Streetwise Professor

August 27, 2008

Omelette History

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:04 am

When asked about the excesses of Stalin’s Russia, despicable NY Times reporter Walter Duranty was wont to say “you can’t make an omelette with out breaking eggs.” Dmitri Minaev’s post on the new History of Russia 1900-1945 (a textbook for Russian secondary schools) demonstrates that Duranty’s apologia for Stalin has been embraced by the Russian educational establishment/Russian state. Dmitri posts a translation of an article on in Vremya, which I feel is worth quoting in full:

The following is the translation of some excerpts from the article in Vremya by Anatoly Bernshtein.

“The attention of the students should be concentrated on the explanation of the motives and logic behind the actions of the authorities”, write the authors. So, the book is basically the history of the authorities. Here are some uncommon ideas which my grandchildren will probably have to learn: Russia never lagged behind other countries, it only fell behind in the things that “were not a part of the Russian civilization, but borrowings from outside”. In 1914-1917 the Great Russian revolution, modeled after the Great French revolution, took place in Russia. The bolsheviks were guilty in the beginning of the Civil war, while the Whites “in a number of occasions represented a pro-fascist alternative to bolshevism, and had the chances to implement a nationalist model in the future”. The famine in the Soviet villages in 1920s-1930s was not a result of the actions of the Soviet state, but it “was caused both by outstanding weather conditions and by the incomplete collectivization”. The social structure built in the USSR by the end of the 1930s was no socialism or capitalism, but the industrial society. The pact of Molotov-Ribbentrop was a response to the Munich agreement. The entry of the Soviet troops to Poland was the liberation of Ukraine and Belorussia. The Winter war with Finland was won by the USSR who reached its goals. The USSR, probably, was preparing the preemptive war against Germany, but “Stalin assumed that he should wait for the concentration of the enemy’s army for aggression, to make the planned strike look as justified self-defense, but in the summer of 1941 such plan was not yet possible”. The initial defeats in the war were caused by strictly objective reasons. The mass deportations in the course of the war should be discussed with “special restraint and caution”.

An even more obvious task of the book is the justification of the mass repressions in the Stalin’s period. So, recognizing the fact of the mass executions of the Polish prisoners of war in Katyn by NKVD, the authors comment: “It was not only the matter of the political advisability, but also a response to the death of many thousands of Red army soldiers in the Polish prison after the 1920 war, which was initiated by Poland, not the Soviet Russia”.

While in the Soviet schoolbooks the mass repressions were either hushed up or presented as a distortion of the general policy of the communist party, this book tried to give “rational” explanations to the extermination of millions of people by the Soviet regime:

It is important to show the two components of this problem. The first one is an objective force. The resistance to the Stalin’s policy of accelerated modernization and his apprehension of losing control over the situation was the main cause of the “great terror”. Being the only political party, VKP(b) was also the only way of getting feedback for the leaders. At the end, under the influence of the growing oppositional attitude of the Soviet people the party became environment where various political and ideological groups and trends were formed, and was losing its integrity. For Stalin it was a threat of the loss of leadership and even physical elimination (as the results of the voting on the 17th congress of VKP(b) had shown). It was also a threat of the general political destabilization. The high activity of various emigrant organizations increased his apprehension. The usage of the “fifth columns” by external forces in other countries (Spain being the best example) was thoroughly studied by the Soviet leaders. Besides, Stalin had good reasons to consider the military leaders who started their career during the Civil war Trotsky’s adherers. Before the war, facing the choice between the competence and the loyalty, Stalins chose the loyalty of the army’s officership and bureaucracy in general. The negative attitude among the military leaders could not be neglected. It was especially important considering the threats of terrorism against the country’s leaders. The assassination of S.Kirov catalysed these processes. The ideas of the party’s right wing (Bukharin and others) were popular among the party functionaries and it was necessary to oppose them both ideologically and politically. Stalin did not know whence the strike will be blown and so he attacked all known ideological groups and all those who did not support him without reservation. The second component of the matter was subjective, it was explained by the dogmatism of the bolshevist ideology and the personality of Stalin himself.

Now, what conclusions do the authors make of all this?

So, it is important to show that Stalin acted in accordance with the historical situation, acted (as a manager) on a fully rational basis — as a protector of the system, a consistent proponent of the transformation of the country into a centrally managed industrial society, as the leader of the country staring in the face of a large war.

The rational terror, the authors write, was stopped as soon as Stalin understood that the integrity of the society is not threatened anymore. And then Lavrntiy Beriya, another effective manager, began yet another project: “The terror served the goals of the industrial development: NKVD organized planned arrests of engineers and specialists necessary to solve the defense problems and other tasks in Siberia and the Far East. Terror became a pragmatic tool to solve the economic problems.”

Understanding that the scales of the repressions cannot be explained by the logic of “rational management”, the authors propose to review the number of the repressed people: “It must be determined clearly who may be considered repressed. We think it would be correct to include in this number only those who were sentenced to death and executed”. By using this new formula, the authors refuse to recognize those who died in Gulag as victims of the repressions. This position contradicts the law of the Russian Federation “On the rehabilitation of the victims of political repressions”, adopted by the president of Russia on 18 October 1991, which defines the term “repressed” as including those who were deported and removed, deprived of citizenship, exiled and so on.

In brief, everything that Stalin did was rational, and therefore defensible. In other words, once you accept the premise behind–the objective of–a series of actions, as long as those actions are cognizable, rational means of achieving that objective, they are perfectly acceptable, regardless of the consequences. The objective is taken as a given, and immune from any question, or any challenge over whether the goal was worth the cost required to achieve it.

Rapid industrialization is a good thing, so it is worthwhile to incur any cost to achieve it. A single party state is threatened with political destabilization, so by all means genuflect to the decision to liquidate anybody who challenged the leadership, rather than question the wisdom of perpetuating such a state even when its defenders acknowledge that it was cut off from all feedback and inherently brittle.

In other words, once the decision to make the omelette has been made, the number of eggs required to cook it, the damage done to the kitchen, and the number of cooks killed and imprisoned in the preparation, are all irrelevant. And this is the view of history that is endorsed by the Putinists. Those who ignore the lessons of the history lessons are doomed to repeat them.

The Vremya article also reveals the mendacity of the authors of this screed–and their political patrons. One telling example–the Great Famine was the result of bad weather and–wait for it–incomplete collectivization! This is to turn reality on its head. Such a bizarre distortion is so egregious that it is difficult to recall anything as mendacious even from Soviet propaganda.

This isn’t about the past. History never is. It is about the present and the future too. This is just more evidence that the Putin system is a revisionist one, bent on undoing the consequences of the Cold War. Rehabilitation of Stalin and Stalinism, especially when done contemporaneously with the invasion of Georgia, makes it clear that Putin and his minions are hellbent for a trip back to the future.

One last comment. The uncritical attitude towards the maintained assumptions and goals of those in power displayed in the History of Russia 1900-1945 also permeates most of the apologia for Russia’s actions in Georgia. Russia desires to be a Great Power. It views the Near Abroad as its sphere of influence. Russia resents the loss of influence in the post-Soviet era. It seethes at the impudence of cheeky neighbors who until recently were in its thrall. So, anything that the US or the West does (such as expanding NATO, or building missile defenses in Poland or the Czech Republic or recognizing Kosovo’s indpendence or promoting democracy in Ukraine and Georgia) that offends these sensibilities and sensitivities justifies an aggressive Russian response. The invasion of Georgia is a rational response, you see, once you accept the Russian premises about their interests–and ignore any consideration of the interests of others who may be trampled on when the Russians pursue theirs. (See this article for an exemplar of this line of thought. I especially love the line about Poland being “Russia’s historical nemesis.” Since the Time of Troubles, the score has been pretty lopsided in the other direction, dontcha think, Gordon old buddy?)

This approach is purely amoral realpolitik and needs to be recognized as such.   Moreover, it is amoral reapolitik that defers obsequiously to the goals and interests of a kleptocratic regime–a regime, as the textbooks it endorses demonstrates, that worships power and force.   Sadly, playing realpolitik with a such a power usually turns out to be not that realistic in the end.

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