Flirting with Stalin

Mass murder is so sexy!

Mass murder is so sexy!

Writing in Prospect magazine Arkady Ostrovsky, Moscow bureau chief of the Economist magazine,  tells us about “flirting with Stalin” and the horror of life in neo-Soviet Russia:

“Dear friends! The textbook you are holding in your hands is dedicated to the history of our Motherland… from the end of the Great Patriotic War to our days. We will trace the journey of the Soviet Union from its greatest historical triumph to its tragic disintegration.”

This greeting is addressed to hundreds of thousands of Russian schoolchildren who will in September receive a new history textbook printed by the publishing house Enlightenment and approved by the ministry of education. “The Soviet Union,” the new textbook explains, “was not a democracy, but it was an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society.” Furthermore, over the past 70 years, the USSR, “a gigantic superpower which managed a social revolution and won the most cruel of wars,” effectively put pressure on western countries to give due regard to human rights. In the early part of the 21st century, continues the textbook, the west has been hostile to Russia and pursued a policy of double standards.

Had it not been for Vladimir Putin’s involvement, this book would probably have never seen the light of day. In 2007, Putin, then Russian president, gathered a group of history teachers to talk about his vision of the past. “We can’t allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us,” was his message.

The 1990s were largely ideology-free in Russia. The country was too weary of grand designs and too preoccupied with economic survival. When Putin came to power in 2000, he said Russia’s national idea was “to be competitive.” But then, as the price of oil climbed and Russia started to feel important again, the need for ideology became more urgent. Unable to offer any vision or strategy for the future, the Kremlin looked, inevitably, to the past.

The textbook covers the period 1945-2006, a suggestive choice: from Stalin’s victory in the “great patriotic war” to the “triumph” of Putinism. It celebrates all contributors to Russia’s greatness, and denounces those responsible for the loss of empire, regardless of their politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is seen not as a watershed from which a new history begins, but as an unfortunate and tragic diversion that has hindered Russia’s progress.

The whole postwar period in Russian history is viewed through the prism of the cold war “initiated by the United States of America.” The textbook does not deny Stalin’s repressions; it justifies them. The concentration of power in Stalin’s hands suited the country; indeed, conditions of the time “demanded” it. “The domestic politics of the Soviet Union after the war fulfilled the tasks of mobilisation which the government set. In the circumstances of the cold war… democratisation was not an option for Stalin.”

But if Stalin mobilised the country and expanded the Soviet empire so that it reached parity in power-status with the US, Mikhail Gorbachev surrendered those hard-won positions. Stupidly, from the textbook’s point of view, Gorbachev considered western partners to be his political allies. He gave up central and eastern Europe, which meant Russia lost its security. America and the west instigated revolutions in Ukraine and in Georgia, which turned the former Soviet territories into western military bases. These revolutions “set a task for Moscow to pursue a more ambitious foreign policy in the post-Soviet space,” the textbook says.

Now we have seen this ambition realised in the recent war against Georgia. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has asserted itself militarily in the post-Soviet space and played out its imperial ambitions with tanks and grenade launchers. Russia’s invasion was intended to send an unequivocal message to other former Soviet republics: “we can and will stop Nato’s eastward advance.” In the first few days of the war, Russia bombed Gori, Stalin’s home town. The cluster bombs it dropped on the city killed between five and 30 people, but the statue of Stalin on the main Stalin Square remained standing. As Russian tanks rolled past the statue on Putin’s orders, one can even imagine the Soviet dictator winking and waving.

It is easy enough to condemn Russia’s manipulation of history for ideological ends, or Putin’s restoration of the Soviet anthem in 2000. But the truth is that a large majority of Russians—77 per cent according to one poll—welcomed the restoration of the anthem, and at least half the country view Stalin’s role in history as positive. This connects to another uncomfortable truth: the version of history portrayed in the new textbook is as much a defeat for Russian liberalism and liberal intellectuals—the journalists, historians and artists who were supposed to counter the Soviet ideology—as it is a triumph for Putin. There was more opposition from Russian liberals to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, than there is now to the war in Georgia.

The destruction of the Soviet Union did not yield a new, liberal post-Soviet ideology. The defeat of the KGB-led coup in August 1991 by hundreds of thousands of Russian people, who risked death when they went to defend the Moscow parliament, did not become a watershed. It was not celebrated as the birth of a new nation, merely the collapse of the old.

By contrast, the mythologising of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution began almost immediately. Two years after the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, the event was re-enacted as a mass spectacle, directed by Nikolai Evreinov. The artist Kuz’ma Petrov-Vodkin marked the third year of the revolution with “1918 in Petrograd,” a painting of a red Madonna breastfeeding a child. The tenth anniversary was celebrated by Eisenstein’s film October.

In terms of imagery, August 1991 offered the perfect opportunity for a new foundation myth: Boris Yeltsin, tall, striking, with a shock of white hair, standing on a tank and addressing the crowd, was an image made for canonisation. But the day when the coup was defeated and people brought down the statue of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky has not even become a national holiday. The tenth anniversary of the 1991 coup went uncelebrated.

It is true that 1991 was not good news for everyone. Many people had their savings wiped out. Some never quite believed that the Soviet system had really gone. Others felt a niggling sense of emptiness and nostalgia. Over the past decade, this nostalgia has became all-encompassing.

So why did Russia fail to come to terms with its own history and shape a new liberal course after 1991? One reason, perhaps, was a fear of civil war, an anxiety that debate about the Soviet legacy was potentially explosive and might end in the streets (as in 1993, when members of the Supreme Soviet mobilised die-hard communists and nationalists in an armed revolt). Unlike in eastern Europe, the secret service files were not thrown open for the simple reason that too many people, including the intelligentsia, had been involved with the KGB. The secret services were restructured and renamed but never outlawed. Condemnation of Stalinism was as half-hearted as it had been in 1956, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult of personality.

Unlike Georgia, Ukraine or the Baltic states, Russia did not have anyone else to blame for Soviet rule. Russia was involved in the destruction of itself. In 2000, this act of mass suicide was bleakly and clinically depicted in a theatre adaptation of Andrei Platonov’s 1926 novel Chevengur staged by Lev Dodin, one of Russia’s most talented and thoughtful directors. The builders of the great utopia were depicted first disposing of their class enemies, sealing their naked bodies in giant transparent plastic bags. They then sank themselves into a pool of water, carrying large heavy stones. The stones resurfaced; the bodies did not. The country which performed this collective suicide required self-analysis and a dispassionate study of its history—which never took place.

A vast amount of previously banned literary works and historic documents were published in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but they were swallowed without being digested. “We thought that if Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was published, the world would turn upside down,” Dodin told me recently. “But then an extraordinary thing happened: it was published and remained unread.” The same was true of Vasily Grossman and Varlam Shalamov. None of these authors became part of a national canon. Worse still, their writing has not become a vaccination against the return of the disease they described. When Solzhenitsyn came back to Russia in 1994, he was treated as a figure of the past. Some, like the writer and television personality Tatyana Tolstaya, ridiculed him, others paid tribute to his courage, but few took him and his thoughts on “How to Rebuild Russia”—the title of an essay he wrote in 1990—seriously. When he died on 3rd August, few Russian intellectuals came to pay tribute as his body lay in state. The most distinguished mourner, ironically, was Putin, who was attracted to Solzhenitsyn by his outspoken nationalistic views. The Russian government is promising to rename Moscow’s Bolshaya Kommunisticheskaya [Big Communist] Street as Solzhenitsyn Street—so co-opting the scourge of Stalinism to the new authoritarian state.

What happened culturally in Russia in the 1990s was a kind of adolescent reaction against an overbearing parent. Irony and swearing flooded the public realm. But the contemptuous bashing of Soviet culture added little to the understanding of it. And at the same time as rejecting Soviet culture, the media and popular art engaged in an extraordinary exercise of self-deprecation. The slogan of those years seemed to be: “We are the worst.”

It is easy to see how a KGB officer or a pensioner could feel they had lost out in the early 1990s. But why did intellectuals and artists who had pressed for perestroika and were supposed to have benefited most from the collapse of the Soviet Union behave like such losers? One reason is that they lost the special status which they enjoyed under the communist regime, but did not have enough talent, integrity or independence to make use of their new freedom.

The fact is that the events of 1917 unleashed enormous artistic energy: suffice to mention the works of Alexander Blok, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Vsevolod Meyerhkhold, Dmitry Shostakovich. Nothing of this kind took place in Russia after August 1991. Not a single great poem or novel was produced. And more damagingly, the post-1991 period did not produce a language adequate to the events that were taking place in the country. The past 15 years have revealed an enormous linguistic vacuum. Serious or high language was abused and devalued by the official Soviet ideology. Words like “truth,” “heroism” or “duty” were falsified beyond recognition—and there has been no rebirth.

Russia’s first commercial newspaper, Kommersant, turned sarcasm and irony into its hallmark. Its headlines usually were (and still are) a pun on Soviet slogans or citations from popular films or songs. The shortcomings of this language became apparent towards the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s. Events such as the financial crisis of 1998, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 or the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan in 2004 required a different, serious language which did not exist.

The day after the bloodbath in Beslan, Izvestia, a leading Russian daily, gave its entire front page to a picture of a bruised Russian soldier carrying a bloodstained girl in his arms, with no headline. In a way it was telling. It was as if the paper wasn’t confident that it could find the right tone with words. The only way to be serious was to say nothing. (It is also telling that this front page was so powerful that the editor got sacked by the proprietor, probably after a nudge from the Kremlin.)

Irony penetrated all areas of Russian culture. Soviet symbols and slogans became a rich field for postmodernism. Soviet history was stylised and commercialised before it was properly assessed and studied. This began in the mid-1980s and spanned visual arts, theatre and literature. Some of the most memorable images came from a series of paintings by Leonid Sokov (one of them is on the cover of this issue) of Stalin and Marilyn Monroe in amorous poses. It was entertaining but no more than that.

By the mid-1990s, Russian culture was already starting to flirt with Soviet culture of the 1930s. One of the highlights of the theatre season of 1994 was an extraordinary student production of a 1934 comedy, The Wonderful Fusion, by Vladimir Kirshon. Full of energy and sincerity, it was faithful to the period and expressed the naivety and excitement of Soviet youth before the second world war. It did not propagate Soviet ideology, but was saturated with nostalgia for the sense of purpose associated with Soviet idealism. This was a precursor for what became a tide of nostalgia on a far greater and more damaging scale.

In 1996-97, a television presenter, Leonid Parfenov, launched a programme on Channel One, one of Russia’s leading channels, called Old Songs About Important Things. It revived Soviet songs, playing in a light-hearted and ironic way to a growing nostalgia for things Soviet. In part, this “ideology” was a backlash against the self-deprecation of the early 1990s. But it proved extremely popular. (In a further irony, when Putin came to power, Parfenov was one of the victims of his squeeze on the media.)

One of Vladimir Putin’s first acts as Russian president was the revival of the Soviet national anthem, replacing Mikhail Glinka’s “Patriotic Song” (which had no words). On New Year’s eve in 2000, the country clinked glasses to the tune written on Stalin’s orders in 1944. At the time, Putin’s supporters argued that this was his concession to the older population, a kind of sweetener for the bitter pill of economic reforms. There was, in fact, no popular demand for a change of the anthem. But when it arrived, it stirred dormant feelings in the population.

The same year as the return of the Soviet anthem in 2000, Channel One reinstated a Soviet-era jingle for the main nine o’clock news programme, Vremya. Melodies, like smells, can be highly evocative. The tune signalled a return to Soviet-era news coverage. In fact, it was as if the state was sending signals to the country as a whole—signals of restoration and revanche. And this was no longer some kind of game or joke. The jokers—like Parfenov—were quickly removed. The Kremlin and the KGB—now renamed the FSB and recovering much of its lost power—were deadly serious. To be sure, demand for a serious tone did exist. But the sad fact is that this demand was met not by the liberal intelligentsia, but by the ideologues of Putin’s regime. As Russian troops moved into Georgia, Russian television presenters talked with straight faces and straight voices about the hand of the west behind Georgia’s attack on its separatist region of South Ossetia.

The icons of Soviet ideology are revived not for their connection with the Bolshevik, communist or revolutionary ideals—far from it—but as symbols of Russia’s imperial greatness. Revolution is firmly out of fashion in Russia, and communism has been dumped. Lenin’s mausoleum has long ceased to be a national symbol. During a recent military parade on Red Square, the constructivist pyramid designed by Alexei Shchusev in 1924 to house Lenin’s remains, was covered up modestly with victory imagery. There was no room for the dead Bolshevik in the celebration of Russia’s resurgence.

But the revival of the Soviet anthem did break a taboo which, for better or worse, had existed since Khrushchev’s 1956 speech—it re-established Stalin as a great national leader. The dictator’s appeal lay not in his communist background, but in his imperial legacy. “Stalin’s empire—the sphere of influence of the USSR—was greater than all Eurasian powers of the past, even the empire of Genghis Khan,” the history textbook marvels. Stalin occupies a proud place in modern Russian history, along with Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and now Putin. Russia is still far from erecting monuments to Stalin, but the acceptance of him as a positive, or at least complex historical figure is an established fact. It does not matter that every family in Russia has relatives or close friends who suffered in Stalin’s terror. The myth is stronger than first-hand knowledge.

One of the most significant Russian novels published under perestroika was Life and Fate, completed in 1960 by the disillusioned communist and war correspondent Vasily Grossman. The book dared to consider the similarities between Stalinism and Nazism. In one scene an SS officer is talking to his prisoner, an old Bolshevik. “When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate—no, we are gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age. Do you really not recognise yourselves in us; yourselves and the strength of your will?… You may think you hate us, but what you really hate is yourselves in us… Our victory will be your victory… And if you should conquer, then we shall perish only to live in your victory.”

Twenty years after the first publication of Life and Fate, this idea is anathema to official Russian ideology. The history textbook rejects the very notion of totalitarianism. “This doctrine, that equates the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, was and remains a weapon of ideological war, not a tool of knowledge. The ideology of Nazi Germany and the ideology of Soviet Russia had nothing in common.”

Russia today is not a totalitarian state, nor is it a socialist one. But in the absence of an indigenous liberal ideology, an old fashioned nationalism, in neo-Stalinist costume, has become the most powerful force in Russian society. It is this force that brought Russian tanks into Georgia and scares most of Russia’s neighbours. In the process of “restoration,” Russia has not returned to the Soviet past—but it has arrived at a new junction that bodes ill for its neighbours and its citizens.

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