Arch Puddington: Stalin, rebranded

Roundup: Talking About History

[Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and co-editor of Democracy Web, a curriculum guide sponsored by Freedom House and the Albert Shanker Institute that promotes the teaching of democratic values.]

The Russian foreign ministry recently issued an indignant statement that takes issue with President Bush for equating communism with Hitlerism. "In the 20th century," a proclamation issued by Bush said, "the evils of Soviet communism and Nazi fascism were defeated and freedom spread around the world as new democracies emerged." This patently accurate statement was denounced as rewriting history.

In fact, it is the Kremlin that has been busily recasting the past, which may explain its sensitivity to linking the two great totalitarianisms. Specifically, a battery of official historians has been sanitizing the image of the dreaded dictator, Joseph Stalin.

The process of rehabilitating -- or, in the vocabulary of public relations that the men in the Kremlin prefer, "rebranding" -- Stalin was accelerated after a speech by Vladimir Putin to a conference of social science teachers. Putin acknowledged that Stalin "had made mistakes," but hastened to add that worse things had been done by other countries, lumping the United States in with the Nazis as prime examples. As for the mistakes, Stalin was criticized principally for his crimes against the Communist Party rather than for the calculated famine in Ukraine, the atrocities committed against the Balts, Chechens and other suspect groups or the murders of Polish intellectuals, military officers and resistance fighters.

Putin excoriated those responsible for history teaching in Russia for advancing interpretations of events that were contributing to "utter chaos and confusion" in Russian minds. He also railed against textbook authors who had accepted grants from foreign sources.

Putin's speech triggered a Kremlin sponsored corrective to the supposed miseducation of Russian children in the form of a series of new manuals and textbooks that encourage teachers to present a history informed by the aggressive nationalism favoured by Putin and his circle. The new curriculum includes fulsome tributes to Putin himself and is relentlessly anti-American; it blames the United States for igniting the Cold War, accuses America of using democracy promotion to isolate Russia and predicts the country's imminent collapse due to its multiracial population.

Then there is Stalin. He is described as brutal but successful. His crimes are minimized or -- and this is the truly insidious part -- justified as necessary to Russian progress. Prewar purges were an instrument of "mobilization" toward industrial development; postwar repression was required by the demands of the Cold War. Under these circumstances, "democratization was not an option for Stalin's government."

Let's be clear that today's Russia is not Stalin's Russia. It is under authoritarian, not totalitarian, rule, and the convenient murders and imprisonment of several of its critics pale in comparison with Stalin's politically induced famines, ethnic cleansings and subjugation of neighbouring countries. There is, however, something truly pernicious in the restoration of Stalin to a place of respect. By placing Stalin in the pantheon of great Russian leaders, the leadership is reinforcing an unsubtle message that its members enjoy the sanction of history in systematically rolling back recent democratic achievements. Kremlin publicists have coined a phrase to describe the new concept of governance: "sovereign democracy." In truth, sovereign democracy has no more relationship to democracy than did "people's democracy."..

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Arnold Shcherban - 8/8/2008

Western, especially American, intellectual thought has been and continues to be haunted by double, absolutistic, and ahistorical standards/axioms (the last two having apparent religious basis) for centuries.
It is therefore hardly surprising that these major standards dominate Western analysis of the socio-political regimes that have not played (and still don't) ballgame with the US-Western Europe strategic interests.
By equalizing Nazi Germany with world's Communism President Bush just
expressed the prevalent conclusion of
the Western mainstream intellectual thought.
Such a tautology raises a crucial issue of its accuracy in historical and socio-economic sense.
First, note the conflation of Comminism, i.e. communist theory and practice with the totalitarian regime's policies of the former USSR
made by Bush and the author of the article. Communist/socialist philosophical and economic theory originated in the minds of great
Western European thinkers: Hegel, Fuerbach, Marx, and Engels had nothing
to do with totalitarism and anti-democracy; on the contrary - it was the most democratic, struggling for freedoms of majority (isn't it what people mean when referring to the original meaning of the term 'democracy'?) and global theory in the history of mankind.
On the other hand, theoretical foundations of social and economic practices of German National Socialists (Nazis) were belligerent nationalism, enthnic/racial intolerance, and superlative qualities/characteriscs of Arian (read - German and Austrian) people.
Thus, what Bush and others call "communism" and Nazi have been polar opposite phenomena in theory.
Second, according to Marx theory of socialist revolution the latter had to happen first in the most industrially developed countries, which at the time of his writings were
Western European countries: Germany, France, and Great Britain.
Alas, this particular prediction of Marxist socio-economic theory of development of capitalism
proved to be wrong: the socialist revolution first won in Tsar's Russian Empire. When it did Russia together with its territorial possessions on the East and the West
was one of the most culturally and socio-economically retarted European
countries. To make the things much worse and dramatic, its economy and political climate had been devastated by the war against Germany, as part of the terrible consequences of the WWI.
To be contniued...