The Problematic Pages


In memory of Alexander Solzhenitsyn


On June 18, 2007, a national conference of high school historians
and teachers of social sciences was convened in Moscow. The agenda
called for the discussion of "the acute problems in the teaching of
modern Russian history," and for "the development of the state
standards of education." It soon became clear that the real purpose
of the gathering was to present to the delegates-- or, more
precisely, to impress upon them--two recently finished "manuals for
teachers." One of them, to be published in a pilot print run of ten
thousand, was called Noveyshaya Istoriya Rossii, 1945-2006 GG:
Kniga Dlya Uchitelya, or The Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006: A
Teacher's Handbook. It was the work of a certain A.V. Filippov, and
it was designed to become the standard Russian high school textbook
of Russian history, scheduled to be introduced into classrooms this
month.Unusually heavy artillery was deployed in the textbook's support.
Speaking at the conference were Andrey Fursenko, the minister of
education and science, and Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin chief
ideologist and first deputy chief of staff. Surkov is the inventor
of the concept of "sovereign democracy," which became the
centerpiece of the Putin regime's worldview, justifying
authoritarianism in politics, re-centralization in economics, and
anti-Western truculence in foreign policy. (As Russian wits like to
say, "sovereign democracy" and "democracy" are as different as
"electric chair" and "chair.")

The project's origin and the author's provenance were soon disclosed
by liberal websites, which these days are looking more and more
like a kind of cyber samizdat. The textbook's editor, Alexandr
Filippov, who is listed as the sole author on the cover, is a
deputy director of the "National Laboratory of Foreign Policy,"
which, in his own words, "assists the state organs, including the
presidential administration, in the development and implementation
of foreign policy decisions." He later confirmed the rumor that it
was the presidential administration, along with the ministry of
education, that had "invited" him to assemble the manuscript,
making the textbook nothing less than an expression of Vladimir
Putin's view of Soviet history.

The author of one of the chapters turned out to be Pavel Danilin,
the editorin-chief of the website and deputy director
of the Effective Politics Foundation, which is headed by the top
Kremlin propagandist Gleb Pavlovsky. Danilin--who is also
affiliated with the "Young Guard of the United Russia," the
Komsomol-like helper of the United Russia "ruling" party--was
quoted as saying that "our goal is to make the first textbook in
which Russian history will look not as a depressing sequence of
misfortunes and mistakes but as something to instill pride in one's
country. It is in precisely this way that teachers must teach
history and not smear the Motherland with mud." Addressing on his
blog teachers and scholars who might be less than enthusiastic
about such an approach, Danilin, who is thirty years old and is not
known to have ever taught anything, wrote:

You may ooze bile but you will teach the children by those books
that you will be given and in the way that is needed by Russia. And
as to the noble nonsense that you carry in your misshapen goateed
heads, either it will be ventilated out of them or you yourself
will be ventilated out of teaching.... It is impossible to let some
Russophobe shit-stinker (govnyuk), or just any amoral type, teach
Russian history. It is necessary to clear the filth, and if it does
not work, then clear it by force.

The official promotion of the history textbook resumed after the
summer vacation, when the ministry of education and science
scheduled teachers' conferences in seven Russian regions, at which
the authors and the government functionaries were to be joined by
the "representatives of the president's administration" and those
local governments. To show how it should be done, a meeting took
place last September at the Academic Educational Association for
the Humanities, with Moscow's top education functionaries,
university presidents, and directors of research institutes on
hand, including the director of the Institute of General History
and the rector of Moscow State University. Representing the Kremlin
was Dzhokhan Pollyeva, secretary of the Presidential Council for
Science, Technologies, and Education, who called on historians and
education administrators to wish the textbook's authors a great
success, and assured the audience that there would be sufficient
funding for all the seminars and courses required for the training
of teachers to support the curriculum.

In fact, the clearest expression of the Kremlin's goodwill toward
the textbook came two months earlier, with an invitation to the
conference participants to visit President Putin at his residence
in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow. In a long introduction to the
discussion that ensued, Putin complained that there was "mishmash"
(kasha) in the heads of teachers of history and social sciences,
and that this dire situation in the teaching of Russian history
needed to be corrected by the introduction of "common standards. "
(Four days later, a new law, introduced in the Duma and passed with
record speed in eleven days, authorized the ministry of education
and science to determine which textbooks be "recommended" for
school use and to determine which publishers would print them.)
There followed some instructive exchanges:

A conference participant: In 1990-1991 we disarmed ideologically.
[We adopted] a very uncertain, abstract ideology of all-human
values.... It is as if we were back in school, or even
kindergarten. We were told [by the West]: you have rejected
communism and are building democracy, and we will judge when and
how you have done.... In exchange for our disarming ideologically we
have received this abstract recipe: you become democrats and
capitalists and we will control you.

Putin: Your remark about someone who assumes the posture of teacher
and begins to lecture us is of course absolutely correct. But I
would like to add that this, undoubtedly, is also an instrument of
influencing our country. This is a tried and true trick. If someone
from the outside is getting ready to grade us, this means that he
arrogates the right to manage [us] and is keen to continue to do

Participant: In the past two decades, our youth have been subjected
to a torrent of the most diverse information about our historical
past. This information [contains] different conceptual approaches,
interpretations, or value judgments, and even chronologies. In such
circumstances, the teacher is likely to ...

Putin (interrupting): Oh, they will write, all right. You see, many
textbooks are written by those who are paid in foreign grants. And
naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them.
Do you understand? And unfortunately [such textbooks] find their
way to schools and colleges.

And later, concluding the session, Putin declared:

As to some problematic pages in our history--yes, we've had them.
But what state hasn't? And we've had fewer of such pages than some
other [states]. And ours were not as horrible as those of some
others. Yes, we have had some terrible pages: let us remember the
events beginning in 1937, let us not forget about them. But other
countries have had no less, and even more. In any case, we did not
pour chemicals over thousands of kilometers or drop on a small
country seven times more bombs than during the entire World War II,
as it was in Vietnam, for instance. Nor did we have other black
pages, such as Nazism, for instance. All sorts of things happen in
the history of every state. And we cannot allow ourselves to be
saddled with guilt--they'd better think of themselves.


Since a great deal is at stake in the understanding of history in
Russia today, a few things need to be said about the Russian
president's view of Russia's past. For Vladimir Putin's reading of
the Soviet Union's record represents nothing less than a repeal of
glasnost and its accomplishments in the cause of truth. "Fewer," he
says; and "not as horrible"; and others are "even more" terrible.
And also that there was no terror before 1937. So the old version,
the Soviet version, of the "repressions" perpetrated by the Soviet
regime, according to which they were confined to the slaughter of
the party nobility, the top military commanders, and the
intelligentsia during the "Great Terror" of 1937-1938, has now been
officially reinstated.

In 1988, the Marxist historian and Soviet dissident Roy Medvedev
attempted to add up the number of those "repressed" (that is,
arrested) prior to 1937. His estimate was seventeen million to
eighteen million people, of which "no less than" ten million
perished. Oleg Khlevnyuk's definitive study of the OGPU- NKVD-KGB
archives, in The History of Gulag: From Collectivization to the
Great Terror, puts the number of people convicted between 1930 and
1936 at twelve million (or one-eighth of the adult population of
the Soviet Union, based on the January 1937 census). This is far
more than the estimated 8.6 million that were convicted in the
Great Terror and its aftermath in 1937-1940. Medvedev could have
added that the first "special designation" (osobogo naznacheniya)
extermination camp was set up on the Solovki Islands in the White
Sea in 1923. One of the methods of execution there was to tie the
doomed victims to a log and push it down "a long and steep
staircase." Half a minute later, witnesses remembered, a "shapeless
bloody mass" reached the foot of the steps.

The defendants in the first show trials in 1928-1930 were not former
party leaders, but the "wreckers" from among mining engineers,
economists, historians, agronomists, and veterinarians. A third of
a million people were arrested in 1930, of whom 20,000 were shot
and 100,000 sent to camps, where their chances of surviving a
ten-year sentence were very slim. (When we were college students
together in Moscow in the mid-1970s, I heard Khrushchev's grandson,
Lyosha Adzhubei, tell his grandfather's story of a German
delegation that came to Russia in the 1930s to learn about the
organization of the Gulag.)

And in another deviation from the official Putinist myth, of the
five to seven million arrested in the "Great Terror" of
1937-1938--by Medvedev's estimate, at least one million were
shot--three to five million were "ordinary people," not Party
members. At Kuropaty, near Minsk, one of the hundreds and perhaps
thousands of Soviet mass execution sites, people were shot daily
from 1937 to 1941. The exhumation of unmarked (and carefully
hidden) mass graves by local activists in 1987-1988 revealed holes
in the skulls made by handgun bullets shot point-blank into the
back of the head. Judging by the things found around the site--
wallets, shopping bags--and by the clothes and shoes found on the
bodies, many appeared not to have spent any time in prison, which
means that they had not been given any judicial proceeding but were
taken to the forest directly from their homes. Altogether, 510 mass
graves were found with an average of 200 bodies in each: 102,000
people. That is probably more than all the people in the top layers
of the Party.

When they were suddenly allowed to be heard in 1987-1988, the voices
of victims and, occasionally, of their tormentors filled the Soviet
media and meeting halls. Sometimes, according to witnesses'
testimony, the victims were made to stand on the edge of the ditch,
their hands tied and mouths gagged, while the executioners aimed
more powerful rifles at the sides of the heads of those on either
end of the row, attempting to kill at least two people with one
bullet. "They were saving ammo," a witness explained, and also
"showing their professionalism." Were they still remembered, they,
too, could add precision to Putin's "no less-even more" moral

It is true that there was no "Nazism" in the Soviet Union, and no
Auschwitz. But six weeks in the Kolyma camps, in northeastern
Siberia--with temperatures reaching negative 50 Celsius, and
sixteen-hour workdays of chipping off gold ore with pickaxes or
hauling it in wooden wheelbarrows on four hours of sleep, and 400
grams of bread (for those meeting sadistic daily work quotas that
even two men working together could not always achieve), and the
tepid greasy water passed as soup, and a sliver of salty
herring--all this, Mr. President, turned a healthy adult man into a
walking skeleton, dying of dystrophia, wracked by the bloody
diarrhea of pellagra, and oozing pus and blood from frostbitten
fingers and toes. (The great Russian writer Varlaam Shalamov, who
miraculously survived Kolyma, tells the story in his beautiful and
unbearable Kolyma Tales.) Hundreds of thousands more perished from
overwork, disease, starvation, and accidents at the various
"canalization" and "industrialization" sites of the first Five-Year
Plans. To recall Solzhenitsyn's grim refrain in The Gulag
Archipelago: we did not have the gas chambers, very true, we did

During the "collectivization" of 1929-1932, an estimated one million
peasant households were herded into boxcars, driven for days often
with little food or water (the dead, mostly babies and the elderly,
were thrown off the moving trains), and then unloaded to "special
settlements" (spetsposeleniya) in the frozen tundra, the swamps of
the Russian Northeast, the Urals, or the bare Kazakh steppes. Most
peasants--between six and eight million--died in what may well have
been the greatest demographic catastrophe to hit Europe since the
Middle Ages: the man-made famine of 1932-1933, following the
"requisition" by the state of all grain, including seed. The
precise number of the collectivization's victims may never be
known, with estimates ranging from the very conservative seven
million to eleven million villagers, mostly in Ukraine, Kazakhstan,
southern Russia, and the North Caucasus. (Ten years later Stalin
would tell Churchill that ten million had died.) In 1988, the
leading Kazakh writer Olzhas Suleymenov told a party conference
that out of six million of his compatriots before the
collectivization, three million remained. (This year Ukraine
officially commemorated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the
"Hlodomor, " or "death from hunger," designated as genocide. How
long will it be before Kazakhstan does the same?)

For the survivors, there was the edict of August 7, 1932, personally
drafted by Stalin, which meted out "the highest measure of social
defense"--that is, shooting--with the confiscation of all property
or, in "extenuating circumstances," ten years of camp, for "theft
of kolkhoz property." The decree became known as "the law on five
ears of wheat," because its most conspicuous victims were starving
peasant children and their mothers, who ate or tucked into their
pockets a few grains while collecting wheat or rye left on kolkhoz
fields after reaping. (Grain found in mouse burrows was to be
counted kolkhoz property as well.) To make sure that peasant
children (and those of the "enemies of the people") did not get
away with anything, another decree in 1932 lowered the legal age of
defendants to twelve years. The children were to be tried as adults
and to be "subject to the entire range of sentencing." When the
comrades in the provinces asked for clarification, the Politburo
affirmed that "entire range" included execution.

And--right you are, Mr. President--no bombs were dropped in
1939-1941 on western Ukraine, western Belorussia, Bessarabia,
northern Bukovina, Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania, which were all
deeded to the Soviet Union in 1939 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop
Pact, or in 1944-1945, when they were re-conquered, or "liberated."
Instead there was a "knock on the door" at two in the morning, to
recall the title of a fine novella about the arrests and
deportations in formerly Romanian Bessarabia. The total number of
people arrested and deported (again, an estimate) was at least two
million in 1939-1940 and two to three million in 1944-1945. How
many were executed or died in camps? Two hundred thousand? Three
hundred thousand? Half a million?

There were also no bombings of the Volga German Republic in 1941,
nor of Chechnya, Ingushetia, or the Tatar villages in the Crimea in
1944. Like the "kulaks" ten years before, all these victims were
arrested and deported--again, as with the "kulaks," to the last
pregnant woman and suckling baby--and dumped in the wilderness. The
total of the "re-settled" is estimated at three million, of which
as many as a million may have died in the first few years of
exposure, starvation, and disease. Of the entire Chechen nation of
489,000, an estimated 200,000 perished.

Scoring points in his obsessive and never-ending debate with the
United States was not the sole goal of Putin's declaration at
Novo-Ogaryovo. His remarks were also designed to establish
guidelines for the new Russian historiography embodied in the
textbook. The first axiom appears to be this: although there were
"mistakes" and "dark spots," what mattered was the survival and
strengthening of the state--by whatever means necessary. And, by
that standard, the Soviet Union was a glittering success, and the
costs were justified--especially, as we have already seen, since
the main victims of Stalinism were the elite, not the ordinary
people. The second axiom of modern Russian history according to
Putin is that the Soviet Union was a "besieged fortress," forever
under threat of attack by the West, and that the machinations of
the West were responsible not only for Soviet foreign policy but
also for a great deal of domestic misfortune. Finally, and most
importantly, the overarching aim of this and all future historical
narratives is the "normalization" of the monstrosity of Soviet
totalitarianism, the manufacture of justifications and excuses for
its crimes.

While pages and pages of The Modern History of Russia overflow with
official statistics attesting to the dazzling achievements of
Soviet economy--the production of mineral fertilizers grew
six-fold; of electricity, five-fold; of steel, double--or with
positively loving recitations of the quality and quantity of Soviet
military hardware, the Gulag is mentioned by name once. And this
sole mention is by way of cautioning the reader against the
"exaggeration" of its "contribution" to the economy: after all,
there were only 2.6 million prisoners (in 1950), compared with 40.4
million in the country's workforce outside the barbed wire.

Among the many eyewitness accounts inserted into the textbook's
narrative under the rubric "How It Was" (Kak eto bylo), there is
not a single one from the flood of memoirs published in the late
1980s about the hell of the camps or "investigative prisons," where
"testimony" was beaten out of the arrested; not a single quotation
from Kolyma Tales, or Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich, or The Department of the Useless Things by Yuri
Dombrovsky (another splendid Russian writer who miraculously
survived three stints, amounting to a quarter of a century, in the
Gulag), or from the brilliantly imagined prison and camp chapters
in the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century, Vassily
Grossman's Life and Fate. The "Doctors' Plot" of 1953 merits a
paragraph--but not the next step, which only Stalin's death
thwarted: the planned public hangings of traitorous Jews on Red
Square and a countrywide pogrom to be followed by the exile of more
than two million Soviet Jews to the Far East.

And, speaking of pogroms, the textbook has this to say about
inter-ethnic relations under Brezhnev: "The degree of consolidation
of Soviet nationalities and their yearning for mutual closeness
were especially pronounced in comparison with other multi-ethnic
states. In the USA, for instance, Ku Klux Klan-like organizations
were operating almost openly [and] every now and then bloody mass
confrontations occurred on racial or national grounds." This, about
a society in which one's ethnicity was the defining characteristic
of the individual in his relations with others; in which the Azeri
hated the Armenians, and the Abkhaz hated the Georgians, and the
Uzbeks hated the Kirgiz (and would start killing one another as
soon as the totalitarian controls were relaxed, while others, such
as Moldovans, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Georgians,
bolted out of the happy union even before it collapsed); in which
ethnic Russian "masses" seem to despise all other nationalities and
commonly use slurs and derogatory terms for the Ukrainians, the
Armenians, the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus. There is
also not a word about state antiSemitism under Brezhnev and
anti-Jewish discrimination in employment, travel abroad, and
university admissions; or about the internal passports in which
"nationality" followed name and address; or about Moscow State
University's admissions policies in the second half of the 1970s,
when the applicants had to put down not only the last names of
their parents but also those of their grandparents, so as to help
the university detect the Jews. Those with only one Jewish
grandparent, it was widely believed, had a chance.


The sections on foreign policy in The Modern History of Russia could
have come directly from Soviet textbooks. The origins of the Cold
War are covered in three sentences. The United States was bent on
"world domination." The Soviet Union's might was in America's way.
A "serious confrontation ensued." Churchill's Fulton speech on
March 5, 1946, the "Iron Curtain" speech, was a declaration of war,
and the reliable Stalin is cited at length from a Pravda interview
to that effect. Since there is no analysis, no alternative view,
and certainly no refutation of Stalin's words, the Russian
schoolchildren are supposed to accept what he said at face value:

Pravda: May Mr. Churchill's speech be considered as damaging the
cause of peace and security?

Stalin: Undoubtedly so. In essence, Mr. Churchill has taken the
position of a warmonger.... It must be noted that in this regard
Mr. Churchill and his friends are remarkably like Hitler and his
friends.... Undoubtedly that Mr. Churchill's viewpoint is a
viewpoint of war, a call for a war with the USSR.

Nor did the planning of war against the Soviet Union stop at
"concepts." Russian high schoolers will learn from this textbook
that already in May 1945 Churchill was reviewing a war plan against
the Soviet Union, and by November 1945 the targets for the nuclear
attack on the Soviet Union had been selected. (Why, then--one hopes
a bright Russian girl or boy will ask--was the Soviet Union not
bombed by the bloodthirsty warmongers, given that it would not
explode its own nuclear charge until four years later? )

The text does not dwell on what might have made its "former allies"
suspicious of Moscow's intentions in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe
and thus shaped what became known as the "Cold War mentality": the
arrest and trial (on charges of "sabotaging the Red Army") of the
sixteen leaders of the Polish anti- Nazi underground, loyal to the
London-based government-in-exile, after they were promised immunity
and presented themselves to the Soviet headquarters; the squeezing
out of non-communists from the governments of Eastern Europe; the
rigged election in Poland, in direct contravention of the Soviet
Union's pledge in Yalta that there would be a free election there
in which all "anti-Nazi and democratic forces could participate";
the later installation of murderous totalitarian satrapies in
Eastern Europe, and the arrests of hundreds of thousands of
"members of the bourgeoisie," the intelligentsia, and local
political notables (firstly of the non-communist left), and the show
trials and the executions, after horrible torture, of local
communist leaders such as Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria, Laszlo Rajk
in Hungary, and Rudolf Slansky in Czechoslovakia.

Instead, Russian students will learn how regimes of "people's
democracy" were established "with assistance of the Soviet military
administration" in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and
Bulgaria, and how, as a result, "the communists came to power," and
how "overall, the population, which wanted social reforms,
supported the communists' coming to power." The Sovietization of
Eastern Europe is explained by the need to defend vital and
perfectly legitimate national security interests:

It was impossible to sacrifice the security of the USSR. No Russian
government could have afforded to do so. Stalin could not possibly
agree to U.S. -British demands for the return of the pre-war
governments to Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Yugoslavia. For such a
return would have restored the cordon sanitaire [a stretch of
pro-Western, "bourgeois" "buffer" states along Bolshevik Russia's
western borders] erected against the USSR in those lands. Stalin
wanted to create a broad band of communist-led states, which was to
stretch between the Soviet Union and Western Europe. The "Polish
gate" cost the USSR huge sacrifices, and the Soviet government
could not simply hand over the key to it to Washington.

From the beginning, then, the Cold War was a one-sided affair: the
West attacking, the Soviet Union defending itself as best it could.
Among the main lines of this gratuitous assault on Russia was
ideological warfare: "having failed to dislodge the Soviet regime
by force," The Modern History of Russia explains, the United States
"unleashed an ideological war" whose "main tool" was Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty. (And yet Radio Moscow had broadcast in every
language under the sun for decades before and after the war, not to
mention the thousands of pro-Soviet--and often
Soviet-funded--newspapers and magazines around the world, and the
incessant "peace" "congresses," "conferences," "movements," and
"appeals" of the 1940s and early 1950s.) A few pages later the
textbook acknowledges the ruling Soviet doctrine of the
"impossibility of peaceful co-existence between of the socialist and
bourgeois ideology," that is, the permanent ideological war on the
West until the bitter end--without recognizing, of course, the
implications of this admission.

The Cold War--and, by a very short extension, the United States--was
to blame even for the reversal of the very mild "liberalization"
allowed by Stalin during the Great Patriotic War. For, as far as
the textbook's authors are concerned, it goes without saying that
no "democratization of the domestic regime" could be allowed by
Stalin. The "conditions of hostile encirclement," the
reconstruction of the economy, and "the forging of military
capability necessary to resist the U.S. and its allies" required
the "ideological consolidation of the population" and thus the
"strengthening of the state's ideological control over society."

And whatever problems the Cold War may have caused along the way,
the Soviet Union--until Gorbachev, of course--marched from victory
to victory in world affairs. Even the withdrawal of nuclear-tipped
missiles from Cuba in 1962 ended in a "defeat" for the United
States. Another victory was won in the Vietnam war, which had been
caused by the "U.S. aggression against North Vietnam" aimed at the
"liquidation of the communist regime in North Vietnam." In its
capacity as "the guarantor of world stability," the Soviet Union
had no choice but to "state its readiness to render North Vietnam
the assistance necessary to repulse the aggression."

The account of the Soviet role in the Arab-Israeli conflict in The
Modern History of Russia has nothing about the Soviet Union's
massive shipments of armaments and material to Egypt and Syria in
1966-1967; and not a word about the Egyptians' massing troops in
Sinai, and Syria doing the same on the Golan Heights, in May 1967;
or about the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba by Egypt; or of the
Soviet representative at the United Nations blocking any possibility
of the Security Council's addressing Israel's grave concerns (and
thus the resolution of the crisis by peaceful means). Instead, the
textbook repeats the canard of Israel's imminent attack on
Syria--the same lie that Moscow communicated at the time to Egypt
and Syria, thus pushing Egypt still closer to war.

The Six Day War segment of the story concludes with Israel condemned
as "aggressor" by "Resolution 247 of the Security Council" and,
peace-loving to the core and unwilling to keep company with
warmongers of any kind, the Soviet Union's breaking diplomatic
relations with the Jewish state. In fact--but how could any Russian
high school student know this?--U.N. Security Council Resolution
247, adopted in March 1968, re-authorized the U.N. peacekeeping
force in Cyprus. The textbook's authors must have meant Resolution
237, of June 14, 1967--except that there was nothing in that
resolution about Israel's being an "aggressor." And the Yom Kippur
War of 1973, when Soviet-armed Egypt attacked Israel, is not
mentioned at all.

The nuclear arms race was also America's fault. No mention is made
of the Soviet Union's annual churning out of more tanks than the
rest of the world combined, to add to the tens of thousands that
were already deployed in Eastern Europe. There is nothing about the
deployment of the mobile intermediate missiles SS-20 armed with
three nuclear warheads and targeted at western Europe; and nothing
about the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007, with 269
passengers and crew, by the Soviet Air Force on September 1, 1983.

When all is said and done, the "rigorously centralized character of
the political and economic system of government of the Soviet
era"--the word "totalitarian," which became virtually inseparable
from the definition of the Soviet regime during the glasnost
revolution of the late 1980s, and made its way into Gorbachev's and
Yeltsin's speeches, is not used once in the Putinist textbook--is
not to be understood as a product of the deadly ideology of a
"utopia in power," to recall the marvelous title of an "alternative"
Soviet history by two expatriate Russian scholars in the 1980s. Nor
were the "psychological peculiarities of Stalin's personality," as
the authors coyly phrase it, among the primary causes. No, the
responsibility for the bestial regime rests with "objective
conditions": historical, social, economic. The Russian national
tradition is that of "centralization" in the service of
"modernization," and Stalinism was no different, except that the
constant threat of invasion necessitated that "modernization" be
especially speedy, which had the consequence of making the regime
"tougher." Nothing unusual about that. Stalin was no more "tough
and merciless" than Bismarck, who united the German lands by "iron
and blood." Why, even such allegedly "soft" and "flexible"
political systems as that of the United States--the quotation marks
are in the original--tend to evolve toward "hard forms of political
organization" under threat, as happened after September 11.

As for the "measures of coercion"--the word "terror," like
"totalitarianism, " also does not seem to be in the authors'
vocabulary--the "expedited modernization" called for a
"corresponding system of power" and an apparatus capable of the
"realization of the course." Producing such an "apparatus" and
making it "effective" were tasks that may be accomplished "by a
variety of means, which included political repression." The pursuit
of the "maximal effectiveness of the governing apparatus" explained
the fact that, "according to Russian and foreign historians," the
"primary victim" of the "repressions" between 1930 and 1950 was the
ruling class.

In the "plus" column of its "on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand"
assessment of Stalin, the textbook declares him "the most
successful leader of the USSR," responsible for industrialization,
the "cultural revolution," the world's best "system of education,"
the "elimination of unemployment," and also for the ultra-effective
"machinery of power." Conversely, Brezhnev's inability to forge an
equally "effective" elite management--notwithstanding his achieving
nuclear parity with the United States, the feat that forever
secures his place in the pantheon of greatest Russian leaders and
the nation's undying gratitude-- "played a fatal role" in the
Soviet Union's demise.


There is nothing new, of course, in these distortions of Russian
history, or in the czar acting as historian-in-chief. "Like
Providence in reverse, the Russian government seeks to arrange for
the better not the future, but the past, " wrote Alexander Herzen,
Russia's first true (and still rather lonely) liberal. Count
Alexander von Benchendorff, the first head of the infamous Third
Department of His Majesty's Chancery--the secret political police,
or the Gendarmes, set up by Nicholas I in 1826--gave this
instruction to Russian historians: "Russia's past was wonderful,
its present is more than superlative, and when it comes to her
future, it is above anything that the most daring imagination could
conjure. This is the point of view from which Russia's history must
be viewed and written." (Putin has added a portrait of Nicholas I
to the busts and portraits of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great,
and Alexander II in the antechamber of the president's office in
the Kremlin.)

Stalin began, in 1934, with question marks and exclamation points in
the margins of a high school history textbook, and four years later
produced extensive editorial notes and insertions into the drafts
of the Short Course History of the VKP(b)--the acronym stands for
the Russian equivalent of the All- Union Communist Party (the
Bolsheviks)-- which established the guidelines for the writing of
Soviet history for the next fifty years. (Stalin's notes and
interpolations, in small but perfectly legible round letters in
black pen, may soon be viewed on the site of Yale University's
"Cold War Archives" project, led by the indefatigable Jonathan
Brent.) A comparison between Stalin's and Putin's interventions in
Russian historiography seems obvious. The first time as tragedy,
the second time as farce? But there is nothing farcical about the
new round of mendacity in the narrative of Russia's past. The stakes
are too high.

The important point about Putin's reactionary revisionism is that
this time the lies are appearing after the rehabilitation of the
truth. With the advent of glasnost--a genuinely moral revolution,
and a fearless society-wide soul- searching, and an outburst of
decency and courage, and an explosion of journalistic and
intellectual excellence, which almost redeemed the previous seven
decades of cruelty and lies--an accurate account of Russia's history
was established as a condition of Russia's revival. The previously
taught version of the country's history was found to be so
"monstrously distorted," in Izvestia's phrase, that the national
high school examination in history, required for graduation and the
diploma, was abolished in 1988. The exam was restored the following
year, but the old textbooks remained invalid and new ones were
being readied for the ninth and tenth grades.

First and foremost, in the great glasnost moment, it was deemed
imperative to create the political and social mechanisms that
"would firmly block any tilt toward [our] self-exterminating past,"
as the leading literary magazine Znamya put it in the fall of 1987.
Such mechanisms would not work without moral and cultural reform,
which would consist in unflinching self-reckoning and
selfdiscovery. Above all, the renewal of Russia required a sober
and remorseless burning away (vyzhiganie) of any self-delusion.
What we conceal and what we fear is one and the same, wrote a
contributor to perhaps the finest collection of glasnost essays,
Inogo ne dano, or There Is No Other Way, in 1988. If hiding the
truth is a sign of fear, then the revelation of truth is a sign of
the conquest of fear. The road toward a society in which the free
individual flourishes, suggested a literary historian, lies "only
through truth, through really honest self-learning (samopoznanie)
and self-awareness (samosoznanie)." Could it be that all our
misfortunes--including, of course, the horrors of Stalinism--are
"because we have not learned to respect the truth, the truth of our
history?" asked a leading political philosopher. If so, "we must
stop deceiving ourselves.... We can no longer evade truth, engage
in myth-creation. We must trust the truth."

The passionate quest for such a history began with the recovery of
the true dimensions of the devastation wrought by Stalinism. This
national act of acknowledgment and commemoration was thought to be
more than a tribute to the dead. The horrors that Stalinism visited
on Russia had to be recognized in shame and remorse, shuddered and
wailed over, and, most importantly, redeemed by the creation of a
state and a society that would never again allow the country to be
ruled by terror. One must be "horrified to become brave enough" to
condemn and forever break with the past in which most of one's life
was lived, declared a letter to the flagship of glasnost, the
weekly newspaper Moskovskie novosti, in 1988.

It was not too long ago, then, that what Anatoly Rybakov, the author
of the immensely popular anti-Stalinist saga Deti Arbata, or The
Children of Arbat, called "moral cleansing" was the order of the
day. Confronting Stalinism was a matter of the "spiritual health of
the country," its "spiritual hygiene." The troubadours of glasnost
seemed confident that Russia would emerge from this merciless
self-examination as if from a banya, a sauna: bleary-eyed and with
red marks left by the birch twigs, but--at last!--clean, light,
sober, serious, and ready for hard and honest work. The time "of
societal penitence and moral cleansing is come," declared one of
the Soviet Union's most beloved film actors, Georgy Zhzhyonov,
himself a former prisoner in Stalin's camps. "What a wonderful,
capacious word is 'repentance'!" seconded Russia's finest eye
surgeon, Svyatoslav Fyodorov, whose innovative techniques returned
sight to thousands of Russians (and whose father, too, perished in
Stalin's purges). "How fitting it is for our times! To repent, to
tell all without holding anything back in order to begin a better

The full tale of the nightmare had to be recovered and retold not
only as credible and accurate history, but also as a parable to be
read anew by every man and woman, every boy and girl. The memoirs
of survivors, which schoolteachers were instructed to read to
students, were thought by a literary critic at Ogonyok magazine,
that other engine of glasnost, to be the moral equivalent of
"inoculations against cholera, smallpox, or plague." Insofar as
Stalinism justified violence in pursuit of an ideal society, and
offered absolution of guilt in exchange for blind faith, or
complicity, or acquiescence, in terror and lies, de-Stalinization
heralded the end of Soviet history's exclusion from ethical
judgment, the end of an "extra-moral" (vnemoral'noe) attitude to
history, as a young woman instructor in the humanities put it. De-
Stalinization meant a re-moralization of Soviet history and a return
to normal historiography, which, in turn, promised to return to the
Soviet people their country's true history. And so the eventual
publication of the first honest textbook of Russian history, a
veteran schoolteacher wrote in Izvestia in July 1987, would be an
event of national significance.

As usual in the greatest Russian debates, the classics were deployed
to excellent effect. One of Russia's finest poets, Fyodor Tyutchev,
was invoked: "For society, as well as for an individual,
self-knowledge is the first condition of any progress." And then
the uncannily wise Chekhov, by way of Trofimov's soliloquy in Act
II of The Cherry Orchard: "We don't have a definite attitude toward
the past. We only philosophize, complain of ennui, or drink vodka.
But it is so abundantly clear that to begin living in the present
we must first redeem our past and be done with it, and we can
redeem it only by pain and by an extraordinary and constant labor."
And Tolstoy, in a magnificent essay on the sadistic punishment of
soldiers in the reign of Nicholas I and the moral imperative of

We are saying: why remember? Why remember the past? It is no longer
here, is it? Why should we remember it? Why disturb the people?
What do you mean: why remember? If I was gravely ill and I was
cured, I will always remember [the deliverance] with joy. Only then
will I not want to remember, when I am still ill, in the same way
or even more seriously, and I wish to deceive myself.... Why
remember that which has passed? Passed? What has passed? How could
it have passed--that which we not only have not started to
eradicate and heal but are even afraid to call by its name? How
could a brutal illness be cured only by our saying that it is gone?
And it is not going away and will not and cannot go away until we
admit that we are ill. In order to cure an illness one must first
admit that one has it.

And now, to turn all this back, to reverse this great movement of
honesty, to dash this splendid hope and retard this amazing
transformation, comes the cynicism and the corruption of the past
eight years--and this wretched war in Georgia, in which, for the
first time, post-Soviet Russia appears determined to resurrect
invasion and occupation as tools of its foreign policy. When
Russia's historians come to compose their indictment against
Putinism, as they surely will, the charges will prominently include
Vladimir Putin's unforgivable interruption of his country's
renaissance and the subversion of its attainment to moral

Leon Aron, a resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the
American Enterprise Institute, is the author, most recently, of
Russia's Revolution: Essays 1989-2006.

By Leon Aron

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