press from making some wild claims. The Sun led with the headline, ‘Russia wants to ban Paddington 2 because it’s too popular and considered Western propaganda.’ It followed up with the statement that the film was ‘deemed to be a threat to the Russian way of life,’ as well as with claims that Russia might soon ban McDonalds and KFC. None of this, of course, is true. There was no ‘ban’ of Paddington, the episode had nothing to do with the film being a ‘threat to the Russian way of life’, and the rumour about McDonalds and KFC is pure speculation and quite preposterous. The Sun finished off its article with a section about how the Soviet Union (in 1985 no less!!) had banned Western pop groups such as Village People. Quite what this has to do with modern Russia and Paddington wasn’t explained.

Other British tabloids joined in the feeding frenzy. ‘Russia tried to BAN Paddington 2 branding popular film Western PROPAGANDA,’ shouted the Daily Express, which went on to tell readers that ‘the Kremlin takes issue with the foreign values in the children’s film.’ The Daily Star, meanwhile, linked the affair to Russia’s leader with the headline, ‘Vladimir Putin in bid to ban Paddington film from Russian cinemas.’ There is, of course, no actual evidence to link Putin personally to any of this. Were such stories to appear in RT, they would no doubt soon be classified as ‘fake news.’

All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t put too much faith in either the Russian Ministry of Culture or the British press.

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.

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

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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.

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Sretenskii Monastery, Moscow

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Friday book # 42 : Three who made a revolution

Natalia Poklonskaia made news again this week by denouncing Trotsky and Lenin, along with Hitler and Mao Tse Tung, as ‘monsters of the twentieth century’. The leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Ziuganov, called the equating of Lenin and Hitler ‘an absolute provocation’. Personally, I don’t have any objection to what Poklonskaia said, though I do wonder why she left Stalin out. Collectively, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin did untold harm. Coincidentally, this week’s Friday book is a biography of the ‘three who made a revolution’, although a better title might be ‘Three who ruined Russia’.

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Mannerheim or bust

On Monday, a St Petersburg court refused to order the city government to take down a plaque put up earlier this year to commemorate General Gustaf Mannerheim. Mannerheim served in the Imperial Russian Army before the revolution, reaching the rank of lieutenant general, and the plaque celebrates him as a distinguished Russian officer. During the Second World War, however, Mannerheim was Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Army, which supported the Germans in blockading Leningrad. Believing that it was inappropriate to install a memorial to somebody who brought the city so much harm, a St Petersbug resident petitioned the local court to order its removal. The court ruled that the city was not responsible for putting up the plaque, and therefore couldn’t be told to take it down.

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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.