Some Russians “get it” on Stalin

The Putin regime has become so unhinged in recent days that, as Robert Amsterdam points out, even a cog in the RIA Novosti machine, writing on of all places Kremlin-funded Russia Profile, is deeply worried about the regime’s pro-Stalin stance:

If the human rights activists were more laid back, they would be able to rebuff any of their opponents’ claims not with demonstrations, but with a dull lecture for the semi-literate about the difference between a poster, a history textbook and academic research.

So, dear conservatives. There are some differences in genre. Scientific labor presupposes a kind of indifference on behalf of the scientist toward the final outcome of his study. Accepting the Solzhenitsyn Award, the great linguist Andrey Zaliznyak acknowledged the praise that he was given and stated the following: I did not try to confirm the authenticity of “The Lay of Igor’s Warfare” [an epic poem of old Russian literature], I just studied the issue. It just so happened that the authenticity was confirmed in the end. But if the poem turned out to be phony, it would have been a scientific finding all the same.

When conducting research, one must give equal consideration to all the sources and all the participants, be it Stalin, Hitler, Stepan Bandera or Andrei Vlasov. A scientist doesn’t care what the liberals, the conservatives, or those in the middle have to say, whether the authorities will praise or condemn him. It’s not the general society that is going to discuss his findings, but his professional colleagues who will be evaluating his competence and not his degree of patriotism. Nobody is going to protest at a demonstration if the society is sane and doesn’t demand that scientists draw patriotic/antipatriotic conclusions. The authorities have to be sane as well – that is, they shouldn’t claim the right to say that some research findings are true and others are false. If the authorities lose their common sense (as happened to Viktor Yushchenko) and start passing their own judgments of history, then there will be protests. Not against science, but against the authorities.

A kind of selectiveness of the past is inevitable in a history textbook: here there is not enough space to talk about everything and consider the situation from all angles. Here, we are given a general notion of how the people of today look at their past. The people. Of today. That’s why textbooks walk a dangerous line between distanced academic knowledge and a conceptual purpose. They are always at risk of losing this precarious balance, of tilting toward the momentary, of becoming a weapon of tailored ideology. The notorious textbook edited by Alexander Filippov (at least in its first edition and especially in the teacher’s manual) showed us what happens to pedagogical history when it is molded to fit the needs of political ideology.

While a poster is a means of advertising. Or propaganda, which is the same thing but without a market connotation. A poster formulates symbolic images, defines the vectors of values and promotes certain concepts. In this sense, there is nothing to argue about. The decision by the Moscow city authorities is in no way connected to rehabilitating memory, but is actually a promotion of Stalin as a political brand. Just as there was nothing to argue about in the case of the Kurskaya metro station; the quote “Stalin raised us…” from the anthem that was placed in a public space is not rehabilitation of history in all of its scope, but a reinstatement of yesterday’s leader in his present-day rights.

The question is: what’s to be done with the indelible mark? What’s to be done with the plaques that adorn the gates of Hitler’s concentration camps: “Jedem das Seine,” “Arbeit macht frei?” Why can they, the Germans, keep them, while we, the post-Soviets, can’t? Answer: because the Germans are not restoring the writings on the metro, but keep them at museum complexes instead. Excluded from our immediate surroundings. Enclosed by a symbolic border, placed in historic quarantine. If you really do want to preserve the memory of our tragic past, please be our guest and place the words about Stalin in a museum context. That is, either reconstruct the Kurskaya station’s interior in the halls of the Historic Museum, or (which is technically impossible) close down the station for passengers and turn it into a museum hall for visitors. The saying “Arbeit macht frei” turns into sacrilege when placed on the streets, in the squares or in places of public gathering. While within the pale of museum settlement it only serves as a reminder: wow, this really did happen.

As for the conservatives’ favorite argument about the incomparability of the evils perpetrated by Stalin and Hitler, about the incommensurability of fascist Germany and the communist Soviet Union, it contains a dose of conscious guile – it too often provokes the human rights defenders to start disagreeing in the heat of the moment: no, everything is comparable to everything!

In reality, yes – Stalin and Hitler are essentially two different manifestations of the global evil, very different. And communism and Nazism are incongruous forms of state dehumanization. To say that they are no different means to replace understanding with a slogan. In turn, there are very significant differences between Hitler’s national-socialism, Mussolini’s fascism and Franco’s authoritarianism.

But how does this affect the question of life and death, the problem of guilt and responsibility? It doesn’t at all. In regard to his own people, Stalin was a purposeful murderer. And this is quite enough, without any comparisons or parallels. It is impossible to equate a power that triumphed over Nazism to the defeated national-socialism. But it was no better to perish in Kolyma than at Auschwitz. Is there a difference in the ideologies that led to extermination camps in Germany and in the Soviet Union? Of course. But there is no difference at all between GULAG and Dachau as mechanisms of mass destruction. The contexts and subtexts, the political, historic, and legal appraisals vary, while slaughter remains slaughter, and the terror of death remains terror. Personal responsibility for a political action is irrevocable.

So drop the idea of the posters. And liberal notions have nothing to do with this: it is basic historical hygiene.

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