"Stalin's Back" on BBC TV

“I want to begin with a question – what is the BBC for?” These were the opening words of BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson, in a speech last month about the future of public service broadcasting.

Thompson was responding to criticisms from politicians and commercial competitors that the BBC is too ubiquitous and too subsidised at a time when the rest of the industry is hemorrhaging funds.

Critics presume that commercial media would fill the vacuum left by the behemoth BBC. There is simply no evidence of this, though. Rather, as Thompson continued in his Voice of the Listener and Viewer Conference address, there would be a “big black cultural hole.” Let’s not forget, no serious current affairs programme remains on ITV. And while Channel 4 has its Dispatches series, the commercially funded but publicly owned outlet also needs a subsidy to continue.

Why do I say all this? In view of the fact that yet another fascinating documentary has just aired on the BBC: Stalin’s Back (BBC Two). It may not sound like breaking news – given the rivers of ink in the western press about a textbook of “positive history” for Russian schoolchildren (2007), a poll held by a national TV station to find the Hero of Russia (2008) and the lawsuit filed by the grandson of Joseph Stalin claiming a liberal newspaper had defamed his famous ancestor (2009) – but investigative journalist John Sweeney brings you something commercial media simply doesn’t.

It’s ironic that Murdoch Jnr. used the epithet “Orwellian” in his MacTaggart lecture while the corporation’s busy highlighting the Russian reaction to what Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at AEI, calls “the czar acting as historian-in-chief” and providing a rare insight into post-Soviet Russia determined to resurrect invasion and occupation as tools of its foreign policy.

What Alexander Etkind of the Department of Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge, says in “Post-Soviet Hauntology: Cultural Memory of Soviet Terror” (2009) about the former – and terror being explained as an unavoidable tool for solving state problems – could be applied to the latter and resurgent nationalism: “If it was necessary in the past, it can be desirable in the present and possible in the future.”

For all the horrors that Stalinism visited on Russia, however, it’s Putinism that should concern us today. (But for a rare glimpse behind Stalin’s mask, BBC Four’s Stalin: Inside the Terror is a documentary not to be missed.) Indeed, the treatment of the Putin era in the 2007 textbook, The Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006, is arguably the most significant development in current Russian historiography. The chapter author, Pavel Danilin, devoid of any negative assessment, waxes lyrical about the former president (conveniently overlooking the fact that, in 2003, he authorised the removal of Igor Dolutsky’s National History, 20th Century – a text widely hailed for its objectivity – from public schools). Yet, the past saturates the present. Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, says as much: “Whoever owns history, owns contemporary policy.”

It’s for this reason a publication by the Defence Academy of the UK, “The Politicisation of History in the Russian Federation” (2008), concludes that this “re-Sovietisation in the interpretation” of history could lead to a “more nationalist outlook.” Recent reports about a Russia-France arms deal only raises concern about new imperialistic wars.

Granted, Sweeney doesn’t delve into the mechanics of Russia’s recent war with Georgia – preferring, instead, to sleep in the Georgian’s bed in what’s now a Stalin-themed hotel on the Black Sea and visiting a Stalin museum that’s remained virtually unchanged since 1967. Although his concentration on the falsification of Russian history and the process of “re-Stalinising” more generally is necessary, since, according to Robert Kagan, author of The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008), Russia’s a non-status quo power dissatisfied with its current international status. Most worrying of all, however, is Moscow’s belief of “impending greatness on the world stage” compounded by a sense of historical grievance.

Notwithstanding reports that there’s a split within the Russian leadership on Stalinism, President Dmitry Medvedev’s condemnation of those seeking to rehabilitate the Soviet dictator was half-hearted, much like Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement of his cult of personality in 1956 was. The same could be said for the prime minister’s condemnation of the non-aggression pact between the USSR and Hitler’s Germany on its 70th anniversary in September. While a step in the right direction for some Poles, Putin fell well short of the apology that many in Poland had hoped for. And, for the former president to equate the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Munich Agreement of September 1938 is a falsification of history if ever there was one (all the more ironic considering the Kremlin’s new Historical Truth Commission aims to counter false claims).

Given that all this matters, and not just inside the walls of universities either, but inside those of Kremlin, too, Sweeney, known for poking crocodiles in the eye, does exactly this to the textbook’s main author, Aleksandr Filippov, who dictates the historical narrative for Putin to exploit for his own ends. Neither ITV nor Channel 4 are busy finding Russian crocodiles, poking them in the eye with a stick and then standing back to report what happens next.

I want to end with an answer – this is what the BBC is for.

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