The rise and fall and rise of Comrade Stalin

I cannot explain why Russell Brand is stood next to a photograph of Stalin in this article about whitewashing Stalin, but there’s a lot of Stalin about at the BBC these days. I’ve been enjoying the current series by Laurence Rees, Behind Closed Doors, which documents the depth to which Stalin got into bed with the Nazis prior their attack on the Soviet Union. The first episode that deals with this is here, and all three broadcast so far are here. Laurence Rees notes that Stalin has got off lightly compared to many other totalitarian tyrants with a record of slaughtering millions.

A few months ago, when I was visiting one of our leading universities, I happened to see a poster prominently displayed in one of the students’ halls of residence. It was of Joseph Stalin.

Perhaps it was meant as a kind of ironic reference to something. Perhaps it was simply covering a damp patch on the wall. But, in any event, no one seemed to take much notice of it.
It’s all symptomatic of a broader point. Which is that Stalin appears to have got off more lightly from the judgement of history – or at least the judgement [sic] of the British man or woman in the street – than he deserves. Stalin, after all, was responsible for the destruction of millions of people. His suspicion and paranoia condemned many wholly innocent individuals to torture and death.

While the UK is being overdosed with the reality of Stalin thanks to Rees and the interesting archive the BBC have put up, things are different in Russia. The authoritarian ex-KGB Putin is trying to stop attention being paid to Stalin’s crimes against the Russian people and their neighbours, and even attempting to revitalize his reputation. Historians are having their access to records blocked.

For years, the earth in this Siberian city had been giving up clues: a scrap of clothing, a fragment of bone, a skull with a bullet hole.

And so a historian named Boris Trenin made a plea to officials. Would they let him examine secret archives to confirm that there was a mass grave here from Stalin’s purges? Would they help him tell the story of the thousands of innocent people who were said to have been carted from a prison to a ravine, shot in the head and tossed over?

The answer was no, and Trenin understood what many historians in Russia have come to realize: Under Vladimir Putin, the attitude toward the past has changed. The archives that Trenin was seeking, stored on the fourth floor of a building in Tomsk, in boxes stamped “KGB of the U.S.S.R.,” would remain sealed.

Putin’s enthusiasm is obvious:

“We do have bleak chapters in our history; just look at events starting from 1937,” Putin said at a meeting where the guide was presented. “And we should not forget these moments in our past.”

“But other countries have also known their bleak and terrible moments,” he said. “In any event, we have never used nuclear weapons against civilians, and we have never dumped chemicals on thousands of kilometers of land or dropped more bombs on a tiny country than were dropped during the entire Second World War, as was the case in Vietnam.”

In interviews, officials of the FSB and other security agencies said they had in fact declassified many documents. Asked about complaints from historians, Oleg Matveyev, a senior official at the FSB archives in Moscow, said some people wanted to depict Soviet rule only negatively.

“To draw the line at 1991 and say, everything before was black, and now has come white, as is done in many countries and regions in the former republics of the Soviet Union, we have nothing like that here,” he said. “We are more careful about our past.”

They sound like Western liberal academicssome Western liberal commentators don’t they?