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Putin vs. the Truth

These were very much the goals of Russian democrats in the 1990s, when organizations like Memorial, a human rights and historical research center representing millions of victims of Soviet repression, were at the height of their authority and often discussed in the public media. It was widely assumed that, if Russia was to become a democracy, if it was to renounce the authoritarian habits of its Soviet past, there had to be a genuine cultural and moral reform of the nation that could only start with an unflinching recognition of the crimes committed in its name during the Stalinist era.

In the 1990s this was understood as an act of national repentance, an exorcism of the past, in which it was tacitly recognized that the whole of society had been collectively responsible for the murderous policies of its leaders. As the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter wrote, it was no good blaming everything on Stalin, when the real power and lasting legacy of his reign of terror was “in the Stalinism that entered into all of us.”8

Many Russians felt uncomfortable about being confronted with these inconvenient truths about their past. They preferred not to think about the past at all, to live their normal lives and think about the future rather than to dwell on what they or their parents might have done to survive the Stalin years: the moral compromises they had made; the people they had lost, forgotten, or renounced; the questions they had never asked. This, after all, was how people had been forced to live in the Soviet Union, and these habits of conformity continued to affect the way they lived after 1991.

Others were resentful about being told they should be ashamed of their country’s history. They had been brought up on the Soviet myths: the liberating power of the October Revolution, the great advances of the Five-Year Plans, the victory against Hitler in 1945, Soviet achievements in culture, science, and technology. Why should they feel guilty about what had happened under Stalin? He had made mistakes, but he had won the war and made the Soviet Union a great power. Why should they tolerate the “blackening” of their history by foreigners? These were the sentiments of Russian “patriots,” and they are the core of the nationalism that underpins the regime of Vladimir Putin.

From the start, Putin understood the importance of historical rhetoric for his nationalist politics, particularly if it played to popular nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union was felt as a humiliation by most Russians. In a matter of a few months they lost everything—an empire, an ideology, an economic system that had given them security, superpower status, national pride, and an identity forged from Soviet history. Soon after the Soviet collapse, the Russians had fallen into poverty and hunger and become dependent on relief from the West, which lectured them about democracy and human rights.

Everything that happened in the 1990s—the hyperinflation, the loss of people’s savings and security, the rampant corruption and criminality, the robber-oligarchs and the drunken president—was a source of national shame. This was the soil in which nostalgia for the Soviet Union grew. Polls in the year that Putin came to power showed that three quarters of the Russian population regretted the breakup of the USSR and wanted Russia to reincorporate “Russian” territories that had been lost, such as the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Putin quickly built up his own historical mythology, combining the Soviet myths (stripped of their Communist packaging) with statist elements from the Russian Empire before 1917. His regime was connected to and sanctioned by a long “Russian tradition” of strong state power—going back to the founder of the empire and of Putin’s native city, Peter the Great.

Through this mythology Putin fostered the idea that Russia’s traditions of authoritarian rule are morally equal to democratic Western traditions, and that Russia will follow its own path of “sovereign democracy,” without lectures from the West. Indeed his supporters often say that Russians value a strong state, economic growth, and security more than the liberal concepts of human rights or democracy, which have no roots in Russian history.


The rehabilitation of Stalin is the most disturbing element of Putin’s historical rhetoric—and the most powerful, for it taps into a deep Russian yearning for a “strong leader.” According to a survey in 2005, 42 percent of the Russian people, and 60 percent of those over sixty years of age, wanted the return of a “leader like Stalin.”9

Putin’s regime has not denied Stalin’s crimes (he has made several speeches acknowledging the victims of the Great Terror of 1937–1938) but it has argued for the need to balance them against Stalin’s achievements as the builder of the country’s “glorious Soviet past.” It is part of the regime’s broader struggle to impose its “patriotic” narrative of Soviet history on the nation’s historical consciousness and to marginalize the collective memory of the Stalinist repressions, perhaps so that people would not draw from it to question the return of authoritarian rule.

At a national conference of high school teachers in Moscow in June 2007, Putin complained about the “mess and confusion” that he perceived in the teaching of Soviet history and called for “common standards” to be introduced in Russian schools.10 The following discussion then took place:

A conference participant: In 1990–1991 we disarmed ideologically. [We adopted] a very uncertain, abstract ideology of 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….

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 so.

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.

In his concluding speech to the history teachers, Putin said:

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….11

Four days after the conference, the Duma introduced a law, which was quickly passed, empowering the Ministry of Education to decide which textbooks should be published and which should be used in Russian schools.

The history textbook favored by the government was heavily promoted by government officials attending the conference. Indeed it later turned out that The Modern History of Russia, 1945–2006: A Teacher’s Handbook12 had been directly commissioned by the presidential administration itself, which had issued the following guidelines to the textbook’s authors about how they should evaluate the leaders of the period:

Stalin—good (strengthened vertical power but no private property); Khrushchev—bad (weakened vertical power); Brezhnev—good (for the same reasons as Stalin); Gorbachev and Yeltsin—bad (destroyed the country but under Yeltsin there was private property); Putin—the best ruler (strengthened vertical power and private property).13

The main author of the textbook is Alexander Filippov, the deputy director of a foreign policy think-tank closely connected to the Putin administration. But the chapter on “Sovereign Democracy” was written by Pavel Danilin, the thirty-one-year-old Kremlin propagandist and editor in chief of www.kremlin.org, a man without a history degree or experience of teaching anything. Danilin said in an interview:

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 precisely in this way that teachers must teach history and not smear the Motherland with mud.14

In his blog (where he goes by the name of Leteha) Danilin warned any history teachers who might be unhappy about the imposition of this positive message:

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…. It is impossible to let some Russophobe shit-stinker (govniuk), 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.15

The first use of force in this ideological battle came on December 4, 2008, when a group of masked men from the Investigative Committee of the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office forced their way with police truncheons into the St. Petersburg offices of Memorial, which for twenty years has pioneered the research of Stalinist repressions in the Soviet Union. After a search the men confiscated hard drives containing the entire archive of Memorial in St. Petersburg: databases containing biographical information on more than 50,000 victims of repression; details about burial sites in the Petersburg area; family archives, memoirs, letters, sound recordings, transcripts of interviews, photographs, and other documents about the history of the Gulag and the Soviet Terror from 1917 to the 1960s (including the materials I collected with Memorial in St. Petersburg for my book The Whisperers16). Among the confiscated items was the entire collection of materials in the Virtual Gulag Museum (gulagmuseum.org), a much-needed initiative to rescue precious artifacts, photographs, and documents from more than a hundred small exhibits under threat across Russia (a country where there is just one substantial museum of the Gulag, Perm-36, in the Urals).17

There is no mistaking the intended message of the raid. It took place on the eve of a large international conference in Moscow on “The History of Stalinism: Results and Problems of Study”—the first conference on such a scale—organized by the commissioner of human rights for the Russian Federation, the Yeltsin Foundation, the State Archive of the Russian Federation, the Institute for Scientific Information for the Social Sciences, the publisher Rosspen (which has published many of the document collections from the Stalin archives), and the Memorial Society.

Meanwhile, there were two articles attacking Memorial in the December special issue of Russkii zhurnal (Russian Journal), “On the Politics of Memory,” published to coincide with the opening of the Moscow conference, where it was distributed among the delegates. The articles signaled the beginning of an ideological struggle against Memorial and other “anti-patriotic elements” that had tried to “weaken Russia” by burdening it with a sense of guilt over its own history. “Russia has ceased to be the sovereign of its own historical memory, which is now in danger of being taken over by foreign inventions,” wrote Gleb Pavlovskii, the journal’s editor and an adviser to Putin,18 in one of the attacks on Memorial, an article entitled “Bad with Memory—Bad with Politics.”19Russkii zhurnal is closely aligned to the Kremlin’s thinking on foreign policy and ideology. Danilin is a frequent contributor to the magazine. His book Vragi Putina (The Enemies of Putin ) was published by Pavlovskii.20

Whatever the intentions of this disturbing campaign, it is unrealistic for the current regime in Russia to attempt to alter the historical record of Stalin’s crimes. The opening of the archives, the publication of their documents by international initiatives like the Annals of Communism, and the work of organizations like Memorial have made that impossible, and although the archives have begun to close again in recent years, they cannot return to the way they worked in Soviet days. However, as long as the regime continues to supress the collective memory of repression and seeks to replace it with its “patriotic” myth of the Soviet past, there is little hope of Russia confronting its Stalinist inheritance, or becoming a genuine democracy, at peace with its neighbors and the world. For the moment, all the West can do is show support for Russian institutions trying to preserve the memory of repression in the Soviet Union. This year, for the third time in three years, the Memorial Society has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps it is time for it to win.

—April 1, 2009

  1. 8

    Mikhail Gefter, “V predchuvstvii proshlogo,” Vek XX n mir, No. 9 (1990), p. 29.

  2. 9

    Moscow News, March 4, 2005.

  3. 10

    What Putin had in mind had been signaled at a meeting with historians in November 2003 when Putin said that textbooks should “cultivate a sense of pride in Russia’s history, a sense of pride in the country, especially in young people.” Shortly before his speech on that occasion, the Ministry of Education had withdrawn approval from Igor Dolutsky’s Otechestvennaia istoriia XX veka dlia 10-11-x klassov (National History of the Twentieth Century for the 10th and 11th Grades), which had sold more than half a million copies in multiple editions since 1994 and served as a textbook in high schools throughout Russia. Dolutsky’s textbook was a model of Western pedagogical standards: it used archival documents and presented different views at the end of each chapter. But it drew comparisons between the Stalinist and Nazi systems of repression and invited students to discuss whether Russia had become a democracy after 1991. Such provocative questions had prompted the ministry’s ban, with one official quoted as saying that the textbook “encourages contempt for our past and for the Russian people.”

  4. 11

    Cited from the translation in the excellent article by Leon Aron, “The Problematic Pages,” The New Republic, September 24, 2008.

  5. 12

    Alexander Filippov, Noveishaia istoriia Rossii, 1945–2006: Kniga dlia uchitelia (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 2007).

  6. 13

    Kommersant—Vlast’, No. 27 (371), July 16, 2007.

  7. 14

    Aron, “The Problematic Pages.”

  8. 15

    See leteha.livejournal.com; cited from the translation by Leon Aron.

  9. 16

    On March 2, 2009, the Moscow publishing house Atticus Group (Inostranka) canceled a contract to publish The Whisperers in Russia.

  10. 17

    See my letter on the raid in these pages, January 15, 2009. On January 20, 2009, an appeal against the raid (which was carried out with a number of illegal irregularities) was upheld by the Dzerzhinsky Regional Court, which ordered the return of all the confiscated materials to Memorial; on February 24, this decision was overturned by the City Court of St. Petersburg after an appeal by the Procuracy of St. Petersburg. At the time of writing, the confiscated archive remains in the hands of the police.

  11. 18

    In 2005, he was accused by the Ukrainian authorities of organizing the poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, an accusation Pavlovskii has denied.

  12. 19

    Gleb Pavlovskii, “Plokho s pamiat’iu—plokho s politikoi,” Russkii zhurnal, December 2008.

  13. 20

    Pavel Danilin, Vragi Putina (Moscow: Evropa, 2007).

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