Jonathan Brent: Postmodern Stalinism

Roundup: Media's Take

[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.

Why should that be so, 56 years after the dictator's death; after Khrushchev's denunciation of him; and after the demise of the Soviet Union itself? At a roundtable on "The Politics of Memory," Boris Dubin, a senior researcher at the Levada-Center, formerly known as the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, in Moscow, cited a revealing statistic. In 1988, only 12 percent of Russians considered Stalin a significant world leader. By the time Vladimir Putin became president in 1999, that number had increased to 53 percent of the Russian population, and the majority of the people placed him among the top three or four of the greatest world leaders, alongside Mahatma Gandhi. Today a majority of Russians consider Stalin to be the single greatest figure in all of Soviet history. Putin's cultivation of his image must therefore be seen as separate from the rise of the former dictator's popularity, which actually preceded the Putin administration. Simple explanations—like saying that Putin wishes to return Russia to its Communist past, or that he is using Stalin's image to create his own brand of nationalism—do not help us understand the deeper social phenomena at work in Stalin's reappearance as a revered political figure.

The International Conference on Stalinism took place at the luxurious and aptly named Renaissance Moscow Hotel, which opened in 1991 and bills itself as "the first hotel of a European level in Moscow." Attendees included American, British, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian as well as Russian researchers, historians, and institutions. Many of the greatest scholars on the subject of Stalin and Stalinism from America attended.

The conference brochure established a framework for the meeting: "Political changes in Russia and the resulting partial opening of the archives have made possible substantial progress in the study of the Stalinist period. At the same time the scientific historiography of Stalinism has thrown up a number of controversial problems which demand discussion. The gap between the scientific viewpoint and the everyday understanding of Stalinism in the public mind is substantial, and appears to be widening." The brochure went on to note, "Unfortunately, when overlaid upon contemporary internal and external political situations, pro-Stalinist propaganda clichés sound very effective.

"Recipes for a Russian renaissance through authoritarian modernization or even a dictatorship are being peddled, together with propaganda for the historical justification of violence, millions of victims, and cleansing through social purges."

The presence of both Andrei Fursenko, the education minister, and V.P. Lukin, Russia's human-rights commissioner, underscored what the brochure implied: The study of Stalinism carries political and moral ramifications quite unlike those associated today with Nazism or Italian Fascism. Stalinism is a living phenomenon. At Stalin's funeral, Vyacheslav M. Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, stated: "The deathless name of Stalin will always live in our hearts, in the hearts of the Soviet people and of all progressive humanity. The fame of his great deeds in the service and happiness of our people and the workers of the whole world will live forever!"

Could Molotov have been right? The opening plenary sessions made Stalin's crimes abundantly clear—papers on the gulag and the terror, Stalin's disastrous economic programs, and the widespread suppression of minority groups in the Soviet state. But there was also unnerving evidence—implicit in the vehemence with which Oleg Khlevniuk, a leading historian, and Arseny Roginsky, director of Memorial, delivered their opening papers—of a palpable fear of a revival of the Stalin cult, or if not the cult itself then something akin to it that no one could properly define. What is at stake is not knowledge of the crimes but whether it is legitimate to sympathize with the ends for which they were committed. The ends, as Molotov had sketched them out—"deeds in the service and happiness of our people and the workers of the whole world"—appear quite reasonable and laudable. A young Russian historian with a Ph.D. from an American university, who is not in any way sympathetic to Stalin, recently admitted to me that he is sympathetic to Putin's methods for concentrating power while stifling intellectual freedoms if they will preserve Russia from political chaos. When I quoted the late Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev—former Soviet ambassador to Canada and the official who helped define the policy of glasnost—that without the rule of law and liberal democratic political institutions authoritarian dictatorship is assured, the young historian, now living in America, shrugged his shoulders. "Security," he said, "is more important now than democracy."...
Read entire article at The Chronicles of Higher Education

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Ludwik Kowalski - 9/22/2009

Dear Jonathan Brent,

Thanks for posting the article. It is worth reading and thinking about. Most young Americans know very little about Soviet history. With this in mind I wrote a short and easy book for them But the book, printed between day on which Solzhenitsyn died and the day of his funeral, is not as widely known as the topic deserves.

Online excerpts at


will show that the book is suitable for intended readers. It can be used to organize discussion of numerous topics. The picture of Stalin at the wheel of the ship, mentioned by J. Brent, is on page 5.

As the author I need advice on what to do to promote the book. Some formal and informal reviews can be seen at


But they were not as effective as I expected. Why is it so? Your help will be appreciated.

Ludwik Kowalski