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In Russia, Pulling A Veil Over Stalin's Crimes

  • Robert Coalson

Many Russians, especially supporters of the Communist Party, continue to revere Josef Stalin.

Many Russians, especially supporters of the Communist Party, continue to revere Josef Stalin.

* Correction appended

British historian Orlando Figes's 2007 book, "The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia," uses oral histories to delve deeply into the psychological effects on ordinary Soviet citizens of Josef Stalin's crushing dictatorship.

"We were brought up to keep our mouths shut," one woman told Figes about her childhood in the 1930s. "We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbors, and especially of the police.... Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear."

Figes revealed this week that a contract to publish "The Whisperers" in Russian had been canceled by the Attikus publishing house, ostensibly for business reasons. Figes, however, feels the cancellation is connected to recent efforts by the Russian authorities to buff up Stalin's image.

"I take their word for it that it is economic, but I also have my suspicions that, you know, this is not a great time to be publishing books like 'The Whisperers' in Russia because of the current campaign to promote a more positive message in Russia about the Stalin period," Figes says.

Attikus General Director Arkady Vitruk denies that he was under any pressure not to publish the book. He tells RFE/RL's Russian Service the contract was canceled because the company felt it could not make a profit on "The Whisperers."

"No one ever called me and forbade me from publishing any book. We make all these decisions based on our economic expectations or the success of one book or another and on the specifics of our company. That's all," Vitruk says.

"For instance, we published [Swedish scholar] Bengt Jangfeldt's 'Bet Your Life' about [Soviet poet Vladimir] Mayakovsky, which relatively starkly describes socialist life, socialism. So it would be inaccurate and incorrect to say that we do not publish books that contain controversial political material."

Attikus is owned by banker Aleksandr Mamut, who enjoys close ties with senior government officials, particularly First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.

Burying 'Katyn'

A similar story is unfolding with the 2007 film "Katyn" by renowned Polish filmmaker Andrej Wajda. Rights to show the film in Russia have been purchased by producer Arkady Tsimbler, but the controversial film is nowhere to be seen. Tsimbler says that he had been unable to "overcome the resistance of theater owners" to show "Katyn."

Wajda's film dramatizes the story of some 20,000 Polish officers who were captured in the early days of World War II and were executed by Soviet secret police in 1940. For decades, the Soviet and Russian governments denied responsibility for the massacre. In 2004, Russia's military prosecutor closed an investigation into the killings, refusing to label the incident either a war crime or a crime against humanity.

Daniil Dondurei, editor of the magazine "The Art of Cinema," says that the disappearance of "Katyn" probably has more to do with self-censorship than with overt political pressure.

"If Wajda had made a film about the U.S. Civil War or about the battles between Germany and France in World War I, then everyone would suddenly remember that he is a leading European director. And the film would be distributed -- maybe not widely, but to a significant number of screens. There would be articles and premiers," Dondurei says.

"But we are talking about Russia, about Stalin, about the beginning of World War II, about the guilt of the Soviet Union. Who is going to view that narrowly and objectively?"

Losing Their Appetite

Indeed, the culture in Russia has changed remarkably over the last 15 years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the public's appetite for the previously forbidden details of the Soviet past seemed insatiable. Books by Western historians and former dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were widely available and wildly popular.

In 1988, Soviet General Dmitry Volkogonov, who later became head of the Institute of Military History and a military adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, published a damning two-volume biography of Stalin.

As head of the institute, Volkogonov was charged with overseeing a 10-volume history of Soviet participation in World War II. The project was canceled after the first four volumes were produced, and those volumes have never been released. Volkogonov was fired from the institute by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Volkogonov wrote in "The Moscow Times" about how his research revealed "the stunning immorality of the leadership of the country's military and secret police."

"If we wish to fathom the entire greatness of the victory, its human dimensions and costs, we are obligated to remember not only the triumphs, but the tragedies and sadness as well," Volkogonov wrote. "The greatness of the nation lies in the fact that it not only withstood the invasion, but the criminal errors of its own leadership as well."

Good Papa Stalin

Even this tenuous openness about the past was short-lived, and after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, there were steady efforts to establish Stalin in the public mind as an effective, if ruthless, manager and to downplay his crimes. Last year the presidential administration promoted a teacher's guide to Russian history that was intended, according to the authors, to make Russians proud of their history.

"Until recently, Russian history was an object of a propaganda offensive from both inside the country and abroad," historian and co-author of the teacher's guide Aleksandr Filippov told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" in 2007.

"This attack pursued two goals. The first was to prove that in the whole course of its history Russia deserved a place only on the periphery of world politics, that it has no place in the pool of so-called civilized nations. The second one was to prove that Russia, as the successor of a totalitarian regime, is doomed forever to repent for this regime's real or invented crimes," Filippov said.

Also last year, Russian state television organized a competition to determine the "greatest Russian" in history. For much of the scandalous voting, which was widely viewed as being manipulated by the organizers, Stalin was the front-runner, and he ended up in a respectable third place.

Such efforts have yielded their results, in the form of increased national pride and an increasingly positive public perception of Stalin. In this context, there would seem to be no place in Putin's Russia for films like "Katyn" or books like "The Whisperers."

Film expert Dondurei describes the climate in Russia today in words that sound like a passage straight out of Figes's "The Whisperers":

"I think, every Russian director or producer -- no one is terrorizing him. No one is saying, 'Good God, don't do that!' He knows himself what can be done and what cannot."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.

* In a poll organized by Russian state television, Stalin came in third as the "greatest Russian" in history, not fourth.
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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