Accepting Russia as it was

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — The Georgians took down the last statue of Josef Stalin last week. There used to be thousands of such statues all across the old Soviet Union, but the Communists themselves tore almost all of them down after the great dictator and mass murderer died in 1953. They left the one in Gori, in northern Georgia, because that’s where he was born and the locals were still proud of him.

Even after Georgia got its independence in 1991, the six-meter statue of Stalin continued to stand in Gori. Now, just when you might think that the Georgians would be starting to approve of Stalin — after all, he was responsible for the deaths of more Russians than any other Georgian, or indeed anybody else — they go and tear his statue down.

They’re planning to replace it with a monument to “victims of the Russian aggression” in the 2008 war, so the history they’re peddling in Gori will still be based on lies. (It was Georgia that started the war with Russia in 2008.) The bigger lies will be told in Russia, and they will be told mainly about Stalin.

Two weeks ago a group of politicians and academics met in Moscow’s main library to discuss how to make Russians proud of their history.

The answer? Get an upbeat history book into the schools. “(The book) should not be a dreary look at, or an apology for, what was done,” explained professor Leonid Polyakov of the Higher School of Economics.

The politicians were from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, and they wanted the academics to come up with a single history textbook for use in all Russian schools. It should downplay the crimes and failures of 74 years of Communist rule — the purges, the mass deportations, the famines, the gulags — and concentrate on the glorious epic of the Soviet victory in the Second World War. Which means they must rehabilitate Stalin.

Rewriting the history books is not a Russian monopoly. The Texas Board of Education recently caused a great furor by deciding that its history textbooks should show that the founding fathers of the United States, and the authors of its Constitution, intended America to be a Christian nation, not a country committed to the separation of church and state. That’s an easier job than making Stalin look good.

Start with the proposition that the Soviet Union played a key role in defeating Hitler (true), and that the war was a heroic victory against great odds (false). This is the first place where you wind up having to give Stalin some credit, because he was definitely the man in command throughout the war.

Then, to justify the terrible cost of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, and to slide past the purges and famines of the 1930s, you have to argue that those horrors were what allowed the miracle of high-speed industrialization to lay the groundwork for a Soviet victory in the war. Once again, Comrade Stalin gets the credit, for the industrialization happened on his watch.

It’s all lies and distortion. The Soviet Union’s population was twice that of Nazi Germany, and its industrial power and technology were not significantly inferior. If Stalin had not murdered most of the Red Army’s senior officers in the purges of the late ’30s, and if he had not stupidly let himself be surprised by the German invasion, the war would not have lasted so long and killed so many Russians.

As for the alleged miracle of rapid industrialization, it was only needed because most existing Russian industry was destroyed by the revolution and the civil war: Industrial output in 1922 was only 13 percent of that in 1914. If there had been no revolution and no Stalin, and Russia had just started growing again after the First World War at the same rate as other capitalist countries, it would have been far too strong by 1941 for Hitler to dream of attacking it.

Russia’s history in the 20th century was an unmitigated and unnecessary disaster: the first half tragic and very bloody, the second half merely impoverished and oppressive. Even today, Russia has not regained the rank among the developed countries that it held a century ago. What can one do with such a history?

One can tell the truth. Germany’s 20th-century history was also terrible, and Germans had to bear a burden of historical guilt for harming others far heavier than anything Russians should feel for the crimes of their own imperial past. If today’s Germans can see their past with clear eyes and still feel pride in their present and hope for their future, why can’t the Russians?

It’s not a lost cause. There have been some encouraging instances recently of Russians facing up to the less proud bits of their history, like Prime Minister Putin’s attendance at the ceremony commemorating the Soviet massacre of Polish prisoners in Katyn forest in 1940, and President Dmitry Medvedev’s condemnation of Stalin for “mass crimes against his own people.”

The omens are not good. If the Georgians no longer need that statue of Stalin, there may be a market for it in Russia.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose columns appear in 45 countries.