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.

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