The unhistory man
Sep 3rd 2009
From The Economist print edition
Russia should do more to condemn Stalin’s crimes—for its own sake
EVERY country highlights the good bits in its history and ignores the bad. Russia’s keenness that none should forget the great sacrifices its people made in the second world war—it did more than any other country to defeat the Nazis—is therefore understandable. Yet its determination to whitewash the darker bits of its past goes far beyond normal image-polishing and ranks among the most sinister features of Vladimir Putin’s ten years as Russia’s dominant political force.
At this week’s commemorative ceremonies in Gdansk, Mr Putin offered his Polish hosts some comfort (see article). Unlike Russian official media in recent weeks, he did not blame Poland for starting the war, or try to claim that the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland on September 17th 1939 was justified. Unlike several Russian commentators, he did not maintain that the Nazis rather than the Soviets had perpetrated the Katyn massacre of 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in 1940. And unlike official Russian history books, which talk mostly of the “Great Patriotic War” that started only when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, he accepted September 1939 as the beginning of the conflict.
Yet Mr Putin’s remarks still reflect a worrying blind spot. Under his leadership, Russia has rewritten history to reinstate the Stalinist version, in which the Soviet Union bears no guilt for the war or for the enslavement of eastern Europe. Mr Putin has been evasive about the iniquity of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the secret 1939 deal that led to the carve-up of Poland and other east European countries. And he has described the Soviet Union’s collapse as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, which jars with those who see the end of communism as a blessed liberation. No wonder some in eastern Europe detect a worrying new revanchism.
As well as rewriting the past, Mr Putin has closed Russia’s archives again and criminalised attempts to rebut his version of history. Under a new law, anyone who “falsifies” the Kremlin’s version of history, for example by equating Hitler and Stalin, two of the 20th century’s worst mass murderers, may be prosecuted. Suggesting that 1945 brought not liberation but new occupation for eastern Europe is also banned.
All this marks a big step back from the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin bravely came to terms with the horrors of Russia’s past. In 1991 he apologised to Estonia for its forcible annexation by the Soviet Union. He also opened up previously secret Soviet wartime archives. That put Russia on the same track as post-war Germany, which has spent decades in the commendable pursuit of reconciliation with victims of Nazism.
The biggest victims at home
Just as the Russians suffered most from communism, so the worst damage from revived Soviet-style history is done to Russia itself. It has become an ingredient in the toxic mix of xenophobia and chauvinism that the official Russian media, especially television, repeatedly serve up. The Kremlin uses history as a weapon to imply that east European countries which see the past differently are closet Nazis. It also tacitly justifies the loss of freedom at home as a price worth paying to defeat imaginary external enemies.
The renovation of Kurskaya metro station in Moscow last month restored a Soviet-era plaque glorifying Stalin for inspiring “labour and heroism”. The dictator’s rehabilitation is a shameful betrayal of ordinary Russians’ suffering. The Kremlin should admit that Stalin was Hitler’s accomplice before 1941, and that this nefarious alliance made the war far more dreadful than it otherwise would have been, not least for the people of the Soviet Union.
Friday, September 04, 2009