What would we think if Germans voted Adolf Hitler one of the most popular leaders in its history? We might wonder about its implications; a German move to the extreme Right, and the failure of all the educational efforts made since the end of World War II to educate the current generation about Germany’s dismal past. We would despair over what it might mean for minorities in Germany, especially the many new Jewish residents from the former Soviet Union who migrated to Germany in hopes of starting a new life.
Certainly, we would be shocked. But few of us are surprised when we learn that the Russian people, in a national poll, have voted Josef Stalin as the third most popular historical figure in Russia’s past. At least he wasn’t number 1! Stalin lost to Alexander Nevsky, who defeated German invaders in the 13th century, and whom the Russians know, was one of Stalin’s favorites. The second contender to beat Uncle Joe- as he was called in America during the war- was Prime Minister Stolypin, who cracked down on revolutionaries in the early years of the 20th Century. All were tough men, who knew how to use an iron fist.
The resurrection of Stalin comes at a time when historical backsliding is being encouraged by the Putin regime. Under his leadership, the old Soviet national anthem was restored, with new words composed by the same man who wrote the old anthem for Stalin when he ruled Russia. Lenin’s body still lies for exhibit in Red Square, and no plans have been made to close the mausoleum down. And the new Russian textbooks ordered by the government for schoolchildren all praise Stalin as one of the great wartime leaders who defeated the Nazis and made old Russia a strong and modern state.
Most upsetting, however, is the recent raid on those brave Russians who want their countrymen to know the truth about Stalin, and who are dedicated to memorializing millions of his victims. A few weeks ago, Russian police burst into the office of Memorial in St. Petersburg, under the pretext of searching for guns and drugs. They took 11 hard drives from the group’s computers when they left five hours later. These storage disks contained files of those Russians who had been Stalin’s victims, including diagrams by survivors of the Gulag camps, photos of those executed by Stalin’s NKVD, various accounts by Stalin’s surviving victims and maps of the location of mass graves.
Much of this information, of course, is already well known. The raid, however, was clearly meant to send a message: those who want their countrymen to know the truth about the past had better watch their step. Russians should learn about Stalin from the new “official” sources, such as the new textbook by Filippov, that hails Stalin as a man who had to take extreme ex- measures to modernize his economy. That argument reads like warmed over Isaac Deutscher, the late ex-Trotskyist historian whose books on Stalin and Trotsky were critical of Stalin’s methods, but praised him for doing the historically necessary job of creating an atomic power from the age of the wooden plow.
Russians are encouraged to learn what Putin considers the truth from the likes of a 40-episode TV series that portrayed Stalin as Russia’s savior. Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Stalin and the Soviet Union may have done some bad things, but nothing essentially different from other powers. He does not pause to acknowledge that few other powers- aside from Maoist China-killed millions in its monstrous prison system, its program of forced slave labor, and its mass deportations. That the Russian archives documenting the truth are now in the hands of the descendants of the old KGB is truly a sad state of affairs. Their hope, obviously, is that removing the actual documentation will serve to erase the truth.
Certainly, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not the old Soviet Union of Stalin’s era, or even that of Leonid Brezhnev. Indeed, as his police carried out the raid-academics and activists were holding a conference about the role of Stalin in Russia’s past. Such an event, in the old days, would never have been allowed to be held. Nevertheless, Putin seems to be using mythology about Stalin as a mechanism for gathering internal support for his authoritarian leaning regime and to resurrect an expansionist Russian nationalism.
We who cherish freedom should do our part to assure that the efforts of the members of Memorial are not in vain, and to see to it that Putin’s Russia should be firmly criticized for their repressive actions.