All entries for Wednesday 08 January 2014

January 08, 2014

Stalin Equals Cromwell: How Putin Sees Russia's Past

Writing about web page http://www.kremlin.ru/news/19859

How is Cromwell so different from Stalin? Can you tell me? There is no difference. From the standpoint of our liberal representatives, from the liberal spectrum of our political establishment, he is a similarly bloody dictator. He was a treacherous guy, and he played an ambivalent role in the history of Great Britain. His memorial stands, and no one is tearing it down.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin does not know the difference between Joseph Stalin and Oliver Cromwell. It is true, as Putin declared (at a four-hour press conference held at the end of last year, on 19 December 2013), that Cromwell was a dictator. It is true, also, that Cromwell's historic achievements were stained with the blood of others. Yet his statue stands in Westminster outside the British Parliament. Putin's implication is clear: Like Cromwell, Stalin is just another national leader from times past, and any nation would be willing to remember him for his place in national history.

What should we take from this? There is a characteristic skew to Putin's view of Russia's past. But this is hardly new. In 2007 Putin had this to say:

As for the problematic pages in our history -- yes, they existed. The same as in the history of any state! Indeed, we have had fewer than some others. And not as terrible for us as in some others. Yes, we had some dreadful pages: let's remember the events that began in 1937, let's not forget them. But there were no less in other states, they've had worse. At least we haven't used atomic weapons on civilians. We haven't flooded thousands of kilometres with chemicals and we haven't dropped seven times more bombs on a small country than were used in the whole Great Patriotic [War, i.e. World War II], as happened in Vietnam, let's say. We've had no other black pages such as Nazism, for example.

You never know what might have happened in the history of other states and peoples! We can't afford to let them make us feel guilty about it -- they should worry about themselves.

In short, Putin does not see much to feel bad about in Soviet public life before 1937. He feels bad about "the events that began in 1937" (when Stalin ordered the execution of 700,000 and the imprisonment of 1.5 million more), but these were no more than would fall into the normal range of bad stuff that might have happened anywhere. I'm not going to go into more detail here on this. Interested readers can go back to the blistering response of Leon Aron, who said it at the time much better than I can.

If "Stalin = Cromwell," what does it matter? One implication might be for Russia's public life, given that Stalin is still politically relevant to Russia in a way that Cromwell is not to the UK. It is three centuries and a half since England's Civil War was concluded and there is no significant Cromwellian party in British public life (other than perhaps in Northern Ireland). Russia today, in contrast, has many active claimants to Stalin's mantle, including a communist party whose leader Gennadii Zyuganov, according to Putin, could be considered as the second figure in Russia's public life. Still, Putin is not calling on Russians to rally under Stalin's banner and return to the peasant-slayer's precepts; far from it.

An alternative implication is the one that matters: Putin wishes Russia's past to be seen as normal. Specifically, a believer in the Russian state and national power, he wishes the history of Russia's state to be seen as continuous and normal. All countries have had their builders of the nation state and its capacity: Cromwell, Napoleon, Bismarck, Ataturk, ... and Stalin. All were forceful modernizers, Putin seems to say, that got their way by imposing sacrifices and crossing the margins of conventional morality. But all deserve their laurels and should have their statues. As for their transgressions, we will not forget to mention "the events that began in 1937," but there's no need to enumerate the mass graves in the birch woods or to detail who killed whom on whose orders.

My guess would be that this view resonates strongly with many Russians today. It's something you can easily lose sight of in Moscow, where most streets and squares lost their Soviet-era appelations and decorations in the early 1990s, and went back to the pre-revolutionary style. But Moscow is not Russia. In many provincial Russian towns the statues of Lenin and other Bolshevik revolutionaries still stand.

A minor detail caught my eye in the reporting of the recent tragic events in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad): the second (trolleybus) bombing of 30 December took place in the city's Dzerzhinskii district, that is, a part of the city named after Feliks Dzerzhinskii, founder of the Soviet secret police and architect of Red Terror in Russia's civil war. According to Wikipedia, there remain no less than ten Dzerzhinskii districts in Russia's cities and provinces (as well as one in Eastern Ukraine), not to mention the town of Dzerzhinsk, not far from Nizhnii Novgorod. In provincial Russia you can't yet have Stalingrad, despite a campaign to restore Stalin's name to the city, but it's quite normal to have Dzerzhinskii. In Moscow the destruction of Dzerzhinskii's statue was one of the symbolic acts of 1991; recent calls to restore it have evoked polarized opinions.

I thought about this a few months ago when I visited Ekaterinburg. Standing on the edge of Asia, Ekaterinburg is the capital of a province the size of England and Scotland combined, but with less than a tenth of the population. First named after the Empress Catherine the Great, the city was renamed Sverdlovsk in 1924 after the early death of Soviet Russia's first head of state: Yakov Sverdlov. In 1991 the city's pre-revolutionary name was restored, but its hinterland is still called Sverdlov province, and Sverdlov's statue still stands on the main street.

Sverdlov

Photo: Mark Harrison.

Ekaterinburg's streets and squares commemorate many figures from the Bolshevik past from Kuibyshev (architect of the first five year plan) and Malyshev (Stalin's minister of the atomic industry) to Michurin (Stalin's pet anti-Darwinian pseudo-scientist) and Serov (first head of the post-Stalin KGB). Oh, and here's the "Iset" hotel, built in the shape of a hammer and sickle in the 1930s as an apartment block for security officials and their families.

Gorodok chekistov

Photo: Mark Harrison.

People still call it Gorodok chekistov, the little town of the secret policemen. Elsewhere in the town is Ulitsa chekistov, the street of the secret policemen.

Lenin

Photo: Mark Harrison

In Ekaterinburg Lenin's statue stands opposite the town hall, just as Sergo Ordzhonikidze's statue stands in the suburbs outside the head office of Uralmash, the giant Soviet-era engineering factory. Ordzhonikidze was Stalin's minister for heavy industry. (He shot himself in 1937 as a protest when Stalin eliminated his subordinates one by one).

Ordzhonikidze

Photo: Mark Harrison.

In Ekaterinburg some things have changed since Soviet times, not just the city's name. A mile from Sverdlov's statue stands a new shrine to Sverdlov's most famous victims, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, murdered on the spot in July 1918.

Romanovs

Photo: Mark Harrison

In Ekaterinburg, it seems, perpetrators and victims are commemorated with complete impartiality. The martyr Nicholas gets a new statue, while the likely murderer Sverdlov keeps his old one. It's just like London, where Cromwell's statue stands in Westminster, a short walk from that of Charles I, the King whom Cromwell executed, at Charing Cross.

Not quite like London, though. In Ekaterinburg, something is missing. On a highway a few kilometres out of town, a handpainted sign labelled "Memorial" points off the road. (I didn't get a chance to take a picture.) Memorial to whom? The path leads into the birch forests where the Chekists took tens of thousands for night time execution and burial in the years of Stalin's terror. Mass graves have no importance in Putin's nation-building narrative. They can be forgotten, or filed away under the heading of necessary sacrifices and inevitable mistakes.

This is Putin's view of Russia's past. Sverdlov and Tsar Nicholas; Lenin, Stalin; the Chekists; Kuibyshev, Malyshev, Ordzhonikidze. All are figures from history, state leaders in whom Russians should feel equal national pride. Who can tell the difference? No one. As for the ordinary victims, forget them. Anyway, who cares? Only those that wish to dig for dirt among their bones.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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