Holidays, Witches, & Stalin

Vladimir Kara-Murza

Yesterday was Defender of the Fatherland Day in Russia, a celebration that serves as a kind of ‘Men’s Day.’ If you’ve got a penis, thanks for defending the Fatherland!

Originally, the day marks the beginning of conscription under Lenin in 1918 — the birth of the Red Army. Maksim Kononenko has an amusing op-ed in yesterday’s Взгляд titled “День ничего” (Day of Nothing), where he points out, “We celebrate Defender of the Fatherland Day precisely on the day our citizens refused to protect it.” The Bolsheviks, it so happens, accepted the terms of Germany’s WWI ultimatum around February 23rd (the final Brest-Litovsk Treaty was later signed in March). Kononenko also turns up a little quip by Lenin: “In the Soviet Republic, there is no army,” dated February 25th.

While that’s all very entertaining, we mustn’t overlook the real opportunity of today’s holiday: a chance to debate whether or not Stalin was evil or good!

Now, before you start complaining ‘aren’t you tired of that cheap moral calculus?’ or you begin protesting ‘the inevitable manipulation of the question for modern agendas,’ at least remember that times like these are far and few between in Russia. After all, Russia’s next WWII-themed day isn’t until May 9th (unless you include the Putin-Tusk Katyn memorial ceremony scheduled for early April), and, after that, there’s nothing left but the August commemorations of the Nazi invasion of Poland (unless the following month you also plan to observe the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland). So that’s just five months a year with праздники and годовщины that might spark some Stalin vs. Hitler controversy. That’s not even (sarcasm alert) half the year! (By the way, I’m excluding the 14 “Дни родов войск,” just to avoid an even longer, more tedious list.)

But for almost half the year, anyway, Russians don’t need to make any excuses about bringing up the legacy of Stalin or the Second World War. Currently, we’re in that historical half of the year. It was just Fatherland Defenders Day and the preparations for the 65th anniversary of Hitler’s defeat are underway.

Enter the most recent Stalin scandal, which involves decorating Moscow with a smattering of stupid, archaic images that currently dot the city only as jokes (usually with Stalin’s head popped into the center of a t-shirt, looking silly). The ‘Stalin Stands’ project is meant to ‘complete the story’ of the Great Patriotic War, which has been somewhat abridged since Khrushchev’s Thaw, when authorities axed that murderous Georgian from the pages of history. In principle, I agree with people like the head of Moscow’s municipal publicity committee, Vladimir Makarov, who says he’s trying to acknowledge an ignored but plain fact: Stalin was important to the Soviet victory.

However, if the city of Moscow puts up the same kind of crap KPRF pensioners carry to their old-timer, sing-along rallies, I’ll be sorely disappointed with Makarov and his team. Public propaganda is certainly not the best forum for ‘fleshing out’ Stalin’s true role in the war, but the city doesn’t have to do a bad job with an inappropriate medium. Handsome portraits and Soviet-era slogans, in the Communist tradition, would signal a pretty lousy effort.

None of this, though, justifies the hysteria you hear from some on this issue.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, for instance, uses the Moscow-Stalin story in his blog post, “In Stalin’s Shadow,” to list all of Putin’s Soviet-sympathizing acts over the past decade (it’s a regular best hits album, complete with the obligatory nods to his restoration of the Soviet anthem’s melody in 2000 and the infamous “greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century” remark).

Putin’s “greatest catastrophe” line, by the way, is what Yulia Latynina might call a ‘word-pheromone.’ When did he say it? What was the context? It simply isn’t discussed, despite a ubiquitous mention of the statement itself. As the reader, all you need to know is that Vladimir Putin thinks the Soviet Union was good, whereas we all know it was bad. “Clench your buttocks,” the implication is, “Putin is bad, too.”

Incidentally, Putin spoke his evil words in a 2005 address to the Federal Assembly:

“First of all, it should be recognized that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. For the Russian people, it has become a real drama. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and compatriots suddenly found themselves outside Russia’s territory. This epidemic disintegration spread to Russia itself.”

He was talking about the displacement of Russians in the now ex-Soviet states and the disaster of separatist war. It’s remarkable how much less diabolical it all sounds with a little context!

Did Kara-Murza address Putin’s speech in Gdansk last year, where he said:

“For the Russian people, whose fate was mangled by a totalitarian regime, we well understand the Poles’ sharp feelings on Katyn, where thousands of Polish soldiers lie today. We are mutually obligated to preserve the memory of the victims of this crime.”

And what about the fact that Putin also invited Polish PM Tusk to a memorial service this year for the Katyn massacre’s anniversary, which I mentioned above? Maybe he included an aside about Medvedev’s video blog address last October, which he delivered in memory of Stalinist atrocities? The title was “The Memory of National Tragedies is as Sacred as the Memory of Victories.”

No, of course Kara-Murza doesn’t mention any of that. “55 million people” may have died in the Terror, he suggests, quoting that master statistician, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Soviet-sympathizing “witches” have returned to “begin a ‘hunt’ of their own,” for goodness sakes!

Kara-Murza finishes with a denunciation of the “misplaced magnanimity of the victors of Russia’s democratic revolution.” (This is another — for liberals — obligatory nod to the greatness of the 1990s, when most Russians suffered horribly, but a few elites profited massively.) There was no Nuremberg equivalent and now the vanquished have risen again! Putin is a war criminal; Stalin was a Nazi; Russia is slipping into totalitarianism; and, hanging from buildings in Moscow, is the beginning of the end.

Well, February 23rd was already yesterday. Let the countdown to May 9th hysteria begin!