Haunted by Stalin
History Today
September 2009


Catherine Merridale


The rebirth of history in Russia began at least two years before the European turning point of 1989. It was Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, launched in 1986, that encouraged the tentative debates, discussions that were sponsored initially by the Kremlin itself. As a graduate student in Moscow University’s Faculty of History in 1986, I watched the process unfolding and I followed its gathering momentum during the next three years. The debates were unforgettable and culminated in a crisis so profound that school and university examinations in history had to be cancelled. Textbooks, teachers and curricula faced ignominy; the old questions were irrelevant. It was as if the past had come to life after more than 70 years, breaking through the tissue of political illusion to reclaim its place at the centre of Russia’s national imagination.

First came the so-called ‘revelations’. One after another, Lenin’s revolutionary comrades were rescued from historical obscurity. Even to pronounce their names had once been a dangerous mistake, but now their achievements were praised and the stories of their imprisonment, torture and judicial murder were narrated in graphic, fully documented detail. More shocking still, however, was the unraveling of official truths, the questioning, over the next two or three years, of Stalin’s economic policies, Lenin’s Civil War tactics and, finally, the justification for the 1917 October Revolution itself. With that last step, the entire Soviet Marxist experiment was discredited. It was no coincidence that the Soviet regime’s final reckoning should have arrived at just this point but, however dramatic the news stories from Moscow, history usually enjoyed an equal billing, not least because it was predictable. The names of the long dead, of Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky and, later, Tsar Nicholas II continued to merit front-page coverage throughout Gorbachev’s premiership. As Eastern Europe’s people gathered to defeat dictatorship, their cousins in Soviet Russia were preparing, with a similar courage, to confront the possibility that their 70-year march to Communism had been a sham.


Twenty years on, the region as a whole has changed, not just in terms of politics but also physically. Russia’s major cities look brighter, brasher, their drab geography transformed by the glare of capitalism. Moscow’s once-bleak and still windswept heart is now a maze of dazzling malls where shoppers jostle for Swiss watches, diamonds and designer furs. It would be easy to conclude – though it would be a mistake to do so ­– that Moscow’s middle class is too busy in the present to bother about the past. The public hunger for historical facts, for revelations and confessions, has certainly evaporated, while the number of university students enrolling on history courses has dropped, a striking change to set beside the queues for business studies, economics, marketing and law.


Yet though the appeal of serious historical research has declined, resurgent Russia’s national identity relies almost entirely on a reading of the past, a tale of progress and triumph whose shaping owes a lot to direct government intervention. Liberal commentators in and outside Russia have begun to talk of a return to the bad old ways.


The scramble to expose Soviet lies was never likely to last long. Since it was part of the collective impatience with economic stagnation and corrupt, failing government, the public craving for facts was satisfied, or largely so, when the Soviet regime fell. At that point, too, there were more urgent pressures in most people’s lives, for the economy collapsed soon after the end of Gorbachev’s presidency and for much of the early 1990s Russians contended with physical hunger, cold, uncertainty and the very real danger of civil war. An underlying anxiety of another kind was gnawing away, too, for the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the accompanying loss of empire and ideological purpose struck many Russians like a personal blow. The past became a difficult place: confusing, even tinged with shame.


While popular history faded, however, more formal scholarship enjoyed a brilliant, if impoverished, decade. Where Gorbachev had led, Boris Yeltsin followed. Research and teaching flourished, and in the 1990s the newly constituted Russian Federation introduced some of the world’s most generous laws on archival access. Older scholars, used to more repressive rules, sometimes had trouble with the new freedom, but the best of them, and many of their eager students, embarked on an ambitious program of research and writing, producing work that offered fresh interpretations as well as newly-rediscovered facts. Many of these young Turks are mature scholars now. It is largely thanks to them that so many old paradigms, including the totalitarian model of Soviet politics, have disappeared from the research agenda. New thinking, especially about Stalinism and Soviet society, has become established in the international academic mainstream.


All this was happening at a time of stress and recrimination, however. The investigative historians were too easily seen as cannibals, the kind who feast upon the people’s suffering body. It did not help that the most conspicuous audience for their material was not the embattled Russian people but foreign scholars, many of whom were also enjoying the archival bonanza. There were always domestic audiences for writing – nationalistic writing, that is – on the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War (and smart new editions of documents, memoirs and popular war histories continue to crowd the shelves of bookshops) but, at a time when Russia faced a crisis of self-confidence, the appetite for books that explored the dismal aspects of its past diminished. Paradoxically, the 1990s were also the best years for Memorial, the research and campaigning organization dedicated to the public understanding, support and commemoration of Communism’s victims, but popular enthusiasm for such initiatives was fickle. As Russians struggled to recover their collective purpose, a nostalgia for the certainties of Stalin’s time resurfaced. For some, the steady flow of soul-searching and criticism began to smell of treachery.


Memorial continues to make progress in its mission to explore and commemorate the Stalinist past. Through its branches in many Russian cities, it has collected a formidable archive of oral testimony, personal letters and photographs. Its researchers have also documented (and sometimes literally unearthed) important sites, including former Gulag camps and mass burial grounds. Its commemorative mission has produced scores of memorials, some simple stones, some monuments, many associated with the specially-constructed Orthodox chapels where dwindling bands of survivors and their families gather to remember and pray. Memorial also continues to support living victims, providing the material help that many have needed in the fast-changing and inflationary world they now inhabit.


The scale of Memorial’s activity, however, fades to a glimmer when compared with the resources and public effort devoted to the memory of Stalin’s war. There was always a surreal tension between the victims of repression and the veterans of war (as if both were not, in different ways, equally subject to the brutality of Stalinist politics), but for some years now, and certainly since the 60th anniversary of Soviet victory in May 2005, the war has occupied the limelight. This is no accident; the Patriotic War serves as Russia’s national shibboleth, the proof of its collective strength and virtue in the modern age. In the ten years since Vladimir Putin came to power, commemoration has grown ever more elaborate. First there were the colored flags that people fixed to cars (these seemed to materialize in response to America’s post-9/11 sea of stars and stripes), then came the television coverage, the public ceremonial, the solemn mood. The 50th anniversary of the Soviet victory, in 1995, passed with little public show. By 2005, a clutch of new ‘traditions’ had appeared and at the centre of them all, on every television screen, loomed the face of Putin himself. A state that had made a poor job of its only war (in Chechnya), and whose leader had never tramped through battlefield mud, borrowed its martial glory by inventing a new kind of past.


Memorial, meanwhile, was reporting increasing harassment. The St Petersburg branch was raided in December 2008 and electronic data from its archive seized. Although the raid was later condemned, it seemed as if that taint of treachery had stuck. Part of the explanation for this, and also for the bleak spectacle of Stalin’s unofficial rehabilitation, lies with the current government, with its desire to build a statist, patriotic politics, a new authoritarianism. The fact that many government officials, including Putin himself, began their careers in the Soviet security force, the KGB, is also relevant, for Memorial is the nemesis of every secret police force since the days of Lenin’s Cheka, run by the aristocratic Bolshevik Felix Dzerzhinskii. Underlying Memorial’s unpopularity, however, and feeding the current enthusiasm for strong, centrist, managerial rule, is a kind of amnesia, a false memory of Stalinism. The key here was Russia’s failure to deal decisively with the criminal aspects of its Communist decades when there was still a chance. As The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky put it in 2008, the publications of the glasnost years seem to have been swallowed without being digested.


The country’s rapid collapse in the 1990s was part of the problem. Another was the accompanying failure of collective nerve. Yeltsin put the Communist Party as an institution on trial, but criminal charges were never brought against the many living interrogators, torturers, embezzlers, bullies and rapists. Russia, unlike South Africa, had no Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The moment when such a thing might have happened – sometime in 1992 or 1993 – coincided with a time of deep uncertainty and many argued that self-flagellation was a poor method of crisis management. The deeper truth, however, was that people feared to look so piercingly at themselves. Almost every family had its secret. As a result, the real crooks, many of whom remained in their influential administrative roles, never faced justice. More seriously still, the case against Stalinist methods, Communism’s legacy and even against Stalin personally, remained moot. Such an omission was bound to influence understandings of history and it left the door open for today’s revival of popular chauvinism. When Putin reintroduced the Stalinist national anthem, with all its associations, in 2000, a majority of Russian citizens supported him.

That interaction between Russia’s people and its increasingly manipulative government is the key to understanding how history has changed in the past decade. It is the Kremlin’s view that Russia needs a coherent story and that the tale should not only encourage romantic patriotism but that it should, in the process, justify the kind of centralized government that Putin and his aides desire. In return, a significant portion of Russia’s people seem drawn to escapism and epic; swashbuckling, after all, is much more fun than repentance. At first, the war took the lion’s share of the nation’s commemorative energy but, in a major break with the Soviet era, Russia no longer concentrates its focus entirely on the years since 1917. The fall of Communism led to a major reconsideration of the alternative and hagiographic accounts of Nicholas II’s reign soon followed. In 1998 the bones of the last tsar were reburied in the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in St Petersburg. The act lent much-needed splendor to Yeltsin’s ailing presidency, but it also seemed to meet a public need. Russians had missed the sense of mission that Soviet power gave. Now they could dream of empire and of greatness once again.


There is a problem with imperial Russia, however, and it turns out to be that era’s European mode. A decade ago, aspiring Russians wished for nothing more than to be part of the wider European (and American) prosperity, to send their children to English public schools such as Eton or Millfield. The mood (it seemed to call for acres of gold leaf) chimed perfectly with the popular nostalgia for late tsarist elegance. But that hankering for Europe – in cultural terms as much as in diplomatic and trade relations – brought disappointment. Russia’s more assertive international stance since 2004 has encouraged a militant Slavophilism at home and the chunk of history that fosters that is the pre-Petrine age, a time when Russians were still distinctive, still bearded, robed, remote from casual European eyes. On a recent visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition of Russian court costume, The Magnificence of the Tsars, I heard a Russian friend lamenting that the costumes were ‘all European, not Russian at all’. She meant, of course, that there was nothing Muscovite on show. The uniforms and robes all dated, at the earliest, from the 18th century. Ironically, the outfit she preferred was Nicholas II’s fancy dress for the so-called ‘Muscovite ball’ of 1903, an occasion when the entire court, giving way to a nostalgia not unlike today’s, donned versions of the suffocating robes (but not, presumably, in the women’s case, the veils) that nobles used to wear in the age of the first Romanov tsars.


That same nostalgia plays out in Russian cinemas. Several films released on the eve of the 2008 presidential elections recreated Russia’s past for new audiences. The $12 million epic 1612, released in 2007, showed how an invasion from Poland was heroically repulsed by manly Russian patriots. As history, the story was impossibly flawed – in fact, the Kremlin was in the hands of an invited Polish army at this point and Russia was tearing itself apart in civil war – but the film, with its simple messages of Russian glory and Polish evil, proved popular. It also underscored another, rather different piece of Putinite rebranding. With the fall of Communism, the national holiday on November 7th, which celebrated the Bolshevik Revolution, had become an embarrassment, too popular to abandon but too discredited to enjoy. Since 2005, however, the holiday has been shifted back to November 4th and repackaged as ‘Russian Unity Day’, a celebration of the ‘1612’ version of Moscow’s liberation from the Poles, also, coincidentally, an opportunity for ultra-nationalist demonstrations. On television, meanwhile, another pre-election hit, a film about Byzantium, was praised for describing a state with which Russians could identify, the epitome of benevolent, all-powerful and religious authoritarianism. No irony was intended and the film was presented by Vladimir Putin’s own religious confessor.

School textbooks, which also enjoy close official scrutiny, are now designed to reinforce this assertive mood. The next generation, it seems, will not be obliged to wallow in Memorial’s brand of collective guilt. In 2008, schoolchildren studying the period since 1945 were introduced to a textbook that glossed over Stalin’s crimes, explaining them as a necessary stage in Soviet Russia’s economic growth. While Russian patriotism was celebrated, other kinds of nationalism were written out of the new tale, including that of Second World War-era independence fighters in the Baltic and Ukraine.


Heroes and horseback chases are part of the new popular history, magical unicorns (they feature prominently in 1612) and mythic spirituality is another. What is missing, generally, is reputable historical research. The easiest way to test the market is to visit a large bookshop, perhaps the celebrated one on Moscow’s Tverskaya Street. Here, twenty years ago, the history section was a curious mix of dull but well-produced official tomes and new but cheaply made research-based books, some little more than pamphlets, featuring secrets from the state archives. The publication quality of these ‘new’ histories gradually improved (the prices went up, too) and by the early 1990s they had been joined by translations of English-language classics such as Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror and Robert Tucker’s multi-volume biography of Stalin. Today, by contrast, the shelves bear little new research and precious few translations. History occupies a very large space in the store and the section is always packed with readers (and, sometimes, potential buyers), but they are being offered very different fare. The books are smarter, hardbacked and expensively illustrated, but the overwhelming majority of them are reprints of 19th-century classics such as Nikolai Karamzin’s great patriotic history of Russia. As books, they are beautiful, but as history they collectively affirm that Russia’s destiny is special and unique.


These are the kinds of change that liberals deplore and it is easy, when tracing developments over two decades, to adopt a pessimistic tone. It would be a mistake, however, to talk about a return to the past. Russia is not simply regressing to its Soviet self, nor can it do. For one thing, the intellectual energy of the 1980s has not entirely dissipated. Indeed, a better-taught and more sophisticated generation of historians continues to work, albeit under financial constraints, and a glance at any Russian website will show the results. The agenda may have changed (and this is not necessarily unhealthy), but there is plenty of new work. The study of ethnic nationalism is a growing field, for instance, as is research into late tsarism. Muscovite Russia, too, has benefited from the wider interest and scholars are exploring neglected sources with a new sensitivity, especially on matters of religious belief and mentalities. Beyond the academic institutes, local initiatives, some sponsored by Memorial, yield essays and research projects by students and schoolchildren; their history is still alive. My own experience of teaching Russian teenagers confirms this view. While some are bored by 20th-century history (starved of the truth, it can seem rather grey), their curiosity about the past is as vigorous as ever.


Technology has brought more irreversible change. It seems amazing now, but the debates of the 1980s were held without benefit of blogs or mobile telephones. Since then, Russians have taken to the Internet with enthusiasm and they use it with a bilingual skill that puts most foreigners to shame. Even those who read only Russian can find numerous sites for history, some delivering source material (including the texts of classic books) and others presenting new research. Sources can also be located using search engines designed for Cyrillic script. To be sure, there are sites for every kind of taste, including homes for Stalinists, monarchists and people who think that unicorns still canter over Russian soil, but pluralism, within bounds, ought to be welcomed after seven decades of state censorship. Cultural exchanges and debates are not confined to the virtual world, either. Russians are among Europe’s most dedicated travelers. They do not live in ignorant seclusion and what is true for tourists also holds good for scholarship. In the 1960s, Harvard University’s Richard Pipes held a major conference on the Russian Revolution without inviting a single Soviet academic. To do so now, with Russians among the foremost scholars in this field, would be unthinkable and the debate is very much two-way.


The promoters of Russia’s popular films and glibber textbooks might also argue, in answer to the criticisms leveled here, that the taste for costume drama, cinematic warfare and epic heroes is not a Russian monopoly. International audiences certainly enjoyed another 2007 blockbuster, Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol. The point is, however, that the market is not the only driving force behind the more blatant historical confections, let alone the new textbooks. History is deliberately being used once again in a society whose sense of nationhood and entire discourse about politics has long been more deeply historical than is usually the case. As the US scholar James Billington once put it: ‘The highest good in Muscovy was not knowledge but memory.’ In a society where argument and democratic give and take have little purchase, the authority of precedent, of control over the past (and, by implication, over the direction of the future) plays a crucial part in conferring political legitimacy.


Lenin and his successors knew this, of course, and history was one of the academic disciplines that the Soviet government directed most closely. Its publicists also staged festivals and built monuments to promulgate their version of it, commemorating Communist martyrs even as they tore down reminders of tsarist ones. The Soviet brand of history was potent and persuasive; even its critics confess to nostalgia for the red flags and the music. No intellectual reassessment and certainly no post-Soviet election has evoked collective gaiety on such a scale. But, even as Putin and Medvedev nurture a new sacerdotal nationalism, they are playing to the same gallery and using similar tools.


The historical revolution of the late 1980s and 1990s was exhilarating for me as a foreigner, but for many Russians it involved a traumatic reassessment of their lives. As Russia entered the flawed process that was called ‘transition’, there was little time to reflect and much incentive to evade further consideration of the past. Even when Communist power had gone and even as some Gulag camps were turning into tourist destinations, the old Soviet mentality (suspicious but assertive), Soviet language (simplistic and impoverished) and Soviet expectations of the future (boundlessly ambitious) thrived within people’s minds. There was never a decisive turn away from these values and nothing has emerged since that competes with them. Stalin’s ghost still walks, in other words, and, though it is easy to condemn the Kremlin’s new occupants for invoking it in their pursuit of power and wealth, the strategy could work only because a large proportion of Russia’s people was ready to welcome the old villain home with open arms.


Catherine Merridale is professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary University in London