Stalin notebooks: Internet meme, or provocation?

School notebooks portraying Soviet leader Joseph Stalin fuelled the debate in the Russian community. Source: ITAR-TASS

School notebooks portraying Soviet leader Joseph Stalin fuelled the debate in the Russian community. Source: ITAR-TASS

School notebooks depicting Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin have touched off a public scandal. Human rights defenders are demanding their recall. But while adults argue over the ethics, children think that Stalin’s portrait on their notebooks is just an amusing picture.

Arseny Roginsky, head of the human rights organization Memorial, called the decision to sell notebooks with Stalin’s image “absurd” in an interview with Interfax, adding that the “horrible” aspects of Stalin’s rule should be described in textbooks alongside all the other roles Stalin played. Roginsky said the notebooks are “Stalinist propaganda,” whether the publisher meant it intentionally.

Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko also voiced his opposition to the appearance of notebooks depicting Stalin. “I see this as a bad and incorrect phenomenon,” said Fursenko, adding that since the notebooks were not produced by the Ministry of Education and Science, there was no possibiliity of withdrawing them from circulation.

Some members of the Public Chamber called the publication of the school notebooks with Joseph Stalin’s portrait “barbarism” and “morally perverse.” In particular, Public Chamber member Sergei Volkov stated that using Stalin’s image on school notebook covers was equivalent of depicting a swastika. TV host Nikolai Svanidze also fears that showing Stalin on school notebooks could make children see Stalin as a hero.

 Artem Bilan, art director at the Alt publishing company, which issued the scandalous notebooks, replied to all these criticisms in a statement to a RIA Novosti correspondent: “The Public Chamber is not a legislative body of the Russian Federation, and merely expresses the private opinions of its representatives. And, as I understand it, their opinion is at odds with that of the majority of Russian citizens, who a couple of years ago in a TV project called Russia’s Name ranked Stalin as one of the outstanding figures in Russian history.”

Bilan also said that the notebooks with Stalin’s portrait on the cover had been published as part of the Great Names of Russia series, along with Mikhail Kutuzov, Georgy Zhukov, Pavel Nakhimov, and other historical figures, and would not be subject to recall. “On what basis should we recall such a successful product?” Bilan said. Any discussion of withdrawing the notebooks is actually irrelevant, since all the notebooks showing Stalin have already been snapped up.

There has also been a heated online discussion of the matter. The sharply differing opinions expressed on the web range from “ban them immediately” to “Stalin is a Russian hero, whom children should come to recognize.”

Blogger Black Lightening wrote: “In my opinion, there’s food for thought there. Indeed, why should these people be so upset about Stalin’s portrait, in particular? If you haven’t even considered that question, it’s time to ask yourself. Stalin was a tyrant and dictator? OK, but wasn’t Catherine the Great a tyrant and dictator? Weren’t there constant uprisings, executions, and wars during her reign? Not to mention the fact that she overthrew her own husband, Russian Emperor Peter III, after which he died prematurely. As the reports indicate, the Empress is right there on the notebook covers along with the Generalissimus, and nobody’s upset about that. Nobody is demanding, ‘Ban that forever!’ How come?” 

Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Center for Legal and Psychological Assistance in Extreme Situations, said that Nicholas II, for example, had been called “the bloody,” but now he has been canonized.

“Peter I, Catherine II… There are many historical figures it’s impossible to characterize in a simple way,” Vinogradov said. “Why should we throw out our historical past? Yes, Stalin was a tyrant and a despot. Under him the Gulag was set up, and many people died there, with 20 million (or more) becoming victims of repressions. But he led the country for 30 years. And, as [Winston] Churchill said, ‘Stalin received Russia with the plow and left it with the A-bomb.’ Yes, there was cruelty under Stalin. Nonetheless, it was under him that the country won the war and advanced to the forefront in various areas. Therefore I think that children should be told about Stalin, but the question is how. This is an issue for psychologists.”

And while the adults are thinking about how to teach Russia’s complex history to children, the kids have already figured it out. Many schoolchildren thought the portrait of Stalin on their notebooks was just a cool picture, an Internet meme, or an opportunity to “tweak the moustaches” of their teachers.

This text originally appeared in Russian at Vesti.ru

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