Reexamining Russian History

September 15, 2010 Topic: Civil SocietyHistory Region: Russia Tags: CommunismHeads Of State

Reexamining Russian History

Disentangling Stalin from Russia's past glory.

One of the main themes of the Valdai Club this year was coming to terms with Russia’s twentieth-century history, or rather the ghastly period between the revolution of 1917 and the death of Stalin in 1953. This forms part of a push by Russian establishment liberals who support President Dmitri Medvedev to galvanize Russian reform and bring about a clear break with the Soviet past.

Remembering the crimes of Stalinism was also a natural accompaniment to our trip by boat along parts of the White Sea Canal, constructed under Stalin in the 1930s by political prisoners at an appalling cost in human life and suffering, from cold, hunger and mass executions. This and so many other mass atrocities committed under Stalin and Lenin are only to a very limited degree officially remembered or commemorated in the Russia of today, although Russians formed a majority of their victims.

This is a subject on which non-Russians have a limited moral right to speak except where their own fellow countrymen were among the mass of victims (as with Stalin’s mass murder of Polish prisoners at Katyn)—and even then, they must be very careful to acknowledge both that this was a crime of a Communist and not a Russian national state, and that innumerable Russians were also among the mass of victims. As to Russia, the lack of public commemoration or accounting goes beyond Stalinism, even if the immense scale of Stalinism’s crimes make this the most serious issue in modern Russian history by far. Thus the almost two million Russian dead of the First World War have also received no public memorial, even though nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary past is very common in contemporary Russian cinema, for example.

Even for many strongly anti-Communist Russians—whose own families suffered under Stalin—the Communist past is often a very difficult subject, for two reasons above all, which were brought home to me during the second part of my stay, which included a visit to the city of Yaroslavl, where the Russian government has organized an international annual forum which they hope will become the Russian version of Davos. Glancing out of the train, my eye was caught by an incongruous white statue standing seemingly alone in a forest glade. Then I realized that the statue was of a soldier, and that behind it were row upon row of grey headstones—the graves of Soviet soldiers killed in the Second World War, presumably from a military hospital, since the German advance was stopped to the West of Yaroslavl in November 1941 before the Soviet counterattack the next month drove them back again. The regime which organized the resistance that drove them back and saved Russia from destruction was of course Communist and led by Stalin. Disentangling this glorious victory, which saved Russia and Europe from the Nazis, from the appalling domestic and international crimes of Stalinism, is, to put it mildly, not an easy one.

The other reason for this has to do with the almost four decades of much milder Soviet rule that followed Stalin’s death, during which almost two generations grew up, married and had their own children, and which produced both the grey but limited oppression of Brezhnev’s rule and the reformist periods of Khrushchev and Gorbachev, and the eventual destruction of the system by the Communist rebel Yeltsin; and of course thereafter, the rise to power of a former Soviet intelligence officer, Vladimir Putin.

In other words, this was not at all like the clear and sudden German break with Nazism caused by defeat and conquest in 1945.This history has produced a situation where in Yaroslavl the lovingly restored monasteries, cathedrals and palaces of the imperial era—often demolished or wrecked under Lenin and Stalin­—sit on streets still called “Sovietskaya”, and “Andropova” (he was from Yaroslavl province).

The danger for Russian liberals, therefore, is that in denouncing the crimes committed under Lenin and Stalin they can easily appear to be—or actually be—condemning the entire Soviet period, for which many older Russians feel an element of nostalgia—not so much for imperial reasons but because it represented a secure life, or simply for the human reason that it was the country of their childhood and youth. This in turn can encourage the liberals to do something which they are all too prone to do, which is to express open elitist contempt for ordinary Russians and for Russia itself as a country. It is not for me to say whether or not this is justified. One thing which should be obvious—and which I pointed out to Russian liberals at a conference in Sweden earlier this summer—is that talking this way in public about your fellow citizens is no way to get elected—in Russia or the United States.

Since this approach naturally receives no hearing at all in conservative or “statist” circles, it also continues the catastrophic pattern of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century relationship between the liberal intelligentsia and the state, which contributed directly to the catastrophe of 1917 and the destruction of both by the revolution: basically, of two moral absolutisms shouting past each other’s ears. The absence of liberals from the ranks of the imperial state gravely impoverished that state and contributed to its faults of obscurantism, reaction, unnecessary repression and sheer stupidity; but once again, it must be admitted that liberal rhetoric often did much to make absolutely sure that the state viewed them as irresponsible, unpatriotic and unworthy to serve in government.

A Russian historian who spoke at the Valdai exemplified this risk, and also demonstrated that whatever they themselves may believe, many Russian liberal intellectuals are a considerable distance from their Western equivalents and also have a strong tendency to their own forms of spiritual absolutism. This historian is the editor of a highly regarded collection of revisionist essays on twentieth-century Russian history; but his talk at the Valdai caused acute pain to professional Western historians present.

His talk consisted of going back through Russian history all the way to the Middle Ages and identifying a set of crucial “mistakes,” plucked out of historical context and presented with crucial accompanying facts missing. On the one hand, this is as unhistorical a project as can well be imagined for a historian. On the other, it amounted in effect to trashing most of Russian history—which once again, is no way to get your fellow countrymen to listen to you.

As far as the Russian government is concerned, the most encouraging thing concerning its recent approach to history has been the full and open acknowledgment of the Soviet secret- police massacre of Polish prisoners at Katyn on Stalin’s orders, which has led to a radical improvement in relations with Poland. This was made possible in part because both the Polish and Russian governments recognized that in the same forest are also buried thousands of Russian and other Soviet victims of the Soviet secret police. In other words, this became a joint denunciation of Stalinism, not a Polish denunciation of Russia.

It seems quite clear that Medvedev would wish to go faster and further than Putin in denouncing Communist crimes. At our meeting with him, now–Prime Minister Putin snapped back quite aggressively when asked why Lenin is still in his mausoleum in Red Square, asking a British colleague why there is still a monument to Cromwell outside parliament in London. One of my British colleagues reacted quite huffily to this but I must say that being half Irish and remembering Cromwell’s crimes against Ireland (which today would undoubtedly be labeled genocide) I saw a good deal of truth in this—except of course that Cromwell ruled Britain 350 years ago, and not 90 years ago.

On the one hand, Putin’s response reflected an understandable but still often counter-productive Russian tendency to lash back at uncomfortable questions rather than taking them on board. In this regard, Medvedev, whatever his other qualifications, is by far the better diplomat. However, Putin followed up with the sensible observation that “when the time comes, the Russian people will decide what to do about this. History is something that cannot be hurried.” The difference between Putin and Medvedev is encouraging in this regard, because it reflects in part simply the fact that Medvedev is thirteen years younger.

At Yaroslavl, Medvedev spoke of the immense changes Russia had achieved since the end of Communism, and talked of his great difficulty in explaining to his fifteen-year-old son—born in 1995, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union—what it was like to live under Communism, “queues for everything, nothing in the shops, and nothing to see on television but endless speeches by Party leaders.”

In the end, the approach of Russian teenagers—and therefore future adults—to their history will probably be like that of most teenagers in the West. On the one hand this is a great and dangerous pity, because a greater knowledge of history might well help to inoculate them all against dangerous future mistakes and crimes. However, speaking as a professor, I harbor no great illusions about our ability to get most teenagers—Russian, American, British or Martian—to study history or anything else very much.