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Putin’s Stalinist View of History

John on September 17, 2008 at 2:38 pm

Over at the New Republic, Leon Aron has a long piece about Vladmir Putin’s view of history as demonstrated by the new textbooks being used in Russian schools. I’m going to excerpt a bit more than usual to get you going, but I highly recommend you set aside 20 minutes to read the whole thing:

On June 18, 2007, a national conference of high school historians and teachers of social sciences was convened in Moscow. The agenda called for the discussion of “the acute problems in the teaching of modern Russian history,” and for “the development of the state standards of education.” It soon became clear that the real purpose of the gathering was to present to the delegates–or, more precisely, to impress upon them–two recently finished “manuals for teachers.” One of them, to be published in a pilot print run of ten thousand, was called Noveyshaya Istoriya Rossii, 1945-2006 GG: Kniga Dlya Uchitelya, or The Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006: A Teacher’s Handbook.


The textbook’s editor, Alexandr Filippov, who is listed as the sole author on the cover, is a deputy director of the “National Laboratory of Foreign Policy,” which, in his own words, “assists the state organs, including the presidential administration, in the development and implementation of foreign policy decisions.” He later confirmed the rumor that it was the presidential administration, along with the ministry of education, that had “invited” him to assemble the manuscript, making the textbook nothing less than an expression of Vladimir Putin’s view of Soviet history.

The author of one of the chapters turned out to be Pavel Danilin, the editorin-chief of the website and deputy director of the Effective Politics Foundation, which is headed by the top Kremlin propagandist Gleb Pavlovsky. Danilin–who is also affiliated with the “Young Guard of the United Russia,” the Komsomol-like helper of the United Russia “ruling” party–was quoted as saying that “our goal is to make the first textbook in which Russian history will look not as a depressing sequence of misfortunes and mistakes but as something to instill pride in one’s country. It is in precisely this way that teachers must teach history and not smear the Motherland with mud.” Addressing on his blog teachers and scholars who might be less than enthusiastic about such an approach, Danilin, who is thirty years old and is not known to have ever taught anything, wrote:

“You may ooze bile but you will teach the children by those books that you will be given and in the way that is needed by Russia. And as to the noble nonsense that you carry in your misshapen goateed heads, either it will be ventilated out of them or you yourself will be ventilated out of teaching…. It is impossible to let some Russophobe shit-stinker (govnyuk), or just any amoral type, teach Russian history. It is necessary to clear the filth, and if it does not work, then clear it by force.”

What’s most striking isn’t the bald use of textbooks as Communist propaganda, but the books actual treatment of history, specifically what they leave out:

Putin declared:”As to some problematic pages in our history–yes, we’ve had them. But what state hasn’t? And we’ve had fewer of such pages than some other [states]. And ours were not as horrible as those of some others. Yes, we have had some terrible pages: let us remember the events beginning in 1937, let us not forget about them. But other countries have had no less, and even more.


For Vladimir Putin’s reading of the Soviet Union’s record represents nothing less than a repeal of glasnost and its accomplishments in the cause of truth. “Fewer,” he says; and “not as horrible”; and others are “even more” terrible. And also that there was no terror before 1937…
In 1988, the Marxist historian and Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev attempted to add up the number of those “repressed” (that is, arrested) prior to 1937. His estimate was seventeen million to eighteen million people, of which “no less than” ten million perished. Oleg Khlevnyuk’s definitive study of the OGPU-NKVD-KGB archives, in The History of Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror, puts the number of people convicted between 1930 and 1936 at twelve million (or one-eighth of the adult population of the Soviet Union, based on the January 1937 census). This is far more than the estimated 8.6 million that were convicted in the Great Terror and its aftermath in 1937-1940.


It is true that there was no “Nazism” in the Soviet Union, and no Auschwitz. But six weeks in the Kolyma camps, in northeastern Siberia–with temperatures reaching negative 50 Celsius, and sixteen-hour workdays of chipping off gold ore with pickaxes or hauling it in wooden wheelbarrows on four hours of sleep, and 400 grams of bread (for those meeting sadistic daily work quotas that even two men working together could not always achieve), and the tepid greasy water passed as soup, and a sliver of salty herring–all this, Mr. President, turned a healthy adult man into a walking skeleton, dying of dystrophia, wracked by the bloody diarrhea of pellagra, and oozing pus and blood from frostbitten fingers and toes. (The great Russian writer Varlaam Shalamov, who miraculously survived Kolyma, tells the story in his beautiful and unbearable Kolyma Tales.) Hundreds of thousands more perished from overwork, disease, starvation, and accidents at the various “canalization” and “industrialization” sites of the first Five-Year Plans. To recall Solzhenitsyn’s grim refrain in The Gulag Archipelago: we did not have the gas chambers, very true, we did not.

During the “collectivization” of 1929-1932, an estimated one million peasant households were herded into boxcars, driven for days often with little food or water (the dead, mostly babies and the elderly, were thrown off the moving trains), and then unloaded to “special settlements” (spetsposeleniya) in the frozen tundra, the swamps of the Russian Northeast, the Urals, or the bare Kazakh steppes. Most peasants–between six and eight million–died in what may well have been the greatest demographic catastrophe to hit Europe since the Middle Ages: the man-made famine of 1932-1933, following the “requisition” by the state of all grain, including seed. The precise number of the collectivization’s victims may never be known, with estimates ranging from the very conservative seven million to eleven million villagers, mostly in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, southern Russia, and the North Caucasus. (Ten years later Stalin would tell Churchill that ten million had died.)

This is just the beginning of this tour de force. I think Aron probably makes the case better than anyone has that Putin is the most dangerous man in the world right now, and that’s really saying something.

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Category: Foreign Affairs |

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