#27 - JRL 2009-210 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
November 16, 2009
Stalin’s Many Funerals
In the West, the Debate on Russia’s Rehabilitation of Stalinism Is Highly Oversimplified
Comment by Dmitry Babich

Russia’s attitude toward Stalinism is rightly perceived not merely as an internal issue, but as a matter of interest for all the nations that suffered from this evil. However, the United States, the EU countries and the Western community at large have taken a simplified view this problem. For all its diversity, the West seems to be united by a sort of erroneous consensus on the subject.

The foundation of this consensus is factually and morally right. Stalinism is indeed a distinct and, unfortunately, widespread subspecies of the most violent and dictatorial form of communist ideology ­ Bolshevism. It is characterized by indiscriminate use of force and eventual use of nationalist prejudice disguised by hypocritical talk of a “friendship of nations” and the “people’s democracy” as a replacement for “bourgeois liberalism.” Anyone objective either in Russia or in the West has no doubts that Stalinism is to blame for the deaths of millions of people.

But addressing the subject of Russia’s attitude toward Stalinism inevitably leads to simplifications. There are two commonly-accepted views in the West. The first is that Stalinism was forced upon the Russian people by the totalitarian communist elite back in the late 1920s, and later, after a brief democratic recess under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, it was rehabilitated by Vladimir Putin’s intrinsically evil government. The second opinion, which is a relatively new one professed by the most Russophobic circles in the West, claims that the Russian people prefer Stalinism to any other form of government and are thus responsible for its crimes. Both of these camps accuse the current Russian leadership of “tacitly rehabilitating” Stalinism, and, of course, both view Stalinism as a purely Russian phenomenon.

There are elements of truth as well as fallacies in both of these theories. Firstly, until very recently the Russian people were never really asked whether they wanted to reject or to support Stalinism. Both Russia’s descent into Stalinism in 1923 to 1934 and “de-Stalinization” in 1953 to 1991 were decisions made by the elite. Secondly, many in the West applauded not only Joseph Stalin himself, but Stalinism as a system. Unlike “officially” Stalinist Chinese or Albanians, those who wrote articles in the Western press eulogizing Stalin in the aftermath of his death on March 5, 1953, did not face death or imprisonment for not praising this “genius.” Yet many European newspapers lauded the dictator on March 6. Infatuation with what Vladimir Nabokov called the “pseudo-effectiveness of Stalinism” was by no means confined within the borders of the Soviet Union and its allies. Hence, describing Stalinism as a purely Russian phenomenon (a given conclusion for most Western authors) is not exactly fair.

The reason why it is taking Russia so long to say “goodbye” to Stalinism is the fact that the initial de-Stalinization, undertaken by Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev, was prepared in secret and conducted without consulting the people, very much in a Stalinist manner. In the late 1980s, the remnants of Stalin’s system were embellished with just a few democratic procedures. Nowadays, when people are at last allowed to freely voice their opinions on Stalinism, opinions vary, which is a natural and, in essence, democratic phenomenon. But the West seems to require the Russians to stick to the most negative view of our 20th century history, denouncing any “deviation” from this line in harsher language than Khrushchev used to denounce the “anti-party group” of his pro-Stalin critics in 1957.

In Russia, differences of opinion are not surprising, bearing in mind that lies about Stalin’s “strategic genius” in the 1950s were replaced by what one might call “silent lies.” For decades following Stalin’s death, textbooks and newspapers heaped all praise for war victories on the State Committee for Defense and the High Command Headquarters, all this despite the fact that both bodies were headed by Stalin. Marshal Georgy Zhukov even confused these establishments in his memoirs, since in both places he dealt with Stalin. Restrictions on mentioning Stalin’s name were a substitute for true rejection of Stalinism, which is taking place now.

Instead of examining this process in all of its complexity, the Western media never tires of quoting the phrase about “Stalin as an effective manager,” taken out of context from one of the 26 available high school textbooks on Russia’s 20th century history. One doesn’t have to be as suspicious as Stalin to venture a guess that these authors never took the trouble to read even one of these textbooks.

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