John Sweeney’s documentary on the return of Stalin-worshipping in Russia, which aired last night on BBC2 and can now be viewed on iPlayer, raises some provocative questions about the writing—and rewriting—of history. Is it so very shocking that Stalin was voted third greatest Russian ever in a nationwide TV poll last year? Shocking or otherwise, it’s a valuable reminder that, whatever our cosy liberal perception of Stalin in the west, his legacy in Russia is very different.
As Arkandy Ostrovksy wrote in “Flirting with Stalin,” his Prospect cover story in September 2008, Russia has been suffering from a worrying “absence of an indigenous ideology” since the mid 1990s—and this gap is being filled by an “old-fashioned nationalism, a neo-Stalinism in costume.” Moreover, it is this nostalgia for former-Soviet greatness that “brought Russian tanks into Georgia and scares most of Russia’s neighbours.”
When I visited Moscow some years back I was stunned by just how many of the older Russians would openly and enthusiastically reminisce about how much better—and easier—life had been under Stalin: things had been difficult then of course, they wouldn’t deny that, but at least there had always been bread in the shops.
Should we be genuinely worried by such impulses? Don’t we all revert to the past when present times are hard? But nostalgia—while it sounds benevolent—is very rarely a benign political force.
Writing on this blog a few weeks ago, Tomas Hirst applauded Dmitry Medvedev speaking out against Stalin-era crimes as “a truly brave step,” reminding us that openly criticising Stalin’s rule is not simply stating the obvious, but does in fact mean standing up to powerful forces which fundamentally threaten how history is remembered by Russia’s younger generation.
While the past is the past, the present always dictates the historical narrative we favour and exploit for our own means.