Tag Archives: Stalin

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.

Friday book # 31: Icebreaker

This week’s book is Victor Suvorov’s controversial Icebreaker, published in 1990. In this Suvorov claimed that Stalin was planning to attack Germany in 1941, and thus that the German attack on the Soviet Union could be seen not as an act of aggression but rather as a pre-emptive strike.

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A few years later, there were several revelations from the Soviet archives which at first glance appeared to lend some credence to Suvorov’s thesis. I have clipped several newspaper articles about these in my copy of the book, including the 1995 piece from the Moscow Times below. Subsequent studies by historians such as Gabriel Gorodetsky, however, have thoroughly debunked Suvorov’s thesis, and I don’t know of any serious historian who still supports it.

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Friday book #20: Russian Revolution

Next on my shelf is a small book (84 pages) by Richard Pipes, entitled Three Whys of the Russian Revolution. The questions which Pipes asks are:

  • Why did Tsarism fail?
  • Why did the Bolsheviks triumph?
  • Why did Stalin succeed Lenin?

Roughly speaking, his answers are as follows:

  • The Tsarist state was weak and unable to cope with the strains of the First World War.
  • The Bolsheviks didn’t triumph because they had majority support (they didn’t), but because they were more determined, more organized, and more ruthless than their opponents.
  • Stalin’s ascent was inevitable. Rather than distorting Lenin’s legacy, Stalin carried it to its logical conclusion.

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