Vienna, February 20 – Even before the end of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, those who hoped to succeed him launched a campaign to promote the idea that there were no alternatives to what Stalin did in order to justify the kind of authoritarian system they wanted to build, “a special operation” they continue to this day, according to a leading Moscow commentator.
In an essay posted online this week, Irina Pavlova, a historian who writes frequently on the way Russians view their past, says that she has long suspected that “the campaign to elevate Stalin” which began in the mid-1990s was “not spontaneous” or “a demand from ‘below’” (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.147716.html).
Instead, she says, efforts to promote Stalin and his system as the only possible course Russia could have taken was “a special operation, the idea for which was hatched in the heads of those who were preparing [already in the mid-1990s] to replace Boris Yeltsin” and one that they are conducting with ever greater vigor.
This “special operation could not fail to bear fruit in a sick, disoriented Russian society which was extremely dissatisfied by the results of nomenklatura privatization” and whose members were quite prepared to follow those who argued that in exchange for popular deference to their power, they could take revenge on those who enriched themselves.
Given what those behind this campaign hoped to accomplish, the Moscow historian continues, it should come as no surprise that they have offered a wide variety of “interpretations” and “justifications” for Stalin, almost all of which fly in the face of what the documentary record shows to be true.
One of these, she points out, was the notion of a “hitherto unknown and concealed” Stalin as liberal, a notion pushed by Yuri Zhukov of the Academy of Sciences Institute of Russian History. Picking up on the ideas of Arch Getty, Zhukov says that Stalin wanted to democratize the country with the 1936 constitution but was prevented from doing so by the bureaucracy.
Given what happened after the “Stalin Constitution” was adopted, that argument is not credible, she says, noting that she wrote an article almost a decade ago on the basis of archival research which showed that efforts to promote Stalin as a committed democrat are absurd and insupportable.
But her article appeared in a professional journal while Zhukov’s arguments have appeared in books with tirages orders of magnitude larger than others published by professional historians, a reflection perhaps of the hope by some involved in “the special operation” that his views would reach a larger audience.
Another aspect of this campaign, one that more people are likely to find convincing is the efforts of some of its participants to present Stalin as “a great statesman and modernizer” and to present “the Stalinist type of modernization” not only as the only one possible for him but as the only one possible for Russia now.
An especially egregious example of this approach was contained in an article offered by Mikhail Yuryev in a newspaper article last week (www.finiz.ru/economic/article1253329), an article that has drawn the fire not only of Pavlova but also of Mikhail Bovt in “Gazeta” earlier this week (www.gazeta.ru/column/bovt/2943344.shtml).
In his article, Yuryev provides perhaps the clearest example of what Pavlova is talking about because he openly suggests that what Stalin did in the years following 1927 not only was uniquely correct at the time but a model for how Russian leaders should be behaving now and in the future.
Yuryev calls on his readers to “conduct a thought experiment” and to imagine themselves in the position Stalin in 1927 found himself and his country in. Stalin industrialized a largely agrarian state and he created a powerful country capable of resisting and then defeating Hitler during World War II.
While many might agree with him on that, both Pavlova and Bovt suggest, most would disagree with the use to which Yuryev puts that argument. According to him, there is “no other path” for Russia now “besides the one Stalin pursued – if, of course, the preservation of Russia is [for Russians today] an imperative.”
The implications of that, of course, are truly frightening: increasing repression at home where the people exist for the benefit of the powers that be rather than the other way around and the pursuit of the country’s foreign policy goals on the assumption that Moscow is surrounded by enemies and will at some not too distant point be forced to fight.
To the extent that Vladimir Putin and his regime can generate support for such ideas among the Russian people, neither he nor his government is likely to be forced to change any time soon. But in many ways that will be a tragedy, Pavlova and Bovt suggests, for both the country and the entire world
On the one hand, it will mean that Russia once again will lose decades as it is caught again in a vicious cycle of authoritarianism and collapse. And on the other, such support for Stalin’s understanding of the world will guarantee that the world will be a less stable place, one in which Russia’s search for enemies will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To a large extent, this state-sponsored recrudescence of Stalinism reflects both the incompleteness of de-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev and the failure of Russia to engage in lustration and other policies designed to define once and for all the criminal nature of the system Stalin helped to create and ran for so long.
And this latest effort by some of the epigones of that system to rebuild his image in support of their preferred policy approach makes especially timely an appeal of 40 legal experts that is featured in the current issue of “Novaya gazeta” for a special court to be established to declare Stalin a criminal (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2009/017/33.html).
Russia’s failure to take this step up to now, the authors of the appeal say, is “an inexplicable gap” in the country’s jurisprudence. But they acknowledge that none of the existing higher courts is up to the job and urge that it be delegated to a tribunal established either by the Social Chamber or the Federal Assembly.
It is unlikely that there will be much official support for such a step given that those in power are interested in just the reverse. But it is a measure of just how dangerous the trend Pavlova and Bovt describe that at least some Russians are willing to raise their voices and call for their country to reach the same judgment about Stalin that the rest of the world already has.