The Chronicle Review

Postmodern Stalinism

Revisionist histories help revive his reputation in Russia

Courtesy of Jonathan Brent

On the back of a box of chocolates: a replica of a 1930s poster of Stalin guiding the great ship of the Soviet state
September 21, 2009

Visitors leaving Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport today can purchase a box of chocolates in the duty-free shop with a replica of a poster from the 1930s on the back, in which Stalin grasps the great wheel of the ship of state as it heads into storm clouds gathering in the distance. The caption reads, "The captain of the country of Soviets leads us from victory to victory!" That far-seeing Stalin piloting his people to safety inevitably collides with the brutal image of the dictator responsible for the displacement, death, and degradation of millions, whose terrifying legacy is amply attested to in books published throughout the world, and in the memory of the Russian people. On the streets of Moscow, the drama of this confrontation is all but invisible as ordinary Russians go about their daily business. But in the schools and universities, publishing houses, newspapers, libraries, and academic institutes, the clash has become visible and pointed, part of an attempt by Russian authorities to normalize the Soviet past and to depict Joseph Stalin as one of Russia's great leaders, who saved the country in World War II and, in the words of one KGB general, "raised it up" to become one of the most powerful nations on earth.

The December 2008 International Scientific Conference Studying the History of Stalinism—the first of its kind held in Moscow—gave concrete expression to the battle lines over Stalin's legacy that have emerged some 18 years after the disappearance of the Soviet state. Many of the archivists, scholars, publishers, leaders of foundations, and human-rights activists from around the world who participated explained in great detail how the Stalinist state seized and exerted power. All the while, they could not but take note of the many representatives of the Russian government in the audience; that the day before the conference began, the offices of Memorial, the acclaimed human-rights organization in St. Petersburg dedicated to preserving the memory of Stalin's victims, had been raided by the police; that a new high-school textbook depicting Stalin in a positive light had been approved by the administration; and that throughout Russia, and even beyond its borders, Stalin's legacy is being relentlessly rehabilitated: on the charming box of chocolates on sale at the airport; in books, newspapers, and television programs; in declarations by deputies in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament; and in the tacit acceptance and, indeed, encouragement of those efforts by the current administration.

The day of the conference, one scholar said to me, felt like something from the 1970s. Many there believed that the police raid of Memorial in St. Petersburg was a warning to those in Moscow: Do not cross the line. What that line is or was has never been specifically articulated, but it is somehow understood. It was understood in the bones of all the Russians present. Russian authorities claimed that Memorial was illegally supporting a newspaper, New Petersburg, that had been closed in 2007; officials of Memorial thought the raid might have been linked to their screening of a film about the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who was poisoned, according to some observers, by orders of the Putin government.

On the first day, I saw a man I had met years before in the offices of Nikolai Yezhov, commissar of the secret police during the Great Terror. We had been discussing my interest in publishing a book on the cultural politics of the Soviet government. At the time, I had wondered how such a charming, urbane, handsome, and intelligent man could be working for the security services, and now I asked what his interest was in the conference. He told me he had come simply to listen and observe. He was interested in the subject; Stalin was not a monster, but the subject was complex. There was no iron fist. Not even a velvet glove. But the fact of his presence—and that of other government representatives—at an essentially academic international conference reinforced the unspoken message of the raid in St. Petersburg: The government remains watchful, and the depiction of Stalin remains a question of the highest importance.

Why should that be so, 56 years after the dictator's death; after Khrushchev's denunciation of him; and after the demise of the Soviet Union itself? At a roundtable on "The Politics of Memory," Boris Dubin, a senior researcher at the Levada-Center, formerly known as the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, in Moscow, cited a revealing statistic. In 1988, only 12 percent of Russians considered Stalin a significant world leader. By the time Vladimir Putin became president in 1999, that number had increased to 53 percent of the Russian population, and the majority of the people placed him among the top three or four of the greatest world leaders, alongside Mahatma Gandhi. Today a majority of Russians consider Stalin to be the single greatest figure in all of Soviet history. Putin's cultivation of his image must therefore be seen as separate from the rise of the former dictator's popularity, which actually preceded the Putin administration. Simple explanations—like saying that Putin wishes to return Russia to its Communist past, or that he is using Stalin's image to create his own brand of nationalism—do not help us understand the deeper social phenomena at work in Stalin's reappearance as a revered political figure.

The International Conference on Stalinism took place at the luxurious and aptly named Renaissance Moscow Hotel, which opened in 1991 and bills itself as "the first hotel of a European level in Moscow." Attendees included American, British, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian as well as Russian researchers, historians, and institutions. Many of the greatest scholars on the subject of Stalin and Stalinism from America attended.

The conference brochure established a framework for the meeting: "Political changes in Russia and the resulting partial opening of the archives have made possible substantial progress in the study of the Stalinist period. At the same time the scientific historiography of Stalinism has thrown up a number of controversial problems which demand discussion. The gap between the scientific viewpoint and the everyday understanding of Stalinism in the public mind is substantial, and appears to be widening." The brochure went on to note, "Unfortunately, when overlaid upon contemporary internal and external political situations, pro-Stalinist propaganda clichés sound very effective.

"Recipes for a Russian renaissance through authoritarian modernization or even a dictatorship are being peddled, together with propaganda for the historical justification of violence, millions of victims, and cleansing through social purges."

The presence of both Andrei Fursenko, the education minister, and V.P. Lukin, Russia's human-rights commissioner, underscored what the brochure implied: The study of Stalinism carries political and moral ramifications quite unlike those associated today with Nazism or Italian Fascism. Stalinism is a living phenomenon. At Stalin's funeral, Vyacheslav M. Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, stated: "The deathless name of Stalin will always live in our hearts, in the hearts of the Soviet people and of all progressive humanity. The fame of his great deeds in the service and happiness of our people and the workers of the whole world will live forever!"

Could Molotov have been right? The opening plenary sessions made Stalin's crimes abundantly clear—papers on the gulag and the terror, Stalin's disastrous economic programs, and the widespread suppression of minority groups in the Soviet state. But there was also unnerving evidence—implicit in the vehemence with which Oleg Khlevniuk, a leading historian, and Arseny Roginsky, director of Memorial, delivered their opening papers—of a palpable fear of a revival of the Stalin cult, or if not the cult itself then something akin to it that no one could properly define. What is at stake is not knowledge of the crimes but whether it is legitimate to sympathize with the ends for which they were committed. The ends, as Molotov had sketched them out—"deeds in the service and happiness of our people and the workers of the whole world"—appear quite reasonable and laudable. A young Russian historian with a Ph.D. from an American university, who is not in any way sympathetic to Stalin, recently admitted to me that he is sympathetic to Putin's methods for concentrating power while stifling intellectual freedoms if they will preserve Russia from political chaos. When I quoted the late Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev—former Soviet ambassador to Canada and the official who helped define the policy of glasnost—that without the rule of law and liberal democratic political institutions authoritarian dictatorship is assured, the young historian, now living in America, shrugged his shoulders. "Security," he said, "is more important now than democracy."

Such a sentiment is hardly anomalous. The grandson of a prominent liberal Russian historian told me about a year ago that he had been appointed by his university to disburse research and fellowship grants to young scholars. When I asked how the process worked, he explained that the money for the program came directly from the government and that he had "President Putin personally to thank for this." Each grant recipient was directly indebted to the state, just as in the Soviet period when Stalin would personally decide, among many other things, which writers and intellectuals were permitted to travel abroad.

In his plenary address, "Memories of Stalinism," Memorial's Roginsky helped to explain the complex role that national memory plays in the contemplation of Stalin's legacy. He noted that the memory of Stalin is almost exclusively about victims, not crimes. That ignores the conditions that made those crimes possible—the causes, mechanisms, and perpetrators. We know almost nothing of who committed atrocities. The problem of historical memory, therefore, is complicated by the inability to sort out the guilty from the innocent. According to Roginsky:

Any assimilation of a historical tragedy into mass consciousness is based on the distribution of the role between good and evil and the identification of oneself in either of these roles. It is easier to identify oneself with good; that is, with innocent victims or, even better, with the heroic battle against evil. (It is for this reason that our Western European neighbors from Ukraine to Poland to the Baltic states have no problem with the assimilation of the Soviet period of history as in Russia. They identify themselves with the victims and with the warriors or with both at the same time.) The fact that in Russia itself there are victims, but not crimes, is due, at least in part, to the fact that there is no state legal act declaring that Soviet terrorism was a crime. The law of 1991 that granted meager compensation to the victims of the gulag is clearly insufficient; there has not been one judicial process in the new Russia against a participant in Stalin's purges. The issue of accountability—the moral element—complicates the picture of how Russians deal with their past. No one was innocent, and even the worst of the criminals were often victims—such as the heads of the KGB and many of their subordinates and flunkies who were routinely imprisoned, tortured, and shot after a particularly dirty business had been concluded.

The seeds of the new Russian nationalism were sown in that fertile soil. Nostalgia for the great nation, for the strength of Stalin, for the great victory over Hitler and the pioneering exploration of space, in combination with fear of the future, give the present Russian administration the opportunity not necessarily to revive Stalin's Russia but to make use of many aspects of the system of state control that Stalin developed.

In a way that only appears contradictory, the effort both to commemorate the crimes of Stalinism and to repudiate the Stalinist system has led to a deep cultural anxiety that has, in turn, nurtured a widespread affirmation of the very system that committed those crimes. That is quite evident in the feeble attempt at creating the State Museum of the History of the Gulag in the bare two or three rooms on the second floor of a former office building in downtown Moscow; documents are displayed helter-skelter with no regard to forming any kind of framing historical narrative or perspective. Who was the victim and who the victimizer? Who was guilty? On the walls are pictures of Anna Akhmatova (a poet who was never in the gulag, as well as of Sergo Ordzhonikidze (a member of Stalin's inner circle who committed suicide and was also never in a camp). As Roginsky suggested, many of those intent on commemorating the crimes of Stalinism were themselves directly or indirectly complicit in them or are their beneficiaries. An effort in 1992 to put the Communist Party on trial, therefore, was doomed to failure from the beginning.

Yet the staggering crimes of Stalin and Stalinism have been well documented since the opening of the Soviet archives in January 1992, and one must ask how those crimes can go without a full public accounting and atonement. According to the historian Khlevniuk, between 1930 and 1952, some 50 million Soviet citizens were convicted (some of the convictions were multiple) by the judicial organs of the Soviet legal system. Of those, some 20 million, out of an adult population of around 100 million, went to the gulag, a staggering 20 percent of the population. The "special settlements" to which so-called kulaks were sent in the early 1930s became the foundation for the gulag system during the Great Terror of the late 1930s. The final numbers of victims will probably never be fully known.

Khlevniuk concluded his address at the conference: "To construct an alternative history, without the terror and crimes of Stalin's regime, that is, a history without such a tragic price, would be dangerous and vain." It is precisely that "alternative history" that is taking shape in the popular histories, textbooks, and magazines now plentifully available across Russia.

A friend of mine handed me a souvenir that she had picked up in a Moscow shop, saying, "I know you are interested in these things." It was a package of matchboxes labeled, "Political posters of the Stalin epoch." On the cover is a reproduction of a 1930s poster displaying a youthful Stalin rising above the smiling, confident faces of individual Russian workers, military men, and professionals, while the faceless masses extend to the horizon in the background. At the bottom of the poster are the words: "Glory to the creator of the constitution of the U.S.S.R., THE GREAT STALIN!" The inside of the cover is decorated with another poster showing a joyful crowd dancing on May Day. At the bottom, the caption reads: "Life has become better, Life has become more joyful!" The individual matchboxes provide a graphic display of the glories of the Stalin period: the strangling of the Swastika-serpent; the achievements of Soviet agriculture, industry, and engineering; and the happiness of Soviet family life. Those are the images memorializing the system of government that convicted 50 million Russians of largely nonexistent crimes. Such souvenirs can be found everywhere in Moscow.

The intellectual justification for such mementos can be found in local bookstores, in such works as The Time of Stalin: Facts Against Myths, by Igor Pykhalov, a nationalist journalist. Its drab, gray cover depicts a youthful Stalin in leather boots striding across streetcar tracks on a cobblestone Moscow street in the 1930s. The first lines of the text read: "It is difficult to find in the history of Russia a man who did more for its greatness and prosperity during his life and has been so unjustifiably slandered after his death."

Worse yet is the semi-official harassment of publishers in Russia, like a friend of mine who specializes in works about the Stalin period. He told me recently about a "friendly" visit by an officer from the Federal Security Service who simply asked him whether he didn't think that enough documents had already been published. Was it really necessary to publish more?

Paul R. Gregory, a professor of economics at the University of Houston, who now co-edits the Yale-Hoover Series on Stalin, Stalinism, and the Cold War, provided at the conference a perspective on one of the key elements in Pykhalov's argument, as well as on Molotov's farewell to his master. As Gregory pointed out, although the economic-modernization campaign showed considerable success in the early years, that success was no greater than that of other industrialized countries in similar phases of their development. "Rapid industrial growth was, indeed, a 'success' of Stalin's 'Great Break,' but other countries achieved comparable successes during their peak periods of growth without resort to such drastic measures. The U.S., Australia, Japan, and South Africa matched or exceeded 1928-1938 Soviet growth, and Sweden, Canada, and Argentina came close," he said.

More documents can help solidify such conclusions. But they cannot undo the substratum of belief that gives rise to the thinking of historians like Pykhalov and the extremist, nationalist press in general. It is that belief system that has found expression and official approval in the school textbook sanctioned by Putin, which was hotly debated during two sessions of the conference. Those people sharing Pykhalov's view routinely labeled writers like Gregory "opportunists," "liars," or "unpatriotic." No other state-sponsored textbooks are available for use.

Alexander Chubaryan, director of the Institute of World History at the Russian Academy of Sciences, presented a paper that appeared to seek some kind of compromise between Khlevniuk's powerful repudiation of Stalinist domestic terror and those who wish to construct an "alternative history." Chubaryan is a complicated figure with a difficult role as mediator between the demands of the government and the imperatives of historical research. Charming and affable, he is a man of considerable academic distinction, who protected scholars during Soviet times and now finds himself once again in the position of having to protect the profession to which he has devoted his life.

While denouncing Stalin and Stalinism, he argued that the three totalitarian regimes of Europe—German Nazism, Italian Fascism, and Soviet Bolshevism—were the product of World War I and that, in essence, Stalinism was not a characteristically Russian phenomenon. It was imported into Russia from Western Europe. Moreover, Stalinism should not be considered identical with Soviet history: The Soviet regime was more than Stalinism, which was in his view an aberration, a cancer to be cut out.

But how can Chubaryan ignore—or marginalize—the work of scholars like Khlevniuk? The answer is in the magical term "balance," which is often used to mean that crimes must be set in the context of the social good that may have resulted and in the historical context in which they were committed. Chubaryan knows full well that violent revolutionary groups sprang up in Russia in reaction to the terrible injustices of the czarist system, not solely because of the influence of Western revolutionary movements. His argument about World War I, though largely true, is beside the point when considered in the light of the so-called secret Lenin archive of documents that began to be released with the fall of Communism. By reshaping Marxist thought, Lenin bridged the revolutionary rhetoric of the West with the revolutionary realities of Russia, and his orders concerning the ruthless suppression of the kulaks in August 1918, or the September 1918 document ordering that "the terror" be prepared, attest to the fact that Stalin simply extended the principles of the Soviet regime that Lenin had planted.

What can "balance" those realities? The intellectualizing of Soviet crimes recasts moral problems as utilitarian problems, which is one of the most lethal aspects of Leninist-Stalinist thought. The Orwellian recasting is invisible, done in a turn of speech in which questions of good and evil or moral responsibility are presented in practical or political terms. Chubaryan knows the documentary materials well. He is on the editorial advisory committee for Yakovlev's series of documentary publications, issued through the International Democracy Foundation that Yakovlev founded, notably the subseries entitled Lubyanka: Stalin and the MGB, USSR, published in 2007, which contains a vast array of vital documents about the purges and repression of the 1930s. It is not possible to read such works without a sense of how the Leninist-Stalinist system overwhelmed Soviet society and established the bureaucratic and organizational structures of government that have endured even after the Soviet Union itself disappeared. It is not possible to read the works of writers like Lydia Chukovksaya or Alexander Solzhenitsyn without a sense of how the Stalinist system penetrated and shaped the minds of generations of average Russian citizens. Salvaging the Soviet past from Stalinism is the position to which those unable to break with the past have been driven.

In a series of interviews and books, Yakovlev frequently cited the lack of openness of the administration; its proclivity to act secretly; its drive toward centralization of power; and the absence of the rule of law in Russian daily life. Today, Grigory Yavlinsky, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers at the end of the Soviet period, and the leader of Yabloko—the liberal, oppositional party—from its inception in 1995 to June 2008, when he stepped down, carries Yakovlev's ideas further. Yavlinsky did not attend the conference, but when I spoke with him at dinner on my last night in Moscow in December, he offered an important view of the present situation in Russia. A uniquely new phenomenon has come about, he told me; he calls it "postmodern Stalinism." Stripped of Stalin's personality, the gulag system, the harrowing social and economic conditions of the Soviet past, an invisible Stalinism persists. It has two principal elements in Yavlinsky's view: the understanding that the ends justify the means, and the belief that the nation is everything and the individual nothing. Behind the facade of "democratic" Russia, Yavlinsky sees a highly authoritarian, centralized state for which force, not law, is the operative means for accomplishing political objectives. It is a world in which moral questions become questions of arithmetic.

One indisputable sign of that postmodern Stalinism is the revival of the idea of the great Russian nation, which Stalin had recognized as the most important achievement of the czars. "The Russian czars did a great deal that was bad," Stalin noted at a famous toast on November 7, 1937, at the height of the terror. "But they did one thing that was good—they amassed an enormous state," he went on. "We have inherited that state."

Today the idea of the great Russian state is more memory than fact, but that may give it even greater power in the minds of the people. Lacking the outward signs of Stalinist brutality—the purges, gulag, and shootings—present-day Russia is in danger of returning to a society in which the ends justify the means, unmediated by law. In such a world, the individual is inherently vulnerable, while freedom of thought and freedom of speech recede ever farther from the horizon of daily life. As yet, no clear ideology justifies those ends. Nor is it clear even what the ends might ultimately be, but once the invisible structures of the Stalinist, or crypto-Stalinist, state reassert themselves, they will become clear enough.

Jonathan Brent is executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and was formerly editorial director of Yale University Press. He remains executive editor of the press's Annals of Communism series and director of its Stalin Archive Project.