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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Liberals Fight Back

Russian and foreign scholars dazzled at the marbled luxury of the Olympic Renaissance that welcomed them on December 5 to the International Conference on Stalinism. Quite a change from the dreary Akademichesky Hotel. Organizers included Memorial (whose Petersburg offices were raided during the conference), the commissioner on human rights, the state archives, and the leading publisher of Soviet history. The Yeltsin Foundation provided the funding. The conference’s goal was to “narrow the gap between the scientific viewpoint and everyday understanding of Stalinism,” which “peddles dictatorship and historical justification of violence, millions of victims, and cleansing through social purges.” Clearly Stalin’s soaring public opinion “rating” were a sore point. More than four hundred signed to attend. Some, including disappointed journalists, had to be turned away.

To the packed crowd, Russia’s top archival historian, Oleg Khelvnyuk, began by listing Stalin’s “mass operations” against peasants, “marginals”, the party, the military, and in border regions, not counting the six million or more famine victims. There were no gasps at the victim totals, more than ten million. The numbers were familiar and indisputably drawn from NKVD/MVD’s sources. Arsenii Roginsky, director of Memorial, followed with an impassioned address on the Stalin paradox – that there were millions of victims but no criminals! Instead of “crime without victims” Stalin somehow produced “victims without criminals,” by creating collective guilt for those who ran Russia after him. My presentation focused on “Was Stalin really Necessary?” stating we must weigh the costs of human life against the benefits cheerfully recited by apologists – rapid industrialization and the victory over Hitler (despite Stalin’s bungling of the first part of the war and his prewar extermination of the entire command structure). The costs, I suggested, were the immense and unnecessary loss of human life, the destruction of agriculture, and the introduction of a dysfunctional economy.

The second day of the conference was devoted to breakout sessions. An agitated journalist, whose apartment had been ransacked that night, wondered whether this was retribution for attendance? Some vocal Stalinists had penetrated the conference (“Under Soviet rule we had everything!”). Eccentrics spun wild theories as anxious moderators to wrested the microphone from their resistant hands.

The concluding summaries on the third day would have left an ordinary Russian observer without an answer: Was Stalin a positive or negative figure? The details and information were overwhelming but not packaged for a simple answer. The conference’s peak was a round table of distinguished writers, film makers, lawyers, and journalists, most old enough to have experienced Stalinism first hand. The moderator, Nikolai Svanidze, did his best to control the crowded auditorium. Danil Granin, a war veteran, “frontovik”, recounted the creation of the war-leader Stalin myth as Stalin exiled Zhukov (the equivalent of Truman banishing Eisenhower to Mexico) as the war ended. It was Stalin’s “military genius” that won the war. Sigurd Schmidt, the son of a noted arctic expert, recalled that when the party purges began, people simply stopped talking. Visitors ceased coming to his father’s office. Russian human rights commissioner Vladimir Lukin, lived with his grandmother after his parents, dedicated communists, were imprisoned. Frightened by the racket of a trolley passing by, his grandmother, who had seen her innocent children imprisoned, comforted him that Soviet engineers had designed a quiet trolley but “enemies of the people” had sabotaged it. Film director, Peter Todorovsky, recounted how an elderly building superintendent demanded proof that no state secrets were being violating. Local municipal officials puzzled: Why would any one ask for papers for a quite ordinary building? Only a survivor of Stalin’s Russia.

The greatest fireworks were reserved for the minister of education, Andrei Fursenko, who was repeatedly interrupted by shouts: “And what about the textbook?” As the moderator restored order, participants were instructed to pass their written questions to the front. The “textbook” was written by a little known historian and had been “approved” for use in Russian schools to teach the next generation about Soviet history and Stalin. The sputtering minister explained that the text had been approved by a meeting of teachers (an old Stalin trick), and even worse texts could have been chosen. As the next speaker was introduced, Fursenko discretely left the hall. The “text” claims that Stalin was forced by circumstances to embark on bold policies that, regrettably, demanded masses of victims. Putin himself is represented as another strong leader who rescues Russia from chaos and humiliation to preserve Russia’s rightful territory.
Did the conference achieve its goal? Scholars have the “facts” on their side, but they are read by a few thousand readers. The pro-Stalinist literature is available on every street corner in bright covers and short texts. These books “prove” that the archives are forgeries and scholars who use them are unpatriotic. Until we learn to communicate with a broader public, Stalin will continue to be a positive historical figure and the Putins and Medvedevs can continue to argue that Russia needs a strong hand.

To place this in context, imagine that the following document, signed by some modern dictator, has been discovered and published. Loosely translated, it reads: “Enemies of the state have been accumulating in the regions. We order each regional party and secret police leader to send us lists of such enemies, dividing them into two groups – one to be shot, the other sentenced to prison without any court trial.” This document is the notorious Order Number 00447 of July 1937. In his remarks, Fursensko advised scholars not to engage in polemics but to gather the facts, prompting a retort from the audience: “Do we need to gather the ‘facts’ about Hitler?” This document starkly relates the “facts” about Stalin and should end any discussion. Yes, we do need facts, but we need not refrain from making clear judgments about Stalin.

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