The face of Russian nationalism anno 2008

One of the top three faces that define Russia. By popular vote. Fair enough, I suppose:

The Kremlin in the Putin era has often sought to maintain as much sway over the portrayal of history as over the governing of the country. In seeking to restore Russia’s standing, Mr. Putin and other officials have stoked a nationalism that glorifies Soviet triumphs while playing down or even whitewashing the system’s horrors.

As a result, across Russia, many archives detailing killings, persecution and other such acts committed by the Soviet authorities have become increasingly off limits.

Bonus link (added 29th): the whitewashing of Stalin in the West and a nice quote by a reader of this BBC article:

I cannot help to think that the fact that Stalin was mostly bad to his own people and that his policies actually weakened his own country had something to do with the fact he is mildly looked upon in the West (compare this to Hitler who brought destruction to everyone else’s doorstep). No doubt that if Hitler was an ally of Britain and had restricted his genocide to within Germany, his crimes would have been swept under the carpet by the British press for the benefit of the greater good.

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About Guy La Roche

Dutch translator and subtitler living in Brittany with his three cats. Has also lived in the Flemish part of Belgium. Speaks English rather fluently and in a former life used to have a decent command of Spanish. Knows swear words in German and Russian. Not quite francophone yet, but slowly getting there. Vaguely centrist observer of the world around him, extremely naive and, sometimes, rather proud of it. Writes Venale Pecus.

9 thoughts on “The face of Russian nationalism anno 2008

  1. You’re confusing Russian nationalism and Soviet patriotism. Russian nationalists are rabidly anti-communist.

    The popularity of Stalin in Russia is the product of mild Soviet nostalgia combined with the utterly discredited anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin propaganda. If these propagandists were more truthful about the Soviet legacy from the start, popular perception of Stalin and his era would’ve been more negative. Obvious lies in the propaganda (especially with regard to the number of victims) produced the opposite effect.

    The anti-Soviet propaganda I’m referring to, incidentally, is not restricted only to foreign sources and their Russian stool pigeons. The same propaganda line is the official position of Russia’s state TV (e.g. Svanidze). Therefore, the NYT article you cite is not truthful in its claims that the state is “whitewashing” the crimes of the Stalin era. Quite the opposite is true — the state is still “blackwashing” them.

    The archival situation is as described in the article. It is actually an interesting example how one can be correct as to the facts, but prevaricate in conclusions based on those facts. Quotes from Russian archive officials clearly explain the legal status of archival documents. It would be difficult to argue that their status should be different. The only factual basis to Levy’s ridiculous accusation against the “regime” is that Mr. Trenin could not get personal files on people he wasn’t related to. Damn right he couldn’t, it is illegal (and it should be illegal)!

    The only difference between now and 1990s is that laws were frequently disregarded back then, and classified documents could be accessed. The only “tightening” that happened since then is that these days the laws on archival access are followed more strictly.

  2. Forgot to mention, the poll you’re referring to is quite scandalous and suffered from several attempts to manipulate the results through automatic voting and organizers’ dishonesty. Otherwise, Stalin would’ve been #1. 🙂

    Alexander Nevsky was a politically correct choice, even if it did not in fact correspond to the wishes of the Russian public.

  3. Thanks for your comments Kriukov. Of course, I can only go by with the media tell me. Like this BBC News article:

    The new ideology is “Putinism” which, she says, has evolved over the past two years and is based on a strident form of nationalism.

  4. I’m not particularly surprised.

    For a comparable example, Cromwell made it to the top ten in the “Greatest Britons”-contest back in 2002. Robespierre didn’t do quite that well in a similar French contest, sadly enough.

    Some of the comments in that article on “whitewashing” were sort of lacking in depth, by the way. “Time” also chose Adolf Hitler as the “man of the year”, of course; and with hindsight, I’m not sure if comparing the NKVD and the FBI was actually that much off the mark back in 1943. I’m willing to bet that Hoover would have loved to have a freedom of action comparable to Beria.

    But anyway, I’m cool with that. The mandatory historical quote would be: “No one respects a country with a bad army, but everyone respects a country with a good army. I raise my toast to the Finnish army” – J. V. Stalin, 1948


    J. J.

  5. Is it the same media that for two months couldn’t figure out who attacked whom in S.Ossetia this August? 🙂

    What does the media have to offer except unsubstantiated claims from Memorial employees? Memorial, incidentally, is almost completely funded from foreign sources, so what else can they claim in this insecure financial environment? (not that it will help, their funding will most likely be cut anyway). Wouldn’t it be simpler to examine Putin’s speeches to find out about the so-called “Putinism”? Like has he ever denied the repressions of the Stalin era?

    The other piece of “evidence”, the much maligned in narrow liberal circles Danilov’s teachers’ manual, is just puzzling. Does it make any ideological difference if Stalin was acting rationally or irrationally? There is no one widely accepted theory explaining Stalin era repressive policies as far as I know. And certainly Stalin’s rationality or lack thereof is of least ideological concern.

  6. Umm, I just finished teaching a semester long college course on the History of the Soviet Union and Twentieth century Russia. Stalin may have been whitewashed in the press and popular history books, but he has been given a pretty sober and even handed analysis in the English language historical literature.

    As far as comparisons with Hitler, this generally leads to a ‘numbers game’ with a dubious and futile outcome. For example, according to my barber, “Hitler ‘only’ killed 6 million Jews in the Holocaust while Stalin murdered 60 million of his own people.” There is plenty that is factually wrong with this statement.

    For starters, the Stalin numbers were the product of cold war speculation and propaganda. J. Arch Getty and other scholars have used archival sources from the NKVD that the number of deaths was closer to 5 million. Imprisonment and exile were the main outcomes of the Stalinist repression, although that’s cold comfort for his victims. (And yes, that research is incomplete and has been difficult to verify by other scholars because Putin and the oligarchy have once again closed those archives for the purpose of whitewashing Stalin and Brezhnev for domestic consumption.)

    Popular memory tends to under count the number of Hitler’s victims. In addition to the Holocaust, Hitler should also be credited with the deaths of the majority of the Europeans killed during World War Two, including 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians. In Occupied Europe millions of civilians were worked or starved to death during the war.

    The numbers game elides up a more important qualitative comparison. Stalin was a bad man who deliberately killed and imprisoned substantial numbers of Soviet Citizens. Stalin did wage wars of expansion to reconquer former portions of the old Russian Empire. Not nice, but not unheard during the past two or three hundred years of Russian history.

    In contrast, aggressive expansionist war was a cornerstone of Nazi Ideology. Hitler and the Nazi party were bent on the domination of Central and Eastern Europe. These territories were supposed to become German colonies and were ruled in a colonial manner. The Nazis also sought hegemony over France, Italy, Great Britain and the rest of Western Europe. Had there been no Hitler and Nazi Party, there would not have been a Second World War. There also would not have been an opportunity for Stalin to expand communist influence into Central and Eastern Europe. Punishing the Nazi war of aggression was the main point of the Nuremberg Trials.

    Stalin may have killed loads of people and imprisoned or exiled countless more, but he didn’t export nearly as much misery as Hitler. This doesn’t diminish the misery and suffering he caused, but places him in a broader context.

  7. I believe a recent surge in Soviet-Russian nationalism has lots to do with a rapid decline of Russia’s stature in the Yeltsin years and the country’s re-emergence as a key player in world politics. This, I observe, gained momentum after the relative decrease of American prestige across the globe throughout the Bush years, when Russia -under Putin’s leadership- was able to slowly rebuild the nation’s ravaged economic and political bases. It is also worth noting that the main opposition to the current Putin-Medvedev leadership is the Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov. Putin, while attempting to reestablish his country’s stature over the world, is by no means contemplating a Communist thermidor like some western hotheads speculate.

    By the way, I wrote a lengthy article on my blog about the rise of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations in my bloc. Please come by if interested.

  8. Hey, Matt? I can tell that you’re a Western person, but still, the kind of argument that you’re presenting appears as a tiresome old repetition of standard liturgy on the Second World War.

    The proximate cause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was just as important for the outbreak of the Second World War as any policy of the NSDAP. Since you’re obviously so keen to stress that the wars of the Third Reich paved the way for the communist domination of East Europe, you might also wish to recognize the fact that the Soviet (and Western) diplomatic activity facilitated the outbreak of those wars.

    And when it comes to “exporting the misery”, the USSR managed do that quite well and in a rather impressive scale in 1939-1941 and once again in 1944-1945. So right now, it just seems that you’re arguing that Hitler was worse because, well, Britain and France matter more than the Baltic states, the eastern parts of Poland or Armi Hillevi Metsäpelto.

    Apparently we’re just left with the old argument of how “_our_ enemy was the _worst_ enemy”. The fact that the war was initiated by this enemy is once again used as a justification to excuse the retaliatory actions by “our” side. Crediting the Third Reich with the “deaths of the majority of the Europeans killed during World War Two” and naming Adolf Hitler as the sole perpetrator is also nothing more but just one more way of passing the buck. Should the deaths of the people who died when Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed also be attributed to the German actions? And how much responsibility did the Third Reich really bear for the actions of its allies, who had their very own agendas?

    (Of course, this method is not unheard of in the country that I live in, either. “The deaths of those Soviet PoWs who were starved to death were due to Stalin, because he had started the war”. Claims such as this are complete bollocks, never mind who’s presenting them.)

    As for your comment “not nice, but not unheard during the past two or three hundred years of Russian history”. I mean, sigh. I don’t know what college you’re teaching in, but I hope that you don’t instill your students with cultural relativist arguments. But then again, perhaps the various actions of the United States in Vietnam or Iraq could also be treated rather more dispassionately in a “broader context” if we pay attention to Andrew Jackson’s expulsion of the Cherokees.


    J. J.

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