Stalin resurrected

Other surveys put Peter the Great or the poet Alexander Pushkin on top, but Stalin has always made third place among the great. Over the last decade, when asked their view of Stalin's contribution to Russian history, most people register approval, not condemnation. Apart from the fact that Stalin cannot be a great Russian, for he was a Georgian, and leaving aside what the word `great' means historically, you wonder how a man with the deaths of tens of millions and the suffering of whole countries on his conscience can possibly be revered. The reply is that Stalin created a powerful industrial country: but why was the price of modernisation the extermination of the better part of the peasantry? Stalin is praised for saving the Soviet Union from Hitler: but military historians know that the Soviet peoples won the war despite, not thanks to, Stalin, who in 1938 annihilated all the talented generals in the Red Army and who so perversely interpreted Hitler's thinking. The best ton be said of Stalin the Generalissimus is that he finally realised that he must not meddle in military strategy, and that Hitler, who never stopped meddling, lost the war, not that Stalin won it. Stalin is called an excellent personnel manager: absurd nonsense if you consider how many good industrialists, biologists, physicists and scholars he shot. Yet the shelves of Moscow's bookshops are crowded with books asserting that the Polish officers shot in Katyn forest were murdered by the Germans, not the Russian secret police, that the repressions of the 1930s were a necessary part of a great plan to save the USSR from a fifth column of traitors.
Only pensioners can now remember what life under Stalin was like, and only the very elderly can recall the Great Terror of 1937-8. The only positive factor they can recall is the equality of fear, even the consolation that a working man had, knowing that his bosses slept worse at night than he did. True, under Stalin, money counted for relatively little and corruption was, by today's standard, insignificant. The fact that Stalin created an empire stretching from the Elbe to the Yalu River and feared by the entire civilised world does lead some Russians to yearn for the past, but if you consider the miserable dreariness of that empire, the state of mourning and fearfulness of its subjects, only a masochist would want to turn the clock back.

In the early 1990s there were good, honest books about the past: collections of documents from the secret archives of the Communist Party and the KGB were published. But people soon tired of an embarrassing list of past disasters and disgraces, they began to prefer purveyors of myths. Now the most absurd books fill the shops, proving Stalin's wisdom and the wickedness of enemies of the Soviet system. Collections of archival documents and books written by serious historians are found only on the top shelves. The younger generation now finds the past to be either boring or unbelievable; state schools and colleges teach a sanitised history. We are faced with a generation of naive worshippers of the great Leader. Even worse than indifference or ignorance, however, are attempts to bury the truth: recently the FSB confiscated the computers of the St Petersburg branch of Memorial; in the provinces researchers into Stalin's repressions are being cynically prosecuted for `infringing the privacy' of those repressed.

In fact the roots of Stalinism are sprouting new growth for all to see: the State Duma's unanimity on all questions reminds one of the Supreme Soviet; TV stations all repeat the picture of wise Russian statesmen and vicious or idiotic foreign ill-wishers; Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya and Kirsan Iliumzhinov in Kalmykia have re-introduced Stalinist terror. But we must not exaggerate: today, any Russian citizen, unlike Stalin's subjects, can still find out facts and alternative points of view on the internet. The lists, signed by Stalin and his henchmen, of party members to be shot and the biographical details of the victims can be studied on various sites. Not all of today's dissidents are sent to the Arctic wastes of Siberia: some can get a foreign passport and emigrate to Ecuador if they like.

When a small country like Mongolia (small politically, not geographically) decided to make Genghis Khan a national hero, the rest of the world shrugged: what harm did it do? - Genghis Khan was a long time ago. The same applies to Hungary's cult of Attila the Hun, Scourge of God. But Stalinism is alive in North Korea, Burma, Eritrea and Zimbabwe: a nation proud to make a universal idol out of a paranoiac as cruel as Stalin must come to its senses if other nations are to trust it.

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