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Yesterday The New York Times published an article in it’s “Kremlin Rules” series called “Nationalism of Putin’s Era Veils Sins of Stalin’s.” In it, Clifford J. Levy points to how the Kremlin is denying access to archives that contain information about Stalin’s purges.

The Kremlin in the Putin era has often sought to maintain as much sway over the portrayal of history as over the governing of the country. In seeking to restore Russia’s standing, Mr. Putin and other officials have stoked a nationalism that glorifies Soviet triumphs while playing down or even whitewashing the system’s horrors.

Why does Russia’s leadership fear its Soviet past? Is the truth about Stalin so unbearable that the current Russian regime would collapse under its weight? There could be fears of personal links between today’s leadership and yesterday’s crimes. After all, Putin was in the KGB. That seems pretty unlikely, however, because we are talking about a distant era even for the Soviet Union, though not so distant that leaders who followed Stalin dared to reveal too much, especially after Kruschchev fell from power.

But that was the Soviet Union. This is Russia. I understand Russia’s need for tradition-building, but it seems to me that its past is usable enough without whitewashing it. Are Russia’s political and social stability really so fragile that they cannot survive the truth? Does Russia really need Stalin to justify its current brand of authoritarianism? It has been doing just that, both on national television and in the classroom.

I find it hard to believe that Russia cannot stand strong and proud even after light is thrown onto its darkest secrets, but that does not mean that the Russian leadership is any less fearful and suspicious. For a regime so concerned about maintaining a posture of strength in the world, its archive policy constitutes an ironic admission to deep-seated insecurities.

From NPR’s Morning Edition today:

Russians have the chance to pick the greatest Russian in history during a 13-part TV series that began airing there this month. Internet voting has already generated controversy by temporarily putting Soviet dictator Josef Stalin at the top of the list.

State-controlled Russian television is billing it the “project of the year.” Once a week until the end of December, a panel will have an on-air debate over who is the greatest figure in Russian history. Almost everyone on the panel is a well-known conservative . . .

Full story: Gregory Feifer, Was Stalin The Greatest Russian In History?

Related blog post: Good Old Stalin (8/13/2007)

History can be used to justify all manner of circumstances in the present. Want to justify an authoritarian regime in Russia? Referring to Russia’s present conditions can help, but even more effective can be skillful tradition-building that shows Russia’s long line of great authoritarian rulers. And what better place to start than with history teachers in the schools?

The New York Times published a remarkable article yesterday about a new history guide for high school teachers in Russia. After a brief introduction, it offers verbatim excerpts on Stalin, who comes away smelling like roses, despite his massive purges.

Stalin followed Peter the Great’s logic: demand the impossible from the people in order to get the maximum possible. . . . The result of Stalin’s purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortages of resources, loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline. . . .

Thus, just like Chancellor Bismarck who united German lands into a single state by “iron and blood,” Stalin was reinforcing his state by cruelty and mercilessness.

It is quite an intellectual feat to bring Stalin into line with both Peter the Great and Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, such relativism reveals something about the Kremlin’s self-image these days. It would be helpful to see the rest of the guide before drawing broader conclusions. Still, does not the following statement recall some of Putin’s own criticisms of democracy in the United States in recent years?

Political and historical studies show that when they come under similarly serious threats, even “soft” and “flexible” political systems, as a rule, turn more rigid and limit individual rights, as happened in the United States after September 11, 2001.

Yes, history textbooks matter.

For the original article with more extensive excerpts from the new Russian history guide, see Andrew E. Kramer, “Yes a Lot of People Died, but…,” The New York Times, Aug. 12, 2007.

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