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Analysis & Opinion
14.05.10 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Medvedev Condemns Stalinism
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan S. Burger, Alexandre Strokanov

Last week President Dmitry Medvedev, in a broad interview to the Izvestia daily, condemned Stalin, Stalinism and the Soviet totalitarian regime that suppressed human rights and inflicted immeasurable suffering upon its own people. In what appeared to be the most damning assessment of the Soviet past by a Russian elected leader, Medvedev said the crimes of wartime dictator Joseph Stalin could never be forgiven. Does this signal a major policy shift in the Kremlin toward embracing Western values and views regarding totalitarian regimes? Is Medvedev following in the footsteps of Mikhail Gorbachev, who also used a free debate about the past as a precursor to political freedom of speech?

"The Soviet Union was a very complicated state, and if we speak honestly the regime that was built in the Soviet Union... cannot be called anything other than totalitarian," Medvedev said. "Unfortunately, this was a regime where elementary rights and freedoms were suppressed."

Medvedev issued his clearest condemnation of Stalin, who is still admired by many Russians as a strong leader. "Stalin committed a mass of crimes against his own people," said Medvedev. "And despite the fact that he worked a lot and despite the fact that under his leadership the country recorded many successes, what was done to his own people cannot be forgiven."

Medvedev disavowed the idea that Stalin won the war for the Soviet Union, saying that "the Great Patriotic War was won by our people, not by Stalin or even the generals." Medvedev appears to have personally interfered to scrap the plan by the Moscow City authorities to hang posters of Stalin on the city’s streets as part of the Victory Day celebrations. He strongly suggested that the Russian government will not allow Stalinist propaganda to reemerge in Russia.

Medvedev’s condemnation of Stalin and his regime comes in sharp contrast to efforts by his predecessor to focus less on Stalin’s crimes and emphasize the Soviet Union’s achievements under his rule. Putin once famously described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.

Under president Medvedev, Russia has taken cautious steps toward eroding powerful taboos over its wartime history. Last month it published online documents proving that Soviet secret police massacred Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940, a crime that the Soviet Union long attempted to blame on the Nazis.

Katyn "…Was a very dark page.... It is not just those abroad who allow history to be falsified. We ourselves have allowed history to be falsified," Medvedev said in the interview to Izvestia. He proceeded to hand over to acting Polish President Bronislav Komarovsky 67 volumes of previously classified documents detailing the Russian investigation into the Katyn massacre.

What is this all about? Does it signal a major policy shift in the Kremlin toward embracing Western values and views regarding totalitarian regimes? Or is it simply a stylistic difference between Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, reflecting Medvedev’s younger age and a more democratic upbringing? Or is a denunciation of Stalin and Stalinism being used as a proxy to criticizing Putin and “Putinism”? Is Medvedev’s greater openness and willingness to discuss the really dark pages of Soviet history a means to open up the limited political space in modern Russia? And if so, is Medvedev following in the footsteps of Mikhail Gorbachev, who also used a free debate about the past, known as glasnost, as a precursor to political freedom of speech? What is Medvedev’s plan here? What will be the impact of his anti-Stalinist stance on Russia’s political discourse short-to-mid-term? And how is it going to affect his relationship with Putin?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

Did not then-Soviet Communist Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev condemn Stalin in 1956? It is a sad reflection that this is even a topic for discussion in 2010. Stalin directly or indirectly killed more Soviet citizens than Hitler did.
Russia cannot move in a positive direction without making a clean break with its totalitarian (under Stalin) and authoritarian (under subsequent Soviet leads until Gorbachev) past. I am still waiting for a Russian film producer to produce films based on Vasily Grossman's "Life and Fate" and Anatoly Rybakov's "Children of the Arbat." “Katyn,” after all, was made by a Pole.

Had two British or Canadian professionals died in pretrial detention in their countries, the relevant Prime Minister would have tendered his resignation and it would be a scandal if he or she did not. Unfortunately, accountability in Russia, when it exists, occurs for political reasons or expediency when there is foreign pressure. So in a sense, Stalinism is not yet dead in Russia. Until the rule of law comes to Russia, Russian citizens cannot be confident that they possess any legal rights and Russia's neighbors cannot trust its words or actions.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont:

Dmitry Medvedev certainly belongs to a new, post-Soviet generation of Russian leadership. He came from the family of a university professor and never had any positions in the Soviet state or party apparatus. He became the third president of the Russian Federation in 2008 and inherited a country that survived the turbulent 1990s and just recovered during the two terms of Putin’s presidency. By 2008 Russia was back on its feet and ready to move into the future.
Putin was absolutely right when he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. It certainly was such a catastrophe. However, the Soviet Union is gone, it can’t be brought back, and Russia needs to move ahead while living in the new reality of today.

Could Stalin and Stalinism serve as a model for today or the future of capitalist Russia? It is quite obvious that it can’t. It actually has not served as such a model since the 1960s. There were Stalin fans among the Soviet communist leadership and there were people who saw and openly talked about his crimes decades ago. And in this case, Medvedev is not a pioneer. The statement that "the Great Patriotic War was won by our people, not by Stalin or even the generals" is an objective, but pretty well-known truism even for a college student.

The much more important question here is the role of the Communist Party in the history of the country and in the victory in the war. The real question is: could non-communist Russia have won the Great Patriotic War? The personality of Joseph Dzhugashvili is actually much less significant an issue, although it attracts a lot of attention. The question about the role of the party is much more important and much more explosive in society even today. So far, Medvedev has been very careful with this question, and probably will continue to be careful. Does he have a plan? What will be the impact of his anti-Stalinist stance on Russia’s political discourse in the short to mid-term?

De-Stalinization will be continued, of course, and it is an absolutely safe passage in political terms today. The country will be more willing and ready to dig into its past, including some dark corners of pre-war and war-time history. The generations that had real-life experience of these periods are almost gone today, and it will be much easier for the current Russian power-holders to present a new and version of life in the country in those years. In a way this is inevitable, since new generations always view the past and history differently than their predecessors. For my parents, the decades of Stalin’s rule were their life, and for me it was just history.

However, I doubt that Medvedev’s policy may seriously change or even influence Russian political discourse. The point here is that the only more or less real opposition to the current political regime is the Communist Party, and it is very weak. De-Stalinization may further weaken this party because its leadership is quite stubborn in its support of Stalin, which is a mistake and obviously an obstacle for the communists on their road toward popularity among younger generations of Russians. Further weakening the Communist Party gives United Russia exclusive power. Will this serve to make the Russian political system more competitive? Unlikely! Consequently, what will the Russian political system gain from this approach? It will be more open about its past, but the status quo will be preserved and the country will continue to follow the risky path toward stagnation.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Medvedev's remarks are salutary but they do not go beyond what has already been said elsewhere years ago. The test of his commitment to reform will be a readiness to explore the crimes of the Stalin and Lenin eras (also no slouch in mass murder) in detail, naming the perpetrators and giving a full account of these crimes, the way Germany has done for the Holocaust. This is quite unlikely since the FSB, which is in mentality a chekist organization, remains the real power behind the throne. Hitherto denunciations of Stalin have been for the most part selective, calibrated to advance the political advantage of the denouncer or because he was under too great a pressure to resist.

What really is needed is a systematic opening up of the archives and frank discussion. Moreover, the poison will be fully gone when the FSB and its sister organizations are subjected to legal and parliamentary accountability, so that all the other Katyns and Gulags are made transparent. This is quite unlikely since Putin has restored the practices of political prisoners, political assassinations, and putting people into insane asylums.

But if Russia is to reclaim its European vocation and pose as a genuine democracy, there is no alternative but to embark upon this road. If there are still people in power who are embarrassed because of their criminal misdeeds during the Soviet era, then the system remains to that degree a regime tarnished by the Soviet stain. And the longer Russia goes without coming to terms with its history, the longer it will be a pariah to some degree in Europe and a divided society at home.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., United States:

The use of “Stalinism” as a litmus test is an artifact of primarily Western attempts at understanding the social and political processes in post-1986 Russia. Both Putin and Medvedev have in the past repeatedly voiced strong criticism of Stalinism. Putin has been prominent in the matter of the Katyn murders, and the recovery of truth in that particular dark event was initiated during his tenure. And, of course, in the recent events at Smolensk Putin was even more visible than Medvedev – by evident choice.

There is an observable and measurable tendency to portray Putin as “pro-Stalin” for evident political propaganda reasons. Hence, Putin’s criticism of Stalin is either ignored or diminished, and some other statements he makes are magnified and spun in the desired direction. For example – it is major fiction to interpret Putin’s remark about the geopolitics of the collapse of the Soviet Union as “pro-Stalinist.”

The purported “difference” in values regarding Stalin between Putin and Medvedev is in the eyes of some beholders. One must suppose that these beholders would be silent only if the two gentlemen were to use exactly the same vituperative phraseology, applying verbal stamps equivalent to the “highest achievements” of Stalinist/Maoist totalitarian propaganda (like “Bukharinite deviationism,” or “running dogs of imperialism”).

Medvedev and Putin both condemned and continue to condemn Stalinism – by personal words and actions. Actually, since the XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1956) there has been a continuing process of recovery of Russia’s entire political memory and liberation from totalitarianism. The origins of this process lie in the war of 1941 to 1945; the tempo was initially slow and then accelerated, giving rise to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and eventually to a powerful moral and political challenge to the communist system.

Another curious aspect of the discussion is the suggestion that Medvedev, being biologically younger than Putin, is supposedly “more liberal” (whatever the label of “liberal” implies). This implication seems to reflect a substratum of age discrimination against older people. One should remember that Stalin, when he succeeded Lenin in 1924, was 46 – only one year older than Medvedev is today. So much for liberalism as an attribute of youth. And note that Stalin’s totalitarian political crimes began well before 1924, when he was even younger.

Russia is working through 150 years of socialist revolutionary propaganda, of which time 70 years were under totalitarian thought control and management that became paradigmatic for such classics as George Orwell’s “1984.” Long before Goebbels, there were comrades Lenin and Trotsky. Soviet propaganda was so pervasive that its symbols became an integral part of the most routine life components (and by becoming so commonplace, this propaganda lost much of its impact through trivialization). Consider as evidence the bizarre naming of a plain candy manufacturer with the political name “she-Bolshevik” (“Bolshevichka”). The list of such examples is enormous.

So it will take time to work through the massive layers of diverse cult artifacts left by the departed regime, which modern political acolytes, in strident opposition to both Putin and Medvedev, continue to defend. Consider the failed initiative to post Stalin’s portraits in the streets of Moscow for Russia’s recent Victory Day – endorsed by Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of the capital.

There are no substantial differences in the repudiations of Stalinism by Putin and Medvedev, echoed by the majority of Russian citizens. To suggest that somehow Medvedev is a “better” anti-Stalinist than Putin, and therefore is “more liberal,” seems like grasping at straws by adepts of a new political cult, which calls itself (falsely) “liberalism.”
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