Jonathan Brent: Postmodern Stalinism
[Jonathan Brent is executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and was formerly editorial director of Yale University Press. He remains executive editor of the press's Annals of Communism series and director of its Stalin Archive Project.]
Visitors leaving Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport today can purchase a box of chocolates in the duty-free shop with a replica of a poster from the 1930s on the back, in which Stalin grasps the great wheel of the ship of state as it heads into storm clouds gathering in the distance. The caption reads, "The captain of the country of Soviets leads us from victory to victory!" That far-seeing Stalin piloting his people to safety inevitably collides with the brutal image of the dictator responsible for the displacement, death, and degradation of millions, whose terrifying legacy is amply attested to in books published throughout the world, and in the memory of the Russian people. On the streets of Moscow, the drama of this confrontation is all but invisible as ordinary Russians go about their daily business. But in the schools and universities, publishing houses, newspapers, libraries, and academic institutes, the clash has become visible and pointed, part of an attempt by Russian authorities to normalize the Soviet past and to depict Joseph Stalin as one of Russia's great leaders, who saved the country in World War II and, in the words of one KGB general, "raised it up" to become one of the most powerful nations on earth.
The December 2008 International Scientific Conference Studying the History of Stalinism—the first of its kind held in Moscow—gave concrete expression to the battle lines over Stalin's legacy that have emerged some 18 years after the disappearance of the Soviet state. Many of the archivists, scholars, publishers, leaders of foundations, and human-rights activists from around the world who participated explained in great detail how the Stalinist state seized and exerted power. All the while, they could not but take note of the many representatives of the Russian government in the audience; that the day before the conference began, the offices of Memorial, the acclaimed human-rights organization in St. Petersburg dedicated to preserving the memory of Stalin's victims, had been raided by the police; that a new high-school textbook depicting Stalin in a positive light had been approved by the administration; and that throughout Russia, and even beyond its borders, Stalin's legacy is being relentlessly rehabilitated: on the charming box of chocolates on sale at the airport; in books, newspapers, and television programs; in declarations by deputies in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament; and in the tacit acceptance and, indeed, encouragement of those efforts by the current administration.
The day of the conference, one scholar said to me, felt like something from the 1970s. Many there believed that the police raid of Memorial in St. Petersburg was a warning to those in Moscow: Do not cross the line. What that line is or was has never been specifically articulated, but it is somehow understood. It was understood in the bones of all the Russians present. Russian authorities claimed that Memorial was illegally supporting a newspaper, New Petersburg, that had been closed in 2007; officials of Memorial thought the raid might have been linked to their screening of a film about the 2006 death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who was poisoned, according to some observers, by orders of the Putin government.
On the first day, I saw a man I had met years before in the offices of Nikolai Yezhov, commissar of the secret police during the Great Terror. We had been discussing my interest in publishing a book on the cultural politics of the Soviet government. At the time, I had wondered how such a charming, urbane, handsome, and intelligent man could be working for the security services, and now I asked what his interest was in the conference. He told me he had come simply to listen and observe. He was interested in the subject; Stalin was not a monster, but the subject was complex. There was no iron fist. Not even a velvet glove. But the fact of his presence—and that of other government representatives—at an essentially academic international conference reinforced the unspoken message of the raid in St. Petersburg: The government remains watchful, and the depiction of Stalin remains a question of the highest importance...
... Alexander Chubaryan, director of the Institute of World History at the Russian Academy of Sciences, presented a paper that appeared to seek some kind of compromise between Khlevniuk's powerful repudiation of Stalinist domestic terror and those who wish to construct an "alternative history." Chubaryan is a complicated figure with a difficult role as mediator between the demands of the government and the imperatives of historical research. Charming and affable, he is a man of considerable academic distinction, who protected scholars during Soviet times and now finds himself once again in the position of having to protect the profession to which he has devoted his life.
While denouncing Stalin and Stalinism, he argued that the three totalitarian regimes of Europe—German Nazism, Italian Fascism, and Soviet Bolshevism—were the product of World War I and that, in essence, Stalinism was not a characteristically Russian phenomenon. It was imported into Russia from Western Europe. Moreover, Stalinism should not be considered identical with Soviet history: The Soviet regime was more than Stalinism, which was in his view an aberration, a cancer to be cut out.
But how can Chubaryan ignore—or marginalize—the work of scholars like Khlevniuk? The answer is in the magical term "balance," which is often used to mean that crimes must be set in the context of the social good that may have resulted and in the historical context in which they were committed. Chubaryan knows full well that violent revolutionary groups sprang up in Russia in reaction to the terrible injustices of the czarist system, not solely because of the influence of Western revolutionary movements. His argument about World War I, though largely true, is beside the point when considered in the light of the so-called secret Lenin archive of documents that began to be released with the fall of Communism. By reshaping Marxist thought, Lenin bridged the revolutionary rhetoric of the West with the revolutionary realities of Russia, and his orders concerning the ruthless suppression of the kulaks in August 1918, or the September 1918 document ordering that "the terror" be prepared, attest to the fact that Stalin simply extended the principles of the Soviet regime that Lenin had planted.
What can "balance" those realities? The intellectualizing of Soviet crimes recasts moral problems as utilitarian problems, which is one of the most lethal aspects of Leninist-Stalinist thought. The Orwellian recasting is invisible, done in a turn of speech in which questions of good and evil or moral responsibility are presented in practical or political terms. Chubaryan knows the documentary materials well. He is on the editorial advisory committee for Yakovlev's series of documentary publications, issued through the International Democracy Foundation that Yakovlev founded, notably the subseries entitled Lubyanka: Stalin and the MGB, USSR, published in 2007, which contains a vast array of vital documents about the purges and repression of the 1930s. It is not possible to read such works without a sense of how the Leninist-Stalinist system overwhelmed Soviet society and established the bureaucratic and organizational structures of government that have endured even after the Soviet Union itself disappeared. It is not possible to read the works of writers like Lydia Chukovksaya or Alexander Solzhenitsyn without a sense of how the Stalinist system penetrated and shaped the minds of generations of average Russian citizens. Salvaging the Soviet past from Stalinism is the position to which those unable to break with the past have been driven.
In a series of interviews and books, Yakovlev frequently cited the lack of openness of the administration; its proclivity to act secretly; its drive toward centralization of power; and the absence of the rule of law in Russian daily life. Today, Grigory Yavlinsky, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers at the end of the Soviet period, and the leader of Yabloko—the liberal, oppositional party—from its inception in 1995 to June 2008, when he stepped down, carries Yakovlev's ideas further. Yavlinsky did not attend the conference, but when I spoke with him at dinner on my last night in Moscow in December, he offered an important view of the present situation in Russia. A uniquely new phenomenon has come about, he told me; he calls it "postmodern Stalinism." Stripped of Stalin's personality, the gulag system, the harrowing social and economic conditions of the Soviet past, an invisible Stalinism persists. It has two principal elements in Yavlinsky's view: the understanding that the ends justify the means, and the belief that the nation is everything and the individual nothing. Behind the facade of "democratic" Russia, Yavlinsky sees a highly authoritarian, centralized state for which force, not law, is the operative means for accomplishing political objectives. It is a world in which moral questions become questions of arithmetic.
One indisputable sign of that postmodern Stalinism is the revival of the idea of the great Russian nation, which Stalin had recognized as the most important achievement of the czars. "The Russian czars did a great deal that was bad," Stalin noted at a famous toast on November 7, 1937, at the height of the terror. "But they did one thing that was good—they amassed an enormous state," he went on. "We have inherited that state."
Today the idea of the great Russian state is more memory than fact, but that may give it even greater power in the minds of the people. Lacking the outward signs of Stalinist brutality—the purges, gulag, and shootings—present-day Russia is in danger of returning to a society in which the ends justify the means, unmediated by law. In such a world, the individual is inherently vulnerable, while freedom of thought and freedom of speech recede ever farther from the horizon of daily life. As yet, no clear ideology justifies those ends. Nor is it clear even what the ends might ultimately be, but once the invisible structures of the Stalinist, or crypto-Stalinist, state reassert themselves, they will become clear enough.
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Arnold Shcherban - 9/26/2009
Let's have no doubts: the crimes of Stalin as personality and Stalinism as
a social phenomenon are unforgivable and will never be forgotten.
But Stalinism has to be differentiated
from socialism, in general, and Russian-type socialism, in particular. The main ideas of the latter, as it was fairly indicated by the author of the article, had been developed by V.Lenin.
Have the author ever read Lenin's political social and philosophical works? I strongly doubt it, because
if he did he (being an unbiased observer and interpretor) would realize that Lenin was as far from an image of savage marxist fanatic, as he has continuously been portrayed by
Western anti-communist (including so-called liberal) artists. And he was hardly a father of Russian state terror.
One has to be either completely ignorant of the internal and external situation and circumstances in which Bolsheviks took political power in 1917 and the developments of the next three-four years or strongly biased, to put full (or even major bulk of) blame on Bolsheviks and their sympathizers for extrajudicial killings and persecution of civilians (often done without or against the central government's orders and later being punished for) they were forced to utilize in certain circumstances.
Should I remind to such political purists about the same type of crimes committed in the paradise of democracy and liberty, i.e. USA during its Civil War (giving just one non-Bolshevik historic example out of the many available), which though horrific cannot be even remotely compared in its destructive effect on the people's psych, not mentioning
the other devastating consequences with the WWI, and consequent Russian Civil War.
Don't you think that "the world has changed" much more after WWI than it did after 9/11, the latter resulting in two wars of aggression with killings, and enormous suffering of millions of folks (just foreign ones..)?
Lenin and Bolsheviks have denounced terrorism as wrong method of political struggle on many occasions since the formation of socialist movement in Tsar's Russia (in sharp difference with the Western vicious double standars that even today qualify Muslim fanatics as terrorists when they kill NATO troops but freedom-fighters when they would kill Soviet troops and even peaceful pro-Russian Afghanis.)
The constant and obsolete reference to Lenin's orders to take repressive actions against Kulaks conveniently forgets to mention that those actions
were ordered against militant Kulaks, in particular, the majority of which actively, i.e. with open force or through subversion opposed the decrets
of the new government.
To blame Bolshevik government in Moscow for all crimes and injustices
used to happen over the first several years of its existence is nonsensical
not only from a socio-historical perspective, but also from the point of view of physical impossibility for a newly totally unexperienced government and basically non-existant govermental institutions to fully control situation in all regions of such a huge country as it was Russia that time and on top of that in all areas of life of its citizens.
And that exactly the extent of control and judicial scrutiny the Western intellectual thought traditonally demands, aposteriori, from allegedly omni-potent and omni-powerful Bolsheviks!?
Give common sense a break, sirs.
However, the standards applied to the Red Terror of 1918-1921 target truly cosmic highs. Here it is again conveniently forgotten that the Red Terror was a legitimate, though again not without local abuses, response to the White Terror that targeted not just common Bolshevik sympathizers, but mostly eminent Bolshevik leaders (some of which were actually murdered), including V.Lenin himself.
What government would not and did not take harsh measures against more than real threat to lives of its political leaders and, consequently, to the regime they struggle for?
Also "forgotten", is the undeniable fact that many of the White terrorists
were sponsored ideologically and financially by the Western powers, not mentioning the terrorist spies sent by (mostly) British and French intelligence services.
This all for today, since I have to go.