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Out, dark spots: History and the state in Russia

Under the Putin regime there is a reversal of the exercise to infuse authenticity into Soviet history that started in 1986 under the banner of glasnost. This article, by Arup Banerji, explores Russia’s attempts to mould a usable past and construct a ‘positive’ history that would ‘create patriots’ rather than ‘smear the Motherland with mud’

History in the Soviet Union was nurtured by the Communist Party and the Soviet state in ways that were geared to bolstering political objectives over academic rigour; of making the past serve different ends than observed in other societies. If the Soviet authorities had viewed historical materialism as an ideological pillar of scientific socialism, then President Putin’s colleagues regard the manipulation of the historical past as a key ingredient in fostering Russian statehood and nurturing a patriotic and politically compliant citizenry. The remark by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm in 1992, that “historians are to nationalism what poppy growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market”, remains an apt aspiration for historians seeking acclaim in Russia today.

This essay will seek to identify some of the forces that remain inimical to a full exploration of the history of the Soviet Union by its residents since the revolution of 1917. The 1930s and 1940s were impregnated by a phenomenon known as Stalinism. Eponymously designated after the country’s leader, the system amounted to a series of legitimisations for creating a superior social order, viz socialism, predicated upon (to name the cardinal features only) the pervasive fear of citizens before state ‘organs’ such as the KGB; the incarceration and execution of millions in a system of prison camps (the GULAG); the deliberate and prolonged suppression of consumer demand; the effective illegality of protest; and the immobility of rural residents. The decades since then have been dominated as much by occasional bouts of state generosity in permitting the uncovering of the dark Stalinist past (1986-2000) as by the current slew of measures to curb honest enquiry into that past by Russian citizens. Those affected by the limits on freedom of expression argue that a genuinely democratic and honest society can be built only after acknowledging the criminality of the Stalinist state. They are aware however, that this is complicated by the insistence of those in authority of their infallibility. This was the case during the 1930s and ’40s, and remains true today. Even if the state tacitly recognises the past victims of repression, it robustly denies the fact that the state itself was the perpetrator of crimes. Archives and textbooks of history have been foregrounded in a manner designed to assist the state in diminishing and falsifying knowledge of history in Russia.

Imperial Russia boasted of an erudite community of historians whose work was grounded in massive archival research and marked by an impregnable scholarly integrity. Much of it was repudiated after the revolution as ‘bourgeois’ scholarship. Soviet scholarship began with considerable capital on hand in the form of historians trained under the old regime. Many non-Marxist historians chose to remain in the country after the revolution and in the first aftermath of the peace, from 1921, their scholarly work was not interfered with. Purges of historians began in late-1929 and by 1931, after secret political trials were fabricated, more than 100 historians were arrested, some executed and others compelled to emigrate while their works went out of circulation. 

History writing traditionally concentrated on the actions of the leadership and Party faithful. At a roundtable discussion in Moscow in January 1989 that brought together 15 Soviet and American historians, Pavel Vasilievich Volobuev, a prominent Russian historian of the Bolshevik revolution, said that “Soviet historical works are sadly depopulated. Everything you might want in a historical narrative is there -- laws, logical development… except individual human beings… There are certain names there but there aren’t any people… individual people are only mentioned by way of examples in our histories; they do not appear as real historical actors”. Vladimir Alexandrovich Kozlov, a senior Party member, pointed out at the same roundtable that they used to have “a history of bosses written for bosses, but now had a history of bosses that was being written for the people, but they still lacked the history of the people and society”.  

Public knowledge of landmark events, turning points in the history of their country, was substantially limited by official distillations brewed by Party historians and bottled in biographies of Stalin, histories of the Party, or textbooks for secondary schools. Histories of the Communist Party played a role that was so distinctive as to be arguably unique. They were intended to serve as master narratives within which all that was politically knowable, doctrinally reliable and pedagogically suitable was to be condensed. They were to inspire imitation and serve as the touchstone for research into the history of the Soviet Union, and not merely of the Party as their titles proclaimed. The history of the Communist Party was the most significant form of representing the entire Soviet past. From the 1930s until the demise of the USSR in 1991, these histories (principally those of 1938 and 1962) set the tone for research, conclusion and communication. Those who wrote Party histories had to weigh every line not merely as a justification for the Bolsheviks against the world, but with greater care, as a justification of ‘true’ Bolsheviks against the ‘deviator’ Bolsheviks, who in due course would turn out to be anti-Bolshevik enemies within the Party.

Since, as in India, most Soviet citizens do not study history beyond secondary school, the history curriculum furnished those who sought to shape the social environment with a final opportunity to present their own version of history and its lessons. With the accession to power of M S Gorbachev in 1985, Soviet authorities acknowledged that the former official treatment of Soviet history, especially of Stalinism, had become so corrupted and debased as to be meaningless. This averment was implicit in the decision of the State Committee on Public Education in May 1988 to pulp school textbooks on the history of the USSR and to cancel the secondary school history and social science exams in 1988. The front page article in Izvestiya that announced the cancellation of the exam described the level of instruction as being so poor that “even the best and most inquisitive teachers presented the history of our homeland in a monstrously distorted and unrecognisable form”. The exam was restored the following year, but not the old textbooks.  

Access to the Soviet historical archive depended more on the political reliability than the academic merit of the scholar. The system was administered by the Peoples’ Commissariat of Internal Affairs (the notorious NKVD) rather than by an academic institution. There was the periodic destruction of holdings that testified to a past best removed from scrutiny. Throughout the Soviet decades, documents that the police authorities regarded as unnecessary, unimportant or dangerous were destroyed, particularly about people who had disappeared. A senior officer in the archives system estimated that 8.7 million files were slated for destruction in 1945, 30.7 million in 1950, 68.1 in 1955 and nearly 88 million four years later. More than 25 million files were destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s. In August 1987, Le Monde reported that “the legal archives of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s were actually being destroyed at the rate of 5,000 dossiers a month” under the pretext of a lack of storage space. When smoke from the burnt documents caused a problem in Moscow, the process of destruction was shifted outside the city.

The Yeltsin regime (1990-1999) was committed to perspectives on history that were at diametric variance with those of the just departed Soviet past: de-communisation in place of the dialectic, plurality instead of the deadening hand of uniform interpretation. There was the exhilaration generated by the passing away of the malign compound of the Soviet state, the Communist Party and Marxism-Leninism. The Soviet period was distanced as a largely negative interlude between the Russian Empire and the new Russian Federation. Lenin was turned into a villain and the last years of the Tsarism recast as a period of advance towards a liberal order and a prosperous economy, a process that was rudely interrupted by the World War in 1914.

Putin rejected Yeltsin’s repudiation of the Soviet historical legacy and the denigration of the USSR’s achievements. Continuity, not rupture, was to become the guiding principle in official ideas about history. He accepted that Stalin’s rule had been abusive and that the Soviet Union had been a “totalitarian state”. He wanted, however, to strike a balance, expressed in pronouncements like, “Anyone who does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart, but anyone who wants it restored has no brain”. Accounts of how history is heard in the classroom today reflect a dismissive, ignorant and disinterested interest in the Soviet past.

Permissible interpretations of the Soviet past under the Putin regime are tantamount to a reversal of the enormous exercise in infusing authenticity into Soviet history that started in 1986 under the banner of glasnost, or transparency, and integral investigation. That period represented the beginning of attempts by fiction writers, historians and people with informed opinion to force the state to recognise its criminality in waging the civil war known as the Terror and the Purges. But the fact is that Russia is yet to come to terms with the crimes of its Soviet past. There are few who want to discuss the subject while most Russians feel that the issue divides rather than unites society. It is not that there are so many committed Stalinists around today as much as the fact that a substantial number of Russians believe that condemning the crimes of the past somehow humiliates themselves, forces them to confront their inner courage.

In 2008, Raymond Aron identified guidelines for the production of history textbooks in Putin’s Russian Federation. Since the survival of the Soviet Union was necessary, “mistakes” and “dark spots” were bearable costs, the breaking of eggs en route to confecting the omelette. Secondly, the modes of economic advance in the 1930s and 1940s, namely forcible collectivisation and accelerated heavy industrialisation, the uprooting of villages and the creation of vast urban slums, were the consequences of western pressure upon a besieged and beleaguered Soviet Union; not strategic choices made endogenously. Most critical, however, is the continuing endeavour to infuse historical narratives with a mission statement of normalising the ‘excesses’ of the past.

Since 1993, half-a-million 10th and 11th grade high school students had used a history textbook written by Igor Dolutskii, National History, 20th Century, for 10 years. Among the reasons for its popularity were its accessible language; the author’s belief that “in history there are no right answers -- only different interpretations”; the “populating” of history and a frank discussion of charged subjects like the Purges, the GULAG and Moscow’s war against Chechnya. The book was taken off the education ministry’s list of approved textbooks at the end of 2003. Yelena Zinina, head of the education ministry’s textbook publishing department said that the book “elicits contempt, natural contempt for our past and for the Russian people”, and that it was unbalanced and inappropriate in its treatment of subjects like the Purges, the Second World War and the war on Chechnya. It was replaced by a textbook by Nikita Zagladin, The History of Russia and the World in the 20th Century. Writing more than a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, Zagladin, a professional historian, appeared completely uninformed about the large amount of glasnost-inspired research that had challenged the legitimacy and benefits of Soviet economic development and that had condemned the war the regime had led on its people in peace time, from the early-1920s to 1953.

In 2007, Putin attacked some history textbook authors for taking foreign money and so “naturally they are dancing the polka ordered by those who pay them”. After his call for a more patriotic history, a textbook called The Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006: A Teacher’s Handbook by Alexander Filippov was presented to a national conference of high school historians and teachers of social sciences in Moscow for adoption as the standard high school textbook of Russian history. Known in certain quarters in Moscow as the ‘positive history man’, Filippov earned the moniker for this statement: “It is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people. A generally positive tone for the teaching of history will build optimism and self-assurance in the growing young generation and make them feel as if they are part of the country’s bright future… the general tone for a school textbook should be positive.” The author of one of its chapters, Pavel Danilin,  proclaimed that its goal is “to make the first textbook in which Russian history will look not as a depressing sequence of misfortunes and mistakes but as something to instil pride in one’s country. It is precisely in this way that teachers must teach history and not smear the Motherland with mud”.

In this textbook the Terror has been limited to 1937-38 (the old Soviet Great Terror), its victims to 786,000, and the range of its victims narrowed to the Party and military leadership and members of the intelligentsia -- ignoring the largest demographics: collectivised peasants, ordinary people and the deported nationalities. This ignores a widely accepted estimate by the esteemed Russian historian Roy Medvedev in 1988 that 17-18 million people might have been arrested, and at least 10 million of them perished before 1937. After several pages devoted to celebrating economic successes, the GULAG is mentioned only once, to warn children against any views that seek to “exaggerate its contribution” to the economy: it points out that in 1950 there were only 2.6 million prisoners, but 40.4 million free workers.

Striking an even more strident tone, Danilin threatened history teachers thus: “You may ooze bile but you will teach the children by those books that you will be given and in the way that is needed by Russia. And as to the noble nonsense that you carry in your misshapen goateed heads, either it will be ventilated out of them or you yourself will be ventilated out of teaching… it is impossible to let some Russophobe shit-stinker (govnyuk) or just any amoral type, teach Russia history. It is necessary to clear the filth, and if it does not work, then clear it by force.”

Danilin’s outburst was resonant of an older Russian intention to mould a usable past and harness the published product to the needs of nation-building. Count Alexander von Benkendorf, the first head of the notorious Third Department of His Majesty’s Chancery, the secret police set up by Tsar Nicholas I in 1826, informed Russian historians that “Russia’s past was wonderful, its present is more than superlative, and when it comes to her future, it is above anything that the most daring imagination could conjure. This is the point of view from which Russian history must be written”. It is in protest against this embedding of the future in the past to build a profoundly unrepresentative ‘sovereign democracy’ in the Russian Federation today that Dolutskii argues that “school history should not create patriots, it should teach children to think”. Independent thought is perilous in Russia today.

Note: Additional information on the subjects discussed in this essay is available in the author’s Writing History in the Soviet Union: Making the Past Work, New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2008

(Dr Arup Banerji teaches Russian and Soviet history at the University of Delhi. He has written on agriculture, privatisation and the military in post-Soviet Russia and on archaeological activity on the Silk Routes. His research on the early Soviet Union appeared in 1996 as Merchants and Markets in Revolutionary Russia, 1917-30. Recent writings by him include a book on Russian and Soviet historiography: Writing History in the Soviet Union: Making the Past Work; and a study of commercial relations between South and Central Asia in the 17th and 19th centuries: ‘Old Routes: North Indian Nomads and Bankers in Afghan, Uzbek and Russian Lands’)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011