Hope for Russia going up in smoke


If the devil is in the detail, here’s one such, to be found at any Russian tobacconist: Belomorkanal cigarettes.

The cigarettes are so devilishly strong that one can feel cancerous cells multiplying with every puff. But it’s not what’s in the packet that makes Belomorkanal diabolical. It’s what’s on the packet.

First produced in 1932, the design commemorates the construction of the White Sea Canal. While Belomorkanal reflects the Soviet mania for abbreviations (Belomor = Beloye Morye, the White Sea), the project itself reflects the Soviet mania for democide.

The canal was built by slave labour under the supervision of the OGPU, as Putin’s KGB then was. In the process at least 100,000 starving prisoners keeled over their wheelbarrows and died.

Not only lives were lost at Belomorkanal but also the conscience of Russia’s pride, her literature. For every writer of note was taken to the site and subsequently wrote a panegyric, “glorifying slave labour for the first time in the history of Russian literature”, in Solzhenitsyn’s phrase. Some, like Pilniak and Mandelstam, did so in the vain attempt to save their own lives. Most, however, followed Gorky’s suit by displaying genuine enthusiasm.

To be fair, the Russian tradition of using human bones for foundations didn’t start with Stalin.

The eminent historian Vasiliy Klyuchevsky (d. 1911) wrote that more people died building Petersburg than had ever been killed in any war. Modern historians cite a death toll closer to 300,000, which is still impressive by the demographic standards of the time. Nor was it a one-off tragedy: at least another 60,000 perished erecting Petersburg’s hideous St Isaac’s Cathedral in the mid-nineteenth century.

However, never before in Russian or any other history had slave labour been practised on Stalin’s massive scale and with such murderous results. Millions died in the same pits that are now used by Putin’s KGB junta to pad their offshore accounts. Millions more perished logging in the taiga’s Arctic temperatures or building whole new cities, such as Magnitogorsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

One would think that any half-decent government would repent such crimes and unreservedly disclaim any continuity with the regime that perpetrated them. Yet the reverse is true: Putin is holding up Stalin’s slave empire as a shining peak from which the country has then lamentably descended.

And Belomorkanal still adorns tobacconists’ shelves with nary a demur from anyone. How do you suppose today’s Germans would react to the sight of Auschwitz cigarettes in shop windows?

Stalin is portrayed in Putin’s history books as a leader and administrator of genius, who was occasionally harsh but always fair. Statues of him are popping up here and there, and there are even Stalin icons worshipped by parishioners to illustrate the great Christian revival touted at home and abroad for PR purposes.

The latest touch in the on-going re-Stalinisation is the appointment of Olga Vasilyeva as Minister for Education and Science. This repugnant woman is a walking Stalin icon herself, for her philosophy represents the newly popular hybrid of Stalinism and Russian Orthodoxy.

According to her, Stalin’s purges were both “necessary at the time” and “exaggerated” in history books. Hence Vasilyeva is scathing in her attacks on those who show residual revulsion at the unprecedented and unequalled carnage:

“What these people mostly want is to delete the Soviet period, to blacken the past, to expunge from collective conscience any loyalty to traditions, any pride for the country’s greatness… This is what they’ve thought up – that there were two totalitarian regimes and, while one had its Nuremberg Trial, the other one didn’t… Our foundation is… respect for our history, traditions and spiritual values. Remember 1934, when Stalin said that we now have a motherland, now we have a history.”

For the sake of the reclaimed history, I’d have been tempted to mention that the moustachioed ghoul uttered those words at the Seventeenth Congress of the Communist Party, called the Congress of the Victors.

However, that pageant should have been more appropriately called the Congress of the Walking Dead: of the 1,996 party members present, 1,108 were arrested three years later, and about two thirds of those executed. Of the 139 members elected to the Central Committee, 98 would be shot in the purges.

Such facts are never emphasised and seldom mentioned, certainly not by the creature now in charge of educating Russia’s young. Vasilyeva stresses continuity and conservatism, which would be a good thing if there were anything in Stalin’s Russia worth continuing and conserving.

I’m sure that education, Vasilyeva-style, will take continuity even further back, to 1836, when Count Benckendorff, chief of Nicholas I’s secret police and Putin’s typological precursor, explained in what spirit Russian children ought to be raised: “Russia’s past was amazing, her present is more than splendid and, as to her future, it soars above anything even the most daring imagination can fathom.”

This was written as criticism of Russia’s first philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev, whose book Philosophical Letters was scathing of Russia’s role in history. To start another fine tradition since then amply developed, Chaadayev was declared insane and confined to home arrest.

Yes, Russia’s past was indeed amazing, especially its part so lovingly commemorated on Belomorkanal packets. The conservative in me rejoices.

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