The "greatest Russians"

Back in July, I wrote for The Boston Globe about the “greatest Russian” internet/TV voting contest in Russia, and the bizarre (and alarming) emergence of Stalin and Nicholas II, Russia’s last Czar, in the initial rounds of the voting.

Well, the project is now over, and Stalin is in third place. Many say the vote was rigged, to avoid making Russia look bad. (Though Stalin placing third still looks pretty bad.)

The top two winners are Alexander Nevsky, the legendary prince mainly known for defeating the Teutonic Knights in the “Battle of the Ice” in 1242 and being the hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s Stalin-era patriotic movie, and Pyotr Stolypin, the reformist prime minister assassinated in 1911.

Those are rather telling selections.

Alexander Nevsky is not only a mythic figure about whom little is definitely known (it is now believed, for instance, that the grandeur of the Battle of the Ice was greatly exaggerated). He is, quite possibly, a bit worse than that: a collaborator with the Mongol-Tatar Horde that occupied Russia for over 200 years. Alexander received his principality from one of the Tatar Khans, his patron; in return, he used his army to violently suppress rebellions by Russians (in particular, in Novgorod) who refused to pay tribute to the Mongols. The “politically correct” Russian version is that he had to cut deals with the Mongols, since the Mongol force at the time was far superior to whatever the Russians could put up, and his compromises saved Russia from utter devastation. Other historians paint a darker picture, arguing that Alexander used the Tatars to gain political leverage against other Russian princes including his own brother Vladimir.

Furthermore, one reason Alexander is revered is that he reportedly refused to accept an alliance with the Catholic Church against the Mongols. In other words, Alexander Nevsky represents Russian isolationism from the West — even at the cost of submission to dominance by an Asian power that most Russian liberals and pro-Western conservatives/centrists have always viewed as disastrous to the tradition of liberty in Russia.

That is the popularly chosen “Name of Russia.”

The runner-up, Stolypin, was apparently Putin’s choice according to the London Times report. He was not quite, as the Times says, “a conservative politician who opposed liberal reforms and cracked down hard on the Bolsheviks”; he certainly did crack down hard on revolutionaries of all stripes, but he was himself a reformer who hoped to modernize Russia and move it in a capitalist direction (in particular, by offering peasants personal land ownership in lieu of ownership by peasant communes, the prevailing system until then). Of the top three vote-getters, he is certainly the least objectionable; if he had not been assassinated, it’s possible that the revolution of 1917 might have been averted. That said, his name is also strongly associated with political repression; the tribunals he set up do deal with perpetrators of revolutionary violence executed between 1000 and 3000 people in six months, and the hangman’s noose became known as “the Stolypin necktie.”

And then, of course, there’s Stalin, for whom 1000 executions was all in a day’s work. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

The Stalin legacy in today’s Russia is a complicated phenomenon. On the one hand, Stalinism and its crimes stand officially condemned; in fact, a few months ago Medvedev laid a wreath at a memorial to the victims of Stalin’s terror — the first time a Russian head of state did so. On the other hand, there is a tendency to semi-exonerate Stalinism or at least present its legacy as mixed: terror on one side, industrialization and the victory in World War II on the other. A controversial new history textbook presents Stalin as an “effective manager” and seeks to minimize his crimes, suggesting that only those who were actually sentenced to death and executed be counted as terror victims (which would leave out the millions who died in the camps).

As for Stalin’s grass-roots popularity, some argue that it is a response to the chaos of the ’90s and the rampant injustices of today’s Russia as well as the decline of Russian power. There is, probably, an element of that. But is is also to a great extent a creation of Putin-era state propaganda which emphasizes the importance of national greatness and Russia’s imperial power (and downplays the idea, embraced by Yeltsin, that Russia’s totalitarian past should be rejected and viewed as evil and shameful). The semi-exoneration of Stalin is also evident in some products of the official media — for instance, a TV program aired last summer which attempted to challenge the belief that Stalin disastrously mishandled the war against Germany, by decimating the top command of the Soviet army, failing to prepare for the war, and ignoring reports of an approaching German invasion. The program essentially presented Stalin as a wise leader whose decisions were undercut by feckless and incompetent commanders.

The semi-exoneration of Stalin is not an exoneration of communism but of “national greatness”; it goes hand in hand with reverence toward Nicholas II and the glamorization of White Army leaders such as Alexander Kolchak, the hero of a recent blockbuster film and a 10-hour TV miniseries. One of the weirdest aspects of attitudes toward Stalin in Russia today is a belief (not very widespread but present nonetheless) that Stalin was a closet Russian Orthodox believer who destroyed the godless Communists in the purges and restored the Russian Orthodox Church (which Stalin actually did, but only under pressure when he felt that the Church would be a useful ally in mobilizing the people to fight the German invasion). In a bizarre recent incident, a priest in a Moscow church displayed an icon that depicted Stalin talking to Matryona Nikonova, a Soviet-era underground Russian Orthodox preacher who was recently canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. (A totally unconfirmed legend has it that Stalin visited Matryona in 1941 and she told him that Moscow would not fall to the Nazis if he stayed in the city.) The icon was removed after complaints from parishioners and the Church has condemned it as “diabolical,” but the priest still stands by it. The eccentric Russian ultra-nationalist Alexander Prokhanov recently predicted that eventually, Stalin would be canonized by the Church.

On December 5-7, Russia hosted its first-ever scholarly conference on Stalinism and Stalin’s legacy. While the fact that the conference was supported by some official institutions may be put down on the “positive” side of the ledger, there are some disturbing signals as well. As Nikita Sokolov reports in Grani.ru, two high-ranking Russian academics who spoke at the conference acted more or less as Stalin apologists. One noted that many Roman emperors were also villains but they built a great empire nonetheless. Another noted the fact that Stalin’s nationalities policy resulted in the survival of virtually ever small ethnic group, while in the United States it’s hard to find a Native American. The minister of education defended the Stalin-whitewashing textbook on the grounds that such an approach is in demand from both instructors and students.

The day after the “Greastest Russian” vote came in, the pro-government Izvestia ran a “pro and con” feature on Stalin’s third-place vote. The “pro” was contributed by the newspaper’s deputy editor in chief, Elena Yampolskaya. While Yampolskaya says that she voted for no one in the contest and certainly couldn’t vote for Stalin, the support for the late dictator is actually a positive sign: the people who backed him were voting against “the dictatorship of liberalism,” “the terror of political correctness,” and “the totalitarian power of money.”

They are not choosing blood, paranoia and barbarism, not the deviltry summoned from the dark abyss. They are choosing Victory, power, indifference to monetary gain, statecraft, and imperial ambition (a phrase that is, at last, no longer considered pejorative).

Telling, indeed.

3 Comments

Filed under Russia, Stalin, Stalinism

3 responses to “The "greatest Russians"

  1. Ludwik Kowalski

    1) You wrote “in fact, a few months ago Medvedev laid a wreath at a memorial to the victims of Stalin’s terror — the first time a Russian head of state did so.”

    After seeing the photo of this event I speculated about a possibility that Medvedev was thinking about a member of his family who died in a Gulag camp. The probability of this is far from being negligible.

    2) I am sensitive to this topic because my own father died in Kolyma, as described at:

    http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/excerpts.html

    3) Readers of the article to which I am reacting might be interested in my OpEd articles, for example about the Soviet Red Army, at

    http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/my_opeds.html

    Comments will be appreciated. Please share the above links with others, especially with those who know very little about Stalinism.

    Ludwik Kowalski
    kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu

  2. Cathy Young

    Thank you for the links, Ludwik!

  3. Ludwik Kowalski

    You are welcome, Cathy. The book does not do very well on the market. Several people made useful comments and reviewed the book, as shown at

    http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/revcom.html

    But the book needs more help, at least one more review in a paper or in journal would help to convince those who order books for libraries and stores.

    kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu

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