Perverting history.

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I’ve just been listening to a very proud great-grandson defending his great-grandfather’s reputation on the radio and saying what a splendid bloke he was. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Perhaps it’s even cute. Except that the great-grandfather in question is Joseph Stalin.

Uncle Joe’s descendants are taking a Russian newspaper to court. They are fed up with the good name of Stalin being constantly besmirched by liberal do-gooders. As the BBC report points out, the Russian government has been trying to rehabilitate Stalin’s memory in recent years. Opinion polls frequently suggest that many Russians (sometimes even a majority) think Stalin was good for their country. 

The relatives claim that an article in the newspaper which refers to death warrants signed by Stalin is a lie. The BBC quotes Yevgeny Dzhugashvili (the dictator’s grandson), who is bringing the libel action, as saying that Stalin never directly ordered the deaths of anyone. Stalin’s great-grandson, speaking to the BBC, insists that Stalin never broke any of the laws of Soviet Russia (hardly a convincing defence when Stalin himself had the power to decide what the laws were).

In fact, instead of trying to deny that the gulags existed, which would of course involve having to undermine the reliability of the many accounts of the camps’ existence and coming up with alternative explanations for the disappearance of millions of people, the great-grandson’s main argument seemed to be that our understanding of Stalin has been warped by Western civilisation and its crooked, ideologically-orientated historians. Essentially the Stalin rehabilitators expect that resurgent Russian nationalism and the populist appeal of paranoid conspiracy theories will bring Russians around to their way of thinking.

Even if they are willing to accept that Stalin’s reign was horrendously brutal, many Stalin apologists try to distract from this by pointing out the USSR’s vital role in defeating Nazi Germany in World War Two. Apparently Stalin’s leadership was pivotal to resisting the German invasion.

Rubbish. The USSR defeated the Nazis despite – not because of – Stalin’s leadership. Stalin willing colluded in carving up Poland with Hitler. Stalin spent years purging the Red Army of tens of thousands of officers, thus undermining its structure and pool of experience just before the country faced invasion. Stalin ignored the intelligence suggesting the Germans were preparing to attack. His ‘Not One Step Back’ order, much like Hitler’s, was idiotic posturing that cost his forces dear when a tactical withdrawal from the battlefield would have been more sensible.

I don’t know how anyone with even the slightest humanitarian concern could want to defend Stalin’s reputation. As the Red Army moved westwards in 1944 and 1945 it is thought that at least two million women were raped by them. When asked about the behaviour of the conquering Russian troops by Marshal Tito, Stalin replied “What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors?”. Red Army troops are reported to have raped not only German women, but also Polish women, Jewish concentration-camp survivors, and female Soviet POWs liberated from Nazi control.

No doubt Stalin’s descendants take issue with these well-documented historical accounts. I also expect that the mentalists of Britain’s very own Stalin Society will be eagerly anticipating the outcome of the libel case.

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3 Responses to “Perverting history.”

  1. Dave Semple Says:

    From a political or a historical point of view, I wish to raise a few issues.

    First, I often get the urge to defend Stalin against “humanitarians” because the concept of humanitarianism is a political football, not to mention an ideological construct. In a week where a President who has deployed forty thousand more US solders to Afghanistan was awarded the Nobel peace prize, joining such distinguished humanitarians as Kissinger, I should think this beyond question.

    Was what Stalin did bad? Absolutely – but the moral outrage of most is not that he killed people doing it. The same people can often think of justifications for war or murder or whatever one wishes to call it (think especially of the Right here). The moral outrage is really at the political aim of the Stalinist regime. And in that, I want no part – because it is just one more rhetorical weapon in the hands of corrupt, historically-incompetent politicians.

    The sort of liberal do-gooders who, with no sense of irony, will wax eloquent about Stalin’s crimes, then blame Saddam Hussein for something similar and yet declare that we must declare war and sentence to death over a million civilians to right these wrongs. And I’m not one of them. I am a Marxist; I have a class critique of the proceedings and a class programme – not a humanitarian one.

    On the historical point, it’s interesting that the children of Stalin and the children of Beria (and several others) have each alleged that their father was not the mass murderer of legend. Indeed some of the actual histories written cannot quite determine whether Stalin was a willfully brutal exterminator or the pawn of the bureaucratic class, trapped within the logic of the forces unleashed by the civil war and the revolution, who tried to ameliorate the situation. The same argument is made of Beria and others, each time pinning the blame on someone else.

    I do not think it is a simple point, that everyone just wishes to prove their own father innocent. There are deeper historical questions to ask about the role of the individual in history, I think.

  2. captainjako Says:

    You make some good points, but methinks your writing ‘I often get the urge to defend Stalin against “humanitarians”’ reveals the controversialist in you. Exposing double standards and hypocrisy in historical accounts and our understanding of humanitarianism surely doesn’t require leaping to the defence of individuals like Stalin.

    ‘The moral outrage is really at the political aim of the Stalinist regime.’

    I don’t consider that to be misdirected moral outrage.

    ‘On the historical point, it’s interesting that the children of Stalin and the children of Beria (and several others) have each alleged that their father was not the mass murderer of legend.’

    The relatives in question here are the grandchild and great-grandchild. They did not know Stalin. They may a familial duty to uphold his reputation, but what I think is most significant is the way they are encouraged in this endeavour by a Russian state and society that seem to admire Stalin for his authoritarianism and nationalism.

  3. Dave Semple Says:

    I wasn’t claiming the relatives were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but presumably they were raised by the children of Stalin, Jack? On which basis, if their family is anything like mine, stories get passed down. Same thing, just at one remove.

    You’re right of course – the Great Russian nationalism is certainly existent – but I wasn’t denying that.

    As for the rest, well of course it’s the controversialist in me. I simply can’t stand the liberal commentariat wittering on and it’s pure fun to watch people like that turn purple. But when you claim that you don’t consider the moral outrage against the aims of Stalinism to be misdirected, again you miss my point.

    Simply put, the people who claim to oppose his methods really oppose his aims – and they should say that. It’s a whole different debate, once the hysteria about methods has died down, since all sides can be pretty barbarous and even Stalinists have to take lessons from capitalism in that regard. In fact that’s exactly where Stalin did take lessons from.

    I disagree with you that the aims were bad – at least, the aims of the revolution, if not the aims of Stalin and the bureaucratic caste he represented. And with that we diverge into the different debate – but it’s got sod all to do with methods.

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