Sunday, November 8, 2015

Russia Children & Stalin

By Stephen Wilson

Russian schools are focusing more on Stalin's feats.

(Moscow, Russia) --  The 3Oth of October, the official day of remembrance of the victims of repression, was crowned by three profoundly significant events; the erecting of a national memorial to the victims, the opening of the first national museum devoted to victims of the Gulag and the launching of a campaign 'the last address,' where families will be encouraged to publicly name and display photos of their relatives who were victims of the repression. The last campaign appears to have been inspired by the huge success of the 'eternal regiment ' or 'Bessmertni Polk', where the families carried photos of their relatives who had died during the Great Patriotic War on the Day of Victory.

            A new monument to the victims of repression was erected at the corner of Prospect Akademika  Sakharova and the Garden Ring. In addition, a well-equipped museum devoted to the Gulag has also been opened. Activists from Memorial  have been busy putting up plaques at the last address where the victims of repression last lived displaying the names and fate of the victims.  Those achievements were not accomplished overnight.

            It has been due to years of persistent and endless campaigning. 

            It is due to this pressure from below that Putin felt obliged to insist the government develop a major conceptual framework to preserve the memory of those victims of repression. The Prime Minister even signed a document where the state has to lay the foundations of a huge infrastructure where a network of monuments, museums, books, the names of the victims, and memorials at execution sites and graveyards will be erected by 2017.


            However, as if making a mockery of those new memorials, approximately 40 new statues to Stalin have also been erected throughout Russia and a growing number of Russians are viewing Stalin in a positive light. Such statues have surfaced in Penza, Vladimir and Lipetsk. If you leave metro Lubyanka on the way to the square where the Solovetsky stone is, you can find kiosks casually selling busts of Stalin. At a publishing house in Moscow I was at some prayer service where my attention was diverted by a small painted tin soldier smoking a pipe.

            When I took a closer look I discovered it was a model of Stalin jovially smoking a pipe! Its origins remain a mystery.


            For all kinds of reasons, most Russians are reluctant to fully acknowledge the immense horror of this period. When one Russian actor was told that the number of victims of repression could run to 60 million, he could hardly believe it. Alekansdra Nikolaevicha Yakolevan, who specialises in the work of rehabilitating victims of the repression answered, 'If I could name you a real statistic, you would go crazy. This is a terrible tragedy not only for those who died, who lost close ones, but for the entire country'. The historian Orando Figes states that the most conservative estimate would be approximately 25 million figures who were repressed between 1928 -1953.

            Figes writes, 'Those 25 million people, shot by execution squads, Gulag prisoners, 'kulaks', sent to special settlements, slave labourers of different kinds, deported nationalities, represent about one eighth of the Soviet population'.

            (The Whisperers,Private Life in Stalin's Russia, Orlando Figes, Penguin, New York, 2007, page 31.)

            The untold misery is impossible to measure. Figes states, 'After years of separation by the Gulag, families could not be reunited easily; relationships were lost; and there was no longer 'Normal life' to which people could return.' The legacy is that 'a  silent and conformist population is the result.' If you live in Moscow you will get used to the fact that people don't often say 'hello' to you in the streets or even greet you with a 'Good morning'. This distrust of neighbours can be traced back to the years of repression. A recent survey of tourists who had visited Moscow found that they regarded it as 'the unfriendliest city in the World'.

            THE REAL TRAGEDY

            Stalin once stated to Churchill that 'While one man's death is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic'.  That is why it is important to tell the story of each victim so as to personalise this tragedy. This is why the 'Last Address' is erecting plaques at the last address of the victims of terror. I decided to wonder down to the Arbat to try and find those newly installed plaques.

            It was not easy to find them. They are not conspicuous. A passerby can easily miss them. Even if you have the address, you might easily overlook them. At one address; 21 Sivsev vrozhek  you can read Boris Akimovich Shternberg lived here.

            A servant 

            He was born in 1886 and arrested  on 17.10.1937.

            He was shot on 9.12.1937.

            Rehabilitated in 1955.

            At 33 Bolshoi Afanasyesky Perelok, you can find a plaque 

            Andrei Andreevich Konsatiuv,


            Born 1901, arrested 1933, shot on 27.11. 1937.

            One of the great myths perpetuated by hard-line Stalinists was that at least they never executed children. However, a wealth of data from oral eye-witness accounts not to mention archives dispels this nonsense. In fact, under Soviet Law, a child could be summarily executed if he was 15 years of age for stealing a loaf of bread as this was deemed 'socialist collective property'. For example, Misha Shamonin was a 13-year-old boy who stole two loaves of bread. Someone must have caught him and reported him to the police. Since the luckless Shamonin could not legally be executed, the police illegally changed the date of his birth so that he became 15. 

            He was shot in the back of the head by a executioner who was drunk on vodka.

            Another victim of the terror was 20 year old driver, Raisa Bolchen, who was born in Kharbini, had  fled with her family abroad from Odessa but then returned to Russia. She was executed on charges of being a Japanese spy . She lived near the centre of Moscow at what is now 2 Novokuzhetski street.

            So faced with such strikingly evident facts why do Russians continue to deny, discount and play down how bad the terror was? Is it due to pride, shame or the real pain of recalling such unpleasant events?  Why are some people even prepared to condone mass murder?  Are those people psychopaths?

            Daniel Ogen, a teacher from America stated, 'Do you know I came across a young school student who said he supported Stalin', he told me with a sense of astonishment mixed with indignation. When I was also teaching some school children and blamed Stalin for 'helping to destroy a sense of real community in Moscow by fostering an atmosphere where people were afraid of their neighbours informing on them, a boy retorted, 'You can't blame Stalin. He was a great leader who turned Russia into a great power'. This 12 year old boy was hardly an exception. I heard the old story of how Stalin helped win the war, how Stalin made Russia a great superpower and how Stalin had effectively industrialised Russia and how the terror was justified because harsh methods were needed to motivate people to fight fascism. Without a strong leader, Russia would have fallen apart.

            Not all young students are keen on Stalin. I spoke to an 18-year-old graduate of the Academy of Art in Saint Petersburg, Sonya, who told me, 'I can't somehow agree with Stalin's wartime order, 'Not one step back.' I don't think I could go along with an order where a soldier who is retreating should be shot. But I came across an art student from Saint Petersburg who told me he liked Stalin because under Stalin great art flourished.

            He thought there was a lot of great architecture and art under Stalin'.

            Some school children express mixed feelings about Stalin. A 16-year-old actress called Nastiya told me, 'I don't condone what Stalin did during the repression but I think that he was a great war leader who helped us win the war.'

            A very intelligent 16-year-old son of a historian told me, 'We needed very strict measures during the war years or we would not have won the war. So we had to have a strong
leader. But people from the west seem to exaggerate the role
of punishment battalions in going straight up behind the soldiers and shooting them for running away or panic. They did not stand so close to the backs of soldiers but stood further behind in forests and trenches and they did not always shoot them but drove them back to fight. The western film, 'Enemy at the Gate', offers a misleading impression of the role of punishment squads.'

            When a 16-year-old student Anna was told that
monuments to Stalin had recently been erected, she said
            'I don't believe you. How can this be? This person was such a tyrant.'

            How might we explain how so many young people view Stalin in a positive light? One reason is that the Russian mass media as well as film industry has been increasingly portraying Stalin in a positive way. Russian officials and politicians, instead of explicitly condemning Stalinism, have promoted his role as a great war leader. Another reason, is that children are often brought up by grandparents while their parents are at work.

            Some of this older generation like to tell their children about 'the good old days of Stalin where there was real law and order in the country. '

            Another problem is that the education system has not risen to the monumental feat of explaining what happened during the repression and why. This is party because Russian history as a topic encompasses a huge amount of facts from Medieval Rus to the 21st century. The school student has to cram into his head endless dates and details about historical periods. This leaves only a few paragraphs to the 'times of repression'.

            In deed, open a school textbook and the repression warrants only a few sentences. To put it succinctly, the period is passed over or rather overwhelmed by the waves of facts from other historical periods. The Russian unitary state exam in history is not easy. So what could be  a unique opportunity to examine a fundamental period of history is missed. 

            It is because of this failure to address the lessons of history that many people are convinced the years of repression will return. The rising number of political prisoners, murder of opposition leaders, and a new law, the sadist's law, where prison officers have been given the right to physically beat up a prisoner for violating minor rules are hints about what may well happen in the future.

            It is the imperative and moral duty of teachers to tell the truth about history regardless of whether it is unpleasant. Even if the truth is beyond consolation it must be told.

1 comment:

  1. Teaching about Stalin and his role in winning World War II is no different than here in the US when we celebrate our founding fathers like George Washington who were slave owners. Teaching about true people's hero's, and not state worship, is the key!