Richard Lourie: Ghosts of Soviet Past Haunt Russia

Roundup: Talking About History

[Richard Lourie is the author of “The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin” and “Sakharov: A Biography.”]

The Germans lucked out with Hitler. He was so evil, so destructive and so unsuccessful that it was easy to reject him completely. But the Russians were not so “lucky” with Stalin.

Tomes have been written comparing the two great dictators, but in the end what matters most are their differences. The main difference was that in World War II, Hitler lost and Stalin won. That meant suicide for Hitler and the Nuremberg trials for the country and its high command. For Stalin, it meant the spoils and honors that come with being the victor, and for the Soviet Union it meant securing a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Stalin is part of a larger problem for the Russians — how to deal with the Soviet phase of their history, how shame and pride should be apportioned and what to accept with a neutral shrug. A perfect and permanent formulation will of course never be found. What matters more is the attempt that Russia is not making.

The Soviet ghosts emerge in the little details, often producing disproportionate effects. Recently a kebab restaurant on Leningradsky Prospekt decided to name itself Antisovetskaya, or Anti-Soviet, after its location opposite the Sovetskaya Hotel. Nothing in the least political, this was just a well-known capitalist principle — cutesy names draw attention and business. Instead, a mini-firestorm erupted.

Oleg Mitvol, prefect for the Northern Administrative District, pressured the restaurant to change its name, himself under pressure from veterans who found the name “insulting to the history of our country.” How an entire country can be insulted by a kebab restaurant’s name was never adequately explained nor was how that country got so touchy in the first place.

This bizarre bit of post-Soviet dialectics might have passed with a two-line mention in the newspapers were it not for journalist Alexander Podrabinek’s article titled “Letter to Soviet Veterans,” published on a liberal Russian web site. Active in human rights since the early 1970s, Podrabinek helped expose the Soviet abuses of psychiatry in his book “Punitive Medicine,” which landed him two stretches in a Siberian prison.

It is worth remembering that nearly everything that he recounts in his article happened in the 36 years between the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin’s death in 1953 as opposed to the period from 1954 to 1991. Life in that second period of Soviet history had aspects — stability, the cozy democracy of mutual poverty and superpower pride — for which many Russians are nostalgic today...

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/23/2009

What a white-washed and shamelessly self-served simplification!
Nothing has changed in Russia... only in the minds of the Western Cold War "warriors", who are desperate to find
any more or less legitimately serious
"enemies" (since the world majority understands that Muslim extremists cannot be the ones) to replace Evil Doers of the Evil Empire. And who are the better candidates if not the same Evil Russians, whose national character, social and moral standards, allegedly, have not
changed, since Ivan the Terrible's rule, not already mentioning Stalin's one.
You see only the West (i.e. "we") has changed - axiomatically - to the better, but the rest of the world...
forget about it. Therefore, no historical comparative perspective and analysis is needed: "we"
are always right, and "they" are always wrong - by the premise.

Mike Schoenberg - 10/23/2009

Keep on wondering if any one else has read the Marquis de Custine's account of his travel to Russia and the Russian character. Nothing has changed since then and one could substitute Stalin for Ivan the terrible and still have the same country.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/22/2009

<happened in the 36 years between the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin’s death in 1953 as opposed to the period from 1954 to 1991.>

The author, in his attempt to somehow
interpret the nostalgia of contemporary Russians for the Soviet past, flashes a good insight to the possible answer here. Unfortunately, instead of briefly investigating along this, though hypothetical but quite promising venue, he ends his article with the insight.
The second venue that has not been even touched (as far as I know) in any similar investigations made in the West is the extent to which the
back-handedness of Russian masses, relative poverty, cruelties on the part of the enemies of Bolsheviks' Revolution and very harsh after-WWI economic and social conditions the new state started under contributed
to the brutal reaction from the Bolsheviks and their supporters in
the country-side and in the cities and to consequent massive support of Stalin's regime in the Party itself, and in the Army (without which it would collapse in no time.)