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.