There are few families in Russia today untouched by the horrors of the Stalin period. Nearly everyone has a story to tell about a relative who suffered in the forced collectivisation and the purges that consumed up to 20 million people. So when Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB man who is now president of Russia, sanctions a rewriting of history that eulogises Stalin and glosses over his regime’s crimes, it amounts to a warning to opponents of today’s Kremlin. Several critics of Putin’s government have met with untimely deaths, including the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Only yesterday, a member of an opposition group led by the former chess champion Garry Kasparov was released from a psychiatric clinic after being held against her will for 46 days. Larisa Arap, 48, was forcibly taken to hospital in Murmansk after exposing alleged abuse of children in a local psychiatric hospital.
New laws give the Putin government sweeping powers over the content of school textbooks and a series of “patriotic” history books are set to be unveiled in the new school year. A handbook for teachers calls Stalin a "contradictory" figure, and states that while some people consider him evil, others recognise him as a "hero" for his role in the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) and his territorial expansion. Stalin is described as “the most successful leader of the USSR". The book skates over the purges, declaring: “Political repression was used to mobilise not only rank-and-file citizens but also the ruling elite." Putin himself admitted that "problematic pages in our history exist" but "we have less than some countries”. He compared the Great Terror of 1937, when 700,000 people were murdered in a purge by Stalin's secret police, to the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
This sickening reverence for Stalin because he allegedly made the country strong is a complete travesty of history and an insult to all those who died or suffered at the hands of his regime. In fact, the Stalinists left the Soviet Union at the mercy of Nazi Germany and their policies added to the build-up of World War II. The cream of the Red Army was purged in 1937 and a non-aggression pact struck with Hitler lulled the USSR into a false sense of security. When Nazi Germany invaded in June 1941, no one was more surprised than Stalin to the extent that he refused to believe the reports and prevented border troops from opening fire until it was too late. "In the official state view of history, the main event of the 20th century is the victory in the Second World War," said Boris Dubin, an expert at the Levada Centre think tank and polling agency. "The Holocaust is hardly taught at all in Russia, nor is the history of the gulag system. The rehabilitation of Stalin is connected to the emphasis on the war victory."
Far from being a great “war leader”, Stalin was compelled to hand control over military affairs to generals like Zhukov because of political paralysis in the Kremlin. In the end, the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany in spite of and not because of Stalin’s “leadership”. Putin is building his own authoritarian state, this time based on the capitalist oligarchs that now own Russia as a result of the counter-revolution of the early 1990s. But thanks to the perestroika and glasnost period of the Gorbachev period, the truth about the Stalinist regime is available to the Russian people. Putin’s attempt to rewrite the last 90 years of his country’s turbulent history to suit himself is, like the Stalinist regime itself, doomed to failure.
Paul Feldman, communications editor
A World to Win