Section 3: HISTORY. Chapter 12: The March of History

How do you build a history based on ceaseless self-slaughter and betrayal? Do you deny it? Forget it? But then you are left orphaned. So history is rewritten to suit the present.
(Pomerantsev, p.132; 2015)

Russia's history has often been bloody and vicious, as is well illustrated
by this Bolshevik poster from the Civil War of 1917-1922. Referring to the
White Army led by the former Tsarist General, Pyotr Wrangel, the caption

Many people agree that ‘History is written by the victors’ (even if no-one can determine who first said it). In Russia and the Soviet Union, it would be even more accurate to say, ‘History is re-written by the victors’, or even ‘History is re-written, re-written and re-written again by the victors.’ As the above quotation and others in this chapter show, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that this is the case.

Rewriting history is an old Russian habit. It pre-dates the Bolsheviks. The earliest Russian history was recorded by priests who often distorted what happened to make their favourites look better, or to improve the image of their Church. In the sixteenth century Ivan the Terrible personally oversaw the rewriting of the chronicles of his reign. In the nineteenth century the reactionary Count Benckendorff, chief of Tsar Nicholas I’s secret police, was quoted as saying: ‘Russia’s past was wonderful, her present magnificent, and as to her future – it is beyond the grasp of the most daring imagination. This is the point of view from which Russian history must be written.’
(Kaiser, p.250; 1976)

Perhaps the earliest example of Russia’s writing of history to fit in with the time at which it was written can be found in the Primary Russian Chronicle, thought to have been composed in the fifteenth century from older texts but detailing (among other things) Russia’s choice of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the tenth century. Although it is generally accepted that this was a political decision (not something unique to Rus’ or Russia), the justification for the choice of Orthodoxy is interesting: when Prince Vladimir’s emissaries witnessed the Greek worship, they knew not whether they ‘were in heaven or on earth’. And the reason they did not choose Islam will ring true even now with anyone who has spent any time in Russia or with Russians. Vladimir is said to have told the Bulgar missionaries who tried to convert him to Islam that abstinence from pork and wine were disagreeable to him, especially because, ‘Drinking is the joy of the Russes. We cannot live without that pleasure.’

Many people consider icons to be a special part of the beauty of Orthodoxy - heavenly figures
portrayed in an abstract way on earth

‘Ah,’ said the professor… ‘you must learn to expect the unexpected in Mother Russia. You know the Soviets say, “the future is bright”, but privately they admit they are one of the few nations with an “unpredictable past” – history is rewritten regularly…’
(Lifflander, p.14-15; 2015)

Huge numbers of publications were banned from the bookshelves altogether. For example, one directive, issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party on March 7, 1935, ordered the removal of Leon Trotsky’s works from libraries throughout the Soviet Union. This ban continued until the late 1980’s, but sometime in between it was toughened up to include even some anti-Trotsky material. Publications with titles like Trotskyists: Enemies of the People and Trotskyist-Bukharinist Bandits also became proscribed reading.
(King, p.10; 1997)

One of the best known examples of this re-writing of history came in 1954, after the last head of the secret police under Stalin, Lavrenty Beria, had been arrested by the Soviet leadership and executed in December 1953. A long biography and full page photograph of Beria had been published in 1950 in Volume 5 of the second edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (1950-1958). After being disgraced and shot, the leadership realised that this henchman of Stalin’s did not deserve such glorification. So all subscribers to the Encyclopaedia – both inside the Soviet Union and abroad – were sent new pages to insert into Volume 5 to cover up Beria’s details. An article which purported to show fascinating new information about the Bering Sea, complete with half a dozen photographs, was provided. A copy of the page of photographs is reproduced in David King’s, The Commissar Vanishes, p.181. There was also a biography of an eighteenth-century German courtier, Friedrich Wilhelm Bergholz, who had kept a diary of his travels in Russia. The fact that the Soviet authorities had no qualms about sending such instructions even to foreign subscribers is an indication of just how much this had become normal practice for them, just as it would have been for Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. The instruction was met with incredulity in the West.

Yesterday’s saints become today’s Judases, then heroes again. History is hastily rewritten to document the latest immutable truth. But a portion of the slag heap of superseded literature finds some use. In a reeking latrine the other day, a copy of the obsolete 1967 History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was braced between the tiles and drain pipe, its pages extolling N S Khrushchev’s inspiration to progressive mankind to be ripped out for toilet paper as needed. But no irony was intended: the convenience was an unconscious acquiescence to the law of shortage requiring maximum recycling, and acceptance that the yellowing pulp now best serves for this.
(Feifer, p.62; 1976)

‘Every new regime builds the past so radically,’ Mozhayev says…’Lenin and Trotsky ripping up the memory of the tsars, Stalin ripping up the memory of Trotsky, Khrushchev of Stalin, Brezhnev of Khrushchev; perestroika gutting the whole communist century…and every time the heroes turn to villains, saviours are rewritten as devils, the names of streets are changed, faces scrubbed out from photos, encyclopaedias re-edited.’
(Pomerantsev, p.130; 2015)

…history became increasingly difficult to teach in a country which was almost daily changing its views about its past.
(Millinship, pp.231-232; 1993)

But even though Russia’s history was and is continually being re-written, what has remained constant has been the way in which the country has been ruled by a firm fist from the centre, as David Willis explains.

…the Party holds sway because Russia has been ruled from the centre for one thousand years; central authority has never been diluted, either under the tsars or the commissars. Russia has been governed from Moscow or St Petersburg (now Leningrad NB: Now, of course, St Petersburg once again – SD]). It has seen no centuries of kingly power eroded by clergy, nobles, or burghers. There has been no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Luther, no Erasmus.
(Willis, p.9; 1985)

One reason why first Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin became deeply unpopular with the Russian people was because they dared to try to relax that grip. Vladimir Putin reinstated it; and won huge popularity.

Vasily Grossman considers that the biggest change in the monolithic state structure was not the Bolshevik Revolution, but the emancipation of the serfs in 1861:

The emancipation of the serfs – as we can see from the history of the following century – was more truly revolutionary than the October Revolution. The emancipation of the serfs shook Russia’s thousand-year old foundation, a foundation left entirely intact by both Peter the Great and Lenin: the dependence of the country’s evolution on the growth of slavery.
(Grossman, Everything Flows, p.195; c.1960)

Laurens van der Post bemoans the lack of peaceful evolution when there has been change in Russian history:

One of the most depressing aspects of Russian history is the total absence of the peaceful processes of evolution. Instead of an orderly routine of change one encounters repeatedly violence, assassination, massacre and terror. Instead of an individual challenge of authority there are inducements to mob action and rioting…
(van der Post, p.44; 1965)

And Francis Spufford comments on the country’s backwardness in 1917 and the Bolsheviks’ way of dealing with this:

[In 1917] Russia had fewer railroads, fewer roads and less electricity than any other European power. Its towns were stunted little venues for the gentry to buy riding boots. Most people were illiterate. Within living memory, the large majority of the population had been slaves. Despite this absence of all Marx’s preconditions, the Bolsheviks tried anyway to get to paradise by the quick route, abolishing money and seizing food for the cities directly at gunpoint. The only results were to erase the little bit of industrial development that had taken place in Russia just before the First World War, and to create the first of many bouts of mass starvation.
(Spufford, p.83; 2010)

Hedrick Smith points out the contrast between Russia’s backwardness, yet its possession of modern weaponry (something which led to the cruel nickname being given to the country in the 1970’s of the USSR being ‘Upper Volta with missiles’).

I had to unlearn the notion that Russia had become a modern industrial state on a par with the advanced West, for that concept obscures as much as it reveals. Behind the mask of modernism, of missiles, jets and industrial technology, is concealed the imprint of centuries of Russian history on the structure of Soviet society and the habits and character of the Russian people. For it remains an intensely Russian land in ways that newcomers … are slow to comprehend. Here and there the traveller glimpses signs of a very traditional country – women patiently sweeping city streets with long-handled twig brooms, peasants bent over the fields hoeing by hand, store clerks adding up bills, click-clack, on ancient wooden abacuses.
(Smith, The Russians, p.22; 1977)

Even though Smith was writing in the late 1970s, I saw an abacus still being used in a shop in a Russian village in 2009.
Vladimir Soloukhin feels deeply the
loss of traditional Russian place
names and traditions

Vladimir Soloukhin, and George Feifer’s friend, Alyosha, bemoan the disappearance of many old Russian names in the wake of the Revolution.

1931. Throughout the land the bells have been cast down from the bell-towers. In place of the ancient village names in our area – Prokoshikha, Brod, Ostanikha, Kuryanikha, Venki, Pugovtsino, Vishenki, Lutino, Krivets, Zelniki, Rozhdestveno, Ratmirovo, Spasskoe, Snegirevo, Ratislovo – in place of these ancient, centuries-old Russian names, each with its own history…other names started to appear: ‘Red Communist Avant-garde’, ‘The Road to Socialism’, ‘Pace-setter’, ‘Forward’, ‘Red Profintern’, ‘Champion’, ‘Rosa Luxemburg’, ‘Red Banner’, ‘Lenin’s’, ‘May Day’…
(Soloukhin, p.145; 1990)

Least of all, he likes the Sovietisation that continues to blanch these remnants of local colour, to smother the wheeling-dealing of urban life, to homogenise everything into a single stretch of prefabricated apartment blocks. And relentlessly rename tradition-laded streets: each new sign announcing the appearance of yet one more ‘Redproletarian’, ‘Lenin’, ‘Leninist’, or ‘Marx’ in place of a descriptive or old Slavic appellation is a personal wound.
  ‘Splendid news: Kaluzhskaya Square becomes dear “October”. Naturally, measures had to be taken: “Kaluzhskaya” stood for something in the life of old Moscow, and had a comforting ring. Besides, millions of people knew where it was and didn’t waste hours getting lost or trekking to one of the thirty other Octobers. Too pleasant, too convenient…’
  On his personal count, eleven Moscow streets are now called ‘Leningrad’, and he suspects he’s missed a few. Like everyone else, he says, street-namers prefer a safe bet – that is, anything with Lenin in it – to risking Oak Tree Lane or something similarly untried. And every time we pass the famous open-air swimming pool a mile east of the Kremlin, a biting quip reminds me that before Lazar Kaganovich and Stalin stuffed it with dynamite, this was the site of the third largest church in Christendom, built to commemorate the victory over Napoleon. Only in the renaming of academies and institutes from ‘Stalin’ to ‘Lenin’ does he milk some satisfaction, for the former derives from ‘steel’ while the latter, ‘appropriately’, has the same root as the Russian word for ‘laziness’.
(Feifer, pp.159-160; 1976)

This final point in Feifer’s piece – about Lenin’s pseudonym having the same root as the Russian word for ‘laziness’ – was a point with which I shocked a member of the Communist party in 1979 when I pointed it out. Vladimir Ulyanov chose the pseudonym Lenin because when he was sent in exile to Siberia he was living near the River Lena. But it happens that ‘lentai’ means a lazy person! The ‘third largest church in Christendom’ which Feifer mentions, blown up by Kaganovich and Stalin, stands there once again, to show that official Russia has changed its mind once more on the place of religion within the state. Russians are people of extremes, indeed.

The River Lena, which flows through Yakutia, is one of the
great rivers of Russia
This quotation from the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia is an excellent illustration of the way in which in reporting history the Soviet version was often very selective.

In the summer of 1939 the British government, in collaboration with the French government, broke off negotiations begun upon the USSR’s initiative concerning an alliance of these three powers in the struggle against fascist aggression.

It would be difficult to think of a more convoluted description of the consequences of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, blaming the British and the French for breaking off negotiations, without mentioning that this was because the Soviet Union had just got into bed with the enemy! But despite the official, often biased gloss put on history, Hedrick Smith indicates what real history can mean to Russians. He asked a group of them sitting chatting around the dinner table what had been the best period in Russian history. After a pause, his host, a Jewish scientist called Ben Levich, said, ‘The War’.

‘The War,’ Ben repeated quietly. ‘Because at that time we all felt closer to our government than at any other time in our lives. It was not their country then, but our country. It was not they who wanted this or that to be done, but we who wanted to do it. It was not their war, but our war. It was our country we were defending, our war effort.’
(Smith, The Russians, p.370; 1977)

Smith continues his exploration of how Russians have seen their own history, when he asked people about their attitude to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Beyond the substantial indifference to the invasion [of Czechoslovakia in 1968] on the part of the masses, many people evidently took pride in the exercise of Soviet power … It was one of the attributes of being a super power. A Russian writer I know was vacationing at Sochi in August 1968 … ‘The people down there were really very happy with what happened,’ he recalled. ‘”Finally,” they said, “our troops have gone into Czechoslovakia. We should have done that a long time ago …” These people were glad to see that Russia had used its force …’ Gennadi … said … ‘They believed in the huge wild lie that the Soviet Union had to invade Czechoslovakia to help the people there’ … Another friend … found himself sharing a hospital ward with a civilian chauffeur who had been a tank driver in Prague during the invasion [and told how they had blasted the top off buildings if they saw any locals on the rooftops. The driver] had no qualms, he said, ‘because they were all Fascists.’
(Smith, The Russians, pp.382-383; 1977)

This chilling statement, that it was acceptable to kill Czechs in their capital city in 1968, ‘because they were fascists’, has strong echoes of 2014 and the seizure of Crimea and subsequent invasion of Eastern Ukraine by Russian troops. Not only did many Russians rejoice in the demonstration of Russian power and strength, but a frequently-heard justification for the action was that, ‘they were all fascists’. Even after Ukrainian right-wing parties polled less than one per cent in elections for the country’s parliament in October 2014, the accusation that there are ‘fascists’ everywhere in Ukraine continues to be made by Russians.

I came across this next quotation from Hedrick Smith on 9 May 2015, for Russians the 70th anniversary of victory in Europe. (Russians celebrate 9 May as the day the War ended, as the peace was signed late at night on 8 May in Berlin, by which time it was already the 9th in Moscow.)

…emphasis on wartime memories not only reinforces patriotic feelings but points up the need for vigilance and readiness today. It was striking that in 1975, the 30th anniversary of the Allied victory over Germany brought such an outpouring of war propaganda in the press that some Western experts tabulated the flow as heavier than in 1965 or 1970, on the 20th and 25th anniversaries of victory in Europe.
(Smith, The Russians, p.386; 1977)

In the build-up to the 70th anniversary in 2015, there was more propaganda in Russia about the War than had been seen for many years, possibly ever. It was bitterly ironic, therefore, that some of the propaganda posters displayed the remarkable ignorance of those who had been tasked with creating them, as instead of Soviet forces they portrayed American soldiers, Israeli tanks and, worst of all, Second World War Luftwaffe pilots! Banners were displayed throughout the country and millions of Russians wore the orange and black ribbon of St George, which in recent years has become Russia’s symbol of that victory. Russia held what was thought to be the largest military parade ever on Red Square. The leaders of the USA, Great Britain and Germany refused to attend because of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine. The guest of honour was the Chinese President, Xi Jingping; and his host, President Vladimir Putin commented, ‘Everyone we wanted to see was here’. This ignores the fact that the USA and Britain were the USSR’s allies in the War, and that, had it not been for supplies and armaments shipped from these allies to Russia, even the Russians’ legendary courage may not have been enough to bring victory.

Martin Walker gives a version of a great Russian myth: that ‘Russia has never started a war against anyone’.

Traditionally for Russia, war is something that other people inflict on them.
(Walker, p.102; 1986)

True, the Mongol hordes, Napoleon and Hitler all attacked Russia; but Russia has committed more than its fair share of aggressive acts against others. You do not even have to go far back in history to show this: the attack on Finland in 1940; the use of force to crush unrest in East Berlin in 1953, the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968; and the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Now to this list can be added the unleashing of war on Ukraine in 2014. And yet even after this a Russian tried to convince me in 2015 that Russia had never attacked anyone.

The first part of Walker’s next comment, written in 1986, shows less that he mis-read the signs in the early years of Gorbachev’s time in power; rather it emphasises just how swiftly the situation changed.

It should be clear from this account that the Soviet Union is not facing imminent collapse, that it is even a fairly stable system, capable of change and improvement, and that it now has an intelligent leadership with a well-thought-out programme of reform. But if this view is wrong, and the Soviet system is about to implode, then before applauding or encouraging that process, we ought to think through its implications.
(Walker, p.252; 1986)

Five years later, the USSR was no more. But whether this process should be applauded is a question which is still unanswerable a quarter of a century later.

That there was a glimmer of hope for genuine positive change at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union is summed up in this brief quotation from an interview I took in September 1991 with Gennady Yagodin, then Chairman of the Soviet State Education Committee:

We were not so open towards the whole world as now, from the time of Peter the Great.
(Yagodin, interview with Dalziel, September 1991)

One is tempted to ask, ‘What went wrong?’ What we can say for sure is that these words, written by Joseph Conrad in July 1905 are as true today as they were then:

The throes of Russian resurrection will be long and painful.
(Conrad, p.42; 1905)

Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has soured its relations with the West; and ruined for generations to come a genuine brotherhood between Russia and Ukraine. The resurrection of those relations and Russia’s place in the world will indeed be long and painful.

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