Closing the Curtains on the Soviet Past

Russian historians are warned about what historical truths they find -- and retell.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Olga Velikanova, an Assistant Professor of Russian History at the University of North Texas. She was among the first scholars to work with declassified Communist Party and secret police archives. Her research about everyday Stalinism, the cult of Lenin and Russian popular opinion has been broadcast by the BBC, Finnish and Russian radio and TV, as well as the History Channel in Canada. She is the author of Making of an Idol: On Uses of Lenin, The Public Perception of the Cult of Lenin Based on the Archival Materials and The Myth of the Besieged Fortress: Soviet Mass Perception in the 1920s-1930s. She is a recipient of many awards from different international research foundations.

FP: Olga Velikanova, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

I would like to talk to you today about the Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests, which Russian president Dmitry Medvedev created a year ago, on May 19, 2009. What are the goals of this Commission exactly and what has it achieved?

Velikanova: Thank you, Jamie.

A year ago, as you say, on May 19, 2009, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev created the Commission to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests. This Commission puzzled many historians. Was it an offensive against freedom of thought and speech? Did it open a door for possible repression of historians who would “undermine” the national image of Russia by bringing up unpleasant things about Russia’s national identity and the cruel truth about the Soviet past?

Without a doubt, we see a Stalinist-like intervention of the state occurring right before our eyes. It is an intervention into the historical profession and an imposition of boundaries on historical study.

The idea of the Commission was initiated by the Russian Ministry of Foreign affairs to oppose attempts by the Western neighbors of Russia to return to a discussion about the beginning and the results of WWII, and the role of the USSR in the post-war settlement.  Primarily, this Commission was an instrument of struggle in foreign relations. It was a signal to Russian historians and media what positions they “should” take in their publications.

While Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have interpreted the occupation of their countries by the USSR in 1944-45 as enslavement, Soviet historiography has presented it as a liberation. As Baltic states argue, liberation from one dictatorial regime (Nazis) was followed by the onslaught and imposition of another dictatorial regime (Soviet). This account of two regimes was supported by the OSCE resolution on July 3, 2009, which stated equality of the role of Nazi Germany and the USSR in starting WWII. In response, the Russian media protested against any comparison of the two regimes of the 1930s.

Thus, the formation of the Commission should be read mostly in the context of foreign relations in the Baltic region (especially with Poland), rooted in the painful events of 1939-1945 and also in Russian-Ukrainian relations.

FP: Okay, so the Commission targets international relations rather than the public sphere inside Russia?

Velikanova: Well you have to keep in mind that, besides the international aspect, “prevention of falsification of history” obviously has domestic implications. Very logically, this premise leads to the reconsideration of the general character of Stalinism, not only in the European context, but also inside the Soviet Union. And it is exactly this problem – the definition of Stalin’s regime – that represents the most painful and controversial point of modern historical/political discourse inside Russia. Society itself has not yet come to terms with its traumatic past. There is no public consensus on the dilemma of Stalin’s legacy.

The Commission’s goal is to promote the state view on the Soviet past. The official turn towards “blind” compromise with the past became evident with Putin coming to power and is expressed in practices such as embellishing consequences, justification of human losses as inevitable, and silencing the crimes of Stalin’s regime. The superiority of the state over the human being and his life and rights is at the center of the Kremlin’s attitude toward Stalin’s politics. In parallel, not truth but national interests are prioritized by the Commission.

It’s obvious that Putin’s life-long affiliation with the most notorious institution of the Soviet state – security police OGPU-NKVD-KGB-FSB – played its role in turning the state and the public discussion towards toleration and a “not guilty” stance. Russian society, too, showed itself not mature enough to face unpleasant truths about its fathers and grandfathers. It’s especially painful in the context of the national identity crisis which followed the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

The justification of Stalin’s politics in the media and even in the school textbooks, where Stalin is called an “effective manager,” is opposed by a liberal minority in Russian society. The New Times in Russia represents historical views on Stalinism that do not always go in favor of the interests of Russia, as the Commission understands them. Thus, if “falsification of history” would be considered a state offense, as proposed by the Commission, then a publication like The New Times would become a target of harassment and persecution,

Debates about the Commission reflect the dichotomy: the Commission initially was created as a tool to protect Russian interests in the international arena (as the state and Ministry of Foreign affairs see them.) But it is obvious that the Commission is a threat to liberty of thought in modern Russia.

FP: Does the Commission target the historical truth about Russian-Ukrainian relations in the 1930s?

Velikanova: Yes, at the center of the Commission’s attention are not only problematic issues of history of relations with Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, but also relations with Ukraine. Over the last two decades, there has been discussion on the Famine of 1932-33. It is a part of a big controversy both in historical science and in relations between the two countries. It is very natural that the abused national feelings of the Ukrainians refer to the most tragic moment of their history.  In the domain of Ukraine history, they interpret famine in ethnic terms as intentional genocide by Moscow. In a broader context - in the domain of Soviet history (and Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union) the famine, as most scholars agree now, was a result of inhuman social politics of Soviet central government directed against peasantry as a whole and afflicted not only Ukraine, but also Russian and Kazakh peasants (about 1 million victims in the last case).

The guilt of the Soviet central government is not under discussion here, however, since citizens of both countries are not ready to accept responsibility for the excesses of their Soviet past.

National Ukrainian Stalinists were, after all, also involved in fatal agricultural politics, and they therefore share responsibility with the Russian Stalinists. While Russia does not accept these charges, an important step was made in resolving these old issues on January 14, 2010, when Kiev’s Court of Appeals found Josef Stalin and other Bolshevik leaders guilty of genocide against the Ukrainians during the famine. Criminal proceedings against the Russian and Ukrainian leaders – Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Postyshev, Kosior, Chubar and Khatayevich – were dropped “over the suspects’ deaths.” Former Ukrainian president V. Yushchenko in the last days of his tenure called for the organization of an International tribunal on the crimes of Communism following the model of the Nuremberg trials on Nazism.

FP: So with the organization of the Commission, does it mean that “falsification of history” will be a criminal offense?

Velikanova: The bill suggests that “falsification of history and rejection of the role of the USSR in the victory over Nazism” should be a criminal offense. It was introduced by the party United Russia. The government declined this bill on January 15, 2010. The party United Russia intends to work on a new formulation of this bill and resubmit it again.

FP: After one year of the Commission being set up, what has occurred?

Velikanova: If you mean to ask if there have been any purges – no, thank God. There are no mass purges among historians. There was just one episode when a professor of history at Arkhangelsk’s Pomorskiy university, Mikhail Suprun, who was collecting data on Germans imprisoned in Northern Gulag camps during WWII, was detained for a short period in October 2009 by the FSB. The Security service also seized his archive.  He has been charged with violating privacy laws.  The episode took place in December 2008 when the security service seized, for several months, the archives of the St. Petersburg public society “Memorial” which contains data on the victims of Stalinism.

FP: Your own personal experiences?

Velikanova: Immediately after the formation of the Commission, at the end of May, 2009, I arrived to Moscow and St. Petersburg to do my archival research.  I personally felt the new atmosphere in the historical institutions. In the summer of 2009 I met a much more secretive atmosphere in the archives than before. Reverse classification of Soviet documents has gradually progressed since 2000 with the establishing of Putin’s tenure as well as suspicious attitudes of the officials towards Americans.  Many foreign historians complained about more restrictions and denial of access to many documents.  Some archivists perceived signals from above (in our case - from the President who was an organizer of this Commission) as carte blanche to control the access to files. As a result, for example, I did not get permission to study the documents about the first wave of Stalin’s repressions in the summer of 1927.

The Commission has had two meetings by now. The first meeting of the Commission took place on August 28, 2009 at the Kremlin and was devoted to historical enlightenment. The Commission claimed to coordinate several publications undertaken on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the beginning of WWII. In September 2009, a kind of confrontation took place in relations between Russia and Poland. Poland argues it was the Molotov-Ribbentrop deal that sparked the war when on September 1, Hitler and on September 16, 1939 Stalin, invaded Poland and divided it. While Putin struck a conciliatory note with Poland during his visit to a memorial ceremony, on September 1, the Russian Intelligence Service - Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki (Russian CIA) - presented the volume of the 60 declassified documents from the Soviet archives, “Sekrety Polskoi Razvedki, 1935-1945.” These are the documents of Polish Intelligence from 1935-1945, showing that Poland conducted undermining activities on the territory of the USSR and also reports of diplomats, etc.

The author/editor of the volume, Lev Sotskov (not a historian, but a general of intelligence) proves that Poland contributed significantly to the flaming of WWII. The presentation was shown on Russian TV and openly attached to the visit of Putin to Poland on that day.  So, the book contributed to the struggle on international relations. The chair of the Commission, S. E. Naryshkin, expressed satisfaction about such publications, which he called truthful in the last meeting of the Commission on January 19, 2010 at the Moscow Foreign Affairs Institute. On the eve of the 65th Anniversary of Victory in WWII, he called to oppose the attempts of unspecified historians and countries who claim the Soviet leadership was responsible for the excessive human cost of Soviet Victory (last historical estimates of Soviet losses is 26.6 million people) and thus, denigrate the celebration of victory in May 2010. The Commission coordinates publications of new studies and organization of conferences devoted to the history of WWII.

FP: This move by President Medvedev means that the image of him as a liberal is far from correct, right?

Velikanova: When Medvedev came to power, some liberal minded people hoped that he would soften Russian politics. After two years of his tenure, we can see only very timid attempts of independent movements. Vacillation of President Medvedev, who a few months after the creation of the Commission criticized the defenders of Stalin, reflects controversy in the Russian public sphere.

FP: So is the truth in Russian History attainable?

Velikanova: I do not believe the final, ultimate truth. Through different views and discussions, historians can endlessly approach the “reality.” But one thing is for sure: the state interventions (through the Commission) in discussions and imposing limits are not a productive tool in the search of historical truth. Retreat from this gendarme position of the state was seen in a recent online publication of the Katyn documents. We saw orders of Stalin and his cronies to shoot Polish captured officers. This publication is an important step forward in historical public debates in Russia and has implications on foreign relations with Poland.

The noisy campaign around the creation of the Commission, and its subsequent weak performance, reflects the contradictory nature of modern Russian politics. Medvedev and the government are sending inconsistent messages to the Russian public and the world.

FP: Olga Velikanova, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.