Rewriting Russia’s History . . . and its Present

According to a poll last month by the Moscow-based Levada Center, 54 percent of Russians between 16 and 19 believe Stalin was “a wise leader,” and a similar number thought the collapse of the Soviet Union was “a tragedy.” (Two thirds also thought that America was a “rival and enemy” and 62 percent believed that the government should “deport most immigrants.”) “Many of my classmates believe that some kind of Soviet golden era existed before the West came in and destroyed everything,” says Fillip Kuznetsov, an international-relations student at Moscow University. “They also believe the state is justified in doing anything it likes to its citizens in the name of some great cause.”


The New York Times reports some extracts from the new Kremlin-authored history textbook which is attempting to rewrite the country’s history to suit the dictatorship. Apparently, Putin’s genius historians see no connection between Stalin’s atrocities and the collapse of the USSR. Interestingly, Stalin too rejected such criticism, and Putin rejects it concerning himself. Thus, Russia follows in the footsteps of the USSR on the road to oblivion.

Yes, a Lot of People Died, but …

Stalin has undergone a number of transformations of his historical image in Russia, interpretations that say as much about the country’s current leaders as about the dictator himself. In the West, Stalin is remembered for the numbers of his victims, about 20 million, largely his own citizens, executed or allowed to die in famines or the gulag. They included a generation of peasant farmers in Ukraine, former Bolsheviks and other political figures who were purged in the show trials of the 1930s, Polish officers executed at Katyn Forest, and Russians who died in the slave labor economy. Stalin’s crimes have been tied to his personality, cruelty and paranoia as well as to the circumstances of Russian and Soviet history. While not denying that Stalin committed the crimes, a new study guide in Russia for high school teachers views his cruelty through a particular, if familiar, lens. It portrays Stalin not as an extraordinary monster who came to power because of the unique evil of Communism, but as a strong ruler in a long line of autocrats going back to the czars. Russian history, in this view, at times demands tyranny to build a great nation.

The text reinforces this idea by comparing Stalin to Bismarck, who united Germany, and comparing Russia in the 1930s under the threat of Nazism to the United States after 9/11 in attitudes toward liberties.

The history guide — titled “A Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006” — was presented at a conference for high school teachers where President Vladimir V. Putin spoke; the author, Aleksandr Filippov, is a deputy director of a Kremlin-connected think tank. Excerpts from the guide follow. The text was translated by Nikolai Khalip and Michael Schwirtz in Moscow.


As a result of the “Big Purge” of late 1930s, practically all members and candidates to become Politburo members elected after the 17th Party Congress suffered from reprisals to a certain degree….Postwar reprisals were quite similarly addressed… The number of victims of the Leningrad case reached about two thousand people. Many of them faced firing squads. Studies by Soviet and foreign historians confirmed that the ruling class was the priority victim of the repressions in 1930-1950.

…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. Strengthening the state, including its industrial and defensive might, he considered one of the main principles of his policy.

Indirect evidence of this can be found in the memoirs of his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva. Every time he looked at her dress he always asked the same question, making a wry mouth: “Is this foreign-made?” and always cracked a smile when I answered, ‘No, it was made here, locally.”


A chapter ends with a brief broadening of the interpretation that hints at ways to discuss Stalin’s personal flaws, and the fate of the millions of Soviet citizens who suffered and perished under his rule. But little detail is supplied on that last point, nor does the guide suggest how teachers might conduct more research on it.

…It is common knowledge that power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is well known from Russian history how corrupting a long term in power is. Biographies of such outstanding rulers as Peter the First and Catherine the Second prove it …

The leader’s closest associate, V. M. Molotov, admitted that at the beginning Stalin struggled with his cult, but later on he developed a liking for it: “He was very reserved in the first years, and then he put on airs.”

As to what people think of Stalin, we can judge by an opinion poll conducted in February 2006 by Public Opinion Fund:

If we speak as a whole of the role of Stalin in Russian history, was he positive or negative? Positive: 47 percent; negative: 29 percent; did not answer: 24 percent.

Thus, there are grounds for controversial assessments of Stalin’s role. On the one hand, he is considered one of the most successful leaders of the U.S.S.R. During his leadership the territory of the country was expanded and reached the boundaries of the former Russian Empire (in some areas even surpassed it). A victory in one of the greatest wars was won; industrialization of the economy and cultural revolution were carried out successfully, resulting not only in the great number of educated people but also in creating the best educational system in the world. The U.S.S.R. joined the leading countries in the field of science; unemployment was practically defeated.

But there was a different side to Stalin’s rule. The successes — many Stalin opponents point it out — were achieved through cruel exploitation of the population. The country lived through several waves of major repressions during his rule. Stalin himself was the initiator and theoretician of such “aggravation of class struggle.” Entire social groups were eliminated: well-off peasantry, urban middle class, clergy and old intelligentsia. In addition, masses of people quite loyal to the authorities suffered from the severe laws.


The study guide pointedly refers to what it says are recent restrictions on American liberties undertaken to fight terrorism.

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

Meanwhile, the Putin regime continues to ignore reality even when it is thrust up in the Kremlin’s face by true Russian patriots. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

A giant cross now commands the field where the first shots of Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror sounded 70 years ago. It was erected on Wednesday with religious pomp, as relatives of the victims shed tears, laid flowers and recalled how their loved ones had perished. The 12-metre-high Siberian cedar cross was ferried about 1300 kilometres by boat from a former Soviet prison camp on the White Sea through the Belomor Canal to Moscow. The procession and the ceremony were a rare attempt to address Soviet brutality during Stalin’s reign, an issue human rights groups say, is often eclipsed by the mythologised interpretation of Soviet glory promoted by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

There was little recognition from the Russian Government, which is prone to whitewashing one of the country’s darkest eras.

Millions died from wars, famine, and government cruelty in the nearly 30 years of Stalin’s rule. The systematic killing of “enemies of the people” reached its apogee during the period from August 1937 to October 1938.

During that time the Soviet secret police, or NKVD, executed more than 700,000 people [LR: Vladimir Putin is a proud member of the NKVD’s successor organization, the KGB and FSB] About 20,000 of those who died were killed on the former Butovo shooting range in southern Russia, where the cross now stands, and buried in mass graves. Many of the dead were priests.

During the lengthy Russian Orthodox service on Wednesday, relatives wept and told of their search for information about parents and grandparents. “I came here today to pay my last respects to my grandfather,” said Nina, a middle-aged woman holding a photograph of her grandfather. “Andrei Sergeyevich was a good character, he wasn’t a bad man, but they detained him because he was the best in his village,” she said.

Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, aged 87 and blind, came to the ceremony to honour his father, who was murdered at Butovo. A historian and director of a gulag museum, he discovered details about the slaughter in secret police archives that were partially opened up after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The 12-metre-high cross began its journey with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church on July 25, from the Solovetsky monastery, once a brutal prison camp described by the Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as the first link in the gulag archipelago. The procession ended on Tuesday in Moscow, where the cross was driven around the capital’s outer ring road. The next morning, it was taken to the Butovo range for a small ceremony attended by a few thousand people, including journalists from state-run television. But the absence of political officials generated criticism.

The Government’s response to the anniversary “was absolutely inadequate in terms of scale and historical importance”, said Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the opposition Yabloko Party.

In rare comments on the Stalin era at a teachers’ conference in June, Mr Putin acknowledged the “awful pages” in Russia’s history: “Let us not forget the year 1937,” he said. “But,” he add “in other countries it was more awful.”

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