The Times of London reports:
Now you see him, now you don’t. Stalin was a past master at the art of airbrushing. In one classic set of photographs, there Stalin is with his secret police chief, Nikolai Yezhov — and in the next photo, there Yezhov isn’t (he was executed in 1940, with his boss’s approval). And now, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the airbrushing of history seems to be all the rage again.
If you look hard enough — and we travelled for 5,000 miles around the former Soviet Union — you can find old Soviet airbrushing in concrete. Not far from the railway station in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, are three giant faces on the frieze of a building: Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Next to them is a strange shadow, a memory of a fourth face no longer there. Stalin’s visage was chiselled off, sometime after Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of 1956, in which he denounced Stalin to a closed session of the party congress.
But that is in the sticks, where folk are behind the times. In Kursk underground station in Moscow, a frieze saluting Stalin was removed after the “secret speech”. This summer, after an absence of half a century, it mysteriously reappeared. Stalin is back, his name high above the heads of Muscovites heading down into the underground, with a line from the old Stalinist Soviet anthem: “Stalin brought us up and inspired us to carry out heroic deeds.” Russia seems to be not de-Stalinising but re-Stalinising.
In Russian schools, something even more troubling appears to be happening. They call it “positive history” and the man behind it is Putin. In 2007, the former secret police chief told a conference of Russian educationists that the country needed a more patriotic history. Putin condemned teachers for having “porridge in their heads”, attacked some history textbook authors for taking foreign money — “naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them” — and announced that new history textbooks were on their way. Within weeks, a new law was passed giving the state powers to approve and to disallow history textbooks for schools.
What does Igor Dolutsky, the author of a history textbook that has been dropped by the Kremlin, make of “positive history”? “It’s an appalling idea which hinders proper teaching in schools. School history should not create patriots, it should teach children to think. Putin’s task is to rule a state edging towards totalitarianism.”
Aleksandr Filippov is the Positive History Man. He has a long, mournful face and the air of a defrocked Orthodox priest. His voice is sorrowful but the message is upbeat: “It is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people. A generally positive tone for the teaching of history will build optimism and self-assurance in the growing young generation and make them feel as if they are part of their country’s bright future. A history in which there is good and bad, things to be proud of and things that are regrettable. But the general tone for a school textbook should still be positive.”
It is when you analyse the Kremlinapproved “positive history” book in detail that the clock chimes 13. In March 1933 a fearless reporter and fluent Russian speaker, Gareth Jones, evaded the Moscow censors and went to the Soviet Ukraine and southern Russia, from where he reported that “millions are dying in the villages”. The “Great Famine” deaths were caused by Stalin’s forced collectivisation, grain seizures and mass deportations of peasant farmers. Malcolm Muggeridge declared it a man-made famine and Arthur Koestler wrote of seeing “horrible infants with enormous, wobbling heads, stick-like limbs, swollen, pointed bellies . . .”
Back in Moscow, the Great Famine was denied by Stalin’s stooge on The New York Times, Walter Duranty. Two years later, Jones was shot dead in China, some say by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD.
One estimate is that four million died in Ukraine and southern Russia during the Great Famine, another puts the figure at ten million. No one counted. The unnecessary deaths of millions were airbrushed from history. So how does the 2009 “positive history” textbook cover this? It dedicates 83 pages to Stalin’s industrialisation — and one paragraph to the famine. The scales are loaded one way, to the benefit of Stalin’s reputation.
The Soviet Union smashed Nazi Germany during the Second World War — the greatest achievement of its people. But that war started in 1939, not 1941, when Hitler’s forces invaded the Soviet Union. In August 1939, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, met Stalin in Moscow and signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact — “the midnight of the century”. For almost two years, the British attempt to blockade the Nazis in the Atlantic was overcome by Soviet trains shipping raw materials to Germany. In the first four months of 1941 alone, Stalin sent Hitler a quarter of a million tons of petrol and three quarters of a million tons of grain.
And how does the “positive history” textbook handle the Soviet appeasement of Nazi Germany? It doesn’t. Filippov says: “Stalin didn’t help Hitler. He traded and both countries benefited from this trade.”
I asked him where in his book does it explain that, while Stalin was trading with Hitler, Britain was fighting Hitler? Does it mention the Battle of Britain? The Battle of the Atlantic?
Filippov: “As for the fact that Germany fought with England, of course it is mentioned. But the book does not mention the Battle of the Atlantic. You think that at all costs we have to write that between 1939 and 1941 there was trade between the Soviet Union and Germany? Am I right?”
Sweeney: “Yes I bloody do! It matters very much that Stalin helped Hitler while we were fighting Hitler.”
On page 424 of his book, Filippov writes: “the anti-Fascist coalition was rather a strange one during the whole of the Second World War. The people of one of its members — the Soviet Union — spilt blood on its battlefields. The other members of the coalition (Great Britain and especially the US) limited themselves mainly to supplying arms, materials and provisions to the USSR until a decisive turning point was reached during the war. At the end of the war they tried to benefit from the fruits of the general victory and did not even have any scruples about holding separate (unilateral) talks with the enemy.”
Britain and America did not hold separate or unilateral peace talks with the Nazis. That is simply untrue.
The author goes on to make an extraordinary claim. He cites two speeches made in 1941 by Harry Truman, then a senator, and Winston Churchill, and summarises Western policy in 1941: “All these plans were essentially a continuation of the appeasement policy that the Western powers started in the prewar years.”
My family history helps me here. My late father was a ship’s engineer in the Merchant Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic. His impression of hearing a depth-charge go off when the destroyers were hunting subs — “BOOM!” — was a great turn in the pub. Roy Billen, the father of my friend, the Times writer Andrew Billen, was in the RAF dropping bombs on Germany. In 1941 many of their friends died fighting Hitler. Yet now we learn that they were appeasing the Nazis.
On what happened during the Second World War, Russia’s new governmentapproved history book tells lies.
But the “positive history” version of Stalin’s Terror is truly frightening. From 1925 to 1953, millions of people were killed on Stalin’s command — which is why Trotsky called him “the gravedigger of the revolution”. Some were shot, some were tortured and died, some perished of hunger and cold in the gulag. No one knows how many died because objective historians have found it difficult if not impossible to gain access to the secret police archives, but the estimates of Terror victims killed range from three million to more than 20 million.
How does the “positive history” book cover this? It quotes one number for people killed — specifically, those condemned to death: 786,000.
Sweeney: “Where does it say in your book that millions died in Stalin’s Terror?”
Filippov: “Let’s have a look. Here is the bit about the repressions, and it is spread over three pages.”
Sweeney: “So 786,000 were condemned to death. Where does it say that millions died? It’s not there, is it?”
Filippov appeared to search for a reference, in vain.
The historian Orlando Figes, whose book The Whisperers gives a terrifying insight into what life under Stalin was like, says that “positive history” is part of Putin’s “historical mythology, combining the Soviet myths (stripped of their communist packaging) with statist elements from the Russian Empire before 1917”. All of it pushes Putin’s “sovereign democracy” — strong state power.
Last year the authorities raided the St Petersburg offices of Memorial, a charity that helps relatives of the victims of state terror, then and now.
We flew to Archangel in northern Russia. The city used to be a hub for the gulag — a place to which Stalin’s victims were sent before being dispatched to a living death in the frozen wastes. Stalin’s bureaucracy of terror logged everything: sentences, dates of deportation to specific camps, death certificates.
Relatives of the dead and the missing, especially Poles and German prisoners of war, have been helped by the Russian history professor Mikhail Suprun and Aleksandr Dudarev, the historian in charge of the NKVD archive, to trace what happened to their family members. In September, Suprun and Dudarev were arrested by the FSB — the new name for the NKVD. The professor’s data were confiscated and both men are being investigated for an alleged breach of privacy. Neither could talk to us.
But a Russian-Polish amateur historian, Aldina Egorova — the kind of woman who, in Britain, would pop up on Who Do You Think You Are? — told me she was worried that the archive would be permanently closed. She had been helping Poles to find out exactly where their loved ones froze to death. Her voice faltered and she hesitated when she recalled the police interrogating her about her work. This happened not in 1941 but in September 2009 — three months ago.