Monday, August 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Yeltsin Laid the Foundations for Putinism, and Putin is Laying Groundwork for Something Even Worse

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 25 – Boris Yeltsin’s support for the rise of the oligarchs and the latter’s decision to turn to the siloviki in order to protect themselves from any challenge from the people laid the foundations for Vladimir Putin to construct his increasingly authoritarian regime, according to the leader of the liberal Yabloko party.
But as depressing as that trend has been, several articles in the Russian press today called attention to the appearance of a new history textbook for Russian school children which argues that Stalin’s terror was justified as “an instrument of development,” a message which suggests Putin has plans for an even more draconian system than the one he oversees now.
During a news conference last Thursday that was overshadowed by events in the Caucasus, Yabloko head Sergei Mitrokhin presented his argument step by step, suggesting that Russia’s democrats must better understand both what has gone wrong since 1991 and how they failed to counter it (
“The Yeltsin regime,” Mitrokhin said, “established the oligarchy under the cover of democracy.” The oligarchs played “the key role in economics” and thus took “part of [political] power” into their own hands. Fearful that “society could overthrow this system, the oligarchs called for the help of the siloviki,” the Russian term for those in the security apparatus.
But it rapidly turned out, the Yabloko leader said, that “the siloviki did not become simple marionettes” as the oligarchs had expected, but established their own rules,” rules that meant the oligarchs could continue to play a dominant role in the economy but only if they allowed the siloviki to control politics.
“And those oligarchs who did not want to live according to the rules established by the officers of the special services,” Mitrokhin continued, “have suffered.”
According to the Yabloko head, Russia’s democrats must not only understand this but “acknowledge their own past mistakes since some of them supported the Yeltsin system and others insufficiently effectively struggled against it.” And they must be prepared to revise their understanding of democracy.
“Over the course of the 20th century,” he said, “the communists wanted to construct a just society without freedom. This experiment failed after 70 years. At the end of the 20th century, [Russia’s] democrats attempted to construct a free society, sacrificing justice in pursuit of that aim. That attempt failed after ten years.”
If they are to have a role in Russia anytime soon, he concluded, Russia’s democrats must draw as the most important lesson of the 20th century: “there is no freedom without justice and there is no justice without freedom.” Those who speak “only for freedom,” he said, “have not learned any of the lessons of the past.”
But as unfortunate as Russia’s moves away from democracy over the last decade have been, a new development, reported today by “Vremya novostei” among other Russian news outlets, points to an even more depressing future because it involves what the Kremlin wants Russian children to learn about the Stalinist past (
The Russian educational establishment is preparing a new textbook on “The History of Russia, 1900 to 1945,” and has already sent out guidance to teachers about the new book’s most important conclusions so they will be ready to inculcate them in the minds of the pupils for whom they are responsible.
This textbook, in the words of its authors, focuses “on the explanation of the motives and logic of the actions of those in power.” In short, the history students are supposed to absorb and master, the newspaper says, “is in the first instance the history of the powers that be.” “There is no history of the people.”
And because this text focuses on one of the most politically controversial periods of Russian history, its authors clearly have sought to reflect the views of those who are in power now, the paper continues. And it provides a long list of the specific conclusions the book offers. Among the most tendentious are the following:
The book insists that the Russian Revolution followed the model of the French revolution, that “in the civil war, the Bolsheviks were guilty but at the same time, the White movement represented an alternative pro-fascist direction,” that “there was no organized famine in the countryside of the USSR,” and that the Soviet Union in the 1930s built not socialism or capitalism but “an industrial society.”
Moreover, it insists that “the Molotov-Ribbentrop was a response to the Munich accords,” “the introduction of Soviet forces onto the territory of Poland in 1939 was for the liberation of the territories of Ukraine and Belarus,” and the absorption of the Baltic states and Bessarabia was appropriate because “earlier they were part of the Russian Empire.”
The Finnish winter war, the textbook says, was won by the Soviet Union which gained what it sought. And it suggests that Stalin was preparing for “a preventive strike against Germany” but had not had time before Hitler struck to develop the Soviet military sufficiently to make such a strike effectively.
And among other things, the new instructional tool, while acknowledging that the NKVD did shoot Polish military prisoners at Katyn, argues that this was “a response to the lost of many (tens) of thousands of Red Army en in Polish prisons after the 1920 war, the initiator of which was not Soviet Russia, but Poland.”
But the most disturbing passages concern Stalin and the Great Terror. According to the textbook, Stalin launched the great terror in order to maintain power and to block the actions of some kind of “fifth column” guided by Trotsky or some group of foreign states against him and his regime.
The textbook tells teachers that “it is important to show that Stalin acted … in a completely rational way, as the protector of the system and as a consistent supporter of the transformation of the country into an industrial society, administered from a single center, as the leader of a country which was threatened with a big war in the most immediate future.
Thus, the book says, “terror was put to the service of the tasks of industrial development,” with the organs dispatching engineers and other specialists “needed for the solution of defense and other tasks to the Far East and to Siberia. And it says that “the terror was transformed into a pragmatic instrument for the solution of economic tasks.”
Last year, when the same group of textbook authors put out another text making some of the same points, including advancing the argument that Stalin was “an effective manager,” there was an outcry among educators, commentators, and others throughout the Russian Federation. And many assumed that the new book would be different.
But now, the paper notes, “a year has passed. The effective manger has become the ‘successful administrator. And mass terror has been explained from ‘a rational point of view.’ What has taken place in our country over the course of the year that the authors continue to advance such claims?”
But there is a larger question than that, on whose answer may depend the future of the Russian Federation and of the world. What kind of a country will Russia be and what kind of a government will Moscow have in a decade if its young people are taught such lessons – and what kind of relations will it and they have with the rest of the world?

UPDATE for August 28: This new history book is not the only textbook that has problems, educators say. Some 80 percent of school texts used in Russia now contain serious mistakes, according to experts at the Ministry of Education (

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