Russians in denial over Soviet era crimes

Joseph Stalin presided over the deaths of millions during his bloody reign, yet a startling survey has found many Russians today are ignorant of his atrocities. How can this be explained?

‘Avramov, Roman Petrovich, 56 years old. My father’, the old man says in a trembling voice. ‘Manager of the All-Soviet Bakery-Building Trust. Shot January 8, 1938. After several months they arrested my mother, Faina Avramova. She spent eight years in the Karaganda labour camps. I was 5 at the time.’

The man was one of thousands of Russians who gathered outside the old headquarters of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police, to commemorate the one million people killed during Joseph Stalin's ‘Great Terror’. Paranoid that enemies lurked everywhere waiting to topple him, Stalin in the late 1930s ordered mass arrests for the flimsiest of reasons. Those who were not summarily executed were sent to toil in the brutal gulags.

While some Russians still gather to remember the killings, a poll last week suggests that many have forgotten or are wilfully ignorant of the horrors of the Stalin era. It found that 16% of Russians believe no ‘mass political repression’ ever occurred and 17% think political repression is justifiable.

The poll’s author says it reflects Russia’s ‘imperial-patriotic surge and trend towards a total whitewash of our history’. Academics think the ignorance is the result of the nationalist agenda of the current autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. To reinforce his own legitimacy, he has tried to bolster the reputations of earlier dictators, encouraging school textbooks that say Stalin was an ‘effective manager’ who acted ‘entirely rationally’.

Many Russians celebrate the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, but others view it as a blow to national pride. While aware of Stalin’s brutality, some see him as a strong leader who made the Soviet Union feared and respected across the globe.

The Great Error

Some worry that the poll demonstrates how Russia is wilfully distorting its history. Putin is well aware of the power of propaganda, and has invested £300m in RT, an English-language international TV news channel that parrots his government’s views. With Russia acting increasingly aggressively towards its neighbours, we should be concerned that so many have forgotten the gloomy legacy of previous dictators.

Yet others say Russia should not be singled out. Polls across the world suggest that very few people anywhere have accurate views of their own history or current affairs. A poll earlier this year found that 84% of Americans do not know where Ukraine is, and another found Britons on average overestimate the number of Muslims in the UK by a factor of 4. Historians are divided on whether the British Empire was a force for good or ill in the world, so we should not be surprised that Russia is also divided over the interpretation of its past.

You Decide

  1. Is it worrying that so many Russians deny oppression occurred in their country or are people everywhere ignorant of facts?
  2. Is there such a thing as ‘historical truth’ or is all history just a matter of interpretation?

Activities

  1. In groups, choose five important events in British history and, without checking, decide which year you think they happened. Then check to see how accurate you were.
  2. Research Joseph Stalin and make a presentation on what he did and his legacy.

Some People Say...

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’George Santayana”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about what Russians think of their history?
Because, as the Second World War teaches, nationalism can be a highly dangerous force, and we owe it to those who have suffered to remember what happened to them. History can help us to understand why our world is the way it is, but its misinterpretation can also be used to justify leaders whose actions were repulsive.
Where else is history misremembered?
Just one example of many. In 1958-61 in China, a disastrous industrialisation campaign known as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ lead to the death of 30m people through starvation — more people than died in the First World War. Despite this, the Great Leap Forward is glossed over in just a few pages in Chinese textbooks. China also heavily censors mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Word Watch

Stalin
Relatively unimportant at the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, Stalin gathered enough power to be made the country’s leader when Lenin died in 1922. He built a personality cult around himself and regularly purged those whom he saw as political rivals within the Communist Party.
Gulags
Millions of people were sent to work in labour camps from the 1930s until the 1950s, often for very petty crimes. Conditions varied, but there are many reports of starvation, beatings and people being worked to death.
Justifiable
Also startling is that one third of people asked said they thought the media ‘talked too much’ about the repression of the Soviet era.
Putin
A former KGB officer, Putin became Russia’s president in 2000 and was generally welcomed as a ‘strongman’ who could restore order after the confusion that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Rt
A journalist resigned from RT (which stands for Russia Today) earlier this year because of its biased coverage of the conflict in Ukraine. ‘I couldn’t do it anymore,’ she said, ‘every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it.’

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