Keith Livesey: What's Wrong with "Positive History"

Roundup: Talking About History

[The author has a BA in British History from Birbeck College .]

John Sweeney reports Stalin’s Return: This World, BBC Two, Wednesday, December 2, 7pm.

Having been unfortunate to stumble across this programme while channel surfing I must say that this was the worst piece of journalism and history I have seen for a long time. It also shows that the BBC is also responsible for a gross dumbing down of history.
The subject matter is a legitimate one the attempt to rehabilitate the former soviet dictator in order to defend Russia’s growing nationalist ambitions. But the BBC’s programme sought not to expose the crimes both political and physical but acted as a provacation and clearly the programme was being used to to forward Britain’s and America’s geo- political interests in the area.

John Sweeney is not an expert on this history and is clearly out of his depth also the absence of a major historian to guide the programme was a mistake at best.

Sweeney’s attack on Stalin is somewhat superficial and only skates over the surface. Much of the programme concentrated on the most modern form of the falsification of Russian history.

It is certainly extremly worrying that what is being taught in Russian schools is largley also superficial and false.When Sweeney went into a Russian classroom it was clear that many of the students had a low level of understanding of their own past. This is not a fault of their own The type of history being spoon fed to these youngsters is called “positive history” and is peddled by the current president of Russia Vladimir Putin. Putin in 2007 called a for a more patriotic history. Putin said teachers had “porridge in their heads”, attacked some history textbook authors for taking foreign money — “naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them” — He then went on the call for new history textbooks. He then passed a new law which gave the state sweeping powers to approve and to cancel history textbooks for schools.

While some new textbooks provide some oposition to this falsification it does not go very far and certainly very few Russian historians will uncover the real history of the Stalin period.

Igor Dolutsky, the author of a history textbook of “positive history”? “It’s an appalling idea which hinders proper teaching in schools. School history should not create patriots, it should teach children to think. Putin’s task is to rule a state edging towards totalitarianism.”

Sweeney’s attack on one of the main authors of this type of history is shallow and somewhat nationalistic. At one point he sights that his dad fought for Britain in the Second World War and continuously uses the term we when speaking about the Western allies struggle against Nazism.

Aleksandr Filippov is a typical example of the “Positive History Man”. He defends this type of history “It is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people. A generally positive tone for the teaching of history will build optimism and self-assurance in the growing young generation and make them feel as if they are part of their country’s bright future. A history in which there is good and bad, things to be proud of and things that are regrettable. But the general tone for a school textbook should still be positive.”

The lies told by the Positive History group are easily undone. But Sweeney’s blunderbuss attitude to history cannot present a truthful or accurate picture of present day Soviet historiography. In fact much of Sweeneys programme was easily rebutted even by Yuri Fedotov Russian Ambassador to the UK. “His article makes much of one government-approved history textbook, alleging that it is part of a “re-Stalinisation” campaign headed by Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister. However, the piece neglected to mention the other 107 approved history textbooks or that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago — far from a glowing account of the Stalin regime — has been made a compulsory part of the school curriculum by the Russian Government.

Indeed, as President Medvedev said on the day of remembrance for victims of political repression: “The ability to accept one’s past for what it is, is the mark of mature civic culture. It is equally important to study the past and to speak out against indifference and the desire to forget its tragic aspects. And we can only do this ourselves.”

The last part I don’t agree with it is the duty of any historian to present the past in an accurate and truthful and objective way.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the programme was its inabilty to examine the worst period of Stalinism the Purges and Stalin’s murder of a entire generation of old Bolsheviks. In fact in the entire programme there was the great unmentionable and that was the figure of Leon Trotsky.

The only glimpse of the man and his past was when Sweeney visited the Stalin museum and the camera briefly showed a picture of Leon Trotsky and the Left Oposition. Trotsky presented an opposition to Stalinism from the left, ie from the standpoint of the working class. Sweeney’s presentation focussed largley on victims and their relatives who were largley apolitcal or attacked Stalin from the right ie a pro capitalist position.

If Sweeney had not been so blinded by his ideological beliefs and employed a good historian he could have done no better than to use and examine the work of the foremost authority in Russia on the purges Vadim Rogovin. Vadim Rogovin in his numerous books has said that the main aim of Stalin’s terror was the destruction annihilation of any kind of left wing of opposition inside the Soviet Union to his bureaucratic regime.

At the centre of his work was Stalin’s chief protagonists Leon Trotsky. Trotsky represented the best traditions of the Bolshevik Party and Marxism in Russia.

Alexander Rabinowitch, emeritus professor at Indiana University, has written, “Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938 by the late eminent, erudite, and courageous Russian Marxist scholar Vadim Rogovin reflects a lifetime of study and thought about the mainsprings, development, and historical impact of the Great Terror. Based heavily on data from rarely used Soviet and post-Soviet Russian archival documents, memoirs, and periodicals, as well as a wide range of Russian émigré sources, Rogovin’s reconstruction and interpretation is a major contribution to new knowledge about one of the most devastating events of the twentieth century. It is essential reading for all those interested in the fate of the Russian revolutions, modern Russia, and the history of international socialism”.

Perhaps if Mr Sweeney is interested in this history then he is welcome to contact me for the details of this book. I will not hold my breath.

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