Chloe Arnold: Seventy Years Later, Stalin's Image Softening





[Chloe Arnold is RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent. She has worked in the former Soviet Union for 10 years, first at "The Moscow Times" and then as the BBC's South Caucasus reporter, where she covered the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the death of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. ]

As Russia marks the 70th anniversary of Josef Stalin's drive to purge opponents of his regime, the commemorations have sparked a debate on how Stalin is currently portrayed in Russia and the former Soviet Union. In this part of RFE/RL's series on the Great Terror examines Stalin's legacy as it appears in history textbooks, television programs, and the rhetoric of Russian leaders.

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Arseny Roginsky is running out of space.

The shelves of his dusty office on a winding alley in central Moscow are crammed with an ever-increasing number of files containing information about the victims of Soviet repression.

This includes the one out of every 10 Russians estimated to have been executed or sent to prison camps under the orders of Josef Stalin in the late 1930s.

Roginsky is the chairman of Memorial, a human rights group dedicated to unearthing the truth about the Stalin-era purges.

He says there is a worrying trend in Russia today toward portraying Stalin as a great leader, while brushing aside his role in what has become known as the Great Terror.

There has been "a reappearance of the personality of Stalin as the wise leader of a great nation," Roginsky said.

"No one is justifying the Great Terror, but the Terror is being brushed into a corner," he continued. "It's said that the Terror was, of course, an unfortunate incident, but the most important thing was that Stalin created a great country. He inherited a country with the plough and bequeathed it the atomic bomb.”

One topic that has triggered debate in recent months is a series of history textbooks for schoolchildren that, some say, gloss over the details of the great purges.

Roginsky spoke to one of the authors of a forthcoming textbook. “He said to me: ‘We should only give one version of history. We shouldn’t give alternative versions. Schoolchildren should get one version, and that should be a happy one,’" Roginsky said.

"But on the other hand, nothing in Russia is forever. This process of interpreting, of understanding the past -- it can, of course, be changed,” Roginsky added.

'Stalin Live'

Evidence of the evolving image of Stalin could be seen on Russian television screens this year, with the presentation of "Stalin Live," a 40-part series depicting the leader's reflections on his past actions.

Despite scenes that show the Soviet leader repenting for many of his actions, critics complained that the program depicted Stalin in a largely sympathetic light.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the opposition Yabloko party, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the state and educators must take care to avoid a rosy reinterpretation of the Soviet purges.

“There is a need for broad educational work. But besides that, there must be a clear, unequivocal, official recognition of everything that took place at that time as grave crimes against the state," Yavlinsky said. "And that should be the basis for decisions to be made about textbooks, about how history should be taught at schools and universities. There has to be an absolutely coherent assessment, a coherent position of society -- not only the state, but society as a whole. Otherwise this wound cannot be healed.”

The authors of the new history textbooks have defended their work, which has received official approval from the Kremlin.

Earlier this year, President Putin said there was no need for Russians to feel guilty about their past. Without naming countries, he defended Russia’s past by indirectly referring to the U.S. atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

“We did not use nuclear weapons against a civilian population," Putin said, adding, "nor did we have other black pages like, for example, Nazism."

A Great Leader?

The reinterpretation of the Stalin era has spread to other former Soviet republics.

Kochkon Saktanov, a Kyrgyz author who has written a novel about Stalin, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that the Soviet leader was a great man. “I appreciate Stalin very much. I consider him to be my idol. Why? Because he appreciated the hard-working man, the man with calluses on his hands," Saktanov said. Stalin's tomb in Moscow's Red Square

"He used to summon a minister and assign him a task. If the minister could not do it, he would be either jailed or shot," Saktanov continued. "They say that he was a dictator. In any case, I hold him in high respect. The Russians are lazy people, like us, but from 1924 to 1953, he brought this nation to a level whereby we went into space before the Americans.”

In Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has maintained a style of autocratic rule reminiscent of the Soviet era, there are signs of a creeping resurrection of Stalin's cult of personality.

In 2006, the country unveiled restored World War II fortifications called the Stalin Line in honor of the man who led the U.S.S.R. through the Great Patriotic War. Stalin's name has been restored to a number of public buildings in the capital, Minsk, and a bust of the leader has been erected in the town of Svislach, on the border with Poland.

Day of Remembrance

But many in Belarus are still working to preserve the truth about the Great Terror and its impact on the country.

The Belarusian Civic Organization, which supports victims of the Stalinist repressions, declared 2007 a year of remembrance. On the 29th of each month, members of the executive committee visit sites across the country where it is believed victims of Stalin's regime were murdered.

On October 29, 1937, government agents from Minsk executed some 100 members of the Belarusian creative and intellectual elite, among them 22 renowned writers.

The organization has appealed to Belarus’s authorities to designate October 29 as a national day of remembrance for victims of the Great Terror. But authorities have not responded to the appeal, and members of the organization are planning to make independent arrangements to mark the occasion.

In Moscow, 74-year-old Suzanna Pechura, who spent nearly six years in camps for political prisoners in a later campaign of repression in the 1950s, said she was greatly saddened by the reinterpretation of Stalin.

“It’s a tragedy. It profanes the memory of all those who died as a result of the repression," Pechura said. "And what sort of textbooks are they giving children in school these days? It’s as if you aren’t allowed to tell them anything that might convince them that our country wasn’t always right and didn’t always achieve victory. And so we are heading backward and rearing a generation of Red Guards."


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