This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
No other book in Russia’s post-Soviet history spurred as much controversy as the “Russian History from 1917 to 2009” textbook by Alexander Barsenkov and Alexander Vdovin. This textbook, meant for the students of the country’s best higher education institution – the Lomonosov Moscow State University– was accused of anti-Semitism and practically banned. This was done by members of the Public Chamber – that very same consulting-inspective establishment that was founded during Vladimir Putin’s first term as president and is often accused of being “toothless.”
During a meeting of the Public Chamber’s Commission on Interethnic Relations in early September, the Dean of the university’s History Department Sergey Karpov denied having anything to do with the textbook and assured that the book “has a print-run of 2,000 copies and has been pushed to the sidelines of our field of education.” Soon after the Public Chamber commission’s meeting, the academic board of the history faculty gave the textbook a red light, acknowledging that “the text of the manual contains factual material of questionable authenticity.”
So what exactly offended the Public Chamber so much? Barsenkov’s and Vdovin’s textbook is characterized by a fundamentally new, ethnically-colored view of Russia in the 20th century. Russians are used to a black-and-white assessment of the Soviet period: we are either convinced that almost everything in this period was terrible and we should reject this heritage (the so-called liberal stance), or we are told that in the Soviet Union everything was great besides some minor shortcomings, and thus the Soviet Union or some of its elements should be reestablished in their previous form (the position of the communists and their allies). Both sides brandish a well-known collection of facts, statistics and quotes.
In this case, the authors cite a myriad of horrifying, monstrously cruel acts of the Soviet regime, both notorious and new…and pass almost no moral judgment. And then they establish how many of the victims of these crimes were Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, etc. But most often primarily Jews – Barsenkov and Vdovin carefully examine their share among the repressed, the honored, the appointed and the dismissed. And every time it turns out that too few Jews were repressed (percentage-wise), too few were fired and many where left in places they already occupied. Many more Russians were repressed and discharged.
The fact that Russians were the most often killed, imprisoned, fired and debased is true. Having chosen the Russian people to be its main weapon, the Bolshevist regime treated this “guard” like cattle, obviously counting on the humble obedience and passivity of those whom the leader of this regime, Joseph Dzhugashvili (Stalin), called “the most outstanding nation of all the nations that make up the Soviet Union.” The authors never tire of citing the toast to the “leader” made at a reception on May 24, 1945, as the highest appraisal of the Russian nation. But against the backdrop of the facts that the authors supply in the textbook (3.778 million repressed on political charges with documentation, of them 786,000 sentenced to execution, the “Godless five-year plans,” the destruction of churches and other elements of old Russian culture), this toast sounds like obvious mockery. However, the authors for some reason fail to derive this conclusion from their own text.
The danger of the textbook lies in the fact that next to the questionable percentages of Jews and Russians victimized in Stalin’s crimes, there are credible facts. In this sense, Barsenkov’s and Vdovin’s textbook is a mirror reflection of today’s society. The facts are no longer banned, they are available in a number of books and articles and it is possible to see the originals of many documents in the archives. But the moral compass is off and there is no longer the ability to evaluate these facts humanely.
For example, the authors describe the anti-cosmopolitan campaign that was underway in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. They talk about the destruction of works by Soviet geneticists, about how the physicists Lev Landau, Yakov Zeldovich, Yuliy Khariton almost ended up stabbed in the back. They write that a collection of articles aimed against them and titled “Against Idealism in Contemporary Physics” was ready for dissemination. At that time, the Soviet atomic bomb didn’t exist. So from a patriotic and a human point of view, the authors should have been outraged by this campaign. But the authors write: “The campaign against cosmopolitanism was directed not only against the United States’ aspirations to global hegemony under new slogans, but also against new projects that arose there, aimed at destroying Soviet patriotism and at replacing it with ‘universal values.’ In the Soviet Union this was viewed as the creation of a united front against the Soviet Union and the countries of the new democracy, as preparation for war.” So thus it turns out that the campaign against cosmopolitanism wasn’t so bad. And the mighty chief of Stalin’s special services Lavrenty Beria shouldn’t have saved the Jewish physicists from death. The only justification for what he did is: without these Jews, the Soviet Union wouldn’t have had an atomic bomb.
So how does a moral compass veer off? Not in a Soviet manner, but in the spirit of the new post-Soviet era, based on the “us and them” principle. The authors refuse to approach any one of the Soviet regime’s crimes from the “perspective of the humankind” which was widespread in the late Soviet Union. When evaluating any crime, Barsenkov and Vdovin first look at what “ethnicity” was victimized. Not ours? Fine. And they readily repeat the low tricks of Stalin’s press without the necessary commentary. Here is the tale of the massacre of the Jewish Antifascist Committee in the late 1940s to the early 1950s:
“The persecution of the committee went into an active stage with the death (January 1948) of its leader Solomon Mikhoels, who was suspected of trying to use Stalin’s daughter Svetlana and her husband Grigory Morozov for the selfish interests of the Jews…Mikhoels was exposed as a ‘Jewish nationalist’ and a disseminator of ‘libelous opinions about the members of the government.’ The decision was taken to terminate the activities of the committee in September of 1948 after Israeli envoy Golda Meerson (Meir)’s visit to Moscow. This happened after a number of meetings that were arranged for the envoy of the newly formed state of Israel. The willingness of many Soviet Jews to move to their historic homeland or to join Israel in its war against the Arabs was especially suspicious. All this was viewed as betrayal of the socialist Fatherland. Stalin also didn’t like the friendship that Meir established with the wife of Vyacheslav Molotov, Polina Zhemchuzhina.”
And now, let’s lay out all of the above in terms of “so-called universal human values.” The great actor Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by the Chekists – they had him “accidentally” run over by a truck. And then they accused the dead man of fighting for the “selfish interests of the Jews.” Along the way they ruined the life of Stalin’s daughter by arresting her husband. Those same special services eavesdropped on the Israeli envoy’s conversations with “free” Soviet citizens. They listened in and then reported back to Stalin. The latter, based on this information, didn’t hesitate to send the wife of his closest ally Vyacheslav Molotov, who for more than ten years headed the Soviet Union’s government, to a concentration camp. This was the official version of the story in Russia starting with Mikhail Gorbachev’s time. But Barsenkov and Vdovin are looking for “a new approach.”
The authors have a signature trick – they summarize any horrific episode (often with no commentary at all) with a quote from Stalin or Molotov, and the unsuspecting reader perceives the phrase as something of an “original truth.” At the same time, for some reason the authors prefer to use the vocabulary of the repressions’ actual organizers. The chapter about the pre-war repressions is called “Dealing blows to the potential of the fifth column.” Just a reminder – the “fifth column” was a term used by the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco for his agents in Madrid, which his army entered in four columns. Alongside the story of the “column’s” fate, Molotov thus justifies repression against the aviation engineer Andrey Tupolev (arrested in 1937, but soon set free) and other victims of pre-war cleansing: “They didn’t support us…An open enemy is easy to understand. But cases like Tupolev’s are more complicated. He’s from that breed of the intelligentsia, which the Soviet state really needs, but who deep down inside are against it. And, even with the intelligentsia’s personal connections, they performed dangerous and corrupting work – and even if they didn’t, that was their goal.”
“Molotov was right in his own way,” the authors conclude. What do they mean by “in his own way?” An attempt to control not just a person’s outward behavior, but also the contents of their soul is not just a violation of the person’s rights; it is an attack on God’s prerogative. In the Bible, such plans were ascribed to the Devil. Molotov set a similar task for himself, and, in a way, he completed it. And, according to the authors, he was right — in his own way.
The new textbook has also acquired a following. A number of “patriotic” fiction writers and other cultural figures have intervened on Barsenkov’s and Vdovin’s behalf. But the head of the Public Chamber’s Commission on Interethnic Relations and the Freedom of Conscience Nikolay Svanidze immediately announced at the commission’s meeting that he has no intention of turning the ethnicity issue into a subject for discussion. According to him, the issue at stake is the guilt of two professors – the authors of the textbook, and not their viewpoints. This approach spurred a wave of discontent in the blogosphere and among some social groups. Svanidze was accused of trying to counter nationalism with “Stalin’s methods.”
Meanwhile, why not discuss the authors’ viewpoints? An “ethnically colored” history textbook was bound to appear at some point, and it is now clear which direction this school of historiography will take if it is allowed to prosper. The gigantic amount of work the authors did to find “ethnically colored” statements (which they seem to agree with) makes their textbook look like a true anthology of the most evil and stupidest words ever spoken or written on the one sixth of the earth’s dry land that the Soviet Union was proud to occupy. If Barsenkov and Vdovin hoped to glorify Russia and Russians with their book, then I am afraid it is going to have the opposite effect. If this is Russia’s history, then it is the most ruthless and negative history, far outstripping the books by Richard Pipes and Zbigniew Bzhezinsky, who are notorious for their “love” of Russia. By quoting statements regarding the “nationalities question” without condemning them, the authors disclose that exact aspect of the Soviet period that has nothing to do with accomplishments, but with baseness and idiocy.
Here Stalin deals with the issue of linguistics. Academician Viktor Vinogradov, who is helping him, discovers a mistake in the text prepared for publication in the Pravda newspaper: instead of the “Kursk-Moscow dialect,” Stalin wrote “Kursko-Oryol,” after the Battle of Kursk known in Russian as Kursk-Oryol Arc – an operation in World War II in which the Soviet forces deterred the German’s attempt to counterattack in 1943. Vinogradov suggests Stalin’s aide Alexander Poskrebyshev correct the mistake, but the latter roughly replies: “If Comrade Stalin wrote about the Kursk-Oryol dialect, then this is where the Russian language will now take its root.”
The authors of the textbook expose Stalin most profoundly when they try to applaud him. Here’s a quote from Stalin’s official speech, which Barsenkov and Vdovin went to the trouble of quoting twice in the book: “The last Soviet citizen, free of the chains of capital, stands a head taller than any foreign high-placed bureaucrat, who bears the burden of capitalist slavery on his shoulders.”
It is now clear where this old Soviet joke comes from: “How is a Soviet dwarf different from an American dwarf? The Soviet one is always a head taller.” Such attempts to compare heights with the Americans naturally bear no relation to true patriotism. But they help to trace the roots of our society’s nationalistic drift. This drift manifested itself back in the years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, but its roots date back to the 1940s, to the half-forgotten statements of that era, which the authors dug up in their original form.
The Public Chamber’s meeting chaired by Svanidze called for decisive action. To pay attention, to take note, to implement measures…But Svanidze himself reasonably noted that it is too late to educate Barsenkov and Vdovin – two professors with a Ph.D. in history. In their case, the disease has progressed too far. But to give the young immunity from it is a task that cannot be achieved with injunctions.