Despite Russia's protests, Stalin was no less villainous than Hitler
It is depressing that it even needed to be discussed. On July 3rd in Vilnius the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent's main outfit, passed a resolution equating Stalin and Hitler. It called for August 23rd to become an official day of remembrance for the millions who were repressed, murdered, deported, robbed and raped as a result of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. That deal, and the secret protocols that went with it, were a death sentence for the countries from the Baltic to the Black sea. The poisonous after-effects linger until today.
The resolution should have met with particularly thunderous applause from the Russian side. After all, Russians by most measures suffered particularly badly under Stalin. Following Lenin's terrible legacy, he systematised the persecution of the country's brightest and best. Anyone reading the classic memoirs of Stalinism, such as "Kolyma tales" by Varlam Shalamov, or Nadezhda Mandelstam's "Hope against hope", or a modern history such as Anne Applebaum's "Gulag", is suffused with the horror of those years. It is hard to imagine anyone quibbling over their condemnation.
Some do counter that Stalin was, despite his excessive toughness, a great figure in Russian and Soviet history. (Modern Russian history textbooks make the same case.) But that ignores Stalin's disastrous record as a political and military leader. His paranoia decapitated the Red Army leadership: the best generals were murdered or jailed. Also, Stalin ignored the plentiful warnings of Hitler's planned surprise attack in June 1941. That nearly proved disastrous.
By some counts Stalin should be seen as no less villainous than Hitler. He bears much of the blame for the war. It was the Soviet alliance with Hitler that gave the Nazi leader the confidence to attack Poland. Only Hitler's blunders prevented the Nazis from winning the war in the East—and quite likely the whole show. It is also worth remembering that Stalinism was so repellent that it drove many Russians to fight on the Nazi side—including in the SS.
Plenty of other countries have much to be ashamed of in their wartime history. Britain's bullying of Czechoslovakia to accept dismemberment at Nazi hands in 1938 is one good example; French collaboration with the occupation another. These are shameful, but they are not taboos.
By contrast, the OSCE resolution prompted outrage from Russia. Indeed, under the new law criminalising the "falsification of history", anyone who voted for it, discussed it or publicised it in Russia would risk a jail sentence of up to five years. Communism's economic failure and political repression have made it hard for anyone to claim that the Soviet Union was the epitome of a new civilisation. The victory over Nazi Germany provides some moral weight, but does not excuse Stalinism. The heroism of the Soviet soldiers who repelled the Nazi invaders has been used both to sanitise the past and to distract attention from the sleaze and incompetence of Russia's current rulers.
The debate will not change the world: the parliamentary assembly is just a talking shop on the sidelines of the 56-member OSCE. Its resolutions are not legally binding. But the news is welcome nonetheless. Russian propagandists love using historical slogans but hate discussions of historical facts. The debate in Vilnius makes it a bit harder to maintain that stance.
(Europe.view column, Jul 9th 2009, economist.com )
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