Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed. Joseph Stalin
In Britain genealogists can be found in your local library. In Russia they can end up behind bars. This was one of the many illuminating and worrying facts in John Sweeney’s brave but flawed documentary (Stalin’s back? BBC2, 2 December) about the way Stalin’s reputation is being rehabilitated by the current Russian regime.
Sweeney traveled to the Stalinist theme park of Gori in Georgia, met veterans in Volgograd (better known as Stalingrad), met survivors of famines in the countryside and visited the only preserved Stalinist slave labour camp in Perm. Along the way he revealed that those who research and record the fate of Stalin’s victims can be arrested and threatened. Charities that look into Stalin’s crimes can be closed down. Critics lose their jobs.
More insidous still is the way history is being re-written and taught to young people. In 2007, Vladimir Putin made a speech in which he promoted “positive history” — a history with all the difficult and dark bits taken out. Now the official history text-book used in schools leaves out the gulags, forced labour and the crushing of the oppositions inside the the Communist Party in the 20s and 30s.
This version of history presents the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact as unavoidable and the break-neck industrialization of the 30s as painless rather then built on slavery and exploitation.
This is history made to fit the nationalist and authoritarian swagger of the current regime.
The rehabilitation of Stalin isn’t solely at the government’s behest. A “cult of Stalin” remains deeply embedded among many working class Russians. But this is where the presenter becomes unstuck. He falls into the frankly offensive idea that Russians are naturally pre-disposed to tyrants and despots.
A softness on, even admiration for, the brutal crimes of the Stalinist empire is what we can expect from Russia’s new ruling class. Putin and many other senior politicians learnt their politics in Yuri Andropov's KGB. However widespread nostalgia among the people for Stalin and his regime can only be explained by the catastrophic collapse of living standards for the vast majority of Russians in the 1990s.
The regime which collapsed in 1991 was not a decayed or degenerated workers’ state (as “orthodox” Trotskyists liked to believe), but a vast parasitical bureaucracy presiding over an economy where the workers had no control. But this system, for its own reasons, did provide a basic level of housing and welfare. Once gangster capitalism took over, that threadbare safety net went.
The result was millions of premature deaths, entire regions of the country laid waste. Lacking a genuine working-class alternative, people ended up attracted to Stalinist myriad shades of murky brown in the post-Soviet political swamp. In this situation a lash up of ultra-nationalism and neo-Stalinism makes perfect sense; militarism, patriotism, autarky, anti-semitism, anti-intellectualism and brutal authoritarianism are shared themes in both fascism and Stalinism. Most groups don’t go as far as the Hitlerite “National Bolshevik Party”, but post-Stalinist-Stalinism now dominates much of political life in Russia — from the rump communist parties to the ruling United Russia Party and beyond, to the far right.
Yet there is another Russia; this is the Russia of Antifa (anti-fascists), anarchist and libertarian Marxist youth movements. Some engage in brutal streetfights against both fascists and the Putin-worshiping Nashi youth movement. It is the Russia of those fighting for LGBT rights against murderous homophobes. Young Russians face a fight in the classroom and the lecture theatre to create a truth-telling history to replace that of the ruling class.