Stalin, Rebranded

National Post (Canada)
Arch Puddington
August 5, 2008

Nikolay Doychinov, Reuters
A protester holds a cartoon of Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin.

The Russian foreign ministry recently issued an indignant statement that takes issue with President Bush for equating communism with Hitlerism. “In the 20th century,” a proclamation issued by Bush said, “the evils of Soviet communism and Nazi fascism were defeated and freedom spread around the world as new democracies emerged.” This patently accurate statement was denounced as rewriting history.

In fact, it is the Kremlin that has been busily recasting the past, which may explain its sensitivity to linking the two great totalitarianisms. Specifically, a battery of official historians has been sanitizing the image of the dreaded dictator, Joseph Stalin.

The process of rehabilitating — or, in the vocabulary of public relations that the men in the Kremlin prefer, “rebranding” — Stalin was accelerated after a speech by Vladimir Putin to a conference of social science teachers. Putin acknowledged that Stalin “had made mistakes,” but hastened to add that worse things had been done by other countries, lumping the United States in with the Nazis as prime examples. As for the mistakes, Stalin was criticized principally for his crimes against the Communist Party rather than for the calculated famine in Ukraine, the atrocities committed against the Balts, Chechens and other suspect groups or the murders of Polish intellectuals, military officers and resistance fighters.

Putin excoriated those responsible for history teaching in Russia for advancing interpretations of events that were contributing to “utter chaos and confusion” in Russian minds. He also railed against textbook authors who had accepted grants from foreign sources.

Putin’s speech triggered a Kremlin sponsored corrective to the supposed miseducation of Russian children in the form of a series of new manuals and textbooks that encourage teachers to present a history informed by the aggressive nationalism favoured by Putin and his circle. The new curriculum includes fulsome tributes to Putin himself and is relentlessly anti-American; it blames the United States for igniting the Cold War, accuses America of using democracy promotion to isolate Russia and predicts the country’s imminent collapse due to its multiracial population.

Then there is Stalin. He is described as brutal but successful. His crimes are minimized or — and this is the truly insidious part — justified as necessary to Russian progress. Prewar purges were an instrument of “mobilization” toward industrial development; postwar repression was required by the demands of the Cold War. Under these circumstances, “democratization was not an option for Stalin’s government.”

Let’s be clear that today’s Russia is not Stalin’s Russia. It is under authoritarian, not totalitarian, rule, and the convenient murders and imprisonment of several of its critics pale in comparison with Stalin’s politically induced famines, ethnic cleansings and subjugation of neighbouring countries. There is, however, something truly pernicious in the restoration of Stalin to a place of respect. By placing Stalin in the pantheon of great Russian leaders, the leadership is reinforcing an unsubtle message that its members enjoy the sanction of history in systematically rolling back recent democratic achievements. Kremlin publicists have coined a phrase to describe the new concept of governance: “sovereign democracy.” In truth, sovereign democracy has no more relationship to democracy than did “people’s democracy.”

Among the most important lessons to emerge from the wars of the 20th century is the necessity of a society owning up to the dark corners of its history. Germany’s renunciation of its Nazi past has been instrumental in the creation of a peaceful and prosperous Europe. Truth commissions and prosecutions of past abuses in Latin America have strengthened democracy –and helped ward off the appeal of Hugo Chavez –in that region. By coming to grips with its history of racism, America has paved the way for a multinational society rooted in freedom.

To be sure, there is a fine line between facing history and self-flagellation. But we need not worry that Russia will cross that line. In future, its children will be taught that one of the world’s most ruthless despots committed “mistakes,” but no crimes, that the most serious errors were committed by reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev, that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical tragedy. They will be taught a curriculum whose underlying theme is that throughout Russian history the ends almost invariably justified the means. The new Russian history is disturbing for what it says to the next generation of Russians — those who one would have hoped would be educated in the values of democracy. It is equally disturbing as yet further evidence that Russia has rejected a course that, for so many other societies, has led to enhanced freedom at home and peaceful relations with the rest of the world.

-Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and co-editor of Democracy Web, a curriculum guide sponsored by Freedom House and the Albert Shanker Institute that promotes the teaching of democratic values.