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Complicated Patriotism and Historical Whitewash

stalinposter061308.jpgI’m not the first person to believe that the burden of history weighs heavily on the shoulders on Russia’s citizens – those seeking a proud identity based upon historical achievements, yet are so often scolded and asked to feel shame (often by the West) over the dark period of Communism (an experience well captured in the East German film “Goodbye, Lenin“). There are of course hundreds of reasons in Russia’s past to feel proud, but the unwillingness to confront the tragic periods appears to be the order of the day. This was perhaps Putin’s political masterstroke: the embrace of the nashe, and the realization that many Russians were so eager to feel proud and bold about who they are and willing to celebrate the past … even the barbarity of Stalinism. The current leadership has encouraged this nostalgia for empire to the point that history is becoming deeply obscured. (Photo: an enormous Stalin poster is paraded through the streets of Moscow on Victory Day, 2007. Source) In Russia, patriotism is complicated, but the erasure of ambiguity creates instant political credit. Almost any official commemoration, event, dramatization, or discussion about Russia’s Soviet past is fraught with a delicate yet intense negotiation of memory. Just look at the level of emotional reckoning in the television program “Zhdi Menya,” the quickly forgotten fiasco of the Bronze Soldier in Estonia, the politics of identity with the Solovetsky Stone, the uncomfortably bellicose Victory Day parade which brought tanks back onto Red Square, and, of course, the now famous propagandistic new school textbook of Russian history produced by the Putin administration, which has softened the legacy of Stalin’s Great Terror to the point of ambiguity. To be more succinct: the recreation of authoritarianism via ultra-nationalism requires a dangerous historical whitewash. This is precisely what we are seeing unfold, as Russians vote in a television contest poll to elect the most important historical figure in history … and so far Stalin is leading the other candidates. The Wall Street Journal has the story after the cut:

A Kremlin TV station is organizing a contest to identify the most significant figure in Russian history, as the government redoubles its effort to stir feelings of patriotism, a key ratings driver for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his political allies.The list of candidates was narrowed from 500 to 50 on Thursday as Russians celebrated “Russia Day,” a holiday marking the country’s 1990 declaration of its sovereignty. Among the final, eclectic 50: Soviet dictator Stalin, Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin.Patriotism was a theme of Mr. Putin’s eight-year presidency that has been picked up by his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. The patriotic drive “is one of the foundations used to legitimize political power,” said Denis Volkov, an expert at the Moscow-based Levada Center polling agency. “It’s an attempt to say that we can choose our own history.” (…)Rossiya, the state-run channel organizing the “Name of Russia” contest, loosely based on a BBC competition called Great Britons, says the exercise is a serious project. Alexander Lyubimov, a prominent presenter involved with the show, says it isn’t crude propaganda. “We don’t do patriotic propaganda,” he said in a magazine interview. “But it is an exercise in patriotic thought.”Historians were unhappy with many of the candidates’ initial online biographies the channel drafted. Boris Yeltsin was described as a symbol of perestroika (that was Mikhail Gorbachev), Czar Alexander III was described as the “heaviest-drinking” emperor, and the fact that writer Leo Tolstoy didn’t complete higher education was highlighted. The inclusion in the initial list of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the infamous founder of what later became the KGB, prompted questions about the nature of the contest.