Masha Lipman: Russia's search for a post-Stalin identity

Roundup: Talking About History

[Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.]

On Friday, as Russia recognized its annual commemoration of political prisoners, President Dmitry Medvedev published a videoblog in which he condemned Joseph Stalin's crimes and called on the nation not to forget about past political repression or its victims. Medvedev called Stalin's repression "one of the greatest tragedies in Russian history" and expressed concern that "even today it can be heard that these mass victims were justified by certain higher goals of the state." He said that "no development of a country, none of its successes or ambitions can be reached at the price of human losses and grief." His statement, which led the state-controlled television news, was sharply at odds with official rhetoric of the past decade.

Medvedev's address may have sounded radical, but many here are skeptical that the president's words will actually bring change. The number of alarming signals of Stalin's rehabilitation is growing. And in general over the year and a half of his presidency, Medvedev's often well-intended rhetoric has not been matched with policy.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the speech and conclude instead -- as observers at home and abroad sometimes do -- that Russia has made a definitive turn "back" toward the Soviet Union and an admiration of Stalin. In fact, perceptions of Stalin are conflicted, and this conflict reflects Russia's attempts -- very feeble, so far -- to reinvent itself as a modern nation.

On the one hand, there is evidence of a warming in attitudes toward Stalin. In one recent example a stanza from the old Soviet anthem was returned to the Kurskaya metro station in Moscow. Those lines "Stalin raised us, he inspired us to loyalty to the people, to the labor and heroic deeds" had been removed in the 1950s as part of Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization campaign; they were brought back this fall when the station's original decor was restored. Another instance is the prosecution, on a far-fetched pretext of privacy violation, of a provincial historian conducting archival research of the fates of ethnic Germans deported and killed on Stalin's orders. In December, Stalin came in third in a TV station's poll of greatest Russian historical figures. Contest organizers are rumored to have tinkered with the results after discovering that the man who masterminded the extermination of millions of his compatriots actually finished first.

Yet the peak of Stalin's terror is also recognized for what it was. In 2007, 72 percent of respondents told the Levada polling agency that the repression of 1937-38 were "political crimes that can't be justified." The day of remembrance of political repression, officially introduced in 1991, is not marked by major national events, but on Thursday, just outside the infamous Lubyanka building, the KGB's headquarters and prison, the names of Stalin's victims were read for 12 straight hours by any who wanted to participate. Other commemorations were staged elsewhere in Russia.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently met with the widow of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and they discussed how best to teach his work "The Gulag Archipelago" in schools. Two years ago, Putin visited a site of mass executions in the 1930s. The Gulag volumes are available in bookstores, as are a broad range of works about the history of Communist terror and books that take a much more positive view of Stalin. Likewise on television, praise of Stalin and his henchmen appears side by side with series and programs based on works by Solzhenitsyn and other chroniclers of Stalin's repression...

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Arnold Shcherban - 11/8/2009

<the repression of 1937-38 were "political crimes that can't be justified.>
Weren't those repressed ones (at least - majority of them) the same Bolsheviks who used repressions/coercive methods against general population?
It wonders one's imagination that the fierce anti-communists would be so much concerned with the fate of their sworn enemies...