Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Window on Eurasia: New Russian Book Says Stalin’s Deportation of Nationalities Was Justified

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 14 – Today is the 44th anniversary of the overthrow of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, an event that deserves to be recalled not only for what he did to shed light on the crimes of his predecessor Joseph Stalin but also because of extent to which some Russian historians are now seeking to reverse Khrushchev’s judgment and rehabilitate the tyrant.
In Stalin’s times, the Soviet powers that be sought to present their system in the best possible light both by not reporting its worst features or by outright lies, but now, after so many of Stalin’s actions have been documented, Russian writers are celebrating them as appropriate and even a model for the behavior of others.
This past summer, a new teacher-training textbook argued that the Great Terror as not wrong but an appropriate strategy for mobilizing the Soviet people so that they could build a powerful state. Now, a book published this month takes the next step, chronicling Stalin’s deportation of nationalities and arguing that it was entirely justified.
The new book, entitled “Why Did Stalin Resettle Whole Peoples? – Criminal Arbitrariness or a Just Revenge” (in Russian, St. Petersburg: Yauza-Press), was written by Igor Pykhalov, who is identified in a review by Leonid Panteleyev in the journal “Spetsnaz” as a St. Petersburg specialist on the Soviet past (www.specnaz.ru/article/?1335).
According to Panteleyev, “from the time of Khrushchev,” most people have believed that the deportations and special resettlements of peoples from the Caucasus and other parts of the Soviet Union “did not have any rational basis but were carried out exclusively according to the whim of Stalin.”
That view, he says, is reflected in two widely used books. In a teacher training textbook published in 1997, O.A. Polivanov and B.G. Rozhkov argue that it “remains unclear” why Soviet security agencies used railways and soldiers to deport whole peoples when the country was locked in a war with Germany.
And they conclude, Panteleyev continues, that these actions either reflect Stalin’s willingness to believe NKVD reports that “certain representatives of the nationalities” turned to the German occupiers with requests for autonomy or because Stalin wanted to force “small peoples” to stop “striving for independence” and thus allow him “to strengthen his empire.”
The second book, V.N. Zemskov’s “Special Settlers in the USSR, 1930-1960” (Moscow, 2003), argues that “by all indications, the national diversity of the state which they ran irritated I.V. Stalin and his entourage. The deportation of a number of small peoples thus clearly served the goals of accelerating assimilationist processes in Soviet society.”
“This was,” Zemskov continues, “an intentional policy of the liquidation over time of [numerically] small peoples through their assimilation into larger ethnic communities [with] their [forcible] resettlement from their historical Motherland” a step clearly intended “to accelerate this process.”
According to Panteleyev’s review, Pykhalov challenges all these conclusions, ones that are largely shared by Western historians. One cannot, he says, say Stalin “dreamed” of liquidating small peoples given his creation of national republics, support for native language instruction, and the provision of alphabets to groups that had not had them.
And how can one speak, Pykhalov continues, about some kind of consistent Stalinist idea of the destruction of small groups when the Soviet authorities under his direction “resettled the Balkars but left the Kabardinians in place, deported the Chechens and Ingushetians, but did not touch the Ossetians?”
Instead, Pykhalov says, Stalin had “weighty reasons” for doing what he did, including the support some of these communities gave to the German invaders, banditry by members of these communities who were not serving in the Soviet army, and “mass desertion” by those who had been drafted into it.
In support of these notions, the St. Petersburg writer says, for example, that “almost the entire Crimean population” capable of bearing arms “served Hitler” in one way or another, actions that under Soviet law should have led to sentences of death. Had that happened, Pykhalov continues, “this people would have ceased to exist.”
The book’s author also takes aim at arguments that during the deportations, a third to a half of those being resettled died. “This does not correspond to reality.” In fact, according to the NKVD – a source Pykhalov trusts, only 1272 Chechens and Ingush died on the way, and only 191 of 151,720 Crimean Tatars did.
Assertions by Russian or Western writers that these numbers are too low – and no previous author in post-1956 Russia or the West gives such figures – on the basis that officials did not register those whose bodies were thrown from the train are “simply unserious,” Panteleyev says.
“Put yourself,” he writes, “in the place of the chief of a train who has received at the start of the journey one quantity of those to be resettled and brought to the assigned place a different number. He would immediately be asked: And where are the missing people? They died, you say? But perhaps, they ran away? Or they were freed for a bribe?”
And then Pykhalov puts forward two other justifications for what Stalin did. On the one hand, he points out, the United States confined Japanese Americans in camps after Tokyo’s attack on Pearl Harbor. And on the other, the tsarist authorities deported 200,000 ethnic Germans during World War I.
The specific claims Pykhalov advances are easy to counter, but what makes his book and others like it so disturbing is this: First, authors like him aren’t hiding what Stalin did; they are describing it in detail and then praising him for it. Second, they clearly believe that they have an audience and that what they are saying has the support of many in the government.
And third, they appear confident that their views will not be subject to the kind of intense challenges that those who held such ideas faced at the end of USSR and in the first years of the Russian Federation either from independent minded historians there or from authors abroad who used to focus on such outrages but now appear in many cases to be less concerned.

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