The Russian military intervention in Syria to prop up the dictator Bashar al-Assad has compounded the negative world opinion of Russia generated by the violent dismemberment of Ukraine. At home, meanwhile, the Russian regime has taken on a ‘Neo-Stalinist’ flavor, re-starting the distortion of Russian history that began in the early years of Soviet power and intensified under Joseph Stalin’s autocratic quarter-century rule. As it whitewashes the Soviet era’s excesses, the Kremlin gives a passive nod to the unveiling of new monuments to the bloody tyrant Stalin in the interests, presumably, of keeping the Russian masses happy and ‘rallied round the flag’ as young Russian conscripts are dispatched to Ukraine and Syria out of the public eye.
The failure to achieve Russian society’s total damnation of the tyrant may be due partly to his temporary alliance with the civilized world against Hitler in WWII, and partly to the fact that – among all the 20th century’s most prolific mass murderers – Stalin stands out as having ‘got away with it,’ living to a ripe old age and dying of natural causes while still the undisputed ruler of the USSR. An ordinary, God-fearing Russian trying to make sense of it all might very well conclude that Stalin must have been a righteous leader, ordained by Providence to defeat the Nazis and build the Soviet Union into a superpower. This is perhaps the saddest aspect of the Russian public’s view of the Soviet tyranny. In the Russian Federation, unlike in other republics of the ex-USSR, the state has never carried out a thorough and objective deconstruction of the Soviet past.
Stalin died in 1953 and was denounced three years later by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. His embalmed body was removed from beside Lenin’s and reburied behind the Lenin Mausoleum, one tier down from the top place of honor. Some of Stalin’s victims were posthumously rehabilitated, and during the reformist presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991), the process of posthumous rehabilitation was re-started and expanded to include many of Stalin’s contemporaries who had been convicted in show trials in the 1930s and executed as enemies of the people.
But Gorbachev’s reform of Soviet historiography did not go far enough. So deeply had Stalinist distortion and propaganda taken root in the minds of Soviet leaders that Lenin’s closest confidant, Leon Trotsky, remained a Soviet ‘bête noire,’ treated as a traitor and villain, beneath contempt in official history even under Gorbachev. An able military leader of the Reds in the Russian Civil War, Trotsky had held some of the highest posts in Lenin’s first Bolshevik government. True, he believed in revolutionary terror and had blood on his hands, but so did many of his contemporaries who received posthumous rehabilitation from Khrushchev and Gorbachev. The truth is that Stalin passionately hated Trotsky, envied him for his talents, was jealous of his closeness to Lenin, and exiled and assassinated him after Lenin died.
Stalin’s hatred of Trotsky long outlived him as a facet of the Soviet state, and for that reason – Stalin’s personal jealousy and hatred – Trotsky has never been generally acknowledged as one of the ‘heroes’ of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to this day. Trotsky’s exclusion is a legacy of Stalinism, and now that Stalin is enjoying a return to favor in Russia, the righting of the Soviet historical record in Russia looks as remote a prospect as ever. This is only one facet of post-Soviet Russia’s warped society, but it is significant.
Observers of Russia may differ on the importance of Stalin’s ongoing return to glory. After all, historiography is a tricky business, and what harm does it do if millions of Russians cherish Stalin’s memory as long as they don’t behave like psychopaths themselves? Russia today is not Stalin’s Soviet Union, and one more historical lie won’t change current reality. For those holding that view, there is probably little that can be done except to say that Russia today might be a much better place if its historical misconceptions were dispelled. Russia’s dysfunctional society is plagued by alcoholism, drug abuse, AIDS and HIV-infection of staggering proportions for a country claiming to be a modern industrialized power. In the 21st century, there is clearly much room for improvement of the so-called ‘Russian Soul.’
Below is a recent article entitled ‘Gilded Scum,’ about the return to respectability of Stalin’s memory. It appeared in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, some of whose more prominent writers have been murdered during the period since Putin came to power fifteen years ago. The piece is not directly critical of Putin, but the implications are obvious: the erection of monuments to Stalin in public places – something which should be completely unacceptable – is going on with the current regime’s blessing. The author, Alexey Polikovsky, conveys with anger and passion the nature of his personal obsession with Stalin’s victims…
The folks who put a bust of Stalin on Kirov Street in Penza have memorialized a butcher and sadist who murdered and tortured millions. People were killed monotonously, as if on a conveyor belt, with a shot to the head on execution landfills, and they were tortured in myriad ways, with all the richness of a wild Lubyanka fantasy. I will not be describing the torture here. Whoever wants to will find their description.
Murder and torture, executions and ditches, barracks and corpses, denunciations and sadism, camps and famine, skulls and skeletons – all are documented as irrefutable fact in thousands of documents. Also proven – with signatures on hit lists, with orders to ‘beat, beat’ written on reports in red pencil – is the personal and leading role of Stalin in the mass killings and torture. All these documents are in the public domain, and with two clicks on the internet one can access long lists of victims – stretching kilometers – with a residential address and the same note: ‘Shot.’ You can even find out who was taken away from their home – from the house in which they lived – and when. Whoever wants to know can know everything. Whoever intentionally, deliberately doesn’t wish to know the truth about the murdered and the tortured – and whoever praises Stalin – is scum.
The bust of Stalin in Penza is coated in gold paint. This worthless bust should have been painted red and brown, the color of the blood that flowed out of the heads of the people who fell into the execution pits, the color of clots of meat, torn by beatings in NKVD offices, purple and swollen from blows and fractures of arms and legs.
‘The organizer of our victories’? This smug fool who wore the uniforms of a Generalissimo piled the country with corpses, organizing the death of its citizens by all possible means: bullets, prisons, camps, emaciation from overwork, starvation, scurvy. No one ever exterminated the Russian people and the other nations living here during their entire history the way Stalin did.
He was an incompetent. Everything about this man with the pitted face and narrow forehead screams of mediocrity. His speeches, preserved in the records, are the dull, inarticulate speech of a bureaucrat. His articles and books, which stultified the country in millions of editions, were already dead the moment his flat, undeveloped brain so arduously plucked them out. With pipe in hand and importance on his face he swanned around his office dictating claptrap about socialism and linguistics. He saw himself as a great scientist, at a time when the investigators Khvat and Albogachiyev – one after the other – were torturing and interrogating the great and learned scholar Vavilov for 1,700 hours.
The mediocrity of this gold-painted idol is visible in the mediocrity and meanness of his associates and accomplices as well. Asses instead of faces, official stamps instead of words, and a masterful skill of survival amid the filth of intrigue, fit for reptiles and snakes – that is their portrait.
He was a sadist. He could not conceal his satisfaction, smiling through his mustache as he learned of how a crying Zinoviev had hugged the boots of his executioners. He liked it that Bukharin – ‘Bukharchik,’ whom he had promised not to touch – begged to be spared from the bullet, and to be mercifully given poison instead. Of course he didn’t give Bukharin poison, because it wasn’t enough to merely kill him. He had to kill him in such a way that he experienced the full horror of execution from his nightmares.
His small, vile soul demanded revenge on all who dared open their mouths and oppose him. He ordered the arrest not only of Air Force Commander Rychagov, who had responded to him sharply at a meeting, but also of his wife, the air regiment commander and record-holding pilot Maria Nesterenko, because for her husband there could be no greater torment, no greater humiliation, than to hear the screams of his wife being tortured.
He was a coward. Not only when, in the first days after the outbreak of war, he fled to the dacha in Kuntsevo, but always, in all the days of his long rule, a coward who feared his people. That was why he put them in the Amur, White Sea, Baltic, Vanino, Dzhezkazgan and all the other concentration camps from A to Z. In the coward there lived a paranoid fear of the military and of scientists, peasants and intellectuals, of housewives and even of children, because all these people – simple and sophisticated, strong and weak, funny and sad, Russians and Ukrainians, Belarusians and Jews, and even the rare Brazilians who came from overseas to build socialism – all seemed to this wretch to be dangerous in their human nature and human identity. The entire nation was an enemy of the people in his eyes. In fact, the only enemy of the people was him.
I don’t want to write about Stalin. People who know more than I do – [Robert] Conquest, [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn, [Anton] Antonov-Ovseyenko – have written volumes on him. Read them. I feel sick at the sound of his name, because it carries with it a putrid smell. From his oily hair to his boots polished by Poskrebyshev, he is completely soaked in the putrid stench of corpses from the execution pits. It all stinks of a concentration camp latrine and blood. Everything about Stalin has already been said, and said in such exhaustive detail and with such terrible force that everyone in whom there is a soul, even in a state of infancy, will understand all of it.
And it would be better to avoid the topic or leave it to professional historians, only it can’t be avoided, because right now – today – his busts are appearing on the map of Russia like purulent pimples. Again he is climbing toward us, this Asian dictator with the golden dentures, this executioner with the affectionate smile, signifying nightly arrests, meanness, betrayal, torture, death.
The Americans forced the German burghers into buses and transported them to concentration camps, so that they were compelled to throw up their hands in disbelief: ‘But we didn’t know … ’ They made respectable men in fedoras and long coats bury the naked corpses of prisoners.
We don’t possess the kind of strength needed to put all these intellectually wretched and spiritually impoverished fans of the All-Union executioner on buses and bring them to the firing trenches. That force might have been the state, but it was in pain from the cruelty, lawlessness, meanness and cynicism that Stalin had implanted in the country.
For a long time – for generations – he intimidated people with mass terror. We still feel this fear. He established the profession of the sadist, ready to torture, persecute and kill for a good salary and in hope of a raised pension. His learned sadist Mairanovsky – a colleague of Dr. Mengele – experimented with deadly poisons on living people in laboratories. He engendered and nurtured a breed of zombie that, already for several generations, has harangued us about his ‘greatness,’ his ‘firm hand,’ his ‘wise leadership,’ for which he ruined people – not our grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, but the justified victims of his ‘great deeds.’ It is him, the zombie, putting his gilded idiot on the streets and squares and worshiping him with all the passion of an archaic consciousness.
Bulldozers dug the pits, wide pits a hundred to nine hundred meters long. Those who sat behind the wheel of the bulldozers knew why they were digging. Inmates were taken from prisons in a ‘Black Maria’ at one a.m. Thirty people in a closed vehicle. They were led to the barracks and told that they were going to be doing sanitation work. According to the instructions, they were told of their death sentence immediately before being shot. It was compulsory to match the victim’s face with a photograph taken by the prison photographer. The executioners awaited their hour in a special building, where they drank vodka. The executioner met the victim and carried him or her. He set the victim on the edge of the pit and shot him/her in the head. They did something with the corpses in the pit; during the digging they had located rubber gloves. Then the bulldozer filled the ditch in with dirt.
Oh, and the gardens. We can’t forget to talk about the gardens. The NKVD functionaries demolished the gardens around the ditches and planted apple trees, it seems, and there were also beds with tomatoes and cucumbers. So what? It’s necessary to live. And the houses around the firing range belonged to them by rights. They were working there.
Millions of murdered people – it’s all only words. Big numbers don’t affect us. For us – living in an age of abundant and continuous information, flowing into eyes, ears and souls – big numbers aren’t surprising. But, reading the execution lists – if you can label this infernal task reading – suddenly, not knowing why, you stumble upon some surname in the unbearably long series of surnames, and you can’t forget. Why is that? It’s a mystery. Suddenly someone’s life just grabs you from out of the pit and won’t let go. And you see his eyes in mid-air. I also have a few of these lives I don’t know what to do with: they’re invisible shadows that have clung to me. I’m looking for at least some information about these people, not to write about them – I have no practical goal for a collection of books or articles – but from a vague sense, which suggests to me that they are asking me humbly and quietly not to forget them.
Misha Shamonin was a waif of thirteen. He stole two loaves of bread. Someone caught him at it and called the police. The Criminal Investigation Department arrived and took Misha away. In the Soviet Union it was permissible to shoot people fifteen years or older, and this boy, I think, knew this and was not too afraid. Well, if they put him in a cell and then sent him to an orphanage, he would run away again… But the investigator wanted very much for there to be a shooting, and so he adjusted the date of birth in the documents to make the boy fifteen. You can’t jump out of the ‘Maria,’ traveling through Moscow at night in dark, desolate, marginal Butovo… So Misha Shamonin was killed. In the photograph taken by the prison photographer, he is in someone else’s old coat. The coat is a couple of sizes too big for him. I don’t know the surname of the investigator, and moreover I don’t know the name of the executioner, loudly belching vodka and shooting the boy in the back of the head.
Raisa Bochlen was twenty years old. A girl with a round face – with round, still-childlike cheeks – is looking into the camera of the prison photographer with a strange – and for me unthinkable – inner peace. She is strong, and not afraid. She was born in Harbin, where her family fled from Odessa. They returned to the Soviet Union, probably in 1935, when there was a wave of returns. She was arrested on the same day as her father was. Perhaps because this girl’s face, with her hair over her shoulders, keeps coming back to me with such a painful insistence, I often go to the places in Moscow where she lived. Little Spaso-Bolvanovsky Lane – this is now the 2nd Novokuznetsk. There, in house number 5, apartment 3, lived her father and brother. Her father worked in the ‘Geodesia’ factory; her brother worked on the construction site of the Palace of Soviets. And she lived nearby, on Pyatnitskaya, in a house that now stands there. Maybe here in the communal apartment on Pyatnitskaya, she lived with her boyfriend or husband. How can we know? Surely she ran to nearby Spaso-Bolvanovsky to her dad and brother, according to the Soviet custom at the time of bringing them products that she’d managed to buy: eggs, chicken… She worked as a typist with the management of Glavmorsevputi [a publication ~ Ed.]. She was accused of spying for Japan. She pleaded not guilty. At night, along with the others, she was brought to the Butovo firing range. Her father was shot the same night; her brother, a month and a half later.
These houses, these streets will remember her.
And the area of the three stations remembers Misha Shamonin.
Their bones are mixed with the bones of other people in the pit. Under-lived lives, lives interrupted by an executioner in brown leather apron and brown leggings, lives which were meant to hold in store love, friendship, a million troubles, morning coffee, evening feasts with friends, college, work, queues in shops, trips to Sochi on vacation, meetings at Pushkin, a game of volleyball, a small dacha in the woods outside Moscow, where it’s so nice to have tea on the veranda.
Author: Alexey Polikovsky ~ Новая Газета
The resurrection of Stalin as a national hero can be viewed as a symptom of a larger problem in Russia, namely, the general treatment of the revolution that brought him to power. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 retains a ‘sacred aura’ in official Russian consciousness, as if the massive sacrifices made by the people as a result of the so-called ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’ could not have been for nothing, and therefore life for ordinary people in Russia today can’t really be all that bad. But now it has gone further than a reluctance to criticize. At the end of August, an article by Paul Goble appeared on the Window on Eurasia blog highlighting Russia’s current policy of re-glorifying the Soviet past. Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky is quoted saying that Moscow now faces the task of ‘opposing those who try to denigrate what the Soviet Union accomplished,’ and how people must ‘relate to epic Soviet heroes… in the same way as one does to canonized saints in the church.’ Medinsky is not acting alone. The new policy stems from Putin’s own characterization of the collapse of the USSR as ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.’ Medinsky adds to the sentiment by describing the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as ‘the most important event of the last two thousand years.’
Even supposing Medinsky’s outlandish declaration about the Russian Revolution’s importance is true, it is not true that every ‘important’ event is a ‘good’ one, the memory of which should be preserved and cherished forever. The 1917 revolution in Russia was the ‘midwife’ of unspeakable tragedy on a massive scale and over a protracted period. It ruined the lives of millions and plunged a great civilization into terror, tyranny, famine, war, disease, ecological disaster, squalor and scarcity for generations. After seven decades, the revolutionary state collapsed, bringing yet more suffering and dislocation upon ordinary people as Soviet society disintegrated. And while there may be a sense of the inevitable in hindsight about any genuine revolution, a sense of inevitability should not be confused with a sense of virtuousness. The leaders of the Russian Revolution were sadistic, power-hungry murderers, and their nature amply manifested itself in the development of the Soviet state.
A revolution is a social and political upheaval so profound that it transforms the institutional underpinnings of the state. The state’s legal system itself undergoes a transformation, guided by the new ‘universal’ and ‘self-evident’ principles that the revolution’s leaders propagate. Yet history has witnessed both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ revolutions, and any decent human being should be able to discern between them. Some revolutions result – after a period of uncertainty and instability – in better societies for ordinary citizens. Others change the situation drastically for the worse. The Russian Revolution falls into the latter category.
The revolution in England in the 17th century (often labeled the ‘Glorious Revolution’), which ended absolute monarchy and introduced a Bill of Rights, was an example of a ‘good’ revolution. Britain went on to become the greatest industrial power in the world, with a legal system of unparalleled sophistication, and, eventually, a leading Western democracy. Similarly, the American Revolution of the 18th century created a system of separation of powers with maximum safeguards against autocracy, and the United States became an economic superpower with a standard of living that rose with breathtaking speed in the 20th century. And there are other revolutions, both before and after these two, that fall into the ‘good’ category.
By contrast, to call the Russian and Chinese Revolutions of the 20th century ‘bad’ would almost be to pay them a compliment. They were ostensibly about overthrowing an oppressive capitalist class to make way for a government by the proletariat, and for ‘each according to his need,’ an end to society’s class stratification, and the advent social equality. But the practical result in both cases was totalitarianism and the state-sponsored murder of tens of millions in the name of the official ideology. Their respective societies became more class-stratified than ever – divided between those who belonged to the ruling party and those who did not. Today, both Russia and China are woefully corrupt oligarchies.
The Russian Revolution has sometimes been compared to the French Revolution, which occurred only a few years after its American counterpart. Though founded on principles of universal liberty and justice, the French Revolution resulted in a reign of terror and the rise of the emperor-dictator Napoleon. It was, in other words, a ‘bad’ revolution. The Bolsheviks modeled themselves after the Jacobins in their belief that state terror was essential to revolution, and that the ends justified the means. Hence, Lenin’s Bolsheviks gave full vent to their cruelty, and instead of Napoleon they produced something even worse: Stalin.
Interestingly, the two countries have treated their respective revolutionary histories very differently. In France today, monuments to the leaders of the French Revolution are few and far between. There are no memorials or monuments glorifying Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre in France, for example. There is only a metro station in a Paris suburb bearing his name, a short, slightly crude and oddly drab bust in the city of Saint-Denis, and streets in some cities named after him. These sites acknowledge the importance of the revolution and its leaders to the history of the French republic. They do not mythologize them with tawdry memorials and hagiography.
In Russia, monuments to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin still number many. They are situated in places of prominence and honor across the country – in city squares, inside public buildings, on large murals, and so forth in about 50 cities nationwide. They commemorate a man who ordered that ‘red terror’ be implemented throughout Soviet Russia, resulting in widespread torture and murder at the hands of the revolution’s secret police and security services. Lenin’s terror was exponentially broadened and intensified under his designated successor, Stalin.
The ubiquity of monuments to Lenin and other Bolsheviks probably stems partly from an unwillingness by the authorities to pay for their removal or demolition. But it must also be attributed to an absence of any proper airing of the facts in Russia a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As such, most Russians live in an intellectual ‘twilight zone,’ painfully forced to somehow reconcile the tyrants and monsters of their country’s past with the formal parliamentary democracy in Russia today. School textbooks and histories in the USSR taught that Lenin was a near-perfect being who was good at everything from math to sports, who loved children and animals, who was superhumanly kind. This image remains largely intact for the purposes of mass consumption. As long as this myth endures, Russia will not emerge from its current crisis, will continue to suffer international isolation, and will find itself regularly at odds with the outside world.
 The Lubyanka is the building in Moscow that once served as the headquarters of the Soviet security services, and today houses the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation. Its basement has a notorious history as a venue for torture and interrogation of suspected dissidents and enemies of the state.
 The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, Stalin’s secret police.
 Alexander Khvat and Sultan Albogachiyev were officers in the NKVD during Stalin’s rule. As NKVD lieutenants, both took an active role in the interrogation and torture of the Soviet Russian botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov.
 Nikolai Vavilov a scientist was best known for his innovations and discoveries in the field of improving the yield of staple crops, such as wheat, corn and cereals. He was arrested in 1940, tortured and interrogated in the Lubyanka, and sentenced to death in 1941. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but he died in a concentration camp in 1943.
 Grigory Zinoviev (1883-1936) became a leading member of the Soviet Politburo shortly after Lenin’s death and sided with Stalin against Trotsky in power struggle of the 1920s, forming a triumvirate of power with fellow Politburo member Lev Kamenev. However, after the triumvirate fell apart, Zinoviev lost the power struggle with Stalin, was arrested, and became a defendant in one of the many show trials staged in the 1930s. He was convicted and shot.
 Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938) was a leading member of the first Soviet government who eventually became the General Secretary of the Communist International. He sided with Stalin against the ‘United Opposition’ of Zinoviev, Trotsky and Kamenev, but eventually fell out with Stalin over the policy of collectivization. He was tried in a show trial in the 1930s, convicted and shot.
 Pavel Rychagov (1911-1941) was the commander of the Soviet Air Force from August 1940 to April 1941. He had flown combat missions against the Germans in the Spanish Civil War. He was awarded the Order of Lenin twice and the Order of the Red Banner three times, and was a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union.’ Immediately before Operation Barbarossa and the start of WWII, he was arrested in Stalin’s purge of the armed forces. He was shot in October 1941 along with twenty other military officers on the same day.
 Maria Nesterenko (1910-1941) was a Soviet Air force major who attempted to fly from Khabarovsk in the Russian far east to Lviv in western Ukraine, and although storms prevented her from reaching her final destination, she managed to fly roughly 7,000 kilometers in 22.5 hours. She was arrested by the NKVD shortly after her husband, Pavel Rygachov, tortured and shot without trial.
 Alexander Poskrebyshev (1891-1965) was Stalin’s personal secretary, responsible for taking dictation and keeping the dictator’s personal diary. He became the butt of jokes among members of the Soviet leadership, who perceived that Stalin regularly humiliated him.
 Grigory Mairanovsky (1899-1964) was a biochemist and developer of poisons who headed Laboratory No. 1 of the NKVD from 1938-1946. He used political prisoners to experiment with poisons and personally participated in NKVD assassinations in the 1940s.
 A diesel-electric locomotive or vehicle.