Peddling Stalin

Russian and foreign scholars took on Stalin at the International Conference on Stalinism held last month in Moscow. The Yeltsin Foundation provided the funding for the conference, whose goals were to "narrow the gap between the scientific viewpoint and everyday understanding of Stalinism" that "peddles dictatorship and historical justification of violence, millions of victims and cleansing through social purges." Clearly, Stalin's traditionally high public opinion rating among Russians was a sore point.

To the packed crowd, Russia's top archival historian, Oleg Khelvnyuk, began by listing Stalin's "mass operations" against peasants and "marginal elements," not counting the 6 million or more famine victims. There were no gasps at the victim totals that exceeded 10 million. The numbers were familiar and indisputably drawn from NKVD and Interior Ministry sources.

Arseny Roginsky, director of Memorial, a nongovernmental organization devoted to researching political persecution during the Soviet period, followed with an impassioned address on the Stalin paradox — that there were millions of victims but no criminals. Instead of "crime without victims," Stalin somehow produced "victims without criminals" by creating collective guilt for those who ran Russia after him.

My presentation, titled "Was Stalin Really Necessary?" weighed the costs of human life against the "benefits" that Stalin apologists most often cite — rapid industrialization and the victory over Hitler, despite Stalin's bungling of the first part of the war and his prewar extermination of the entire command structure. The costs, I suggested, were the immense and unnecessary loss of human life, the destruction of agriculture and the introduction of a dysfunctional planned economy.

The conference's peak was a round table of writers, filmmakers, lawyers and journalists, most old enough to have experienced Stalinism first hand. The moderator, journalist and historian Nikolai Svanidze, did his best to control the crowded auditorium. Danil Granin, a war veteran who served on the front lines, recounted the myth that Stalin was the genius of the country's victory in World War II, notwithstanding the fact that Stalin exiled Marshal Georgy Zhukov (the equivalent of Truman banishing Eisenhower to Mexico) as the war ended.

The greatest fireworks were reserved for Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko, who was repeatedly interrupted by shouts: "And what about the textbook?" The "textbook" was a teacher's manual that had been "approved" for use in Russian schools to teach the next generation about Soviet history and Stalin. The sputtering minister explained that the text had been approved by a committee of teachers (an old Stalin trick). The "text" claims that Stalin was forced by circumstances to embark on bold policies that, regrettably, required a large number of victims. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself is represented as another strong leader who rescues Russia from chaos and humiliation to preserve Russia's rightful territory. As the next speaker was introduced, Fursenko discretely left the hall.

Did the conference achieve its goal? Scholars have the "facts" on their side, but they are read by only a few thousand readers. Pro-Stalinist literature, however, is available on every street corner in bright covers and short texts; these books "prove" that the archives are forgeries and that scholars who use them are unpatriotic.

Until we learn to communicate with a broader public, Stalin will continue to be a positive figure, and the Putins and Dmitry Medvedevs can continue to argue that Russia needs a strong hand.

Paul Gregory, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is professor of economics at the University of Houston.