By: Vasko Kohlmayer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Many observers were shocked earlier this year when, in an online poll to name Russia’s greatest man, Joseph Stalin seized an early lead among Russians. The former mass murderer would have come out on top had not the poll’s administrators cut his votes in half after blaming cyberspace shenanigans. It is difficult to say whether or not their claim was true. But even with his share halved, Stalin still managed to take twelfth place. Stalin’s strong showing is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is his direct culpability in the deaths and torture of millions of his country’s citizens during his long reign of terror.
The poll, however, is only a symptom of a larger troubling trend. In recent years, certain quarters of Russian society have been increasingly nostalgic about the Soviet era. In no small measure, the rise of such sentiments is due to the efforts of the Putin government, which seeks to actively rehabilitate various aspects of the country’s communist past.
In November of last year, Putin posthumously bestowed Russia’s highest honorary title, Hero of the Russian Federation, on George Koval. Although few have heard his name, many in the intelligence community view him as the most important Cold War spy. Born in 1913 in Iowa to parents from Belarus, Koval infiltrated the Manhattan Project and passed crucial information to Moscow concerning the atomic bomb. In the statement announcing the award, Vladimir Putin said that Koval’s work "helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own."
Less than two weeks later, the Kremlin honored another Cold War spy, George Blake, with The Order of Friendship. Working for the British Secret Service in the 1950s, Blake changed sides to become a Soviet mole. Following his defection, Blake betrayed the identities of numerous Western agents, many of whom paid for his treachery with their lives. To celebrate the award, Russia’s present-day foreign intelligence service SVR issued a congratulatory statement that read in part: “It is thanks to Blake that the Soviet Union avoided very serious military and political damage which the United States and Great Britain could have inflicted on it.”
By awarding Russia’s highest honors to former Soviet spies, the Kremlin makes a startling insinuation: The Soviet Union was the good side in the Cold War. The implication not only glaringly contradicts historical reality; it is also an attempt to subvert national consciousness.
Fifteen years ago, there was an overwhelming consensus across Russian society that the Soviet Union was a tragic mistake. Understandably so, since at that time the evils and hardship of life in the Soviet Union were still fresh in people’s memory. There could have been no clearer evidence of the country’s near unanimous rejection of its communist past than the post-Soviet campaign of Mikhail Gorbachev for the Russian presidency. Running in 1996, less than five years after the dissolution of the USSR, the erstwhile Soviet dictator, a symbol of the former era, received less than one percent of the vote. This was a devastating indictment by the people of the system that had oppressed them for so long.
A decade later, the Kremlin is working hard to change the population’s negative perception of the Soviet past. Much of this effort is aimed at the nation’s youth. Last year, a government-sponsored manual for teachers described Joseph Stalin as an “effective manager” and “the most successful Soviet leader ever.” Titled A History of Russia, 1900-1945, the manual sought to justify Stalin’s murderous ruthlessness by describing it as a rational response to the circumstances of the time. The book nonchalantly asserted that Stalin unleashed the purges of the 1930s because he “did not know who would deal the next blow, and for that reason he attacked every known group and movement, as well as those who were not his allies or of his mindset.”
The push for the historical revisionism appears to be fuelled by none other than Vladimir Putin, who has claimed that the negative view of the Soviet era in post-Soviet textbooks is due to the fact that the writers were funded by foreign organizations. Calling for a more a patriotic approach to the study of history, Putin lamented that both teachers and society were “confused” about many aspects of Soviet history.
In June of last year, Putin hosted a teachers conference where he sought to excuse Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937 – in which more than 700,000 people were murdered and 1.5 million imprisoned – by saying that in “other countries even worse things happened.” According to Putin, the Soviet Union “had no other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance.” What he failed to mention was that even by conservative estimates, Stalin killed two times as may people in his own country as died in the Nazi Holocaust. While it is true that the USSR did not have Nazism, it is also true that it had something just as, if not far more, murderous -- namely communism.
Not everyone accepts the Putin-propagated version of history and many are trying to sound the alarm about the indoctrination underway. Alexander Kamensky, head of the history department at the Russian State University, observed last year that the teaching of history in schools had become "an ideological instrument." A leading Russian historian Roy Medvedev, was even blunter and called the manual “falsification.”
In an uncanny parallel, the same publishing house - Prosveshchenye (Enlightenment) - that was responsible for printing textbooks during the Soviet era, is the leading publisher of educational materials today. Founded in 1930 under Stalin’s tutelage, the publisher is now backed by Putin’s regime.
The government’s indoctrination program appears to be bearing fruit. A recent poll of young people yielded some startling results. The survey, titled The Putin Generation: the political views of Russia’s youth, posed a wide range of questions including several related to the country’s Soviet past.
To the question of whether Stalin was a wise leader, half of the respondents replied in the affirmative. More than half thought Stalin did more good than bad and only 46% disagreed with the proposition that Stalin was a cruel tyrant. 40% thought that Stalin’s part in the repressions has been exaggerated. The majority of the 1,802 respondents took the view that the disintegration of the communist Soviet Union was a tragedy.
Commenting on the findings, Theodore Gerber, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said, "What we find troubling is that there is a substantial proportion of young people in Russia today who hold positive or ambivalent views on Stalin and his legacy."
Although the results are troubling, they are by no means surprising. All of those young people were either not born during -- or too young to realize -- the evils of the system in which they lived. Given that the survey targeted youth between 16 and 19 years of age, their political consciousness has been formed and molded in recent years under the influence of Putin’s Soviet propagandists.
Putin’s desire to rehabilitate Russia’s Soviet past is only a natural outgrowth of his past. A former communist and a KGB agent, Putin was an intimate part of the Soviet regime and as such subjected to years of intense training and indoctrination. Earning the rank of lieutenant colonel at a relatively young age, he showed a marked dedication to the Soviet cause. That Putin's outlook was profoundly influenced by those experiences can be seen from his style of governing which is increasingly reminiscent of the Soviet way of doing things. One party rule, suppression of opposition, crackdown on free speech, government control of the major media -- these were all hallmarks of the Soviet system and increasingly also of Putin’s rule.
Given his background and personal history, it is small wonder that Putin encourages the ongoing rehabilitation of the Soviet Union, whose collapse he lamented as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” But the whole enterprise may also carry a uniquely personal dimension for Russia’s leader. Short and slight, it appears that Putin seeks to compensate for his lack of physical stature by projecting a larger-than-life image of strength. In keeping with this, he clearly feels at least an unconscious admiration for Joseph Stalin, history’s ultimate strongman. And there are numerous indications that suggest Putin likes to see himself as a kind of inheritor of Stalin’s iron mantle.
His underlings act on cue. The pro-Kremlin authors of the blatantly biased teachers’ manual assessed Stalin as a highly successful and effective ruler. So successful was he that, in their view, there was only one man in Russia’s modern history who has exceeded him.
If you guessed that that man is Vladimir Putin, you have guessed correctly.
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