Reviews Targeting Ukrainians that praise the armed resistance to USSR. Putin’s authoritarian turn justified by the past

The Future of the Soviet Past: The Politics of History in Putin’s Russia Anton Weiss-Wendt & Nanci Adler, eds., Bloomington, Indiana University Press 2021. 258 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2022:1-2, pp 165-167
Published on on June 22, 2022

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Hardly anyone could have predicted that thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, the disgraced dictator with so many and varied crimes on his record, would be back as a praiseworthy historical figure in Russia. At first, there was an optimistic belief that Stalin’s terror would be more fully researched, publicized, commemorated, and redressed. After some initial efforts in that direction, the tables were turned after Vladimir Putin took the helm in 1999. A cult of Stalin slowly emerged as part and parcel of making the Soviet victory over Nazism in World War II into what historian Nikita Petrov, board member of Memorial, in an important article terms a mandatory civic religion (pages 71-88) and marginalizing, even normalizing, Stalin’s repression and terror. As this important volume shows, this rehabilitation of Stalin and the Soviet Union is part of a systematic misuse of history for propagandistic purposes. From a Bulgarian background, Tzvetan Todorov pointed out that totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union “revealed the existence of a danger never before imagined, the blotting out of memory. History is rewritten with every change of those in power.” One could add that the rewriting of history can change even as those in power change their style of rule.

Unexpected as it may seem, a light version of Stalin’s repressive system fits well into and normalizes Putin’s authoritarian turn. As editors Anton Weiss-Wendt and Naci Adler reveal in this new anthology, public opinion polls have shown ever growing popularity for Stalin, particularly after Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014. In 2017 nearly half of Russians viewed him with respect and enthusiasm. The eleven chapters plus the editors’ introduction give a fascinating survey of the many ways that the Putin regime and its agents participate in revising, rewriting, and erasing historical facts to legitimize Russian forms of repression and aggression. Based in part on contributions to a conference held at the Norwegian Holocaust Center in 2016, the book covers a wide territory including TV programs pretending to be documentaries glorifying the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, censuring films on Chechnya and Crimea, describing the failed Russian-Polish historical commissions, as well as the punitive memory laws, the repression of Gulag museums, the freakish antics of the Night Wolf bikers, and the harassment of grass-roots efforts to identify victims of terror. Above all the figure of Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinskii is implicated for his anti-historical influence in politicizing and dismissing the importance of professional historians. He has said, “You are naïve to think that facts are the main thing in history. Open your eyes: nobody pays attention to them! What matters is its interpretation, point of view, and mass propaganda.” Interpretation should, according to him, be nationalistic and patriotic: “If you love your Motherland, your people, you will only write positive history. Always.” As Weiss-Wendt comments, Medinskii repeatedly lets heroic myths, politically useful “sacred legends”, triumph over facts (page 37).   

Purportedly there is a Russian saying that in the Soviet Union the idea of the future remained unchanged; only the memory of the past changed. Although Stalin was denounced in a secret speech for his “cult of personality” and extreme terror by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, which was later detailed through Mikhail Gorbachev’s revelations about his mass crimes, many present-day Russian revisionists cultivate the myth that Stalin was simply a normal “strict but just” Russian ruler. As a new ruler Putin spoke vaguely about the “dark events” of the past that should never be forgotten or justified. But criticism of Stalinist terror has since been abandoned. According to Putin’s new position, Stalin was a product of his time and should not be demonized. We should rather “talk about his merits in achieving victory over fascism”, he said a 2017 interview. As the editors point out, this gives Putin the opportunity to place himself in a continuity of “ruthless czars, victorious military commanders, and assertive Communist Party first secretaries” for their ability to hold on to power through the exercise of repression (page 8). The rehabilitation of Stalin ultimately serves to vindicate Putin’s hard-handed manner of governing which can be seen as putting matters back on to the traditional Russian political track. At the same time the equation of Putin with Stalin makes it necessary, Nanci Adler argues, to “marginalize” the impact of state terror in the official version of Russia’s history. The propagandistic use of rehabilitating Stalin gives popularity to the image of neighboring Ukraine as a home of “fascists” who should be punished.

One of the most insightful articles is that by Nikolay Koposov who compares the Russian memory law passed in 2014 with other European memory laws. These are laws that criminalize certain statements about the past. In the West European context this commonly means forbidding statements denying atrocities and denigrating the victims of the Holocaust, above all, but also other genocides and extreme violations of human rights. They serve to preserve the dignity of the victims as an ethical imperative. However, the Russian law of 2014, usually termed the Yarovaia Act, approved against the background of the seizure of Crimea, criminalizes two very different issues: first, it forbids the justification of crimes committed by the Nazis, and second any “dissemination of knowingly false information on the activities of the USSR during the Second World War.” Thus, this law focuses on preserving the primacy of the victorious state as well as the holy sacrifice of the heroic soldiers. The main “criminals”, according to this law, are those Ukrainians who praise and commemorate the armed resistance to USSR.

In contrast, the memory culture that developed in Western Europe is basically humanitarian and aspires to acknowledge and give recompense for past crimes committed by governments or their associated institutions, and even educational, religious and charitable organizations. This can encompass recognition of genocide, admission of unjust treatment of minorities, or in a few cases criminalizing denial of certain genocides. However, Russia’s memory culture has nothing to do with human rights; it defends actions taken by government and its institutions. This is done for the sake of maintaining a “clean” national narrative. “It openly endorses the memory of an oppressive regime against that of its victims”, writes Koposov (page 205); there is no room for admission of Russian guilt and blame as a rule is placed on external enemies, often branded as “fascists”. The fascist label is used to great extent in the Russo-Ukrainian memory war with Ukrainian politicians accused of being Banderovists, that is followers of Stepan Bandera who led a vigorous anti-Soviet guerrilla movement linked with the Nazi occupation during World War II. A different Russian memory war concerns the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and is described by Štepán Černoušek. A TV documentary broadcast by Rossiia One channel in 2015, The Warsaw Pact: Declassified Pages, postulates that Alexander Dubček and other leaders of the Czech “socialism with a human face” reform movement plotted a coup that would “bring about a situation of unrestrained terror”. The major Western European states were portrayed as “arming fascists again”, only to be halted at the last moment by the joint intervention of the Warsaw pact states.    

As I write, news comes that a higher court in Moscow has forbidden Russia’s foremost and oldest human rights organization, Memorial Society, dating back to the 1980s. Memorial is famous for collecting thousands of dossiers on the victims and the NKVD agents of Stalin’s repression. This has made it easier for individuals to research what had happened to their family members during the terror. It has also worked to exhume and identify victims in mass graves. Recently Memorial has been harassed by the government under the catch-all accusation of being a “foreign agent”. There are some grassroots voluntary associations that complement Memorial. A similar organization, named “Last Address”, places plaques on buildings from where victims of state terror were taken to their death. The “Immortal Regiment, Immortal Barrack” holds annual marches to commemorate the nameless prisoners of the Gulag. Social anthropologist Johanna Dahlin describes the work of volunteers to unearth and identify Soviet soldiers fallen in battle, who had been buried in haste.

Such grassroots efforts to deal with the past meet with ambiguous on-and-off sympathy from authorities. About a hundred kilometers from Perm, one of the last existing Gulag hard-labor camps, officially known as Perm 36 and located in a remote village, was turned by former prisoners and employees into a museum complex, starting in 1994. It had held some of the Soviet Union’s best-known political dissidents and human rights activists. The Perm 36 site had great value as the “sole preserved zone out of the tens of thousands of camp zones” that had been created in the Stalin era. With a small amount of financial support from the regional government and larger funding from domestic and foreign donations, local historians saw to it that the camp was gradually repaired and preserved as a museum that opened in 1996. The museum expanded with archival research and expeditions to other former camp sites to gather artifacts, and began to document Gulag history and the daily life of the prisoners. It organized travelling exhibitions, screenings of documentary films, lectures and on-site courses for teachers. An annual civic forum that encouraged artistic performances became a Mecca for Russian liberals. The site itself was the most important aspect since the visitors could “feel the terrifying atmosphere of isolation which surrounded prisoners for years.” As historian Steven Barnes relates, up to 2012 the story of Gulag 36 museum was an outstanding success and had become a national and international knowledge resource considered for inclusion on the UNESCO world heritage list. However, a newly appointed regional governor proved hostile and immediately cut public funding. The self-styled “left-patriotic” association “Essence of Time” began a smear campaign against the museum. A series of TV programs on the NTV channel attacked Perm 36 as a fifth column and for allegedly “teaching children that Ukrainian fascists are not as bad as history textbooks portray them, whilst their grandchildren caused genocide in eastern Ukraine”. The museum’s founding directors were fired and replaced and then put on trial and convicted for refusal to register as a foreign agent. This caused considerable international protests. At the time of writing, the museum had not closed but real damage has been done through government takeover; it has become dysfunctional and has abandoned many of its most successful outreach activities. The exhibits no longer mention the role of Stalin or that the inmates were political prisoners.   

The political abuse of the past leads to many conclusions if one considers the Putin regime’s general hostility to independent civil society organizations, particularly those dealing with the state crimes committed in the relatively recent past. One can observe the same regime’s willingness to create a “useful” history resulting in international memory quarrels with neighboring countries both near and far, not just with Ukraine, but also Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The same regime’s inability to admit any fault, even the most egregious, gives a few ominous signs. One can only draw the conclusion that this is a regime acting on the basis of a self-inflicted feeling of insecurity and believing that offense is the best defense. Little thought given to the future consequences. Through its manipulation of memory for the sake of its present-day hold on power, is the Putin regime placing itself into a position of having no alternatives other than increasing repression, actually sleep-walking into the future?

  • by David Gaunt

    Professor emeritus of History, Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University. Member of the Academy of Europe section for history and archeology, the editorial board of Social History and International Genocide Studies and the Workshop for Armenian-Turkish Studies.

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The Future of the Soviet Past: The Politics of History in Putin’s Russia Anton Weiss-Wendt & Nanci Adler, eds., Bloomington, Indiana University Press 2021. 258 pages.