History as an Ideological and Political Battlefield in Modern Russia

Yuri Yemelianov

The socialist construction in the USSR and other countries of the world in the XX century demonstrated the historic need to do away with the capitalist relations and the possibility to build a new social order based on the principles of human equality and justice. Yet paradoxically the history of the USSR and other socialist countries turned into a battlefield in which the Soviet Union was defeated in the end of the 1980s – the beginning of the 1990s.

Partly this happened because the enemies of socialism resorted to artfully organised mass propaganda. Partly the fault was with the flaws of official historical interpretations made in the USSR and other socialist countries. While these interpretations quite justly gave tribute to the achievements of socialism and extolled them, the official historians avoided profound study of many complex problems of the emerging social order. They hardly mentioned the grave political mistakes of the ruling communist parties and the contradictions of mass consciousness of peoples involved in the radical revolutionary process. Their explanations of ‘unpleasant facts’ sometimes lacked logic, ran contrary to the truth and were presented in clumsy and tedious formulas.

The enemies of socialism used these weak points of the official interpretations of history to their advantage. Instead of dull history textbooks filled with statistics and long-winded phrases about the victories of socialism, they told emotional stories about human sufferings. They shocked their readers and listeners by claiming that all the achievements of socialism were made at the expense of millions of human lives. They brazenly denied the obvious socialist successes and often resorted to gross falsifications of facts and figures. They exaggerated many times the numbers of those who were arrested and executed. They used old and moth-eaten forgeries accusing Lenin of being a German spy and Stalin of being an agent of the Russian police.

The success of anti-socialist propaganda was facilitated by the decline of popular confidence in the merits of socialism. Many people believed that after socialist revolutions they were robbed of a happy and plentiful life in the capitalist paradise. To a great extent this explains why so many people easily forgot the history lessons they learnt at schools and swiftly consumed horror stories about socialism.

Their gradual awakening came too late. Capitalism brought to Russia unemployment, which had disappeared in the middle of the 1930s. Many medical services and good education became out of reach for the growing numbers of the poor. The sociological survey showed that 10.4% of those polled in modern Russia chronically lacked money for food.

41.3% had money for food but buying clothes created serious financial problems for them. 36.3% had enough money for food and clothes but could hardly afford buying a new refrigerator or washing machine. It should be noted that by the end of the 1980s 80-90% of all Soviet homes had refrigerators and washing machines. This means that the living standard of over 85% of the sampled population declined during the last 20 years. Many other facts of everyday life, including rampant crime and corruption, also led the great majority of the population to lose illusions about the capitalist life. This proved to be a fertile ground for growing nostalgia for the Soviet times.

In order to stop these moods the ruling class and its mass media intensified their attacks against the Soviet past. Most school textbooks on history depict the Soviet period as the time of mass privation and terror. The special ‘history’ TV and radio programmes devote many hours weekly in order to frighten people with the stories of mass extermination of peasants and intellectuals. Various spokespersons claim that the losses suffered by the Soviet Union during the Second World War were caused by the utter incompetence of Stalin and other Soviet political and military leaders, not by the fascist invasion. Claiming that the Soviet rulers hated intellectuals, the official propaganda of modern Russia depicts the leading persons of Soviet arts and sciences, who were glorified in the Soviet times, as martyrs of the brutal system.

Yet these efforts at the brain-washing of the people did not prove to have an all-embracing and long-standing effect. And this was not caused just by the wide-spread nostalgia for the Soviet times. The defeat of the Soviet system and the Soviet interpretation of history did not kill the popular interest for history. The simplistic and extremely contradictory explanations made by the present official anti-Soviet propaganda made many honest professional historians and non-historians delve into temporarily and partially opened archives related to the Soviet period. They interviewed those who were responsible for policy-making or who were active in various spheres of the economic, social, cultural and political life of the USSR.

Some wanted to find facts which could refute official propagandistic explanations. Others wanted to explain obvious discrepancies in the official interpretation of history. Yet there were some who were deceived by the anti-Soviet propaganda and wanted to find new information in order to expose ‘the totalitarian regime’. Unlike historians of Soviet times, almost all of these researchers did not flinch from ‘unpleasant topics’. They studied the dramatic pages of the Civil War and collectivisation. They looked for real documents on reprisals and prison camps. They wanted to get true facts about the events of the Second World War and post-war years.

As a rule most of the scholars driven by initially divergent motivations found evidence which led them to new discoveries which were quite contrary to the official anti-Sovietism. Many of their findings were sensational. Suffice it to mention Yuri Zhukov’s book ‘The Different Stalin’.

The net results of these efforts were hundreds of books and thousands of articles dedicated to Soviet history which destroyed the myths of anti-Soviet propaganda. The Internet proved to be a useful channel to supplement the printed information.

Some of these scholars are members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation or cooperate with that Party. They took part in round-table and other discussions organised by that Party or its press, exposing the falsifiers of history.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation pays special attention to the study of history. Gennady Zyuganov and many other leaders of his Party wrote and spoke on the problems of history. The central paper of the party, ‘Pravda’, constantly publishes articles and documents of Soviet history. This year ‘Pravda’ published all the chapters of the lengthy book ‘The Unknown Lenin’, which summarised many years of research performed by a noted scholar, Vladlen Loginov. The book contains unique information about the activities of Lenin in 1917.

The ‘Soviet Russia’ daily periodical with its circulation of 300 thousand copies organised the ‘Public committee on countering falsification of history’. Among its members is a Nobel Prize winner, physicist Alferov. Under the auspices of the committee the paper regularly publishes its supplement ‘Evidence’, which on its many pages exposes calumnies against the Soviet past.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation uses memorial days (90th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, 65th anniversary of the Victory over fascism, 140th anniversary of Lenin’s birth and 130th anniversary of Stalin’s birth) in order to spread the truth about Soviet history. In the press and at public meetings historians told the audience true facts about the industrialisation and collectivisation, which helped the USSR to prepare for the coming hard trials, about the struggle of the Soviet people under the leadership of the Communist Party during the War and in the difficult ‘cold war’ period.

The Communist Party use Internet resources for disseminating material on Soviet history and many Communists actively participate in Internet discussions. The Communists use also TV debates for this purpose.

These efforts did not prove fruitless. This became clear during the programme ‘The Times put on Trial’, launched by the fifth national TV channel. For half a year, from July to the end of December the participants of the programme continued to debate different historic issues. Most of the questions debated were dedicated to Soviet history.

One group of participants included well-known anti-Soviet propagandists and their supporters of all colours, from monarchists to Trotskyites. They tried to prove that the Soviet past was the greatest calamity that Russia ever suffered.

Their opponents included many historians who had made new discoveries of Soviet history. While not shirking from tragic stories of the Soviet past, they spoke about the achievements of Soviet socialist society based on well-documented facts and figures.

During the debates, which lasted for two or three nights, the TV audience voted over the telephone in favour of one of the two alternative answers offered. At the same time voting via Internet took place.

Despite 20 years of vicious anti-Soviet propaganda and despite the fact that a whole new generation was brought up on anti-Soviet school textbooks, the TV audience constantly refuted the anti-Soviet clichés, to the dismay of the organisers of the programme.

The debate on the question: ‘Did the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1917 save or destroy Russia?’ covered not only the events of 1917 but also the long-term consequences of the Socialist revolution. After the debate was over, 72% of the TV audience supported the first alternative answer while 28% voted for the second alternative. After the vote among the Internet users was taken, 88% considered that the Bolsheviks saved Russia while only 12% thought that their victory led Russia to destruction.

Only 20% of the TV audience and 14% of the Internet users supported the suggestion that Leon Trotsky and his policies presented ‘the good opportunity which was missed’. For 87% of the TV audience (and 79% of Internet users) Trotsky’s coming to power in the USSR could have been ‘the worst of possible developments’.

Modern Russia’s textbooks and most mass-media programmes claim that Marshal Tukhachevsky was unjustly accused of plotting against the Soviet government and that the arrest of the Marshal and some of his colleagues inflicted an irretrievable blow upon the Red Army before the Great Patriotic War. Yet 75% of the TV audience supported the statement that Tukhachevsky made an attempt at a Bonapartist coup d’état and thus supported the accusations made in 1937 against the Marshal. (73% of the Internet audience approved this statement.)

During the debate on the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture there were two alternatives offered: was it ‘a criminal undertaking’ or ‘a hard but necessary measure’? The first alternative was supported by 22% of the TV audience (29% of the Internet users). The second was approved by 78% of the audience (71% of the Internet users).

The Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 1939 was considered by 91% of the TV audience (and 86% of the Internet users) to be a necessary step taken in order to have ‘a breathing spell for the USSR’. Only 9% of the TV audience (and 14% of the Internet users) supported the assertion that the treaty ‘opened the way to the Second World War’.

89% of the TV audience and the same share of the Internet users refuted the contention that ‘the Stalinist system proved to be a failure in 1941’.

Despite the fact that most of the mass media in modern Russia glorify Khrushchev for his ‘liberal’ ‘de-Stalinisation’ policies, 89% of the TV audience and 85% of the Internet users considered that these policies had the effect of ‘mines laid under the edifice of Soviet society’.

Only 7% of the TV audience and 14% of the Internet users treated Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’ as ‘a way out of the deadlock’. 93% of the TV audience and 86% of the Internet users considered the much lauded ‘perestroika’ to be ‘a catastrophe’.

Only 7% of the TV audience and 11% of the Internet users agreed with the official definition that establishing the State Committee of the State of Emergency (GKChP) on August 19, 1991 was a ‘coup d’état’. 93% of the TV audience and 89% of the Internet users considered it to be ‘an attempt to prevent the dissolution of the country’.

At the same time the vast majority voted against the capitalisation reforms launched by Yeltsin and his Prime Minister Gaidar in 1992. 86% of the TV audience and 75% of the Internet branded Gaidar as a ‘destroyer’; of the country.

91% of the TV audience and 89% of the Internet users claimed that the liquidation of the USSR in accordance with the Byelovezhsk agreement between Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Shushkevich was ‘a catastrophe’, not ‘the lesser of possible evils’.

Just 7% of the TV audience and 18% of the Internet users approved the actions of Yeltsin’s government in October 1993, when the Russian Supreme Soviet was brutally attacked and the Soviet system was finally liquidated.

The debates were also dedicated to some international issues (NATO invasion of Yugoslavia; NATO war against Iraq). Each time, the TV and Internet audience voted vigorously against the imperialist policies.

The fact that the position of the voters was caused by a deep aversion to capitalism was well demonstrated by the vote on the issue: ‘The world financial crisis: is it just a falling out of step of the system or is it a harbinger of a catastrophe?’ 90% of the TV audience and 89% of the Internet users chose the second alternative.

The anti-Soviet side lost all 45 votes taken. In most of the voting, over 85% of the TV and Internet audience refuted the false stereotypes of the anti-Soviet propaganda.

Certainly one need not exaggerate the importance of these votes. They do not mean that the majority of Russia’s people are ready to restore the Soviet order. Still they present a distinct sign that many people in Russia do not accept the dominant interpretation of Soviet history and they share anti-capitalist sentiments.

The results of the votes caused deep concern in Russia’s ruling class. Some of their spokespersons claimed that Russia’s population is too conservative and fail to understand the true values of liberal capitalism. A new Presidential aide on ‘human rights’, M. A. Fedotov, proclaimed that his major goal is bring about the ‘de-Stalinisation’ of Russia. The official media renewed its vicious attacks on the Soviet past. Despite the great popularity of the programme ‘The Times put on trial’, it was ended at the end of 2010.

This means that the struggle over Soviet history continues and the communists must continue in their efforts to prove the historic truth of socialism.

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