We have seen the policy become implemented in incremental steps – a new history textbook here, closed access to historical records there, mounting pressure on reconciliation and truth groups, and even a television poll for the most important Russian putting the out-sized dictator Joseph Stalin on top. Today’s Kremlin appears to be engaged in an all-out campaign to restore the legacy of Stalin, erase the crimes and abuses of his regime, cast a new proud light on his record, and re-write the past. Even the state propaganda news channel RussiaToday has happily borrowed the Stalin brand for ads in the Washington DC subways. As Grigory Pasko has written on this blog, Russia is one of the only countries where the past is unpredictable.
The question isn’t so much whether or not the siloviki are carrying out a policy of “Re-Stalinization,” but rather, toward what end? What purpose do these history games serve, and where does this sudden fear – which was not present whatsoever in the 1990s – to critically examine the past come from?
The latest episode of this confusing restoration of history’s most brutal dictator is reported on by Alex Rodriguez at the Chicago Tribune, who speaks to several people at the NGO Memorial, following the sudden raiding of their offices by security forces, who beyond the run-of-the-mill harassment these researchers and academics face regularly, were out to seize something in particular:
Five hours later, after police had opened every computer and walked outwith 11 hard drives, the reason for their visit became clear toMemorial Director Irina Flige.
On the hard drives, a trove of scanned images and documentsmemorialized Josef Stalin’s murderous reign of terror. Diagramsscrawled out by survivors detailed layouts of labor camps. There werephotos of Russians executed by Stalin’s secret police, wrenchingaccounts of survival from gulag inmates and maps showing the locationsof mass graves.
“They knew what they were taking,” Flige said. “Today, the state triesto reconstruct history to make it appear like a long chain ofvictories. And they want these victories to be seen as justifyingStalin’s repressions.”
A short time ago, following an interview we published with Fredo Arias-King on Russia’s brief flirtation with lustration law, I proposed a number of ideas over why this government fears historical debate over the Stalin period, as well as the expediency of history as a tool. The politics of memory in Russia have become increasingly acrimonious under this government, something that we can observe as tightening during periods of uncertainty.
The current leadership has found tremendous success in a unique brand of neo-populist nationalism, mixed with authoritarian capitalism. The consolidation of support and legitimacy for the United Russia is based heavily on a number of tropes, narratives, and even myths – this is Vladislav Surkov’s dark art – which often involve the stage-managed production of common understandings. When we have the photo-ops of bare-chested Vladimir Putin on fishing trips, rock concerts on Red Square in stylish leather jackets, tiger-hunting safaris, and inauguration ceremonies that rival George W. Bush’s aircraft carrier performance, we can observe that careful attention and high budgets are being invested into the marketing of sovereign democracy and the re-writing of history.
This government has capitalized upon an important mass psychological need that drifted by unrecognized by the country’s liberals and supporters of Russia in the West – that after the fall of the Soviet Union, and after the humility of the economic crisis and weak leadership of Yeltsin in his later years, Russian people became exhausted with so many requests to hold negative feelings about their country’s past, and tired of being told that they owe the world an apology.
These politics of identity – manipulated as they may be by opportunistic clans of spies with sudden corporate careers – are not something that will go away overnight, and the failure to reconcile the Russian experience appears set to leave a lasting mark. The nostalgia for the past, whether good or bad, is not limited to the Nashi masses bused in from the regions, or the curious groups of WWII veterans – its even something observed among the enfranchised (yes, they even sell Soviet-style coats for $2,000 now).
So it is easy to see the policy of Re-Stalinization as a reflection of fears within the current government of upcoming challenges. It would not take much – perhaps a few points up on the unemployment figures, or a sudden slide in the ruble – for people to separate the nationalist pride from pride in history from trust in this government. Re-Stalinization has advanced dramatically in many areas – economic stalinization with Yukos, legal stalinization with yesterday’s treason legislation, political stalinization with extended terms and constitutional editing, and now, with the attack on Memorial, we are preparing for that final phase of social stalinization – as depriving the people of the right to know the truth of what happened in the past represents the penultimate assault by a government on the freedom of the individual.
Clearly the Kremlin is worried, and it is defaulting to what it knows best: glorification of the strongman as the bastion of stability, a focus on the core aspect of nationalism (victory in the Great Patriotic War), and a laying of the groundwork for the people to accept a return to certain totalitarian policies of the Stalin-era as the only way out of the crisis.
A prediction of the next most popular t-shirt: WWSD?
Photo: Picture taken on November 29, 2008 shows a Russian Orthodox icon that includes a depiction of Soviet-era leader Josef Stalinat a St. Olga’s Church outside St. Petersburg in Strelna. FatherYevstafy Zhakov, the benficiary of St. Olga’s Church, recently put upthe icon showing Stalin standing before the Blessed Matrona of Moscow, a 20th-century saint. Father Yevstafy commented that, according to legend, Stalin would frequently talk to the woman and that she gave him advice on how to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. (AFP/Getty Images)