One month before the end of the Great Terror, Joseph Stalin invited regional party propagandists to Moscow to launch his Short Course: A History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The intimidated participants, most of whose predecessors had been executed, listened as Stalin explained that if such a text had been available earlier maybe the two million victims of the Great Terror could have been spared.
This summer, Vladimir Putin’s version of the Short Course appeared in Russian bookstores. The new 500-page textbook, History of Russia, commissioned by Putin’s Presidential Administration depicts history as Putin himself wishes Russians to see it. A new law lets the government dictate which texts are to be used in Russian schools. Presumably, a generation of Russian students will be taught history from the new text.
Putin’s History drives home four lessons:
First, Russia has a heroic and glorious past as a vast world power. The three national accomplishments emphasized are the industrialization and militarization of Russia in the 1930s, the victory over the Nazis in the “Great Patriotic War”, and, now, the renaissance of Russia under Vladimir Putin, a leader “who understood that the sovereignty and integrity of the country must be maintained.” The first two achievements, however, occurred under Stalin. The authors’ problem: How to turn the dark Stalin years into a period of national achievement?
The solution is to present Stalin as a “contradictory” figure: “On the one hand, Stalin can be considered the most successful leader of the Soviet Union. During his rule, USSR territory reached and exceeded the boundaries of the former Russian empire, victory in the greatest of all wars was achieved, and an industrial, economic and cultural revolution took place.” Of Stalin’s victims, the textbook parsimoniously and dispassionately allows: “Under Stalin’s rule there were waves of great repression. The initiator and theoretician of such an ‘intensification of the class struggle’ was Stalin himself. Whole social groups were destroyed.” The authors conclude with a vast understatement: “All of this did not solidify the moral climate of the country.” Hence Stalin’s mistakes must be weighed against his many accomplishments, but notably: “With Stalin’s death, the epoch of rapid advancement to economic and social heights ended.”
Second, those who attempted to reform the system after Stalin – Nikita Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin, were failures. Khrushchev was a chaotic “utopist.” Gorbachev denied the USSR’s legitimate right to empire. Yeltsin succumbed to the pressure of hard economic and social conditions. Only those who sought to preserve the status quo, such as Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chief Yuri Andropov, are singled out as “playing a positive role in Russia’s history.”
Third, those who “sold out” the Soviet Empire cost Russia dearly in terms of its national security. Gorbachev “robbed the Soviet Union of its security belt” in Eastern Europe leaving these countries to “spheres of foreign influence with NATO units one hour’s drive from St. Petersburg.”
Fourth, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin were surrounded by “pro-American intelligentsia, whose sympathies and love of the USA created the basis for the pro-American foreign policy of our country.” Pro-Western intellectuals, who wish to “promote a positive image” of the West are prepared to enter into conflict with the Russian state (now wisely ruled by Putin) in order “to defend and preserve ties with the West.”
Dictators have an easier time if their citizens agree with their policies. The new history is, therefore, written as a justification of Putin-Medvedev policies. Leaders who question the status quo fail. The domestic enemy is pro-Western liberals, who should not be allowed to hold public demonstrations or given access to state-controlled media. After all, they are to blame for Russia’s greatest tragedy -- the loss of the Russian empire. Russia, a huge country surrounded by potential enemies, is entirely justified in protecting its imperial boundaries (Georgia) and defending its internal integrity (Chechnya).
Putin clearly wants Russians to believe that they are better off with an authoritarian leader, but the historical parallel is the “contradictory” Stalin. With twenty percent of the population having relatives imprisoned under Stalin, a whitewash is not possible. Putin can, however, build off the fact that Russians rate Stalin as a positive figure because of the triumph over Hitler. The subliminal message is that Stalin’s “theory of the intensification of the class struggle,” by which he justified the execution and imprisonment of two million citizens within an eighteen month period, contributed to victory in the Great Patriotic war victory.
Less than fifteen percent of Russians answer that they know “a lot and in detail” about the Great Terror of 1937-1938. The new text will not enlighten the remaining eighty five percent. There is no mention of the archival research showing that the Gulag was an economic and social disaster, that the vast majority of victims were poorly educated workers and peasants, that hundreds of thousands of death sentences were issued without trial, that confessions were extracted by torture, and so on. Such studies make it hard to conclude that Stalinist repression made any kind of positive contribution to Soviet economic or military achievements.
The text’s most notable omission is the NKVD’s (the KGB’s predecessor) role in Stalin’s excesses. Prior to Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech on Stalin’s crimes, the party blamed rogue elements of the NKVD for the Great Terror. The new history places blame squarely on Stalin’s shoulders without delving into the integral role of the NKVD – a convenient approach for authors writing in a “KGB state.”
The new history textbook is only one instance of Putin’s rewriting of history. Putin has defended the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty as "ensuring the security of western borders." The Soviet Union did not “occupy” the Baltic states. Putin considers the defense of Russia’s signal achievement – victory in the Great Patriotic War – vital to the resurgence of Russian nationalism and patriotism. He does not want Russians to know the darker side of the Soviet victory: Stalin’s self-serving execution of the Soviet general staff, the summary executions of retreating troops, the mass executions of ordinary citizens in borderlands, and the Gulag sentences for returning Soviet soldiers. Putin is not the first to fear such disclosures. Mikhail Gorbachev was warned by his top advisors that the true facts of the Katyn massacre could convince the Poles (and perhaps the world as well) “that the Soviet Union is no better and may have been worse than Germany and bears no less responsibility for the war”. Putin, like Gorbachev, cannot afford such a conclusion.