Roving thoughts and provocations

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Springtime for Stalin

Sergei Supinsky/Getty
People attending the unveiling of a new Joseph Stalin monument, Zaporizhia, Ukraine, May 5, 2010

Three and a half months after a Ukrainian court convicted Stalin of genocide against the Ukrainian nation during the famine of 1932–1933, a new monument in honor of the Soviet dictator has been erected in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia. Separating the two events was this year’s Ukrainian presidential election, in which Viktor Yushchenko, who had pursued a radically anti-Stalinist memory policy, was defeated and replaced by Viktor Yanukovych, who promised to avoid extremes and unite the nation. Though Yanukovych would prefer to steer clear of such ostentatious nostalgia for Stalin, he is responsible for a remarkable change in mood.

In his final months in office, Yuschchenko favored an ill-considered “trial” against Stalin and other long-dead defendants as a way to define the history of Ukraine’s past within the Soviet Union; Yanukovych, by contrast, has overseen the formation of a new coalition government that includes the Communist Party of Ukraine. Rather than simply letting his predecessor’s strident anti-communism fade into the past, the new president has pronounced on Ukrainian history in a contrary spirit. Thus, Yanokovych told the Council of Europe in late April that the deliberate starvation of the three million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine by the Stalinist regime was not genocide, but rather a “common tragedy for all people who lived in the former Soviet Union.” His bland formulation blurs important truths.

While it is true that Stalin’s policy of collectivization—the state seizure of farmland and the coercive employment of peasants—brought enormous suffering throughout the USSR in the early 1930s, it is also true that Stalin made deliberate decisions about grain requisitions and livestock seizures that brought death to three million people in Ukraine who did not have to die. Some of the very worst of the killing took place in southeastern Ukraine, where Stalin is now being celebrated and where Yanukovych has his political base. The famine destroyed that region’s rural society by killing many, cowing more, and permitting the immigration of people from beyond Ukraine—chiefly Russians, some of whom inherited the homes of the starved. The cult of Stalin is thus no empty symbol in Ukraine; it is a mark of active identification with a person who owed his mastery of Ukraine to a campaign of death.

Against this background, the new Stalin monument in Zaporizhia has disturbing implications. Yanukovych himself would have preferred the city to have held a local referendum before erecting the monument, as has been the custom with public monuments in other Ukrainian cities. But the district committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine in Zaporizhia proudly declared on its Web site that the action was entirely legal. However that may be, the monument stands.

Communism is remembered for its killing, but communists ruled and repressed by subtler methods most of the time. In Yanukovych’s Ukraine, other signs of the Stalinist past, less prominent but perhaps more frightening, are beginning to resurface. As students organize protests of Yanukovych’s policies in western and central Ukraine, the Ukrainian secret service has returned to the discredited approaches of its institutional predecessor, the Ukrainian branch of the old Soviet KGB. Its officers now approach the rectors of universities and ask them sign statements that amount to promises of loyalty.

The premise is subtle but effective: the rectors take cognizance of the fact that students might be arrested and imprisoned. Then, when students are arrested and imprisoned, the secret service shows the students the letter, thus breaking their trust in the university system. The secret service keeps the letter, which also serves as an instrument of blackmail for university officials who later might think of refusing their cooperation. What seems at first like an anodyne acceptance of police authority quickly becomes a tool to force cooperation. These statements were the institutional basis for the effective collaboration of millions of people with the old communist regime. They had disappeared from independent Ukraine; now they return.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian secret services seem to have accepted a rather surprising concession: their colleagues in Russia’s FSB now have the open right, confirmed be an agreement between the two agencies on May 19, to act on Ukrainian sovereign territory. Late last year Ukraine was expelling Russian secret service officers; now it is inviting them back. In the Russian and the Ukrainian press, analysts speculate that the Russian officers will recruit from retired staffers and sailors of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The change coincides with debates in the Russian parliament about the “strategic” use of ethnic Russians beyond Russia’s borders. The Crimean Peninsula, where the Russian fleet docks, is the only part of Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority.

According to the treaty signed in April between Ukraine and the Russia, the Russian naval force will have the right to base at the Ukrainian port at Sevastopol until 2047. This makes NATO and EU membership very unlikely for Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Thus Yanukovych takes a political argument away from his political opponents, who say that they are the ones who can lead Ukraine into western institutions. If Russian military forces are to be stationed in Ukraine for the political lifetime of anyone now active in politics, which is what the thirty-year extension amounts to (Russian already had basing rights until 2017), it is hard to see how the conversation about joining NATO and the EU will even be possible in Kiev.

All of this represents a step backward for Ukraine, but the biggest loser—ironically—is probably Russia. Moscow will pay for basing rights in Crimea by subsidizing natural gas in Ukraine, a gain for the Ukrainian but a loss for the Russian budget. Moscow gets little of significance in return but the certainty of decades of headaches. The Black Sea Fleet is an important political presence in southern Ukraine, and that is precisely the problem for Russia. The very last thing Russia needs is to be drawn into imperial competition for Ukraine. Russian statebuilding (whether democratic or not) depends precisely on the ability of Russian politicians to attend to the obvious problems within their own country, rather than creating permanent distractions for themselves and their successors abroad.

Russian civil society is also threatened by endorsement of Stalin from beyond Russia’s borders. The plane crash that killed Poland’s president and ninety-five other Poles in April provoked a Russian conversation not only about the shootings of Poles at Katyn, which Polish dignitaries were coming to commemorate, but about Stalinist killing in general. Both Putin and Medvedev have encouraged not only political commemoration of the tragedy of Katyn, but also these broader discussions. At just such a moment, it is to be rued that viewers of Russian television watch a monument to Stalin erected in Ukraine, a land that suffered under Stalin even more than Russia itself.

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