A few days ago on Facebook, I saw an episode of a Russian news program from a local TV station. The episode came from Omsk, a large Siberian city with population over 1 million. The episode disturbed me enough to cause a sleepless night and this blog entry.
The news segment commemorated Joseph Stalin’s birthday. The short overview of his tenure (almost 30 years) described the incredible accomplishments of the Soviet Union during this period. It not only included the obvious, like the victory in WWII, but also achievements in democracy, advancements in freedom, equal rights, education, industrialization and the modernization of the entire country. While some of that was true, the report never mentioned the price in human lives which paid for many of these achievements, nothing about destroying agriculture, nothing about the labor camps, nothing about the KGB, nothing about the environment of délation and fear, nothing about a famine so severe that it caused cannibalism in one of the most fertile regions of Russia. The news segment also managed to include ‘compare and contrast’ snippets to point out the United States’ problems with racism, Switzerland’s suffrage which only included women in the 1960’s, etc. Overall, in just 7 minutes this ‘news’ segment managed to present one of the most brutal and repressive regimes of the 20th century as progressive and enlightened.
I was stunned by this obnoxious whitewashing of well-established history. I’m closing in on my 60th birthday, but I remember that during the time of perestroika, when majority of Stalin’s crimes became public knowledge in the Soviet Union, I was in my late 20s. I suppose that Russians in their 20s, 30s and even early 40s will not remember that. The majority of them will think that Stalin was a great statesman and life in the Soviet Union was full of joy and happiness. When I was in Moscow this year, I noticed many signs of charming nostalgia for the Soviet past; which annoyed me a great deal. But pro-Russian friends explained to me that this is the preservation of history and some of this is probably true. But it was clear that there was more to this. The positive aspects – yes, not everything was bad -- were greatly exaggerated, but negative were missing altogether. This is not a preservation of history. It is destruction of history in order to build a glorious and completely fallacious past. Russians, like all other people, are happy to embrace this glory and forget the horrors. Who wants to be ashamed of the past?
Now, I’m going to make a geographical and temporal jump to the United States in the first half of the 20th century. About 50 years after the end of the Civil War, the Confederate states started to openly express anger about their defeat in the war. The most obvious expression of this anger was the KKK, but there were more understated signs of denial. The United Daughter of the Confederacy and other civil organizations began to erect statues of Confederate generals and to create and teach a mythology of what brave and noble people they were. The popular romance novel “Gone with the Wind” was written in 1934 and made into a blockbuster movie in 1939. I never understood the attraction, but for decades it was the most favorite movie in the U.S. Talking about intersection of popular culture and history, this movie was probably a final stroke in creating the romantic and heroic picture of Confederate South in the Civil War. The convenient theory, that the Civil War was not about slavery, fell on the fertile ground of a fictional history. Significant numbers of Southerners love this history and built local culture around it. Their ancestors didn’t fight for preservation of slavery; they fought for Freedom and for states’ rights and their Confederate memorials and flags became important symbols of this glorious struggle and noble lost cause. It doesn’t matter that heroic history is based more on Gone with the Wind than on anything related to the real war. Who wants to be ashamed of the past?
One could say: let them enjoy their fictional glory, why disappoint and make them angry, who will be heart by this? Well, in my opinion, there are a few groups of people who are very sensitive about this particular ‘version’ of history. The first and foremost are the African-Americans. Most of them are descendants of slaves and it doesn’t take a genius to understand that for them this fake history is not an innocent feel good story. The other group is more diverse and numerous. These are people who sincerely care about truth and justice. Most people in this group are well familiar with the history and are capable to recognize the harm done to society by the distortion of such critical events of the past. I was surprised to find myself in this group when I felt so disheartened by a news segment which in a few minutes whitewashed the tragic history of the Soviet Union and glorified one of it’s bloodiest dictators.
And just recently, we encountered another interesting dimension of the fictional history. The removal of the Robert Lee statue in Charlottesville was protested not by local Virginians, i.e. the real Confederate decedents. In fact, Robert Lee’s family was completely on board with local government decision to remove the monument. But the decision was a trigger for an impressive protest march by modern KKK and other neo-Nazi groups. They need the past glory -- doesn’t matter true or false -- to present themselves as the guardians of the history and the nation. The fake grievances of monument removal were used to demonstrate to the rest of us, who are the real masters and defenders of this land. I suspect that it won’t be long until we will find out who will exploit the Stalin’s past glory in Russia.