Manipulating Russia’s Manipulation of History

Stalin was the “most successful Soviet leader”.

Thus proclaims Filippov’s controversial textbook A New History of Russia 1945-2006 – a symbol of the Putin-inspired drive to rehabilitate Stalinism and steep the next generation of Russian schoolchildren in the glories of sovereign democracy. Right?

Unfortunately, there’s just a few problems with this kitschy narrative of neo-Soviet historiographic revanchism, as a cursory scan of the textbook reveals.

This phrase (along with Stalin as “effective manager”) is typically quoted so out of context by liberal critics of the Kremlin as to make their Soviet-era ideological counterparts proud. The full quotation goes thus: “On THE ONE SIDE, [Stalin] IS REGARDED as the most successful Soviet leader”…ie, by the 47% of Russians with a positive view of Stalin. It is immediately preceded by the qualifier that views on Stalin’s historical role are contradictory – a point that is emphatically made at the very start of the chapter in question. Furthermore, the next (and last) paragraph concludes with a list of Stalin’s sins – “ruthless exploitation of the population”, “large scale repressions” and the destruction of “whole classes such as landed peasantry, the urban petit-bourgeoisie, the priesthood and the old intelligentsia”.

Since dark episodes like collectivization, political repressions and the Gulag are all covered covered in the textbook, its main sin is one of presentation rather than omission – the aim being to “rationalize” Stalinism within the larger narrative of Russia’s history and leave the final interpretation to the reader, instead of issuing blanket condemnation. As Filippov himself said in response to the ruckus over the textbook, “I was always annoyed by the belabored moralizing foisted on us in Soviet textbooks, and I wanted to avoid it…it seems I may have tried too hard”. And it’s not hard to see why; many people are as uncomfortable with the whole idea of “balance” when it comes to Stalin, as they are with, say, lauding Hitler for building Autobahns and overturning the “humiliating” Treaty of Versailles.

Yet speaking of whom, Hitler is probably unique amongst dictators in that he is near universally reviled after his death. He is hated by most Jews, Russians, Poles, British, Americans, and even the Germans he led to ruin. Furthermore, were it not for the crash industrialization (particularly of the Urals region) and social mobilization of the 1930’s forced through by Stalin, the USSR may well have lost the Great Patriotic War. This would have resulted in the partial extermination, Siberian exile and helotization of the Slavic and Jewish populations of eastern Europe, as envisaged under Generalplan Ost, Nazi Germany’s genocidal scheme for conquering Lebensraum in the East. This explains why many Russians hold such conflicted and contradictory views on Stalin, the despotic Messiah who led and ruled them like the God of the Old Testament.

Every country needs a national myth. The settling of the West remains one of the staples of the US national myth – Andrew Jackson, ethnic cleanser of Indian-Americans, adorns the 20-dollar bill. The Bill of Rights overshadows the inconvenient truth that its inventors did not extend it to their slaves. After the melting of the Soviet ideological glacier, the Visegrad nations of east-central Europe, Ukraine and the Baltics got busy writing their own national myths. These myths were based on victimization under Russian occupation, which necessitated airbrushing prominent indigenous Communist collaborators and anti-Semitism out of their paintings of the past. Some would say this this is an unwholesome and ahistorical approach; others would note it is the surest way to imagine communities into reality.

Not surprisingly, for better or worse, a glorified version of the Great Patriotic War is fast becoming Russia’s national myth. It strengthens the Russian national identity, cleanses away the other manifold sins of Stalin’s regime and probably explains his enduring popularity amongst Russians, who cannot accept the one-sided portrayal (or smearing?) of him as a murderous tyrant propagated by meddlesome foreigners and unpatriotic liberals.

It would be great if history were to be left to the historians…but that will only ever happen in the fantasy world. Back on planet Earth, it is just another political grenade kicked around by all sides. How many critical journalists have actually read the controversial chapter in question, let alone the textbook itself, before commenting on it? Why do so many of them focus on sound bytes like Stalin as “effective manager” or “most successful leader”, with blatant disregard for context? Why is the textbook’s very limited print run and lack of official endorsement rarely mentioned and never emphasized?

Perhaps these journalists would be well served to reflect on these questions before launching on their next tirade about the incipient rehabilitation of Stalinism under Medvedev’s historical commission.

Or perhaps not. Ultimately, both viewpoints are correct, derived as they are from cardinally different but internally consistent worldviews. Filippov is both a neo-Soviet propagandist and the voice of the Russian people. It all depends through which prism you view him, and Stalin, and Russia. Which belief you want to believe in.

PS. You can read the full translation of the controversial chapter in question (Debates about Stalin’s Role in History) from Alexander Filippov’s history textbook A New History of Russia 1945-2006 here.

This was originally published at Johnson’s Russia List.


  1. >> Furthermore, were it not for the crash industrialization (particularly of the Urals region) and social mobilization of the 1930’s forced through by Stalin, the USSR may well have lost the Great Patriotic War. >>

    An interesting view. My Russian teacher and I once had a discussion about how Russia won GPW *in spite* of Stalin’s collectivization/mass-mobilization policies.

    One interesting viewpoint she had was about the near-total annihilation Stalin perpetrated upon his best generals and leaders within the Communist party in the years prior to the War, due mainly to his paranoia over political rivals.

    The theory she proposed was that 20 million Russians would not have lost their lives in the war if Stalin would have been better at delegating authority and sharing power with capable leaders at that time. The harsh geography Hitler faced and the massive army he was up against should not have added up to such devastating losses for Russians.

    The fact that more Russians died in the War than all the non-Soviet Jews and Allies combined seems a testament to how tragic Stalin’s leadership was in the war, no?

    I must admit I’m a scholar in neither Stalin nor Russian history so I could be completely off; just making a counterpoint.

  2. The issue of Stalin’s rule really is a great debating topic for the historians but unfortunately journalists are not historians. The journalists come up with sensationalist articles without context out of the urge to sell them; this is how they put bread on their table. If editors of newspapers and magazines decided to subscribe to the anti-Russian tirade, then journalists are left with no choice but to publish such rants.

    BTW, what is the name of that nice place you got that iconographic depiction of Stalin from?

  3. Mark:

    You bring up some balanced point regarding Stalin.


    Not to be overlooked is pro-Russian (as opposed to the mentioned “anti-Russian tirade”) criticism regarding Stalin.

    AK’s referenced point about “unpatriotic liberals” is touched on in a recent National Interest article by Anatol Lieven.

    Whether discussing Stalin or present day Russia, one can be critical from a pro-Russian viewpoint.

    This otherwise obvious point (at least in some circles) seems to nevertheless get periodically overlooked.

  4. Michael

    Serious historical points, such as that Mark displayed above, are one of the healthiest things ever. It allows us to come to terms with reality. Therefore criticism of Stalin as well as mentioning the few good points of his rule is very much pro-Russian.

    But the standing ideologues are rarely eager to paint such a balanced picture. Being Czech I know full well how anniversaries of the sad events of August 1968 are used as a parade of hatred towards Russia (a country which did not even exist at that time). It is rarely used as a good time to reflect on history and face up to some uncomfortable truths. But then again, as AK mentions these national myths are necessary for the incumbent regimes. For the Visegrad the idea of the Russian danger tilts the public opinion towards the West. Membership in the EU and NATO can always be justified within this framework. It is therefore not up to the spin doctors to care about accuracy. It is for people like AK to debunk their claims.

  5. @Mark,

    That is indeed a rather old-school and probably outdated viewpoint.

    Re-war management. By most accounts Stalin was excellent at it and gave his generals wide leeway to conduct operations the way they saw fit. Credit should also be given for his foresight in creating an industrial base in the Urals and preparing an extensive mobilization apparatus (including evacuation of industrial plant) beforehand, factors which were vital to winning a Blochian total war.

    Re-casualties. They were actually around 27mn for the Soviet Union, but you are neglecting the fact that the vast majority of them were civilians. The military Soviet to Axis loss ratio was 1.3:1. See Myth II in The Poisonous Myths of the Eastern Front.

    Re-army purges, there are revisionist arguments that they did not have a major effect in absolute terms, e.g. from this book review (although it is true they contributed to greater rigidity in military thought prior to the war, which would have been damaging – that said, its effects should not be overstated):

    Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers makes two fundamental points about the history of the Red Army, as well as several important observations. The first fundamental point is that the impact of the political terror of the 1937-38 was, in absolute and relative terms, less than it is generally taken to have been. A number of newly uncovered sources, notably General E.A. Shchadenko’s report of May 1940, make it possible to conclude that net losses of officers and commissars (taking into account reinstatements) was some 23 000. Reese also reassesses the size of the total officer corps, making it 150 000 in 1937. Previous historians have estimated higher losses and assumed a much smaller officer corps, and Reese convincingly shows a smaller percentage loss.

    The second fundamental point is related to the first. The basic reason why the Red Army fought so badly in 1941. Reese argues, was not the purges. What really mattered was the army’s incohesiveness, which resulted from shortcomings across the interwar years, but especially the too rapid expansion in the late 1930s. The crucial weaknesses of the Red Army were inadequately trained junior officers and poor platoon-level organization. Both weaknesses were accentuated by a lack of career NCOs. This general point is developed especially well by Reese in an archivally based case study of the Kiev military district.


    I just searched for “stalin icon” in Google images. The original pic is from here –

    One of the curious things I noticed about the Visegrad nations is that Russophobia is mostly confined to a) their elites and b) early wave emigrants (not the recent ones). Surprisingly, the middle-aged and younger apolitical majorities, the “people” so to speak, usually have neutral or positive attitudes, which is highly encouraging.


    By “unpatriotic liberals”, I was just referring to how (I believe) most Russians view them. I meant this to be a way of explaining Russians’ paradoxical ambiguity regarding Stalinism (paradoxical because many Russians were its victims) to Westerners who don’t share their historical-cultural experience; not to project my own views on Russian liberals (though they happen to be close to that of the Russian majority view).

  6. Gotcha AK.

    Regarding the mentioned Lieven piece, one need not be a liberal to be a patriotically constructive critic of Russia – as opposed to the ones (whether liberal or not) who get positively highlighted at Russia unfriendly venues.

    On another point, Stalin seems to have miscalculated on the 6/22/41 Nazi attack.

    A good number of competent folks were purged by Stalin. A good number of them weren’t the subversives as depicted upon their fall from grace. From this grouping, the USSR would’ve benefitted from their continued presence.

    Stalin had great resources to work with.

    As has been discussed at SO, the present “support” for Stalin varies. On this point, I share the view that it’s misguided to collectively generalize such sentiment.

  7. Chris Doss says:

    Hey! You got the Jackson thing from me! Credit where credit is due! 😉

  8. @Chris,

    I did indeed. And to complete the disclosure, one of the points I make is from Sean Guillory (namely, the part about how the GPW is becoming Russia’s national myth).

    The reason I didn’t acknowledge this in the original articles is because I believe the official policy of the Russia Experts Discussion Group to be that you’re allowed to take ideas from there and use them yourself, but their provenance is supposed to remain anonymous. In any case that is the assumption I’ve been working on when posting there myself.

    I’m more than happy to acknowledge credit when called upon, as now.

  9. @AK – I think one of the main problems skewing American and Western understanding of Stalin’s role both in Soviet state development in general and in the War in particular, is that there are precious few English texts detailing the history of Stalin’s Russia outside of the ideologically-based Political Science analyses.

    But you have to admit: could such a devastating human toll truly just be because Hitler was that good (bad) or was there some fault with the leadership? Even if most of the casualties were civilian, that means that the crash industrialization and mass mobilization did not do nearly enough to prepare the people for war, and Hitler didn’t exactly have geography/topography on his side, either.

  10. @ Mike, Mark,

    There are faults in any leadership. Yet ultimately, I think Stalin acted rationally and competently in the Soviet “national interest” regarding foreign policy during the prewar period. Geopolitics is dictated by the constant laws of geography, and I doubt the Tsarist or the Provisional Government’s attitudes towards security in Europe against an expansionist Germany would have been significantly different.

    Stalin mistimed the German attack? Yes. But there were many conflicting reports, and his lack of full trust in Britain in the context of the time (appeasement, Munich, secret outreaches to Hitler) were fully understandable. Would you or I have done better without the benefit of hindsight? I’m not sure.

    And such points can be multiplied indefinitely.

    As for “crash industrialization and mass mobilization”, they were indeed Stalin’s brainchild. And most historians would, I think, agree that it was exactly this that most contributed to Soviet victory. Since Soviet GDP was (slightly) smaller than Germany’s and its economy was far less industrially diversified, a a well above average degree of mobilization was necessary to outfight it.

    For a detailed discussion of these issues, I highly recommend the following paper:

    The USSR and Total War: Why Didn’t the Soviet Economy Collapse in 1942? – Mark Harrison.

    Re-casualties. The reason many civilians died in 1941-42 was because a) many were caught behind enemy lines and subjected to fierce food requisitioning and “anti-partisan” reprisal operations and b) many of the old and infirm died in unoccupied Russia because of dearth.

    The reason military casualties were high in 1941-42 was because a) they were inadequately trained to resist German Panzer divisions – which, I would note, applied equally to Poland in 1939 and France in 1940, b) the strategy of mounting constant infantry counter-attacks on the Wehrmacht’s flanks deformed the overall shape of Barbarossa and doomed it to failure, but resulted in costly losses at the tactical level, c) the low level of mobility made escaping German encirclements difficult, though again this weakness was shared with other armies of the time, and d) a high degree of initial disorganization (despite extensive prewar preparations) and use of opolchenie (militia) units.

    Without the accumulated reserves and stress tolerance built up by prewar industrialization and mobilization, the USSR would have simply folded in 1941 – just like its Tsarist predecessor in 1917, despite the fact that its losses were far less during three years of war than the Soviet Union lost in just 1941.

  11. AK

    I agree with what you say of Stalin’s foreign policy.

    On another point: with or without hindsight, others besides myself are of the impression that he very much miscalculated on the 6/22/41 attack – in a way that could’ve and should’ve anticipated what happened. Putting the mentioned Britain point on this matter aside, didn’t Soviet sources note an impending attack?

    His purging of talented and not necessarily disloyal folks (include some in the officer corps) didn’t help the Soviet war effort. Under severe conditions, there’s a fine line concerning the belief of qualitatively needing some authoritative discipline, with a certain fear factor and taking it to a level where it can be counterproductive.

    Yes, the USSR won WW II. This reality doesn’t completely dismiss the thoughts expressed in this note. Teams have won with not so great coaches. Conversely, not so good teams lose with very competent coaches. Like I said, Stalin had great resources to work with.

    Offhand, the overall worldwide improvement in transport technology might address the WW I-WW II comparison you make. The transport of weaponry was an issue for the Russian Empire during WW I.

    When comparing the Red Army’s success against Japan and the former’s problems with a comparitively weaker Finnish adversary within the same period of time, two thoughts come to mind. One having to do with taking the Japanese more seriously than the Finns (akin to how in sports, the taking for granted of a perceived weak opponent prior to competition can prove to be disasterous for the athlete or team thinking like that). The other (I’d have to research this one further) is that the Red Army’s fareastern flank didn’t receive as much a brunt of the purges, being farther from the “center.” As you might know, Zhukov was involved with the defeat of the Japanese.

  12. On the mentioned technology point regarding WW I and II, I should say technology at large (not just the one relating to transport).

    I’m of the impression that when compared to WW I, the US showed a greater ability to crank out more weapons during WW II.

  13. Sorry for the additional note AK. You bring up some thought provoking points.

    Another thought came to mind on the WW I-WW II comparison, which relates to bringing all (arguably) pertinent variables into play.

    For the Russian Empire, WW I was more of a kind of “luxury” (for lack of a better word) in comparison with WW II for the USSR. In WW I, the Russian Empire lets itself get involved in an alliance system where it wasn’t attacked. This is in sharp contrast to what the USSR faced. The latter saw a brutal attack launched against it. This served as better motivation for the population to continue fighting. On the other hand, the initial enthusiasm for entering WW I is second guessed when the casualties start mounting. (Regarding the earlier hindsight point on another matter, the Russian Empire and its subjects were unaware of what suffering would occur in WW I. This point concerns others involved in WW I as well.) In WW I, the Germans found a convenient ally of sorts in Lenin who was politically skilled. In WW II, Nazi behavior made it more difficult to find and prop someone in that role. This gets magnified on the (especially in retrospect) weaker basis for getting involved in WW I. In addition to the Russian Empire, keep in mind how WW I led to dramatically wrecking the other monarchical forms of government, which fought in that conflict.

    I agree with the manner of post-Soviet Russia’s official Victory Day celebrations, which stress the role of the people, who defended their country, versus the stressing of one person for achieving that feat.

  14. Chris Doss says:


    Heck, I was just joking. It’s good to see my comments put to good use. 🙂

  15. More on manipulation of manipulation – School Texts in Post-Soviet States Present Russia as the Enemy, Study Finds by Paul Goble (note: ex-CIA & a prominent Russophobe).

    With the exception of only one country and the partial exception of a second, ten post-Soviet states are now using textbooks that present Russia in all its historical forms as the enemy of the peoples of these countries, a pattern that is likely to make it more rather than less difficult for these countries to cooperate in the future.

    That is the conclusion of a 391-page report released today in Moscow on “The Treatment of the General History of Russia and the Peoples of the Post-Soviet Countries in the History Textbooks of the New Independent States” (; a summary is available at

    “If these tendencies continue,” the new book concludes, “then after 15 to 20 years, the events of the 20th century will be completely forgotten by the population. In the consciousness of the peoples of the former USSR will be formed an image of Russia as an evil empire which for centuries destroyed, oppressed and exploited them.”

  16. Regarding the subject of Russia and the manipulation of history:

    For quality sake, a constructive “whatboutism” can add to what has been said in the above piece.

    On another front:

    Excerpt –

    “The political detente follows decades of distrust between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.
    The Orthodox Church has long accused the Catholic Church of seeking to convert Russians to Catholicism.

    The Vatican says its activities in the country cater largely for traditional Catholic minorities like Poles, Germans and Lithuanians, who have faced discrimination and persecution in the past.

    Property disputes between the churches have also put them at odds.”


    Actually, this situation has involved centuries of mistrust. Included are prior attempts by invading Catholic Poles to de-emphasize Orthodox Christianity, while enhancing the Vatican’s position. Besides the more distant past, Orthodox Christians under Polish rule faced discrimination between two world wars.

    This follow-up isn’t done with the idea of sowing discord to interrupt the attempt at better Russo-Polish and (on a broader scale) Catholic-Orthodox Christian relations.

    However, the historic cherry picking evident in the above linked piece has been exhibited elsewhere in English language mass media circles. When repetitiously stated and without opposition, it nurtures a negative and not so accurate image of the Russian Orthodox Church.

    On such matter, one can reasonably find fault across the board. It can be counterproductive to live too much in the past. At the same time, it’s wrong to inaccurately stereotype one side in a dispute.

  17. Роберт Меркулов says:

    Konstantin Preobrazhensky’s book…[deleted]

    AK Edit: Not only are you using my blog to advertise this propaganda, you are also spamming and plagiarizing. Consider yourself banned.

  18. Well, coming from a family where my grand-grandfather from father’s side and grand-grandmother from mother’s side were ‘repressed’, where grand-grandfather from mother’s side fought in the war, where my grand-grandmother lived to see the hunger and the rationizing the resources, where I come from the people who were ‘repressed’ and not so much from those who ‘repressed’, living in the country that was ‘occupied’, one would think I would make Stalin an anathema… but no.

    There is one little fact. History is always written by the winners. Why do history books in so many countries differ? Of course, Stalin’s actions were cruel. But do you know who were the first to suffer his wrath? I’ll tell you. Those were the one’s who killed the tzar, the one’s who ordered that even though he gave up his power. Most who were killed were traitors to the state. And even during the war a lot of people who had sided with the nazis, yes, the officers were killed, but their families, sent away… deported… to far corners of the country, away from the war. Nazis burned and killed all those who were captured.

    Did you know that no matter how much bad can be said about Stalin, he wasn’t interested in ‘sex for fun’, the green worn soldier mantle was the most luxurious thing he had in his wardrobe, everything else was rags, managed to educate and teach millions of people i just a few years, and even when his own son, a soldier was captured by the nazis, and they wanted a relative of Hitler back, a leutenant. He didn’t commit the exchange, because he wouldn’t exchange a leutenant for a foot soldier.

    Point is: those were very dire times. And in very dire times very dire decisions must be taken. Treaty of Versailles literally condemned the nation of Germany to pathetic existence, which in turn gave Hitler, a manic depressive persona with enough charisma and courage but one who was a horrible person, the leeway to rise to power. Because the nation of Germany didn’t approve the lackadaisical dancing their leaders were doing in front of everyone else around them. Because everyone had their own pride. If the Treaty of Versailles would have been more merciful, more humane, then he wouldn’t have risen to power. In all ays, no matter how charismatic he was, his latter activities were horrifying to all: but to serve and die pathetically under the heel of people who deem themselves superior and righteous was not acceptable either.

    Do you know what my estonian teacher once said? It’s a very, very famous ‘saying’ repeated here, by the people not stained by the propaganda and polarization of whatever happened back then. She said she had a brother, who went to war on the Nazi side. Another went to the Red Army side. And then he question stands, who was right? Of course some of those who are simply against anything with Soviet Union, because they occupied nations (never mentioning that the areas were usually better off, because it was a general notion of Stalin, that Russia is the older brothr and like all older siblings, the best goes to the younger siblings, because they are still young. The same way the best food would go to the younger children, who still need to develop, while the older siblings may go without some things, because they are older, stronger). Of course there are those who are saying going to the Nazi side is bad, completely forgetting that the smaller nations also have their pride, and for some it was better than going to the Red Army, because that was the way the were. But the correct anser was simple: the only one who was right, was the THIRD brother who didn’t take any and left.

    It is easy to judge something from far away, when you have a different mentality, a different history, different everything. Even orthodox church is a name that doesn’t really translate the TRUE meaning. Pravoslavie is a combination of two ancient slavic words from the vedas. prav – the world of spirits and souls and slav – the world of light. Pravoslavie is the only christianity that is more pagan that anything else.

    So please. Stop judging this area, stop trying to judge our own history. There were many dark pages in the history of Stalin, because there were no people who could be trusted with the important task of creating a future for millions of people from nothing. Because if a tumor is not CUT OUT it will spread.

    And simply because… most of us think that even if democracy brought money, power, development to other countries in Europe, (Britain for example), while post-Soviet countries are still getting there (Estonia for example) – the only thing I noticed: most of people in post-soviet countries were brought up with the beliefs their parents were brought up with, etc etc, wherein lies the simple fact that money doesn’t bring happiness, but harmony, friendship and peace. In post-soviet countries despite all the difficulties for some reason people are more friendly, more ready to help, wouldn’t let a stranger in help of need simply faint for example from the heat, even an ambulance can drive a person home, even though the home may be 60km from the city they work in, or the police to drive a tourist to the train, because their late. And mostly in post-soviet countries are people the most tolerant of people of other beliefs nationalities and races. The only thing that causes disgust is he obsession with money.

    Because strictly speaking, it was Stalin who created a whole generation that lived on the happy song from the youth that went:
    Let there be always be Sun
    Let there be always be Sky
    Let there be always be Mother
    And let there be always be Me

    I personally think it’s million of times better than to grow up on the propaganda of free will, that proves that only the rich have some power.