Pots and kettles
6 August 2009
Translated from the Russian by Dave Essel
The news that Stalin’s grandson is suing Novaya Gazeta for defamation of his grandfather is not something that can or should be just laughed off as a joke. The thick mud of moral deafness and the sadomasochistic inclinations that infect both the state élite and the population as a whole have created an absurdly Kafkaesque situation in which it is quite possible that the court will find for the plaintiff. The episode, furthermore, fits in fine with a whole chain of steps that government and public bodies have been taking recently to achieve a creeping rehabilitation of the Stalinism though the application of administrative and legal levers to deny dissenters of a voice.
First and foremost, we should recall the notorious Shoigu Law. If one strips it of the verbal dross about prevention of justifications of Nazism and of belittlement of the role of the USSR in the victory over it, it is evident that the main purpose of the law is to make it possible to prosecute anyone for any condemnation of anything about how the Stalin régime ran the war or for saying anything remotely justificatory about the the actions of the régime’s enemies.
Next we have the establishment of the commission to counter the falsification of history and protect the perceived interests of the Kremlin. Its aim is of course not actually to verify any sort of facts or truth (for example, the genuineness or not of the Politburo resolution ordering the murder of imprisoned Polish officers) but solely to inveigh against evaluations of historical events that the ruling cliques consider inimical.
Following on this, we have the hysterical reaction to the resolution of the parliamentary assembly of the OSCE by our parliament which is stubbornly determined not to know that the Stalin régime brought the same evils to people as Hitler’s and that in 1939 it allied itself with Hitler’s to start the world war.
A funny thing here is that in some ways our parliamentary representatives are quite right. The Stalin and Hitler régimes are not strictly comparable: differing historiographical and moral approaches are needed.
Both régimes were identical in that they installed total control over peoples’ personal lives. The view held by some right-wing liberals that the Hitler régime held people on a slightly longer lead because private property rights, albeit restrained by the state, were retained, was contradicted by Hitler himself, who said: “We do not need to socialise the factories because we are socialising the people”. In fact, the differences between the two régimes were massive.
Firstly, they murdered very different numbers of people. The officially recognised number of victims of the Stalinist political repressions (about 4 million arrested and 800 thousand shot) has been seriously minimised – but not by an order of magnitude. The Nazi camps murdered more Jews than that alone. And, as we all know, the camps were not used just for Jews.
Secondly, the two totalitarian régimes had completely different ideological starting points. The Stalinist ideology was a weird mix of ideas, some of which were abhorrent (e.g. establishing the state right to hold unlimited violent power over the people), while others could in modern terms be called expressions of standard human values (and yes, let today’s national-patriotic supporters of Stalin choke with fury). Nazi ideology contained none of these weaknesses. It asserted nothing but an apology for the bestial in man, a cult of violence and cruelty, and the superiority of some over others. In other words, it was an ideology of hatred in a pure and undisguised form.
Of course, the whole totalitarian and pervertedly cruel practice of Stalinism was in constant and total contradiction of the ideals of freedom, justice and humanism it simultaneously promulgated. Much that is true has been written and said about how Stalinism destroyed public morality, the human soul, and how it deeply flawed the Homo Sovieticus that was brought into being, a new man taught to think one thing, say another, and do something else again. Yet many people were able, all through the totalitarian nightmare, to retain their belief in kindness, having obtained their knowledge of these values from the Soviet education system. Stalinism did colossal damage to the human soul and spirit but did a little cultivation too. Hitlerism only destroyed.
Thus one can say that from a world-historical point of view, Stalinism was a lesser evil than Hitlerism, that the Hitler régime was the worse of the two. But it must be put just as I have done. It will not do to say the Stalinism was better: the concept of “better” is inapplicable to these régimes. Earthly justice, imperfect as it is, can only say that both régimes, the victims of which number in the millions, were cannibalistic and criminal. They may rightly be stood together.
That an aggressor and killer preaches humanist values makes him no less criminal in the eyes of human justice. As people, we are not required to think about the world-historical roles of particular régimes, in particular if they both drive totalitarian steam-rollers. For the citizens of the Baltic states, caught between the two, it was far from clear which represented the lesser evil. Their choice frequently came as a result of which régime had caused them or their loved ones suffering first. Far from all of those who made a choice in favour of Germany were defending their class privileges or hoping to use the arrival of the Germans as an opportunity to “sort out their Yids”. Similarly, far from all those who opted for the USSR were burning with a desire to put “class aliens” up against the wall. It is therefore unfair to either automatically condemn or automatically condemn either choice.
It goes without saying though that parliamentary representatives are only human and not obliged constantly to think in world-historical terms. And they don’t. But if anyone thinks that their outrage at the European resolution is because of their higher thinking, then he is profoundly wrong. Their task is far plainer and more prosaic: to establish a principle of state immunity.
One is prompted to ask why should the ruling kleptocracy so want to rehabilitate Stalinism? It cannot really love true Stalinism (as opposed to the fancy, and some would say glamourous, Stalinism portrayed on TV). True Stalinism’s hard, ascetic and Spartan spirit (not the ersatz Stalinism recreated by the current régime) is deeply alien to them. No, it is just that the new-Russian élite dislikes anti-Stalinists even more. It dislikes them for the political model they support, in which government is to be constrained in its interactions with citizens and most importantly responsible to them since, in this model, human rights take precedence over state rights. For today’s time-servers, Stalinism is of value as an example of a system based on a philosophy that rejects outright such a conception of human rights, an ideal example of the most sovereign democracy in the world.
That is why the Kremlin’s ideologists and propagandists strive to demonstrate, if not the superiority of Stalinism over all other systems, then at least its admissibility as a model for society and its historical justifiability. The cruelty was regrettable but harsh necessity so dictated. Mistakes were made but no crimes committed. Overall, yes, there were some bad things but there was more good.
We are to all intents and purposes going back to a reserved judgement on Stalin as formulated back in 1956 in the CC CPSU’s resolution on “overcoming the cult of personality”. No, he was not the Pope of Rome but he was not a criminal either. An outstanding leader who overall played a positive role. Incidental breaches of socialist legality did not negate the supremely human and democratic nature of the Soviet state. This resolution was considered the official position of the party leadership right up to the era of perestroika. The post-Soviet élite has not advanced beyond the level of the Soviet party nomenklatura.