The Germans lucked out with Hitler. He was so evil, so destructive and so unsuccessful that it was easy to reject him completely. But the Russians were not so “lucky” with Stalin.
Tomes have been written comparing the two great dictators, but in the end what matters most are their differences. The main difference was that in World War II, Hitler lost and Stalin won. That meant suicide for Hitler and the Nuremberg trials for the country and its high command. For Stalin, it meant the spoils and honors that come with being the victor, and for the Soviet Union it meant securing a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Stalin is part of a larger problem for the Russians — how to deal with the Soviet phase of their history, how shame and pride should be apportioned and what to accept with a neutral shrug. A perfect and permanent formulation will of course never be found. What matters more is the attempt that Russia is not making.
The Soviet ghosts emerge in the little details, often producing disproportionate effects. Recently a kebab restaurant on Leningradsky Prospekt decided to name itself Antisovetskaya, or Anti-
Soviet, after its location opposite the Sovetskaya Hotel. Nothing in the least political, this was just a well-known capitalist principle — cutesy names draw attention and business. Instead, a mini-
Oleg Mitvol, prefect for the Northern Administrative District, pressured the restaurant to change its name, himself under pressure from veterans who found the name “insulting to the history of our country.” How an entire country can be insulted by a kebab restaurant’s name was never adequately explained nor was how that country got so touchy in the first place.
This bizarre bit of post-Soviet dialectics might have passed with a two-line mention in the newspapers were it not for journalist Alexander Podrabinek’s article titled “Letter to Soviet Veterans,” published on a liberal Russian web site. Active in human rights since the early 1970s, Podrabinek helped expose the Soviet abuses of psychiatry in his book “Punitive Medicine,” which landed him two stretches in a Siberian prison.
It is worth remembering that nearly everything that he recounts in his article happened in the 36 years between the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin’s death in 1953 as opposed to the period from 1954 to 1991. Life in that second period of Soviet history had aspects — stability, the cozy democracy of mutual poverty and superpower pride — for which many Russians are nostalgic today.
Podrabinek was picketed by Nashi and then, having received death threats, went into hiding, a sensible move in a country where pesky journalists are routinely mowed down.
It seems to me that Russia’s own history has set two great tasks before it. One is to forge a new identity for itself, a new direction and a new shared set of values and goals. All the Russias of the past — Muscovite, tsarist, imperial and Soviet — were so definite in nature that they could be summed up by a single adjective. Eighteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the same cannot be said of the new Russia.
The forging of that new identity will not be achieved without a successful integration of the Soviet past. And without creating that new sense of national self and purpose, Russia will be unable to deal with its other great task — the diversification of its economy away from its dangerous dependence on oil and gas. The results of that failure will be unpleasant to say the least.
Richard Lourie is the author of “The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin” and “Sakharov: A Biography.”