Gwynne Dyer: Russian pride should not require revisionist history

The Georgians took down the last statue of Stalin last week. There used to be thousands of such statues all across the old Soviet Union, but the Communists themselves tore almost all of them down after the great dictator and mass murderer died in 1953. They left the one in Gori, in northern Georgia, because that’s where he was born and the locals were still proud of him.

Even after Georgia got its independence in 1991, the six-metre (20-foot-high) statue of Stalin continued to stand in Gori. But now, just when you might think that the Georgians would be starting to approve of Stalin—after all, he was responsible for the deaths of more Russians than any other Georgian, or indeed anybody else—they go and tear his statue down.

They’re planning to replace it with a monument to “victims of the Russian aggression” in the 2008 war, so the history they’re peddling in Gori will still be based on lies. (It was Georgia that started the war with Russia in 2008.) But the bigger lies will be told in Russia, and they will be told mainly about Stalin.

Two weeks ago, a group of politicians and academics met in Moscow’s main library to discuss how to make Russians proud of their history. The answer? Get an upbeat history book into the schools. “(The book) should not be a dreary look at or apology for what was done,” explained Prof. Leonid Polyakov of the Higher School of Economics.

The politicians were from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, and they wanted the academics to come up with a single history textbook for use in all Russian schools. It should downplay the crimes and failures of 74 years of Communist rule—the purges, the mass deportations, the famines, the gulags—and concentrate on the glorious epic of the Soviet victory in the Second World War. Which means they must rehabilitate Stalin.

Rewriting the history books is not a Russian monopoly. The Texas Board of Education recently caused a great furor by deciding that its history textbooks should show that the founding fathers of the United States, and the authors of its constitution, intended America to be a Christian nation, not a country committed to the separation of church and state. Even that is an easier job than making Stalin look good, but it can be done.

Start with the proposition that the Soviet Union played a key role in defeating Hitler (true), and that the war was a heroic victory against great odds (false). This is the first place where you wind up having to give Stalin some credit, because he was definitely the man in command throughout the war.

Then, to justify the terrible cost of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, and to slide past the purges and famines of the 1930s, you have to argue that those horrors were what allowed the miracle of high-speed industrialization that laid the groundwork for a Soviet victory in the war. Once again, Comrade Stalin gets the credit, for the industrialization happened on his watch.

It’s all lies and distortion. The Soviet Union’s population was twice that of Nazi Germany, and its industrial power and technology were not significantly inferior. If Stalin had not murdered most of the Red Army’s senior officers in the purges of the late 1930s, and if he had not stupidly let himself be surprised by the German invasion, the war would not have lasted so long and killed so many Russians.

As for the alleged miracle of rapid industrialisation, it was only needed because most existing Russian industry was destroyed by the revolution and the civil war: industrial output in 1922 was only 13 percent of that in 1914. If there had been no revolution and no Stalin, and Russia had just started growing again after the First World War at the same rate as other capitalist countries, it would have been far too strong by 1941 for Hitler to dream of attacking it.

Russia’s history in the 20th century was an unmitigated and unnecessary disaster: the first half tragic and very bloody, the second half merely impoverished and oppressive. Even today, Russia has not regained the rank among the developed countries that it held a century ago. What can one do with such a history but deny and rewrite it?

One can tell the truth. Germany’s 20th-century history was also terrible, and Germans had to bear a burden of historical guilt for harming others far heavier than anything Russians should feel for the crimes of their own imperial past. If today's Germans can see their past with clear eyes and still feel pride in their present and hope for their future, why can’t the Russians?

It’s not a lost cause. There have been some encouraging instances recently of Russians facing up to the less proud bits of their history, like Prime Minister Putin’s attendance at the ceremony commemorating the Soviet massacre of Polish prisoners in Katyn forest in 1940, and President Dmitry Medvedev’s condemnation of Stalin for “mass crimes against his own people”.

But the omens are not good. If the Georgians no longer need that statue of Stalin, maybe there’s a market for it in Russia.

The second edition of Gwynne Dyer's Climate Wars has just been published in Canada.




Jun 29, 2010 at 5:44am

I can't agree entirely with you on Stalin being in command throughout the second world war. He purged the Russian Army officer corp of anyone with talent that might be a threat to his position. As a result the army was demoralized, as well as poorly equipped at the beginning of hostilities. The troops in the field were bowled over, and Stalin threw the reserve units in willy-nilly, and wasted about 6 million men at once. He then panicked and hid in his dacha for a few weeks. If Hitler hadn't been so nutty and hamstrung his own army, in conjunction with the Russian winter conditions, the situation could well have been lost.
Later, the work done by the SS to eliminate the populace, as well as the fear of being executed in the Russian Army, made a difference.
Stalin got it together, and made a few changes that worked, but it was the Russian people that did all the work and suffering, and should be proud of their accomplishments.
By the way; Stalins' claim that Russia was doing all the work and suffering. He had a Peace Pact with Hitler while the British Commonwealth was fighting around the globe.

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Jun 29, 2010 at 5:46pm

Most historians have argued that by purging the top Generals, The Soviets were able to promote much more accomplished generals that had a better picture of how to use the combined arms tactics that defined the second world war. The best example of this would have been Gen Zhukov, how encircled the Germans at Stalingrad, and destroyed Army group centre in operation Bagration, this 1 operation resulted in over 800 000 Germans dead which is more Germans killed then all the American, Brits and Canadians killed combined. Also after the first year of the war Stalin stopped trying to direct most of the battles personally, which was a huge factor in the later parts of the war especially when compared to some one like Hitler. None of these factors excuses the many atrocities that Stalin committed, but not giving him his due is equally as dangerous, since it is another form of covering up history, which means we will learn the wrong lessons from it.

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Jun 30, 2010 at 8:37am

What is Stalins' due for nixing the Allies' attempt at a supply airlift to Nazi besieged Warsaw?
I'm not an apologist for the Nazis', but how many of them that were killed were POWs?

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bill cameron

Jul 21, 2010 at 7:27pm

The Eastern front of the European theatre of the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was a personal contest of the tyrants Hitler and Stalin. All the people killed in their tyranny before, during and after the contest were the victims, including the soldiers. There is false pride in 'national victory'. National pride is the problem, the means by which the tyrants threw flesh and bone against artillery and armour, until the victory of one’s will over the other’s blood. That is the history; its uplifting revision will offer thanksgiving for survival, and remember the dead.

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