Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
In November 1961, at the end of a Community Party Congress that publicly condemned Stalin’s crimes, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev unexpectedly called for the building of a national memorial to the tens of millions of victims of Stalin’s nearly 25-year reign, much of it accompanied by mass terror. During the next five decades, a fierce political struggle raged between anti-Stalinists and pro-Stalinists, sometimes publicly but often behind the scenes, over whether the victims should be memorialized or deleted from history through repression and censorship. On October 30 of this year, Russia’s anti-Stalinists finally won this struggle when Putin officially and personally inaugurated, in the center of Moscow, a large memorial sculpture named “Wall of Sorrow” depicting the victims’ fate. Though nominally dedicated to all victims of Soviet repression, the monument was clearly—in word, deed, and design—focused on the Stalin years, from 1929 to his death in 1953.
Cohen explains that he has spent decades studying the Stalin era, during which he came to know personally many surviving victims of the mass terror and had closely observed various aspects of the struggle over their subsequent place in Soviet politics and history. (This history and Cohen’s is recounted in his book The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin.) As a result, he and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, felt a compelling need to be present at the ceremony on October 30. Having gained access to the semi-closed event, attended perhaps by some 300 people (including officials, representatives of anti-Stalinist memorial organizations, aged survivors, relatives of victims, and the mostly Russian press), they flew to Moscow for the occasion.
Cohen gave Batchelor his firsthand account of the event, at which Putin, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and a representative of a memorial organization, Vladimir Lukin (whom Cohen had known since 1976, when Lukin was a semi-dissident outcast in Moscow, and later a post-Soviet Russian ambassador to Washington), spoke. The formal ceremony began just after 5 pm and lasted, after a choir’s hymns, about 45 minutes. At first, Cohen felt it was marred by the dark, cold, rainy weather, until he heard someone in the gathering remark quietly, “The heavens are weeping for the victims.” In the context of other anti-Stalinist speeches by Soviet and post-Soviet leaders over the years, Cohen thought Putin’s remarks were heartfelt, moving, even profound. (They can be found in English at Kremlin.ru.) Without mentioning their names, Putin alluded to the crucial roles played in the anti-Stalinist struggle by Khrushchev and by Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader during the years of reform from 1985 to 1991. (Cohen and vanden Heuvel spent the evening before the ceremony at a private dinner with Gorbachev and one of his closest friends, often recalling Gorbachev’s pathbreaking de-Stalinizing reformation, known as perestroika, much of which they had also observed firsthand.) One of Putin’s remarks at the ceremony struck Cohen as especially important. After allowing that most events in Russian history were the subject of legitimate debate, Stalin’s long mass terror, Putin suggested, was not. Other controversial episodes may have their historical pluses and minuses, but Stalin’s terror and its consequences were too criminal and ramifying for any pluses. That, he emphasized, was the essential lesson for Russia’s present and future.
Based on reading the Russian press and watching Moscow television for three days, Cohen concluded there were three general reactions to the memorial monument and Putin’s role, at least among Moscow’s political and intellectual elites. One was full approval. Another, expressed in a protest by a number of Soviet-era dissidents, most of them now living abroad, and reported in Russian media, was that such a memorial to historical victims was “cynical” while there were still victims of repression in today’s Russia. The third view, expressed by ultra-nationalist writers, was that any condemnation of Stalin’s “repression,” especially officially and by President Putin personally, was deplorable because it weakened the nation’s will to “repress” US and NATO encroachment on Russia’s borders and its “fifth column” representatives inside the Russian political establishment today. If nothing else, Cohen points out, these reactions testify to the spectrum of public political opinion in Russia under Putin.
Understood in historical and political context, the official creation of the memorial monument was a historic development—not only a much belated tribute to Stalin’s victims and their millions of surviving relatives but official acknowledgment of the (Soviet) Russian state’s prolonged act of massive historical criminality. And yet American media coverage of the October 30 event was woefully characteristic of its general reporting on Russia today—either selectively silent or slanted to diminish the significance of the event, whether because of ignorance or the evidently mandatory need to vilify everything Putin does or says. The title of the New York Times report (October 30) was representative: “Critics Scoff as Kremlin Erects Monument to the Repressed.” (The article also contained an astonishing allegation: The Kremlin “has never opened the archives from the [Stalin] period.” As every historian of the Soviet period, and all informed journalists based in Moscow, knows, those archives have opened ever wider since the 1990s. This is certainly true of the Soviet Communist Party archive, which includes Stalin’s personal documents, where Cohen works during his regular visits to Moscow.)
Considering this systematic American mainstream media malpractice in covering Russia (and Putin) today, Cohen comments on a number of related themes, which he and Batchelor discuss:
§ The US media demonization of Putin regularly presents him as a kind of crypto-Stalin who has promoted the rehabilitation of the despot’s reputation in Russia. This is factually untrue. Putin’s rare, barely semi-positive public references to Stalin mostly relate to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, from which, however great Stalin’s crimes, he cannot truthfully be separated. For better or worse, Stalin was the wartime Soviet leader. Nor was October 30 the first time Putin had appeared at a public memorialization of Stalin’s victims—he had done so previously, then and now the only Soviet or post-Soviet leader ever to do so. Above all, as Cohen knows from his own study and sources, Putin personally made possible, against formidable high-level opposition, the creation not only of the new memorial monument but, several years earlier, the construction of a large State Museum of the History of the Gulag, also in Moscow. It is true that Stalin’s historical reputation in Russia today is on the rise. But this is due to circumstances that Putin does not control, certainly not fully. Pro-Stalin forces in the Russian political-media-historical establishment have used their considerable resources to recast the murderous despot in the image of a stern but benign leader who protected “the people” against foreign enemies, traitors, venal politicians, and corrupt bureaucrats. In addition, when Russia is confronted with Cold War threats from abroad, as it perceives to be today, Stalin reemerges as the leader who drove the Nazi war machine from Russia all the way back to Berlin and destroyed it along the way. Not surprisingly, in a recent poll of positive popular attitudes toward admired historical figures, Stalin topped the list. Briefly stated, Stalin’s reputation has fallen and risen due to larger social and international circumstances. Thus, during the very hard economic times of the Yeltsin 1990s, Stalin’s reputation, after plunging under Gorbachev, began to rise again.
§ It is often reported that Putin’s relative silence about controversial subjects in modern Russian history is a form of sinister cover-up or censorship. This misinterpretation fails to understand two important factors. Like any state and its leadership, Russia needs a usable, substantially consensual history for stability and progress. Achieving elite or popular consensus about the profound traumas of the Czarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet pasts is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. Putin’s approach, with rare exceptions, has been twofold. First, he has said little judgmental about controversial periods and events while encouraging historians, political intellectuals, and others to argue publicly over their disagreements, though “civilly.” Second, and related, he has avoided resorting to the Soviet practice of imposed state historical orthodoxy, which required heavy-handed censorship and other forms of suppression. Hence his refusal to stage state events during this 100th anniversary year of the 1917 Revolution—not, as is widely reported, because he “fears a new revolution”—leaving such public celebrations to the large Russian Communist Party, for which 1917 remains sacred. Surely Putin deserves credit for avoiding state-imposed historical orthodoxies, the only important exception being those around the Soviet victory in the Second World War, during which 27.5 million Soviet citizens perished, and even in this regard there are considerable controversies in the Russian media.
§ It is also regularly asserted in the American media that Russia has never grappled publicly with, “confronted,” its dark Stalinist past. This too is factually untrue. From 1956 to his overthrow in 1964, Khrushchev permitted waves of revelations and judgments about the crimes of the Stalin era. They were mostly stopped under his immediate successors, but under Gorbachev’s glasnost there was, as was commonly said at the time, a kind of “Nuremberg Trial of the Stalin Era” in virtually all forms of Soviet media. It has continued ever since, though to a lesser degree, with less intensity, and facing greater pro-Stalin opposition. Indeed, Americans might consider this: In Moscow, there are two state-sponsored national memorials to Stalin’s millions of victims—the Gulag Museum and the new monument. In Washington, there are none specifically dedicated to the millions of victims of American slavery.
Nonetheless, Cohen concludes, the new memorial to Stalin’s victims, however historic, will not end the bitter controversy and political struggle over his reputation in Russia, which began with his death 64 years ago. It will continue, not primarily because of one or another Kremlin leader but because millions of relatives of the Stalinist terror’s victims and victimizers still confront each other in Russia and will for perhaps at least another generation. Because the Stalin era was marked both by a mountain of crimes and a mountain of national achievements, which even the best-informed and best-intended historians still struggle to reconcile or balance. And because the nearly 30-year Stalinist experience still influences Russia in ways arguably no less than does a Kremlin leader, even Vladimir Putin, however good his intentions.