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Rehabilitating Stalin

Painting by Stanislaw Chlebowski, Sultan Bayezid imprisoned by Timur, 1878, depicting the capture of Bayezid by Timur.'Citizens, eat more potatoes and keep the skins on.' Since Russians too must tighten their belts in the current economic crisis, the best option, according to a Russian government agency, is to look to the dietary wisdom of their 'wise ancestors'. Almost two decades since perestroika, Russians are increasingly encouraged to become more comfortable with the past: whether it is a potato-laden diet or even Joseph Stalin.

This month, Orlando Figes' book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, first published in 2007 and already translated into 22 languages, was denied publication in Russia.

The Whisperers draws on thousands of interviews conducted with survivors of the Stalinist regime by Figes and the Russian human rights organisation Memorial. Ordinary Russians recount the Stalin years, when, cowed by the Terror and the Gulag system, a whole society was transformed into whisperers.

The Russian language has two words for whisperer: one who whispers behind other people's backs and one who whispers out of fear of being heard. A Russian friend wrote that in the Stalin years Russians were a grey mass from which no one stood out.

The Whisperers, in its searing personal detail, makes Russians stand out and speak out, one by one, as victims of Stalin's terror. Reading the book becomes an act of memorial as the words of terrified people reverberate in the imagination: 'Farewell my loved ones, believe in justice ...'

The Whisperers is available in all the European languages of the ex-Soviet bloc, except for Russian.

The fate of the Russian language version of The Whisperers is, says Figes, evidence of a broader struggle for control of history publications and teaching in Russia. The Kremlin, he says, is working to rehabilitate Stalin, not to deny his crimes, but to emphasise his achievements as the builder of the country's glorious Soviet past.

Prime Minister Putin has a long standing conviction about Stalin's greatness. Putin believes that to dwell too much on Stalin's mistakes would be to burden Russians with paralysing guilt.

In a 2002 interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the interviewer delivered a broadside: 'What is Stalin's place in the history of Russia?'

He was met by the steely reply from the then president: 'That is a somewhat provocative question'.

The interviewer persisted: 'Was Stalin more like Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great?'

'More like Tamerlane,' replied Putin.

What are the implications of Putin's curious comparison between Stalin and the great 14th century Turko-Mongol warlord Tamerlane? They are worth exploring.

Timur, or Tamerlane (pictured), was the founder of the Timurid Empire in Central Asia. He rose to place himself upon the throne of Samarkand. He supported the Golden Horde in its invasion of Russia and its sack of Moscow. As he expanded his empire, he sacked Baghdad, Damascus, and Aleppo, crossed the Indus and all but wiped out the Delhi Sultanate.

His brutality is recorded in his own memoirs where he wrote that, 'on the great day of battle these 100,000 prisoners could not be left with the baggage ... no other course remained but that of making them all food for the sword'.

In what light did Putin cast Stalin by comparing him to Tamerlane? Stalin means 'steel' and Timur means 'iron.' Both these men of metal were undoubtedly ruthless. Upon the sack of Baghdad, Tamerlane called on all his warriors to bring him two heads each in order to prove their loyalty. So afraid were they that many of the warriors killed prisoners for their heads.

In The Whisperers, Orlando Figes refers to the quotas issued by Stalin to the NKVD, which required the secret police to arrest and neutralise specific numbers of enemies of the people in each province, guilty or not. NKVD officers, afraid that they could easily become victims themselves, arrested almost anyone to fill the quotas. Like Tamerlane, Stalin made countless communities 'food for the sword'.

It is doubtful, however, whether these were the linkages Putin had in mind.

In the west, Tamerlane has prompted poetry, plays and music. So Edgar Allen Poe wrote in his poem 'Tamerlane' of: '... Timour — he/Whom the astonished people saw/Striding o'er empires haughtily/A diadem'd outlaw!'

Stalin cast as a Tamerlane, the 'diadem'd outlaw', in Putin's production of Russian history astonishes. It transforms Stalin from the ruthless Georgian of living memory into a far off, titanic figure upon whom it is difficult, and almost irrelevant, to pass judgement.

It silences the voices of the Russian people, the whisperers, those who are alive today, still testifying.

Understanding Stalin as a modern Tamerlane frees Russians from confronting history, a history where, as Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote, the two Russias faced each other, 'the one that was sent to the Gulag and returned, and the one that sent them'.

To compare Stalin to Tamerlane points to a philosophy that measures greatness by strength and strength by force. In Russia force is being used to shape memory. Not only has The Whisperers been denied publication, but the archive of testimonies upon which it relied has been confiscated. In December 2008, masked men from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor General's Office forced their way into Memorial's St Petersburg offices. They confiscated databases with biographical information of victims of Stalin's repressions, details about burial sites in the St Petersburg area, family archives and transcripts of interviews.

Evidently, Figes' interviewees must again whisper their testimonies so that Russians can be proud of their country. Christopher Marlowe had his Tamerlane proclaim to the assembled warriors, 'I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains, And with my hand turn Fortune's wheel about.' Following Tamerlane and Stalin, some in Russia would like to hold memory bound in iron chains and thus, with their hand, turn the future's wheel about.

Ben ColeridgeIn 2007 Ben Coleridge worked as a language assistant in Russia. He spent September 2008 in Israel and Palestine and is currently studying Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: ben coleridge, russian prime minister, vladmir putin, joseph stalin, tamerlane, orland figes, whisperers



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Existing comments

A splendidly written, utterly absorbing analysis.

Brian Matthews | 31 March 2009  

Congratulations Ben, an absolutely stunning piece of informative writing. I would be fascinated to to have Ben explain how a former KGB supremo and Stalinist wolf like Putin has managed to become Russia's popular president, only 20 years after the advent of Perestroika. By the way I previously thought that Tamerlane was just some mythic character to whom Shakespeare made the occasional reference. I would like to recommend Ben's article to Tony Kevin.

Claude Rigney | 31 March 2009  

It is probably Poe's 'Tamerlane' that caused the production of Auden's 'T the Great'. In the latter poem the image of a despotic ruler by terror named Tamburlaine is contrasted with the use of his name as a crossword anagram: a nubile tram. Auden would have been looking at Stalin as well as Hitler who, like other Nazis, knew that their actions would put their names in History.

PHILIP HARVEY | 31 March 2009  

No-one in their right minds nowadays defends 'Uncle Joe' or his -ism. Instead, let's remember that most of the 'enemies of the people' wiped out by Stalin were communists, just as most of those destroyed by the inquisition were Catholics.

At a time when it is no longer heresy to talk about the shortcomings of capitalism, should we not move on and instead of name-calling suggest alternatives which benefit the human race rather than gleefully insist on rehashing the bleeding obvious. Anybody who currently insits that capitalism is an ideal system would be just as idiotic as a belated defender of Stalinism.

That said, let us remember that in Australia, too, there were many more victims of McCarthyism's local adherents than there were victims of Stalinism.In evaluating the past it is important to keep an eye on the future. By acknowledging the positive contribution of Australian socialists in the past we can learn much about possible ways of improving our future.

Gerry Harant | 04 April 2009  

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