Monday, March 06, 2006

# Posted 1:47 PM by Patrick Porter  

FIGHTING STALIN'S GHOST: Stalin is still revered in Russia. The ‘hearts and minds’ of Russian youth are yet to be converted to post-communist liberalism. At least according to the survey of Sarah Mendelson and Theodore Gerber. Many young Russians have ambivalent or even positive views of Stalin. This folk memory is reinforced in state education and media, which downplays the atrocities of the Gulag and the Show Trials and famines, refurbishing Stalin as the fatherly victor of World War Two. As they argue, this is not due to some intrinsic authoritarian gene in Russian society. Instead, it is a failure of education as well as a reflection of economic insecurity. In contrast to the denazification project in post-war Germany, there has not been a concerted effort by the state to demythologise Stalinism. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pandered to this nostalgia for the age of the secret police and the prison camp.

This is more than a curiosity of Cold War memory. It has consequences for Russia’s political future. Or in the authors’ words:
How states and societies engage their pasts affects how they develop. Nostalgia for Stalin in Russia is not simply a relic that will die out with the older generation. And as long as young Russians remain ignorant about or have positive feelings towards a murderous dictator who institutionalised terror throughout their country, they are unlikely to mobilise behind calls for greater justice, human rights or transparency – factors critical to Russia’s transformation into a modern democratic society.

That many Russians miss the strong man, or at least entertain ambivalent feelings towards him, shouldn't be so surprising. While there are signs of economic recovery, they live in a country struggling with systemic corruption, organised crime and AIDs. In the psychological desire for a better past that can be returned to, they recall a revolutionary who found Russia as an agrarian backwater and left it as a superpower with nuclear weapons. And President Putin has proven willing to pander to this memory. If he means it, then he sincerely believes that Stalinism or even a milder version of it should be the foundation for the future Russia. If he doesn't believe it, he thinks the memory has such force that it should be indulged. Either way, its a worry.
As a tonic to triumphalist complacency about post-communist Russia, read Robert Harris’ Archangel. Its a great novel, and not only because it casts a drink-sodden young historian as the hero. It also warns of this danger of the continuing myth of Stalin, and its potentially terrifying political consequences. I won’t spoil the surprise, read it if you can.
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This phenomenon reminds me a bit about the position taken with regards to Nazism in states invaded by both the Nazis and communists. Often, the resentment towards the latter group is far more potent. I am thinking, in particular, of Estonia.

While Germany has obviously done better in almost every way since the fall of Nazism, the former Soviet Union is obviously not doing so well as it did under communism. Or, at least, as well as it was perceived to.

The character of historical memory is profoundly shaped by material circumstances, especially in terms of how they compare across time.
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