Catherine Merridale: Stalin's Ghost in Russia

Roundup: Talking About History

[Catherine Merridale is professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary University in London.]

The rebirth of history in Russia began at least two years before the European turning point of 1989. It was Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, launched in 1986, that encouraged the tentative debates, discussions that were sponsored initially by the Kremlin itself. As a graduate student in Moscow University’s Faculty of History in 1986 I watched the process unfolding and I followed its gathering momentum during the next three years. The debates were unforgettable and culminated in a crisis so profound that school and university examinations in history had to be cancelled. Textbooks, teachers and curricula faced ignominy; the old questions were irrelevant. It was as if the past had come to life after more than 70 years, breaking through the tissue of political illusion to reclaim its place at the centre of Russia’s national imagination.

First came the so-called ‘revelations’. One after another, Lenin’s revolutionary comrades were rescued from historical obscurity. Even to pronounce their names had once been a dangerous mistake, but now their achievements were praised and the stories of their imprisonment, torture and judicial murder were narrated in graphic, fully documented detail. More shocking still, however, was the unravelling of official truths, the questioning, over the next two or three years, of Stalin’s economic policies, Lenin’s Civil War tactics and, finally, the justification for the 1917 October Revolution itself. With that last step, the entire Soviet Marxist experiment was discredited. It was no coincidence that the Soviet regime’s final reckoning should have arrived at just this point but, however dramatic the news stories from Moscow, history usually enjoyed an equal billing, not least because it was predictable. The names of the long dead, of Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky and, later, Tsar Nicholas II continued to merit front-page coverage throughout Gorbachev’s premiership. As Eastern Europe’s people gathered to defeat dictatorship, their cousins in Soviet Russia were preparing, with a similar courage, to confront the possibility that their 70-year march to Communism had been a sham.

Twenty years on, the region as a whole has changed, not just in terms of politics but also physically. Russia’s major cities look brighter, brasher, their drab geography transformed by the glare of capitalism. Moscow’s once-bleak and still windswept heart is now a maze of dazzling malls where shoppers jostle for Swiss watches, diamonds and designer furs. It would be easy to conclude – though it would be a mistake to do so ­– that Moscow’s middle class is too busy in the present to bother about the past. The public hunger for historical facts, for revelations and confessions, has certainly evaporated, while the number of university students enrolling on history courses has dropped, a striking change to set beside the queues for business studies, economics, marketing and law.

Yet though the appeal of serious historical research has declined, resurgent Russia’s national identity relies almost entirely on a reading of the past, a tale of progress and triumph whose shaping owes a lot to direct government intervention. Liberal commentators in and outside Russia have begun to talk of a return to the bad old ways.

The scramble to expose Soviet lies was never likely to last long. Since it was part of the collective impatience with economic stagnation and corrupt, failing government, the public craving for facts was satisfied, or largely so, when the Soviet regime fell. At that point, too, there were more urgent pressures in most people’s lives, for the economy collapsed soon after the end of Gorbachev’s presidency and for much of the early 1990s Russians contended with physical hunger, cold, uncertainty and the very real danger of civil war. An underlying anxiety of another kind was gnawing away, too, for the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the accompanying loss of empire and ideological purpose struck many Russians like a personal blow. The past became a difficult place: confusing, even tinged with shame.

While popular history faded, however, more formal scholarship enjoyed a brilliant, if impoverished, decade. Where Gorbachev had led, Boris Yeltsin followed. Research and teaching flourished, and in the 1990s the newly constituted Russian Federation introduced some of the world’s most generous laws on archival access. Older scholars, used to more repressive rules, sometimes had trouble with the new freedom, but the best of them, and many of their eager students, embarked on an ambitious programme of research and writing, producing work that offered fresh interpretations as well as newly-rediscovered facts. Many of these young Turks are mature scholars now. It is largely thanks to them that so many old paradigms, including the totalitarian model of Soviet politics, have disappeared from the research agenda. New thinking, especially about Stalinism and Soviet society, has become established in the international academic mainstream.

All this was happening at a time of stress and recrimination, however. The investigative historians were too easily seen as cannibals, the kind who feast upon the people’s suffering body. It did not help that the most conspicuous audience for their material was not the embattled Russian people but foreign scholars, many of whom were also enjoying the archival bonanza. There were always domestic audiences for writing – nationalistic writing, that is – on the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War (and smart new editions of documents, memoirs and popular war histories continue to crowd the shelves of bookshops) but, at a time when Russia faced a crisis of self-confidence, the appetite for books that explored the dismal aspects of its past diminished. Paradoxically, the 1990s were also the best years for Memorial, the research and campaigning organisation dedicated to the public understanding, support and commemoration of Communism’s victims, but popular enthusiasm for such initiatives was fickle. As Russians struggled to recover their collective purpose, a nostalgia for the certainties of Stalin’s time resurfaced. For some, the steady flow of soul-searching and criticism began to smell of treachery.

Memorial continues to make progress in its mission to explore and commemorate the Stalinist past. Through its branches in many Russian cities, it has collected a formidable archive of oral testimony, personal letters and photographs. Its researchers have also documented (and sometimes literally unearthed) important sites, including former Gulag camps and mass burial grounds. Its commemorative mission has produced scores of memorials, some simple stones, some monuments, many associated with the specially-constructed Orthodox chapels where dwindling bands of survivors and their families gather to remember and pray. Memorial also continues to support living victims, providing the material help that many have needed in the fast-changing and inflationary world they now inhabit.

The scale of Memorial’s activity, however, fades to a glimmer when compared with the resources and public effort devoted to the memory of Stalin’s war. There was always a surreal tension between the victims of repression and the veterans of war (as if both were not, in different ways, equally subject to the brutality of Stalinist politics), but for some years now, and certainly since the 60th anniversary of Soviet victory in May 2005, the war has occupied the limelight. This is no accident; the Patriotic War serves as Russia’s national shibboleth, the proof of its collective strength and virtue in the modern age. In the ten years since Vladimir Putin came to power, commemoration has grown ever more elaborate. First there were the coloured flags that people fixed to cars (these seemed to materialise in response to America’s post-9/11 sea of stars and stripes), then came the television coverage, the public ceremonial, the solemn mood. The 50th anniversary of the Soviet victory, in 1995, passed with little public show. By 2005, a clutch of new ‘traditions’ had appeared and at the centre of them all, on every television screen, loomed the face of Putin himself. A state that had made a poor job of its only war (in Chechnya), and whose leader had never tramped through battlefield mud, borrowed its martial glory by inventing a new kind of past...

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Ludwik Kowalski - 8/22/2009

I read Catherine Merridale's reflections with great interest, especially about recent exploitation of the 1945 Red Army victory. My own reflections about that victory are summarized in a short OpEd article:

Most Americans, unfortunately, know very little about Soviet history. My short-and-easy-to-read book about Stalinism:

was published to remedy this situation. It is not a scholarly book with unknown facts; it is a compilation of what was written by numerous authors.

Please share this link with those who might be interested, especially with students. The book, by the way, went to print on the day that Solzhenitsyn died, about one year ago; it became available on the day of his funeral.

Very fiew people know about that self-published book. Do you know someone who might be interested in reviewing it? If so then please contact me with that person. The topic deserves to be known and discussed. The book is was structured to promote discussions.

Thanks in advance,

Ludwik Kowalski