Academic journal article Kritika

Normalizing Russia, Legitimizing Putin

Academic journal article Kritika

Normalizing Russia, Legitimizing Putin

Article excerpt

Judging from commentaries in Russian oppositional press and Western media portrayals of The History of Russia, 1945-2008: A Teacher's Handbook, by Aleksandr Vasil'evich Filippov et al., one would expect that this book glorifies Stalin and exonerates his crimes, presents the Soviet Union as an ideal society, and derides civil liberties and democracy; in short, that it makes a plea for the restoration of a closed totalitarian society and state in Russia. (1) Instead, what one finds is a text of considerable complexity and multiple meanings, in places well and engagingly written, in others dull, mostly informative but sometimes self-contradictory and opaque. Although some of the book's meanings are quite objectionable, one has to give its authors their due: the book is not uniformly bad.

Nor would it be fair to assert, as its critics suggest, that the authors' standpoint is solely that of the central government while the perspective of common Russians is totally missing. To the contrary, even in its emphasis on the importance of a strong state the book's register is rather reflective of the perceptions of most Russian citizens, who still remember the last decades of the Soviet regime and for whom the horrors of the 1930s and even 1940s are either a distant memory or something of which they have no firsthand knowledge. Indeed, for most Russians the Soviet Union was not an evil empire, and they would probably disagree with the qualifier "totalitarian" as well. Although not necessarily nostalgic for Soviet times and not longing for their return, they tend to refract the discourse that would paint all of the Soviet experience in dark colors and by extension suggest that their own lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents were lived in vain. Even if in the late 1980s and early 1990s, under the impression of the avalanche of revelations of communist-era crimes, many, if not all, Russians were ready to adopt a highly critical attitude toward their recent history, the experience of the 1990s surely taught them that living conditions might well be worse than the ones they experienced in the late Soviet period.2 And of course, there is a powerful psychological need to impart meaning to one's life: to imagine it as unremittingly faulty is too unbearable to be sustainable for a long time. A steep decline of popular interest in all kinds of "black" literature and films and the increasing appeal of "patriotic" productions, visible already in the mid-1990s, is the best illustration of this point. (3)

The strategy of "normalization" of Soviet and Russian post-1945 history, boldly employed in Filippov's handbook, is thus very probably in tune with the dominant trend in Russian public opinion. Nor should it be seen as something particularly Russian. As Ernest Renan noted as early as 1882, forgetting and misremembering, especially when it comes to less than edifying episodes from one's own nation's past, was inherent in the identity formation of European nations. (4) And as Michael Mann recently noted, Californians, for example, while feeling a strong sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, are quite reluctant to remember what happened to American Indians who populated their land before the arrival of Whites. (5)

It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that Filippov's book is selective about the facts that it chooses to include in its narrative. Nor, in the majority of subjects covered, is its selectivity extreme. It may be true, as one critic noted, that the Gulag is mentioned only once, but then Stalinist repressions are highlighted often and in various contexts.6 In addition to offering a detailed narration of the repression of communist elites in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including the Leningrad Affair, the book explicitly identifies the general toughening of penalties against all kinds of offenders, so that violations that had previously entailed fines were now punished by years of imprisonment (35-41). …

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