Putin pimps Stalin

From the latest Economist:

Earlier this year it organised a conference for history teachers at which Mr Putin plugged a new history manual to help sort out what he called “the muddle” in teachers’ heads. “Russian history did contain some problematic pages,” Mr Putin told the teachers. “But so did other states’ histories. We have fewer of them than other countries. And they were less terrible than in some other countries.” His message was that “we can’t allow anyone to impose a sense of guilt on us.”

This is the thrust of the manual, entitled “A Modern History of Russia: 1945-2006: A Manual for History Teachers”. Were it not for the Kremlin’s backing, it would probably be gathering dust on bookshelves. But Mr Putin’s endorsement has made it one of the most discussed books of the year. New textbooks based on it will come into circulation next year. Russian schools are still free to choose which textbook to teach. But the version of history now proposed by the Kremlin suggests that freedom may not last.

The manual’s choice of period is suggestive: from Stalin’s victory in the “great patriotic war” to the victory of Mr Putin’s regime. It celebrates all contributors to Russia’s greatness, and denounces those responsible for the loss of empire, regardless of their politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is not seen as a watershed from which a new history begins, but as an unfortunate and tragic mistake that hindered Russia’s progress. “The Soviet Union was not a democracy, but it was an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society.”

The manual does not deny Stalin’s repressions; nor is it silent about the suppression of protest movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It does something more dangerous, justifying Stalin’s dictatorship as a necessary evil in response to a cold war started by America against the Soviet Union. “The domestic politics of the Soviet Union after the war fulfilled the tasks of mobilisation which the government set. In the circumstances of the cold war…democratisation was not an option for Stalin’s government.” The concentration of power in Stalin’s hands suited the country; indeed, the conditions of the time “demanded” it.

As Marietta Chudakova, an historian of Russian culture, puts it, for the manual’s author totalitarianism “is a warm bath. He splashes in it and enjoys it. The book tries to convince the reader that there was no other way, and most importantly that there was no need for one. Everything was motivated and clear in that social structure.” The book backs its assessment of Stalin by citing recent opinion polls that give him an approval rating of 47%.

It is less kind to Mikhail Gorbachev. It was his policies, not the Soviet system, that “led to the slowest economic growth in the 20th century.” He is blamed for giving up central and eastern Europe. “Thus the Soviet Union lost its security belt, which a few years later would become a zone of foreign influence, with NATO bases an hour away from St Petersburg.”

Rabid anti-Westernism is the leitmotiv of the new ideology. In return for Russia ending the cold war (“we did not lose it”, the manual insists), America pursued an anti-Russian policy and fomented colour revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, turning them into springboards for possible future attacks. “We are talking about the failure of the course started by Peter the Great and pathetically continued by pro-Western democrats after 1988. We are talking about a new isolation of Russia.”

How should Russia respond? The manual’s answer is a new mobilisation of resources and a consolidation of power in the hands of a strong leader (no prizes for guessing who). “If the national economy is dependent on foreign capital, on imports or the terms of the world market, such a country cannot defend its own interests,” it argues. And it justifies Mr Putin’s attacks on the oligarchs and the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “Don’t put yourself above the state.”

The manual’s final chapter, on “Sovereign Democracy”, reflects the views of one of the Kremlin’s chief ideologues, Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, who invented the phrase. Mr Surkov argues that Russia needs a political system to suit its national character and that it should disregard international norms of behaviour as “foreign pressure”. In a lecture to the Academy of Sciences, he suggested that such a system was predetermined by the national character and an instinctive longing for a strong hand. Centralisation, personification and idealisation of power drive Russia’s political culture. A strong and wise leader is more important than institutions—in fact, he is in Russians’ eyes the most important institution.

So can we perhaps agree that this is maybe a little bit troublesome? Or is still okay because dumb Russkies need a strong hand, and they don’t like Muslims, and communism wasn’t really so bad after all?

No, he and Chavez and the others are really pretty good guys. You’re just being an alarmist and are upset because they are not pro-America.

Here’s to hoping you don’t get murdered in an elevator because of this.

Robbing Russians of their self awareness about their misery seems the cruelest decision made yet.

Then again, I can’t tell what it is they really want. It seems like more Putin is the answer every time.

It doesn’t fucking matter. Look up Russia’s demographics sometime. Between the collapsing male life expectancy, the collapsing birth rate (already into “lowest-low” from which there is zero historical precedent of recovery), the population that is already shrinking in absolute size, the AIDS epidemic the goverment has been studiously ignoring, the exportation of their women for money (when a society does that you KNOW it’s dead), there really is no hope. They’ll be extinct in another hundred years.

You will search in vain for someone who is both pro-Chavez and pro-Putin. They appeal to different audiences.

I agree. My point was that for each, you will find those with their head in the sand, insisting that they really are not repressing basic freedoms and fundamental liberties, and explaining how their increasing power grabs are just a made up western boogeyman.

About 29% of the population, I bet.

What other societies have experienced such low birth rates?

Most likely, they want a government that at least tries to provide the basic services and stability necessary for a decent life in a modern society, as well as some national pride if possible. Putin is much better at providing this than the arguably more democratic leadership under Yeltsin in the nineties, which worsened conditions for most Russians. More Putin seems a reasonable and safe choice compared to that.

Putin’s policies are detrimental to the long-term health of Russia, of course, but right now they have more pressing problems and no proven alternative.

The birth rate in Canada is even lower, and we all know what happened to them.

P.S. Finland, Sweden, and Poland too. Pretty soon you’ll have the place to yourself, Idar.

Russia in place 166, ahead of Canada, South Korea and Switzerland.
I’m pretty sure I’ve read Rollory’s points in some other environment. But that place was a lot more wingnutty. And heck, selling their women? I thought every nation pretty much did that before the 20th century. I guess it’s ok when it’s an internal market.

Hey, Norway’s is actually almost high enough to sustain the current population.

But yeah, I checked, and the Russian fertility rate is low, but rising, and currently better than several other modern countries, including most of the advanced Asian economies, as well as Italy and Spain. The population decline is high primarily because of low life expectancy, particularily for men.

It was lower in 1942.

US history books are no different from this.

The carefully documented ones are mostly assorted stone-age tribes that encountered far more advanced cultures suddenly. Basically there are examples from throughout the age of European colonization, particularly in the Pacific. The common pattern is that they appear to acclimate to modernity tolerably well, but they just stop having children. A few generations later, none are left. It’s one of the reasons why anthropologists walk on eggshells in the Amazon now.

IS. Not WAS. Not that long ago it was customary in Quebec, for example, to have half a dozen kids. And yes, Canada and South Korea and Japan and various other places are going to be facing some problems from an inverted demographic pyramid too, but all those countries have the very significant advantage of being solidly established, strong economies, with good enough medical care that old people can still be productive workers, and thus have some cushioning to fall back on.

That’s the point. It’s not. From Russia and Eastern Europe, to the West, whether via mail-order-bride services or prostitution, it’s become a cliche. One might almost think the West won a massive life-or-death 50-year military contest and is now exploiting the vanquished in its own semibarbaric style.

That’s irrelevant. There were lots more babies being born as a proportion of the population in the middle of the 20th century so Russia was able to recover from the losses. This time around, Russia is going to suddenly have a primarily older population, in poor health, without the institutions to handle the load (would YOU choose to go to a Russian hospital?), without a younger segment of the population that is large enough to work to keep things going - but is, rather, emigrating whenever it can - and since the proportion of young and able-bodied workers is shrinking, tax revenue is down, but there is more and more need for government support (what are they going to do, let the growing numbers of old people die in the streets, just because the tax base is shrinking?) so taxes get raised, so the workers emigrate … it’s a vicious circle. Yes there’s 150 million of them, so they have a long way to fall. But with a birth rate of 1.4 children per woman, that’s a population shrinking by a third each generation. In order to turn that around you have to bump the birthrate up really far, and what rise there has been has been a fraction of what’s needed. All the other factors resulting from an inverted demographic pyramid seem likely to discourage that. There’s other Russia-specific issues too - it’s common to get married young and often divorce just as fast, people exploit the divorce laws to rip partners off, it’s not uncommon (based on the people I’ve talked to) for cities to have some pretty strict ordinances regarding construction of new homes, so people live in apartments - and affordable family-friendly housing has a big effect.

Other Western countries have the same demographic problem but are somewhat better equipped to handle it. Japan is doing amazing things with health care robots these days. They won’t have anywhere near the same problem - but the graying of the population and the low birth rate is definitely a topic of political conversation there.

The US is unique among developed nations in having a population that, for whatever reason, is having enough kids to maintain itself.

Actually, it’s a bit more likely that demographically challenged nations will experience immigration from 3rd world countries than that they will develop super robots, but hey, whatever works.

I’m less concerned about the book’s treatment of Stalin than I am of it’s anti-democratic/pro-authoritarianism stance. Stalin is a delicate subject, if only because it has been argued by even western/liberal historians that his forced industrialization policies in the 1930’s may have been the margin of victory in WW2. I can understand why so many Russians are inclined to think positively of him.

The rest is hardly surprising. That said, I’m waiting to see Russia do something aggressive (i.e. begin to put the Soviet Union back together by absorbing neighbors) before I get too worked up.

Russia’s having their post-Weimar experience. Apparently the complete chaos of the 1990s scarred them badly; who knew?

There’s an interesting bit in the New York Review of Books this week along those lines.

The attentive American reader is no doubt informed, if not in great depth or detail, about these and other current Russian political realities, which have often been described in the Western press, and I will not pursue them here. I will try instead to explain—as much to myself as to the reader—the secret of Vladimir Putin’s popularity. How are we to understand Putin’s electoral success in 2000, and again in 2004? This is not merely an academic question. In the West, but also in Russia— even from like-minded people—I often hear the following:

Well, yes, the Russian president is an unpleasant person. We can see the authoritarian, nearly totalitarian direction of his policies. But what can you do? He has won two elections with impressive results: 53 percent in 2000 and 71 percent in 2004. That must mean that his policies correspond to the hopes and aspirations of the people, and that he himself, like it or not, legitimately represents Russia. Or do you really think that both elections were so grossly falsified that the outcome was affected?

Americans in particular resort to this line of reasoning; it accords with their view of free, contested elections as the main criterion in determining whether a given country is a democracy. I do not think that Putin “really” lost the elections of 2000 and 2004. Rather, the Russian election laws have been so shamelessly distorted that they create an imitation of free elections without the slightest hint of transparent competition among political opponents. Putin would have won the campaigns of 2000 and 2004— though perhaps without such large, unseemly margins—even if they had been free of vote tampering and the illegal use of the government’s so-called “administrative resources,” and if the candidates had actually had equal access to the voters through television and the press.

But what did the majority of Russian citizens actually vote for in those two elections? Was it truly for Putin and his policies or for something else?

Consider that the Russian public majority approves of Putin, and then deliberate on why that is.

Because they have no real length of history other than that of being under despotic leaders, and they are scared of anything else?

More that their experience with “democracy” was a toxic mix of robber baron capitalism and mafia corruption which has given “democracy” a foul name in Russia for the next hundred years.