Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussion of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen and Batchelor have a spirited discussion of Cohen’s thesis that the political legacies of American slavery and of Stalin’s Great Terror, which engulfed the Soviet Union from the mid 1930s until the despot’s death in 1953, have had, and continue to have, similar consequences. Having grown up in the Jim Crow South and later become a historian of the Soviet Stalinist and post-Stalinist eras, Cohen acknowledges that his perceptions may have been influenced by his autobiography. He also acknowledges important differences between the black victims of American slavery and the more diverse victims of the Stalinist Terror. But, he argues, the historical and political consequences have been similar. Most notably:
§ Both events victimized many millions of people and were formative chapters in the histories of the two political systems and societies.
§ For decades, in both countries, subsequent generations were not taught the stark truth about these monstrous events in their national histories. For example, neither Cohen nor Batchelor learned in school that many founding fathers of American democracy were slave owners. And the beginning of partial truth-telling about Stalin’s Terror began in the Soviet Union only in the mid-1950s and early ’60s, under Nikita Khrushchev, and then was stopped officially for another 20 years until Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in 1985, when it was more fully exposed as part of his reformation policy known as glasnost.
§ Both traumas produced citizens with very different life experiences and equally conflicting narratives of their own lives and their national histories. The result was constant political, social, and economic conflicts over many years, some of them dramatic and even violent. At the forefront were often descendants of both the victims and the victimizers. (Cohen’s book The Victims Return focuses on this dimension of the Stalinist Terror and its aftermath.)
§ One aspect of the controversy in both countries has been ongoing conflict over existing monuments and other memorials erected decades ago honoring leading victimizers in the American slave and Soviet Stalinist eras, and what to do about them in light of what is now known about these historical figures. The recent events in Charlottesville are only one example, as are Russian controversies about sites that still honor Stalin and his henchmen.
§ A profound, even traumatic historical-political question underlies these conflicts in both countries. How to separate the “crimes” committed by the historical figures still honored from the glorious national events with which their names are associated—in the American case, with the founding of American democracy; in the Russian case, with the great Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, led by Stalin? And if the “crimes” are paramount, who else, and what else, should be deleted from their place of honor in the respective national histories? No consensus regarding this ramifying question has been achieved in either society. Both have their consensus-seekers and their “alts,” and with no resolution in sight. (On this issue, Cohen explains his own opposition to destroying such historical monuments.)
Cohen ends by pointing out that Putin, since coming to power in 2000, has played an essential but little-understood role in trying to cope with this decades-long controversy in Russia. Having inherited a political system whose state had collapsed twice in the 20th century, in 1917 and again in 1991, his first mission was to create a state that would never again disintegrate, with all the attendant social and other miseries that had entailed. For this, he needed an effective degree of historical consensus about the conflicting Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet pasts. Unlike most previous Kremlin rulers, Putin has not sought to impose a new historical orthodoxy through censorship and the educational system but to let society—through the agency of historians, journalists, broadcast and movie producers and others—sort out history by presenting their rival perspectives. The widespread view in the US media that Putin has been a neo-Stalinist in these matters is factually incorrect. There is virtually no historical censorship in Russia today, and the revealing Stalin-era archives generally remain as accessible as they were under his purportedly more democratic predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in some cases even more so.
Indeed, Putin has played what can only be understood as an anti-Stalinist role, sometimes behind the scenes. In the United States, there is, for example, no national museum dedicated solely to the history of slavery. In 2015, there opened in Moscow, with Putin’s essential political and financial backing, a large, modern-day Museum of the History of the Gulag, the penal labor camps in which millions of Stalin’s victims languished virtually as slaves and often died. Though opposed by the Ministry of Education, Putin has indicated that he agrees with the museum’s leadership that schoolchildren should visit the museum as part of their historical education. This struggle also continues.
The year 2017—which marks both the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and the 80th anniversary of the onset of Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937—has enhanced the controversy and framed it in a new way. With Putin’s agreement, the large and important Russian Communist Party will organize the celebration of the 1917 Revolution with major public events in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, most of them in October. These Communist commemorations will feature prominently Stalin’s image. But on October 30, the first-ever national monument memorializing the victims of Stalin’s Terror will be unveiled in central Moscow. The October 30 event, as Cohen also learned during a recent visit to Moscow, will feature Putin, who will personally unveil the anti-Stalinist monument, even though a large number of Russians will certainly disapprove. (A recent survey of Russian opinion found Stalin to be “the most admired figure in history,” followed by Putin and Alexander Pushkin.)
For political perspective, consider that such a national monument was first proposed by Khrushchev in 1961. It remained unbuilt under every subsequent Kremlin leader, including Yeltsin and Gorbachev, until Putin made it possible. But this will not end (perhaps only exacerbate) Russia’s long struggle over its past any more than what a US president does or does not do regarding America’s history of slavery will end its lingering political consequences. As William Faulkner reminded us, and many historians have long understood, such past traumas and their politics are never really past. In the Russian case, consider also that worsening Cold War with the West, as we are now witnessing, always further embellishes Stalin’s popular and official reputation. This is another reason why Putin did not instigate the new Cold War, also contrary to US political-media opinion.