Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Resurrecting Stalin 

Vladimir Putin gets nostalgic in his address to the Russian people:

"First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century... As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory... The epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself."
No, Vladimir, the creation of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. It led to deaths of tens of millions, enslavement of hundreds of millions and half a century of Cold War with its simmering tensions, frequent violent outbursts, and the ever-present specter of nuclear annihilation. After all this, the collapse of the Soviet Empire was the greatest geopolitical blessing of recent times.

As for the Russian people, maybe these tens of millions shouldn't have found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory in the first place. If you have an official policy of colonizing fellow Soviet republics from Latvia to Kazakhstan with ethnic Russians, you should expect that the locals will feel rather resentful about being swamped by the occupier's ideology as well as its people. Of course I feel sorry for the people themselves, most of were just innocent pawns in Kremlin's geo-demographic chess game, and many of whom were actually born outside of Russia, but as for Putin, as the old saying goes, after you killed your parents you can't ask for leniency on the ground that you're now an orphan.

And the collapse spilling over into Russia - for which read, mainly, but not exclusively, Chechnia - well, the chickens are coming home to roost. Russia itself is as much of an artificial construct as the Soviet Union was, in a sense that it is not, and it has never been, a nation-state in its present borders. The difference is, all the non-ethnically Russian territories had been accumulated before the twentieth century (more here). The similarity is, the accumulated people have long memories, too. As I
wrote before, this indeed is Putin's greatest fear that motivates and informs his every move, domestic and international: the end of Russia herself.

Commenting on the concerted push across Russia to restore Stalin's nameplaces and monuments, historian
Antony Beevor told BBC (hat tip: Joseph Gallick):

"A whole orchestra of drums is being banged in a quite extraordinary way for the 60th anniversary celebrations of what is still called the Great Patriotic War. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union suffered the worst casualties of the war but nobody is prepared to face up to the dark side of Stalinism or indeed communism. There is a rehabilitation of Stalin to a large degree. I am surprised that Volgograd [formerly Stalingrad] has not already been renamed."
It reminds me of the writings of Fluke Kelso, the fictional Oxford academic in Robert Harris's brilliant 1998 thriller "Archangel":

"It is Stalin rather than Hitler who is the most alarming figure of the twentieth century...

"I say this not merely because Stalin killed more people than Hitler - although he clearly did - and not even because Stalin was more of a psychopath than Hitler - although he clearly was. I say it because Stalin, unlike Hitler, has not yet been exorcised. And also because Stalin was not a one-off like Hitler, an eruption out of nowhere. Stalin stands in a historical tradition of rule by terror which existed before him, which he refined, and which could exist again. His, not Hitler's, is the spectre that should worry us.

"Because, you know, you think about it. You hail a taxi in Munich - you don't find the driver displaying Hitler's portrait in his cab, do you? Hitler's birthplace isn't a shrine. Hitler's grave isn't piled with fresh flowers every day. You can't buy tapes of Hitler's speeches on the streets of Berlin. Hitler isn't routinely praised as 'a great patriot' by leading German politicians. Hitler's old party didn't receive more than forty per cent of the votes in the last German election -

"But all these things are true of Stalin in Russia today, which is what makes the words of Yevtushenko in 'The Heirs of Stalin', more relevant now than ever:

'So I ask our government
'To double
'To treble
'The guard
'Over his tomb'
Seven years later, and the situation is even worse than in Harris's fictional account, mostly because Stalin's rehabilitation now seems to be the official priority of the Russian government. And once again, the Western chattering classes which foam at the mouth when Prince Harry dresses up as a Nazi for a fancy costume party, and agonize endlessly whether the new German film "Downfall" makes Hitler look too human, will once again ignore the communist revival going on in Russia. Once again to the disgust of Robert Harris, who while a leftie, is one with a keen sense of history and perspective.

On the general topic, check out
Big Cat Chronicles: "Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian autocracy appears to be once again on the rise. 'Romanov Russia - The Dynasty's Imprint on the Russian National Psyche' is an exploration of one family's autocratic footprints on Russian history and is intended to help current events buffs put modern Russia's seeming return to an autocracy into perspective."


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