Staunton, March 12 — It is an article of faith for Vladimir Putin and many Russians as well that, despite what he and they are sometimes willing to concede were Joseph Stalin’s excesses, the Soviet dictator was absolutely necessary in building up a strong Soviet Union that was then capable of defeating Nazi Germany.
But a new book just published in Moscow challenges that assumption, and thus undermines both the Kremlin’s historical narrative and the assumption increasingly widespread in Russia and elsewhere that that country cannot be run by anyone but a dictator, an assumption that leads those who think that to excuse Putin’s “excesses,” viewing them as necessary as well.
Oleg V. Khlevnyuk , a senior researcher at the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow, has written many scholarly books about Stalin’s times, but his new one, “Stalin. The Life of One Leader,” has been published by a commercial house and is intended for the widest possible audience.
In an interview with Petr Fedorov of Vozdukh, Khlevnyuk explains that he wrote the book to show that “Stalin was not necessary,” that there were alternatives, and that many of them would have been far preferable for Russia if not for its ruling elites who always benefit from the notion that things could not be otherwise.
Elites use this notion to convince Russians that whatever is and whatever they do must be accepted because “it is always possible to say: ‘Well, you know, in our country, nothing else could have occurred.” As a historian, Khlevnyuk says, he finds this “conception meaningless,” especially since Stalin like other leaders sometimes acted one way and sometimes ago.
The core argument of his book, the historian says, is that Stalin was not necessary and that he did far more harm than a different leader with different policies would have done.
His terror, for example, was “absolutely senseless even from the point of view of the system.” Indeed, “it weakened [that system] in the end.”
The task of any biographer, Khlevnyuk says, is to try to reconstruct the times in which its subject lived and to get inside the logic of his actions. “Why did he do what he did? What were his calculations?” In short, what role did his personality and subjective approach play in the course of events.
Even though some Russians now deny it, Stalin was directly implicated in the killings of the Great Terror. He kept all the orders to kill that he signed. But — and this is relevant now — he killed by giving orders “from his office,” as one of Khlevnyuk’s colleagues has said. He did not pull the trigger. That disconnect allows some to lie to themselves and others about his role.
The historian points to three sources of the extraordinary popularity of Stalin at the present time. The first is the Russian population’s ignorance about the history of their country and the propensity of many to think that some past time was better than the present. The second is that Stalin’s times are not ancient history: there are still many people who grew up then and choose to remember their childhoods in rosy colors.
And third, Khlevnyuk argues, the Russian government has been actively promoting the image of Stalin among Russians today as a positive figure or at least as one for whom there was no substitute. Pro-Stalin books have thus “undeservedly received enormous support” and attracted a large audience.
The archival historian says that he very much hopes that his book will change the minds of the vast majority of people who are neither passionate supporters of Stalin or passionate opponents but rather view him the way the current Kremlin leaders want them to because that is the path of least resistance.
From his perspective, Khlevnyuk says, what is especially horrifying is that many of the pro-Stalin books and articles are largely or completely falsified and that their conclusions are nonetheless finding their way into academic studies and thus gaining a respectability they do not deserve. “This is a catastrophe,” he argues.
Sometimes people think that Stalinism in Russia can be dispelled as Nazism was in Germany, but that is impossible, Khlevnyuk says. Hitler lost a war, but the Stalinist regime “ended as a result of its own contradictions,” and it did so “immediately after the death of Stalin.”
Indeed, “as soon as Stalin died, within a week, his regime was no more … [H]is own supporters destroyed it because they understood that it was impossible to live that way any longer. The system simply wasn’t capable of working,” which is yet another lesson to all who say that everything is inevitable and that personalities don’t matter.