Friday, December 19, 2008

Rewriting Josef Stalin's Legacy

The Chicago Tribune offers a great account of Russian historical revisionism on the legacy of Joseph Stalin, perhaps the modern world's most brutal tyrant:

Stalin, the brutal Soviet dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of his citizens, has been undergoing a makeover of sorts in recent years. Russian authorities have reshaped the Georgia-born dictator's image into that of a misunderstood, demonized leader who did what he had to do to mold the Soviet Union into the superpower it became.

In Russian classrooms, history teachers are guided by a new, government-approved textbook, Alexander Filippov's "Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006," which hails Stalin as an efficient manager who had to resort to extreme measures to modernize the lumbering Soviet agrarian economy.

There were, writes Filippov, "rational reasons behind the use of violence in order to ensure maximum efficiency."

A museum commemorating Stalin as a national hero opened in 2006 in the southern city of Volgograd. The following year, a 40-episode television drama broadcast on a state-controlled network whitewashed Stalin's crimes and portrayed him as Russia's savior.

When he was president, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sought to shift the nation's focus away from Stalin's legacy of brutality. Meeting with history teachers in 2007, Putin acknowledged that Russian history "did contain some problematic pages. But so did other states' histories.

"We have fewer of them than other countries, and they were less terrible than in other nations," Putin continued. "We can't allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us."

The battle over how Stalin should be remembered remains one of Russia's most divisive topics of debate. For many Russians, Stalin's achievements far outweigh his crimes. He is seen as the wartime leader who saved the Motherland from Nazi Germany in World War II and engineered the country's ascent as a global powerhouse.

For many others, that ascent was made using millions of Russians' lives as grist. Historians estimate that Stalin's decrees led to the deaths of as many as 20 million people, either from famine, execution, incarceration in labor camps or during mass deportations.
In reading this I'm reminded of one of the most memorable essays I read as an undergraduate, during my training in Soviet poltics and foreign policy: Nina Andreyeva's, "I Cannot Forego My Principles." Andreyeva was a schoolteacher in Leningrad who emerged as a spokeswoman for great Russian nationalism during the Gorbachev reforms of the late-1980s. Her essay is remarkable especially for its shaming incredulity and unabashed nationalism. I've looked unsuccessfully for a copy of the essay online, although this passage from Philip Boobbyer's, Conscience, Dissent and Reform, captures the essence of Stalinist rehabilitation.


Norm said...

There are untold millions of Russians and members of other Soviet nationalities who have perished in Stalin's gulags. There are millions of Soviets who died only because Stalin trusted Hitler and was not prepared to fight the German invasion. Any rehabilitation of Stalin's name will not meet with success.
However, what is interesting from the item you linked to was the discussion of "conservative nationalism" as a reaction to the
lack of morals and ethics that glasnost brought.

AmPowerBlog said...

There are many, many Russians, Norm, who would love to restore Russian power to what it was under Stalin.

Laura Lee - Grace Explosion said...
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