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Can De-Stalinization Save Russia?

Stark Prison Wall, Barbed Wire, Guard Tower, in Grays and Dark Shadows

At the council's meeting, dedicated to the 80th anniversary of first Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Medvedev approved a program for commemorating victims of totalitarianism and Stalin's terror, giving a green light on an official, government-sponsored campaign of de-Stalinization.

This may be a courageous decision on Medvedev's part. The myth of Stalin as "a strong and effective" Russian ruler, whose orders sent millions of Russians to prison camps and ultimately to their death, persists to this day and portrays Stalin as one of the most respected leaders in Russian history. A 2009 opinion poll by the Levada Center found that 49 percent of Russians believe that Stalin played a positive role in Russia's history, while only 33 percent said he played a negative role.

Medvedev' predecessor Vladimir Putin, while acknowledging the extent of Stalin's crimes, refrained from a massive ideological campaign of de-Stalinization and even tacitly endorsed certain myths of Stalin's positive leadership in winning World War II and his contribution to Russia's economic and technological modernization. The Kremlin even launched a school textbook on modern Russian history where Stalin was hailed as "an effective manager."

Medvedev seems to have decided to move in the opposite direction. About a year ago he ordered the complete declassification of the Katyn documents exposing Stalin's complicity in the mass murder of thousands of Polish army officers near the village of Katyn. The Russian Duma, at the end of 2010, passed a resolution condemning Stalinism for the Katyn massacre. These actions have become important elements in the ensuing reset with Poland and the EU.

It appears that Medvedev views de-Stalinization as an important element in fostering a culture of the rule of law in Russia. The debate on Stalinism is a debate about the role of violence in Russian society, and the limits of the state's recourse to violence to maintain order and ensure equal justice under law.

As Kirill Rogov of the Gaidar Institute wrote in Vedomosti last week, Stalinist ideology that sees state repression as the basic framework for the state's interaction with society perverts the rule of law from a universal imperative of justice, into the right of the state and its minions to unlimited coercion and violence.

This is exactly what is at the heart of Medvedev's modernization program ­ making the Russian state a powerful force for good and justice, not random violence and corruption. Thus, de-Stalinization becomes an important strategy to defeat the forces of reaction and foster a new national identity in Russia. As Rogov writes, "de-Stalinization creates and promotes a new societal norm ­ which renounces extreme violence and the political culture based on total annihilation and subjugation in favor of careful balancing of divergent interests."

Rogov then argues that a consistent strategy and policy of de-Stalinization may reformat the Russian political system toward a more tolerant and thus pluralistic model, and could serve as an ideological and social basis for Russia's strategic renewal and revival in the 21st century.

Other observers are less optimistic, however. As Mikhail Fishman argues in Vedomosti, Medvedev's de-Stalinization campaign will entail a decorative change, words rather than systemic change. This is because, Fishman argues, the modern Russian state, a Putinist state, is the heir of the totalitarian Soviet system, and real de-Stalinization would threaten the regime.

How serious is Medvedev's push to rid Russia of Stalinist totalitarian mentality? Would genuine de-Stalinization help modernize the Russian state and foster political and economic modernization, or would it precipitate the collapse of the "tandemocracy," plunging the nation into chaos once again? Hasn't all this happened before, when the last Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to use de-Stalinization to bolster his position within the party and advance his reformist agenda? Is there a foreign policy component in the current de-Stalinization campaign to improve Russia's relations with advanced democracies, as it was under Gorbachev's perestroika? And how successful could it be for Russia's relations with the West and its immediate neighbors?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of the Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

I would not necessarily believe that Mikhail Fedotov will initiate a serious government-sponsored campaign in Russia. His position is not powerful enough for such a mission. And the whole story of the so-called de-Stalinization campaign may be forgotten the day after it was announced in Yekaterinburg, and we may never see any more of it. It may be comparable to the "wild dreams" of Igor Yurgens that often grab headlines but never entail real action.

However, I might be wrong. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has the traditional Soviet infatuation with various types of campaigns. We recently witnessed the campaign to change the time zones in the country and cancel daylight saving time, while most people have a hard time understanding the reasoning behind it and are surprised by the amount of attention the president gives to these issues. Why are they even discussed in the Kremlin, and not given over to Russia's regions to decide on their own, on the basis of what the people who reside in those regions think? Does this not exemplify the totalitarian mentality held by those who will be trying to de-Stalinize Russia?

Now if Frolov's prediction is correct, soon the Russian people will be offered another campaign. In reality it will look more like a new attempt to cover up the failure of the major slogan of Medvedev's presidency, which is modernization. The fact that Medvedev's modernization is quite a failure so far is obvious. If Russia cannot build a good road connecting its two capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, what modernization can we really talk about?

All these debates, such as the one a couple weeks ago about the removal of Lenin's body from the Mausoleum, and now the so-called "de-Stalinization" of Russia, in my opinion pursue only one goal - to divert attention away from the obvious inability of the presidential administration to solve pressing problems in the country.

In reality, not pursuing a serious fight against corruption and other ills is a major stumbling block in the modernization of the country. There is an obvious lack of political will, especially on the part of today's president.

I do not favor historical parallels because history never really repeats itself, and today's Russia is certainly not the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev's time. However, it seems to me that Dmitry Medvedev makes similar mistakes to Gorbachev's, and is more preoccupied with his image abroad and among some liberal circles in Russia than with the lives of ordinary Russian people. The West will certainly applaud such a campaign, as it applauded Gorbachev's perestroika. At the same time, it most likely will do nothing to help Russia solve its real problems, and will not treat Russia as an equal partner. The saga of the visa regime with EU countries is just a small example.

If the country really wants to modernize and get out of the hole it fell into during Boris Yeltsin's reforms in the 1990s, it should look back into its own and not so distant history, and learn more from neighbors like China, which have really accomplished a lot in the past 20 years that Russia has mostly wasted.

With regard to Stalin, it should be a question for historians to debate and suggest their vision of his role in the history of Russia, and there is nothing wrong with such opinions being diametrically opposed. Does France have a unified opinion of Napoleon and his role in its history? Of course not, and we can see those who are in love with this bloody emperor and those who reasonably hate him. And it is not up to the Russian president to answer all the questions of history. His role should be to address those challenges that the people and the country are facing today.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Firstly, one must with regret refute the premise that a pluralist democracy is a requirement for economic modernization in Russia. This premise is false. In our times, China ­ a spectacular example of modernization sustained over decades ­ is a totalitarian state under the rule of a single party. Japan developed under the two-generation-long rule of a single political party ­ hardly pluralistic. Spain's economic miracle was achieved during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. There is no correlation between political liberalism and economic advancement.

Nazi Germany was a world leader in administrative efficiency, economic and technical modernization. Cruise missiles (V-1) and ICBM systems (V-2), stored program digital computers, magnetic sound recording, advanced autobahns and jet airplanes were invented there. For 7,000 years to-date of known history, the overwhelming majority of political, economic, administrative and scientific modernization was achieved not by pluralist democracies, but by more or less absolutist monarchies.

Where does the invention that political liberalism is a co-requisite for the economic modernization of Russia originate? There is an opinion that adherents of political and economic liberalism, who failed miserably in the 1990s and almost delivered Russia to neo-communist restoration, have invented the myth of pre-requisite (or co-requisite) political liberalization in order to hitch a ride on Russia's economic modernization bandwagon.

Meanwhile, the current global crisis generates growing evidence that present liberal models have failed and need substantial review and reform. Failing that, modern liberalism may catalyze neo-totalitarian politics, like liberal Weimar Germany once indirectly enabled Nazism.

There is a problem with the "de-Stalinization" agenda for Russia. The cited survey by the Levada Center (which is known for its pro-liberal bias) recognizes that a large segment of Russian citizens have a positive perception of Stalin. In this context, "de-Stalinization" means some form of liberalist coercion over this sector of Russian society. How does one reconcile political coercion with a pluralist democratic paradigm? Is ideological coercion for the sake of liberalism morally or legally justifiable? Didn't Stalin (and Lenin) practice ideological coercion? What is to be done with the Communist Party, which is the real opposition to Putin and Medvedev, and remains strongly Leninist-Stalinist? One is reminded of the policies of the "ultra-democratic," leftist Provisional Government of Russia in 1917, which denied political rights to right-of-centre Russians ­ and ended by losing power to Lenin and Stalin.

Another aspect is that "de-Stalinization" does not automatically lead to liberalism. Hitler "de-Stalinized" also. And the Republic of Georgia, which is considered liberal, pluralist and democratic, was the only member of the Soviet Union which refused to de-Stalinize after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and preserves a popular cult of Stalin even today.

Russia does need "de-Stalinization." This is necessary not for economic modernization, but for social and political hygiene. It will take several generations to accomplish. This need reaches much further back beyond Stalin, to Lenin and even further ­ through 1905, the Socialist Revolutionary terrorists, the "People's Will" murderers and all the way to the Decembrists. This process requires the dismantling of longstanding political idols and the abandonment of revolutionary violence as a vehicle for positive change. Russian political pluralists and liberal democrats do not have the civic courage to promote such a reversal of false values. By promoting "de-Stalinization" they do not even challenge the cult of Lenin ­ who was even more violent than his loyal follower Stalin, only he did not live very long in power.

Liberalism in Russia failed catastrophically twice in less than a century: in 1917 and 1998. Considered broadly, Russian liberalism has low credibility and "de-Stalinization" is unlikely to save it, or give it new political strength.

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