A SPECTER is haunting the forthcoming celebrations in Russia on May 9 of the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism. News reports suggest this particular ghost has not made its presence felt in the context of Victory Day since the Soviet Union committed suicide nearly two decades ago.
That may be so, but the apparition with the heavily mustachioed visage is hardly a stranger in post-communist Russia, and has been known to haunt some of its neighbors as well.
This time it was Moscow City Hall that played a leading role in conjuring up the controversy when Mayor Yuri Luzhkov announced earlier this year that some of the billboards being erected for the Victory Day celebrations would feature the all too familiar visage of wartime leader Josef Stalin.
The announcement inevitably ignited vociferous protests, and the committee in charge of national commemorations, headed by President Dmitry Medvedev, vetoed the idea. However, a few weeks ago Luzhkov was quoted as reiterating that the posters were still on the agenda.
The mayor has argued that the issue has been blown out of all proportion, with media reports implying that the city would be awash in images of Stalin, whereas in fact out of the thousands of decorative billboards, only 10 would be devoted to him. This would only be fair, according to Luzhkov, given that the man was after all the Soviet Union’s inspirational supreme commander throughout the Second World War and writing him out of the story would be tantamount to falsifying history.
On the face of it, this case for acknowledging Stalin’s wartime role sounds almost reasonable. After all, Winston Churchill – an inveterate imperialist whose writings contain considerable evidence of a racist outlook – arouses no comparable controversy whenever he is judged positively in his capacity as wartime prime minister.
There are vital differences, however. Although, dating back to the dawn of the 20th century, there was arguably blood on his hands – mostly, although not exclusively, that of the “darker races” he disdained – he can hardly be accused of presiding over a systematic policy of repression in his homeland. And it is far from insignificant that, notwithstanding all that he may have symbolized, in the immediate aftermath of his greatest triumph he received his marching orders from the British electorate.
Stalin, of course, faced no such test. Many of the policies that had devastated the Soviet Union well before the Nazi invasion weren’t entirely abandoned in the face of wartime exigencies, and the paranoia that dominated his mindset was exacerbated by the lessons of the conflict. The populations of labor camps in the notoriously inhospitable depths of Siberia were swelled, inter alia, by Soviet prisoners of war deemed to have been contaminated by the experience of captivity.
During the final decades of the Soviet Union, Stalin did not figure very prominently in official versions of history, except in the context of the Great Patriotic War. It was considered safer to gloss over the unpalatably tyrannical aspects of his nearly 30 years at the helm, while glorifying his wartime leadership – albeit without too much fanfare, lest the ghosts of the past be stirred, with unpredictable consequences.
Unfortunately, this tendency appears to have survived the USSR: on occasion, Vladimir Putin’s characterizations of Stalin have been couched in terms that the Communist Party of the Brezhnev days would have considered unexceptionable. And opinion polls suggest up to one third of Russians consider Stalin to have been the greatest leader their country ever had.
Notwithstanding the trappings of democracy, elements of autocracy in 21st-century Russia seem stronger than they were in the final phase of the Soviet experiment. Among other things, this means that there is still an official version of history, not least in respect of what is taught in schools. And this version continues to posit a false dichotomy between Stalin’s role in the war and the more egregious aspects of his misrule.
There is likely to be little scope in there for acknowledging, for instance, that one of the reasons Nazi forces were able to cut a swath through the western Soviet Union with relative ease was that the upper ranks of the Red Army had been decimated by Stalin’s purges – with the axe all too often falling on officers deemed untrustworthy precisely because they were more competent and intelligent that their peers.
Furthermore, whereas Stalin sufficiently distrusted most of his comrades from the Bolshevik days to arrange their judicial murder (by 1940, he was the sole survivor from Vladimir Lenin’s central committee), he exhibited a strange faith in Adolf Hitler, expecting him to adhere to the Molotov-Libbentrop Pact of 1939 – and ignoring growing evidence that the Nazi armies were preparing to strike.
It is all too often forgotten that the first reports of the invasion sent him into catatonic shock: he assumed all was lost, and it took him several days to recover his composure.
That the Soviet Union ultimately played a crucial role in defeating Nazism is beyond question, but the extent to which the patriotic zeal of soldiers and partisans was inspired by the cult of Stalin is easy to exaggerate. Nor should anyone overlook the instances where barely trained troops put themselves in the firing line chiefly because they were “backed up” by NKVD sharpshooters who were under orders to gun down anyone who dared to retreat.
This tactic is indispensable as a metaphor for Stalin’s rule overall, in which fear was the key.
For Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbors, the past is indeed a different country – a country that was not without redeeming features, not least in its origins as the boldest socio-political experiment in modern history. But can there be any doubt whatsoever that Stalin was instrumental in the failure of that experiment?
That certainly doesn’t mean he should be written out of history. Quite to the contrary, in fact. But there is precious little in his legacy that could possibly serve as a pretext for celebration, even in the context of the war that the Nazis nearly won. The Stalinist past is well worth remembering in all its gory detail, so that it can be put to service as a cautionary tale.