Stalin: A History Gap Divides Russia From Its Neighbors

James Brooke – Posted April 5th, 2012

In Moscow, adults are snapping up school notebooks for children.

Why? The cover has a heroic image of Stalin.

The Stalin notebook is part of a “Great Names of Russia” series.

On one level, it is depressing that many Russians do not seem to know that “Stalin,” was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a Georgian. (Please see responses below from publishing house Art Director Artyom Belan — jb)

But far more importantly, Russia’s amnesia towards its Stalinist past is dangerous.

Winston Churchill, no friend of his wartime ally, once noted that Stalin dragged Russia from the wooden plow to the H-bomb. Similarly, many Russians prefer to focus on this “positive” of Stalin’s three decades of rule.

As to the sinister side, Stalin’s close collaborators called him: “Genghis Khan with a telephone.”

On May Day, Russian Communist Party supporters will bring out into the daylight their Stalin portraits. This scene from last year’s parade in St. Petersburg. AP Photo:Pavel Golovkin

Those telephone calls led to the deaths of millions of people through executions, famines, and mass jailings. Add to that his criminally poor preparation for the Nazi attack in World War II, a war that cost the lives of almost 15 percent of the Soviet population.

“When children see this magnificent cover with handsome mustachioed Stalin, they perceive him as a hero,” Nikolai Svanidze, a television historian, wrote this week about the Soviet leader in his marshal’s uniform, with military medals covering his chest.

Russia’s denial of its 20th century history is crippling it in its 21st century dealings with its neighbors.

The other evening, I had dinner in Moscow with David Satter, an American historian and author of a new book: “It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.”

Acknowledging that many Russians feel nostalgia for the communist social welfare system of the 1970s and 1980s, he told me: “The failure to see the crimes that were committed, and the need for these crimes to be recognized, makes it harder to resist present and future crimes.”

He noted that there is no national museum in Moscow dedicated to educating future generations about the appalling human death toll of the communist era. The one museum in Moscow that does deal with the subject is hidden away, poorly laid out, and, from my impression, largely visited by foreigners. Similarly, of the 8,000 Gulag labor camps that once dotted the Soviet Union, only one, Perm-36, has been retained as a museum.

I visited Perm-36 recently on a cold and bleak day. It is clear that Soviet guards did not need sophisticated torture instruments to control political prisoners. They just used the cold.

Of the 8,000 Stalin era labor camps once scattered across the Soviet Union Perm-36 on the Western edge of Siberia is the only one preserved as a museum. Tourists are rare, which is why I took my own photo. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In the United States, strong domestic groups force larger society to confront unsavory aspects of our history. African Americans forced schools to stop white-washing slavery, a treatment that was common when I was in elementary school in the 1960s. Similarly, Native Americans (Indians) forced their point of view into historical accounts of the United States’ 19th century westward expansion. Japanese Americans won officials apologies – and museums – for the World War II era internment camps.

In contrast, Japan’s World War II wartime atrocities in the Philippines against American citizens (including relatives of mine) are little known in the United States. The American population of the Philippines dispersed decades ago, after full independence was achieved. On nearby Guam, I have seen how “Chamorro” residents teach new generations of islanders about Japanese wartime occupation abuses. But that tropical Western Pacific island is out of sight and out of mind for mainland Americans.

By contrast, the communist death toll in the Soviet Union was, in Satter’s words “a self-inflicted wound.” Inside the borders of modern day Russia, Stalinist atrocities largely involved ethnic Russians killing ethnic Russians.

As a result, Stalinist history is often best chronicled in places where it contributes to nation state building: the Baltic nations, Poland, Western Ukraine, Georgia, Mongolia, and Central Asia.

After 20 years, this history gap leads to Satter’s second point: “It makes it difficult for Russians to understand why their neighbors don’t like them. But maybe, on a more fundamental level, it makes it easier for Russians to behave in the same bullying and imperialistic way they did in the past to the countries which were once part of the Soviet Union.”

It is a short mental step from Russian amnesia about internal Soviet atrocities to Russian denial of external Soviet imperialism. Minds shut even faster when Westerners focus on these twin evils. Russian nationalists are quick to say that Western obsession with Communist era excesses is a Trojan horse for Western wishes to weaken and divide Russia.

In that light, Russia looks like modern Japan, where I worked as a reporter 2001-2006.

A woman holds a portrait of Stalin outside the house where he was born in Gori, Georgia, 80 km west of Tbilisi. Dozens of Georgian communists gathered on March 5 to mark the 59th anniversary of his death. Reuters Photo: David Mdzinarishvili

In Japanese schools, the study of 20th century history oddly stops around 1930 — the buildup to Japan’s military invasion of China and its expansion through Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea is dealt with lightly.

As a result, more than two generations after the end of World War II, young Japanese are often surprised by anti-Japanese hostility they encounter on trips to China and South Korea. In Germany, discussing and denouncing the Nazi era has been a national obsession for the generations born after the end of World War II. As a result, Germany’s relations with its neighbors carry little WWII baggage.

Although German soldiers slaughtered millions of Russians during World War II, Germany today enjoys better relations with Russia, than do Britain and the United States, two countries that gave massive material support to Soviet Union during the war.  Full German acknowledgement of the Nazi era has been a building block for today’s good German-Russian relations.

Today, it is inconceivable that bookstores in Berlin would peddle a “Famous Germans” school notebook series with one cover featuring Adolf Hitler. (Actually, he was Austrian).

But this week in downtown Moscow, Artyom Bilan, art director of the Alt publishing company, responded to a reporter’s question about the Stalin notebook with his own question: “Why would we withdraw such a successful product?

Welcome to Perm-36 Memorial Center of Political Repression VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Bunks made from timber prisoners cut from the Siberian taiga forest. Radiators were added to barracks in 1950s when Perm-36 housed officials convicted of committing excesses under Stalin. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Rose left by visitor to unheated punishment cell. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.
Speak to the people in countries that were occupied by Stalin’s Russia and one will find he was as despised as was Cromwell in occupied Ireland. To make him into a hero is pure evil.
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