I am not an apologist for the current Russian regime any more than I am for the previous Soviet regime, nor am I a holocaust denier or a anti-semite.  It is a pity that I should even have to preface any of my writing with that rather than people judge on content itself but there we go that’s the world and perhaps by me doing so I serve only to perpetuate it.

I saw John Sweeney’s ‘exposé’ on the BBC about the changes in Russian education that are softening the historical message on the Stalin era in schools.  I am not altogether a fan of the Putin regime, at the very least the ideology on which the Soviet Union was founded was theoretically sound, if never properly put into practice.  Putin’s agenda is a great deal shadier though he lacks none of the qualities his Soviet and KGB education and training would have prepared him for.  By the same token though in a Russia that is having to contend with a great many economic problems at a time when its economy is neither really state-nationalised nor free-market driven it is unsurprising that a Putin figure should be seen as necessary by a Russia that has always welcomed strong inwardly nationalistic leadership.  It is the very reason many still have secret admiration for Stalin, just as in other countries Hitler, Mussolini, Franco etc. are seen as having at least brought order to the chaos even if their methods might have been questionable.

Sweeney first approached the historian Igor Dolutsky whose book has been dropped from the syllabus, making him a subjective witness on one side of the story, and then bullied and berated Aleksandr Filippov, the historian responsible for the more revisionist view of history that seeks to downplay the attrocities of Stalin’s tenure and herald him more as a great leader from Russia’s past.  Filippov explains “It is wrong to write a textbook that will fill the children who learn from it with horror and disgust about their past and their people. A generally positive tone for the teaching of history will build optimism and self-assurance in the growing young generation and make them feel as if they are part of their country’s bright future. A history in which there is good and bad, things to be proud of and things that are regrettable. But the general tone for a school textbook should still be positive.” which will make a great many ears prick up as being an area that needed to be handled very carefully indeed, but would I have no doubt raise far fewer eyebrows were it either to be taken as applying to a book in the West about colonialism, slavery or a book about Christianity.

When looking at the Great Famine of 1933 where effectively the direct policies of Stalin led to deaths that are still unquantifiable but run without doubt into multiple millions, Sweeney describes how  the 2009 “positive history” textbook dedicates 83 pages to Stalin’s industrialisation whilst only one paragraph details the famine.  I wonder if Sweeney has read many general English history books since his schooldays where the Irish famine, also very much the result of central government policy, receives little more than a footnote within pages and pages of irrelevant English royalist pomp and ceremony.  This is not to excuse the lack of detail of the Soviet famine, the young must be educated in how something happened so as to see the dangers of things in the present and future but it is also quite easy to see how it might be argued that Stalin’s industrialisation and collectivisation has much more relevance now because it continues to exercise an influence on Russian infrastructure, especially agriculture where an event that happened over seventy years ago is more detached.  I wonder also whether Sweeney applied the same critical eye over Russian Tsarist history and the revisionism that has taken place there in the post-Soviet world.  If one takes the example of famines for direct comparison how much attention is paid to the 1899 famine in which over half a million died, at the same time as which Tsar Nicolas II was commissioning Fabergé eggs in a display of opulence emblematic of the Marie Antoinette school of regal diplomacy.

One must be careful not to criticise Sweeney’s documentary solely on the basis that he lacks the charisma of many hard-nosed investigative journalists.  Sweeney has built himself something of a reputation by virtue of his irascible temper as shown by the many links to his interviews with the Scientologists in which he is seen getting very angry indeed.  Whilst making for good television this does not necessarily constitute a style conducive to finding out things that people do not want to tell you.  He is highly adversarial in style and comes across, at least in this program and the clips I have seen of him as dogmatic.  This is not a crime, nor at times even a bad thing as a presenter, but it is something that needs to be labelled very carefully as comment and not necessarily as objective news.

Sweeney offers a number of what are supposed to be ‘startling facts’ for example that Stalin was voted 3rd in an all-time list of greatest Russians in a recent poll, but one has to consider that Churchill remains top of a corresponding British list and whilst I would not like to draw direct parallels between the two there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Churchill was capable of a number of seriously questionable decisions, such as his home office white paper in 1911 calling for the sterilisation of the mentally ill.  Let us not forget also that Isambard Kingdom Brunel came second on the British all-time list in no small part to Jeremy Clarkson’s erudite and amusing portrayal of the engineer.  Such polls are frequently about entertainment, and often choose the cuddly or popular image of a person rather than the less palatable things that might have been going on behind the facade.

The trouble is that each country sees its leaders differently from those countries where this leader may have exercised malign influence, the internal association will often be for mundane daily things that people may seen as having been better than the present whilst externally that person is synonymous only with the most headline-grabbing events.  You cannot choose who you decide to hold responsible for war crimes, Stalin committed a great many, as many as Hitler and the Nazi regime and was in many ways personally responsible for more even than the Nazi machine due to his own paranoia and cult of personality.  However after the Second World War the allies chose the sides they were on and after the major known Nazis were put on trial at Nuremburg a huge number of war criminals simply faded into the background, as they were not seen as the enemy any more.  Since then Augusto Pinochet, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Francisco Franco, Tacho Somoza, Kim Jong-Il, the Interhamwe, George W Bush amongst a great many others have all carried out operations that should answer the charges of war crimes and/or genocide and all have had no censure and no trial, despite many attempts to bring them to justice.  Some, such as Robert Mugabe have been reprimanded as if treating them like an eight year old pupil might have an effect on a small-time megalomaniac, others such as Saddam Hussein have just pissed off the wrong people and ironically been handed over for trial by war criminals far worse than themselves.  Victor’s justice is everywhere in the present and the past, if one looks at the Bosnian War as an example, it cannot be denied that genocide took place however if one were to look through the standard media sources you would be hard pressed to see anyone other than the Serbs as responsible and this is by no means the whole story.  That is not to absolve the blame from the Serbs or any party in any way merely to point out that a justice system that functions on this premise makes it not about a prosecution for the actual crimes committed but a prosecution based on whose side you happened to be on at any given time.

Had this been a broad-reaching survey of many countries and condemnation of the Orwellian practice of changing history to shape the future it would have had a great deal more legitimacy, as it was it become an individual tirade against one country for a practice that has been widespread across the world for generations, that of airbrushing the less palatable actions of the past from the history books so as to give an undue preponderance to the events portraying the nation as a great, munificent and benign one.  Of course that may be because Sweeney himself has been educated in a nation that has become something of the master of this practice, how else could one explain swathes of people still hankering after the days of the “We rule it map of the world” of the ‘civilising British Empire’?

Song Of The Day ~ The Beatles – Back In The USSR