Stalin Still Casts a Long Shadow

MonumentDemolition.jpgMost readers of this site probably caught that news over the weekend that the Georgian government demolished a 150-foot high Soviet era memorial honoring soldiers who served in the Great Patriotic War.  Not only did they demolish it to clear way for a new parliament building, they blew the thing to kingdom come with dynamite – hurtling hunks of concrete high into the air, which resulted in the accidental death of a nearby mother and her daughter in the courtyard of their home.

It was a clear thumb to the nose toward Russia, who reacted with the expected anger.  The whole incident echoed the experience of Estonia simply moving, not destroying, the Bronze Soldier statue.

For Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states whichmaintain less-than-friendly relations with Moscow, dealing with thelegacy of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union is somewhat more clear cut(some would even argue that these countries are actively pursuing theirown counter-narratives).  But what is interesting is how all the othercountries, who suffered equal if not significantly greater levels ofviolence and genocide just five or six decades ago, choose to deal withthe commitment to honor their fallen citizens, balanced against theircurrent interests in not pissing off the nationalists in control of theKremlin.

Just today Reuters is running a very interesting historical piece on the Karlag,Stalin’s vast gulag camps of the Kazakhstan steppe near Dolinka, whichresearchers believe could contain anywhere between 1.5 million to 20million victims in mass graves.  “There is a creeping effort to vindicate Stalin and promote thebenefits of strong-hand rule, and that is a big worry,”the gulag researcher YekaterinaKuznetsova told Reuters, with regard to Russia.  They quote anotherresearcher about the Kazakh government’s handling of the issue:  “It’sa difficult topic. I would say it’s a taboo.  (…) Relations withRussia are very important. It’s hard for them to get the right attitudeand define their identity.”

I can understand that Putin’s circle has an interest in the promotion of Stalin, de-emphasizing the crimes against humanity, and continually reiterating the narrative that Russia can only work under the iron grip of an authoritarian leader … it’s good politics, it works:  he is offering Russians the opportunity to feel unreservedly proud of the history of their government.  I can understand how many Russians might feel offense to see WWII monuments get demolished (didn’t Georgia see how this plays right into Putin’s hands?).

What I can’t wrap my head around is the idea that there might be diplomatic consequences for a “sovereign” former Soviet state like Kazakhstan to open a gulag museum or memorial to honor the largest genocide it suffered in history.  That would be like Germany raising trade barriers against Poland until they agreed to shut down the free museum at Auschwitz and Birkenau.  That would be like Washington asking Chile to erect a bust of James Monroe instead of another exhibit of the Pinochet torture camps.

One would hope that the Russian government’s history commissions and other distortions of the past remain local, and not embed themselves into foreign policy.  That’s a pretty tall order to be giving out to your sphere of influence, and one that is unlikely to be appreciated by the citizens.