Learning History in Russia: Stalin and the Soviet Union

The Washington Post published an article by teacher in a school near Moscow where the girls expressed admiration for Stalin and thought democracy was a disaster. From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer comments: "Naturally, if one tries, one can find ignorant people even in highly educated Russia, but such an opinion about Stalin would be quite unusual -- there are probably more followers of Hitler than of Stalin among Russian youth today. Even Lenin is in disrepute these days in Russia. School textbooks in Russia devote considerable space to the Gulag and the other Stalinist repressions, particularly the orgy of violence identified with the year of 1937. Many people do credit Stalin with leading the country through the awful war with the Nazis; however, Stalin's reputation, even as a war leader, is tarnished by the widespread opinion that Stalin was generally ill-prepared for the war, ignored many warnings of Hitler's attack, fatally weakened the Soviet Army by slaughtering the professional officer corps during the 1930's, and led the war without regard for human life. I don't believe I have ever met a single Russian who did not have at least one relative shot or sent to the Gulag during the 1930's".

What do people of erstwhile monarchies think of their ancient monarchs? Christopher Jones asks: "I am wondering if Cameron Sawyer could confirm if any former Russian monarchs are on the sunny side of the street. I am thinking of Nikolai, but more precisely of Catherine the Great. Also does anybody know who Putin admires?" RH: It is widely reported that Putin admires Peter the Great. As for Nikolai and his family, their burial in the Romanov crypt and their beatification indicate respect. Cameron can expand this.

From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer writes: "What has basically happened in Russians' consciousness of their history is that, for most people, the Soviet period is now considered to have been a sort of diversion; as Yeltsin said, Russia was "pushed off the rails of its own history". That is resulted in a great rediscovery of Russia's history prior to 1917. I believe that most of Russia's monarchs are in high repute these days; probably higher than they deserve. The reburial of the Romanovs in St. Petersburg was one of the most sensational events in Russia during the time I have been here. The kind but weak and indecisive Nikolai II is not merely respected, but is widely beloved. Alexander II is widely respected for his reforms, of which ending serfdom was the most visible. Peter, who was a rather strange fellow, is revered for having beaten the Swedes and opened Russia to the West, and of course, as the founder of St. Petersburg. Catherine, a pure-blooded German, is remembered as the best administrator of any of them, and as a great patron of the arts. Putin's favorite is supposed to be Peter the Great".

Daryl DeBell explains that, in the article about girls who thought that Stalin was a genius and that the Soviet Union was a great invention was about a school in Russia: "The girl's name was Tanya, and the school was on the outskirts of Moscow". RH: If this represents the opinion of Russian youth, we must revise our assessments of Russian public opinion. Cameron Sawyer could comment.

Derek Davis reports: "I have been to Russia about ten times in the last three years. I have asked Russians about this very issue, i.e., what do current educators teach young students about the Soviet era, about Stalin, about the dissolution of the Soviet Union, etc. I am told that while there are exceptions, it is in vogue to teach youngsters that the Soviet period was a mistake, that the Russian people were overrun by ideological extremists in the form of Lenin, Stalin, et al, and that the whole period is one of great regret. This, in turn, is generally accompanied by a new desire to democratize and join the community of nations. But in a difficult period of transition, there are still, of course, those who want to hang on to the past, thus there remains a great deal of confusion and indecision about Russia's future course politically, socially, and religiously". As for Stalin's seminary education, Randy Black says: " Stalin was expelled from the seminary by age 15 for his political activism, as I recall. That type of schooling was his mother’s idea". RH: The fact that Putin took part in the D-day ceremonies, which were used ro promote the idea of democracy, suggests that he wants to promote it in Russia, unless he simply wanted to make sure that the Soviet contribution to the Allies' victory was not forgotten. Or perhaps Chirac as host wanted to revive the old French-Russian alliance.

Ronald Hilton -