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On Useful And Harmful Falsifications Of Russian History

The Pantheon of Glory on Mamayev Hill in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad
There was a Soviet-era institution that was completely antithetical to the public good: the Ideological Commission, which was later turned into the Ideological Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

It wasn't simply pointless, it was actively harmful. These appointed ideologues decided what corresponded to the interests of the party and the nation, and what did not. They decided what truth was and what should not be published.

I hadn't suspected that our retreat from the liberty we gained during perestroika would go so far, but now a presidential decree has established a state commission that is charged with rooting out historical falsifications that "harm the interests of Russia."

There are many falsifications of history. They tumble in a muddy torrent from the screens of state television. The shelves of bookstores are groaning with the Stalinist, fascist, anti-Semitic literature published in the last few years. But I'm afraid the attention of our new commission will be attracted by works of a completely different type.

Non-Factual Facts

I'm worried the new commission will draw on our rich Soviet experience. In 1951, the Soviet government published a book called "Falsifiers of History: A Historical Handbook." Its anonymous, highly placed authors were trying to prove that a publication issued in the West called "Nazi-Soviet Relations: 1939-41," which was based on materials from German archives, was a falsification. (Years later, the same materials were found in Soviet archives.) The effort was guided by the logic of rooting out facts "harmful to the interests of...."

And now the time is ripe for a new commission. After all, we are approaching the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (signed in August 1939) and the Soviet-German collusion (September 1939). Coincidence?

History (like science, like literature), for good or ill, cannot be separated from ideology. Ideology appears in the selection of topics and information, as well as in the interpretation of facts.

And there are various kinds of facts, as the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin quipped. There are convenient facts and inconvenient ones; and there are some that aren't even facts.

There is nothing wrong with admitting that historians adhere to ideologies. But our Russian Constitution bans the establishment of a state ideology. If a group of people, acting in the name of the government, is going to determine what harms the interests of Russia, they are acting unconstitutionally.

Stifling Discussion

But the very idea that a state organ can take on the task of determining which historical works pose a threat to Russia's interests is profoundly false. Historical truth -- like any other kind of truth or, for that matter, any type of falsification -- is only revealed by a process of open discussion. It cannot be dictated from on high.

Russian authorities have a very fine sense of which version of the war is useful for them and which facts need to be erased from historical memory. As soon as Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said that it should be illegal to deny the victory of the Soviet Union in World War II, a bill appeared in the State Duma establishing criminal penalties for denying our victory and for denying the crimes of Hitler's cronies (but not for denying those of Stalin and his entourage).

These ideas fell on well-prepared soil. A public-opinion poll found that 60 percent of Russians support Shoigu's initiative, including 57 percent of those who say they support the liberal Yabloko party or the right-leaning, pro-Kremlin Right Cause party.

But who in Russia has ever denied any of these things? And what danger to the public would such bizarre pronouncements present?

The real point of these initiatives isn't clear to most citizens. They are saying: Leave aside everything except our victory in the war; forget about the cruel truths, the victims, and the losses; forget about how unprepared we were for the war despite the face that all the efforts of our country had been devoted to preparations for 20 years to such an extent that our people were condemned to a half-starved existence.

Official Weapon

But too much was already said during the years of glasnost. Documents were released and honest memoirs of the war were published. It is sufficient to recall the words of war veteran Viktor Astafev, speaking to one of his critics: "You and your commanders and those you commanded were very bad warriors. And you couldn't have been otherwise, since you were fighting in the most talentless army in human history. That army, like our army today, was a product of the most despicable society -- and there is no need to prove that."

Maybe those words were written in the heat of the moment with some exaggeration, but they are certainly far from the official historiography of the Great Patriotic War that the authorities have been promoting. Even official state television occasionally lets a film slip through that tells some truths about the war, that mentions the inhuman strategy of the Supreme Commander and his marshals and generals (the film "Rzhev" is one example).

Now a weapon is being placed in the hands of those who insist on mythology and outright lies, the blade of which will be directed against the intolerable truth of the war. It will continue the practice of Soviet agitprop, which always struggled against the "de-heroization of the people's victory," against "the truth of the trenches" which cast shadows on the "truth of the Generalisimo."

Three Wars

A few years ago, former Moscow Mayor and economist Gavriil Popov said there was not one war, but three.

The first was the complete destruction in a matter of days and weeks of the army that Stalin had prepared for an incursion into Europe. The remarkable books of Mark Solonin, based on a careful analysis of archival materials and the recollections of participants, document the massive scale of that catastrophe. The army, overwhelmed by the Germans' numerical and technological superiority, fell apart in a matter of hours. Weapons were abandoned. Millions of soldiers and officers were taken prisoner. The German blitzkrieg very nearly achieved its goals.

And then the second war began: the Patriotic War. During this war, the patriotism of the people became the main ideological force opposing the invasion. The destroyed old professional army was replaced by a genuine people's army. This is the war in which the people achieved a great victory and completely altered the character of the war. In front of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad, the greatest threat that our country has faced at least since Mongol times was met and turned back.

But that is when the third war began, a war the authorities want to deny or distort. This war combined the objective need to complete the war on the territory of the enemy (a joint determination by our army, our people, and all our allies to completely destroy fascism at its roots) with an offensive war planned by Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy and aimed against the peoples of Eastern Europe.

The goal of this third war was to establish communist regimes on the Soviet model across the region. A national, just war of liberation -- such as history has probably never seen before -- was transformed into a war of aggression. The glory of the Great Patriotic War was tarnished by expansion and by our leaders claiming the right to appoint the leaders of the captive nations, to force them to industrialize and collectivize, to tell them how to deal with "enemies of the party and the people," to tell them who are their friends and who are their enemies.

No Escaping Stalinist Past

In order to fight against the myths, we need to assert firmly that the division of Europe worked out at Yalta and Potsdam and agreed to by our allies is our historical curse. For decades our leaders deluded the Soviet people with the idea that our troops had a right to be in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia because hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers and officers had given their lives to liberate these countries.

We were told it was an imperialist lie that the peoples of these countries thought they had merely traded one occupation for another. That's how we were raised and educated. That's how the great-power, hegemonic consciousness of the majority of our people was formed, in the spirit of messianic communism.

The direct consequence of this third war, in fact its continuation, was the Cold War.

A Stalinist foreign policy, unfortunately, is our undeniable past. Occasional opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Russians do not approve of Mikhail Gorbachev's "handing over" of the countries of the so-called socialist camp to their peoples and ending the senseless waste of resources that was the arms race. On the contrary, they approve of the saber rattling in which our present leaders engage from time to time. They are convinced Russia has a right to its "zone of primary influence" covering its neighbors and therefore has the right to tell Ukraine and Georgia what organizations they can join and what policies they can pursue.

In our subconscious, at the core of our being, lie great-power priorities. That's why we respond with enthusiasm when we hear the slogan "Russia is getting up off its knees."

This myth won't disappear. It will only adjust itself to times and circumstances and, most importantly, the interests and views of our leaders. And now this myth can count on a new, specially created organ -- Dmitry Medvedev's new historical commission.

Viktor Sheinis is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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