Historian Edward Augustus Freeman (d. 1892) denied any possibility of scholarly objectivity in the study of history.
“History,” he once wrote, “is past politics, and politics is present history”. Was he right? Perhaps. History of the past is supposed to teach a lesson about the present, and the present interprets the past to suit its current needs.
Yet Paul Valéry denied the didactic value of history. “History,” he wrote, “teaches precisely nothing”. Judging by the obstinacy with which each generation repeats and exacerbates past mistakes, Valéry had a point.
Now Russia has elevated Freeman-like historical relativism to a fine art. That neither started nor ended with the Bosheviks. For pre-revolutionary historians were no slouches at turning history into politics either.
Thus Catherine II raised Peter I to secular sainthood, while downplaying the role played by all other tsars, especially her murdered husband Peter III, thenceforth portrayed as an impotent fool (he was neither).
Her son, Paul I, afforded a similar treatment to Catherine, for example reassessing the role of the radical journalists imprisoned under his mother.
And his son, Alexander I, acquiesced in Paul’s murder, which everyone knew for exactly what it was. However, it was communicated to the populace in no uncertain terms that anyone questioning the official diagnosis (apoplexy) would join Paul in heaven.
That, of course, was child’s play compared to Bolshevik historiography. Already under Lenin history was completely re-written as a record of class war, with brigands, murderers and thieves portrayed as heroes, and every nobleman as a villain.
When Stalin took over, he suddenly had Ivan the Terrible, whom even the tsarist historians had portrayed as a psychotic murderer, praised as a strict but fair ruler, out to make Russia great – John the Baptist to Stalin’s Christ.
And Lenin came across as a kindly man of genius who loved children. That might or might not have been the case, but he certainly hated adults – as proved by the millions of them he had either massacred or starved to death.
Under Stalin all great Russian military leaders of the past, such as Suvorov and Kutuzov, hardly merited a mention in encyclopaedias, except in a few scathing lines.
Then, when Stalin found out that the Soviet people wouldn’t fight for communism, the role of those figures was reassessed overnight. Not only were Suvorov and Kutuzov given their due as patriotic heroes, but they were portrayed as courageous fighters against autocracy.
Stalin himself went through a few posthumous reassessments. Up until his death in 1953, he had been the genius uniting – and excelling – in his persona the best in Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin and perhaps also God, even though the latter didn’t exist.
That reputation continued until 1956, when his successor Khrushchev found himself under threat and had to make a grand gesture. That came at the 20th Party Congress, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes, if only those committed against party members.
He credited Stalin with 20 million deaths, which was probably about right, given Khrushchev’s chosen small sample. Another 40 million or so murdered by Lenin and Stalin still weren’t making the history books.
Using Stalin as a cudgel, Khrushchev crushed the opposition by the older members of the Stalin Politburo. As a culmination of that process, Stalin’s mummy was in 1961 taken out of the Mausoleum, leaving Lenin by his lonesome.
Yet even under Khrushchev, history books stuck to the Stalinist version of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. It was described as an unfortunate but dire necessity, thanks to which the Soviet Union delayed its entry into the war by two years and was thus better prepared for the Nazi aggression – and, by inference, for delivering 4.5 million of its soldiers into Nazi captivity within the first five months.
After Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, his successors again began to re-write history anew. Stalin made a slow but accelerated comeback, only interrupted for a few years during perestroika.
It was in 1990, on Gorbachev’s watch, that the Soviets finally owned up to the murder of 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere. Until then every history book, and every Soviet leader, had blamed the Nazis for that crime, while all suggestions to the contrary had been put down to capitalist propaganda.
A year earlier, the Soviet Union admitted to the existence of the secret protocols to the Nazi-Soviet Pact. A few historians, including some well-disposed towards communism, even began to talk about Stalin being Hitler’s accomplice in starting the war, although the official version never went that far.
Come Putin, and Russian historians got busy again. Not only has Stalin made another comeback, but he has almost reached his past grandeur. Churchill’s (probably apocryphal) words “Stalin inherited his country with a wooden plough and left it with the atom bomb” have become a new proverb.
Yes, admit historians and other Putin stooges, Stalin made a few mistakes (never crimes). But he made Russia great, meaning capable of wiping out the whole world several times over if still unable to feed her own people.
Pari passu, the Pact gradually became a clever move, a triumph of Soviet diplomacy in pursuit of peace. Then, following the 80th anniversary of the Pact, came another turnaround, possibly designed to keep Russian history writers in business.
The tour de force was delivered a week ago by Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s former boss in the KGB, where Ivanov held the rank of Colonel-General, effectively outranking all ministers.
Ever since the KGB assumed power in Russia, I’ve been wondering why the actual wielders of power, including Putin himself, were lowly colonels. What happened to the Colonel-Generals, I kept asking.
Well, I don’t know what the others are doing, but this Colonel-General is sitting pretty under Putin. Ivanov has held a number of high government posts, but has never relinquished the most important one: that of Putin’s éminence grise and mouthpiece.
It was in that capacity that Ivanov explained that, rather than being ashamed of that tawdry Pact, the Russians ought to be proud of it, especially of its humanitarian essence. The words Gen. Ivanov used were verbatim those bandied around under Stalin:
“The signing on 23 August, 1939, of the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany was a forced step that let the Soviet Union delay war by almost two years and strengthen the country’s defences against the aggressor.”
Thanks to that, “the war started in the areas strategically more beneficial for the USSR, thus deferring by two years the suffering of the populations of those areas under the Nazi terror. That saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”
The mendacious cynicism of this statement fully matches anything ever uttered by Putin’s idol Stalin. First, strategically speaking, when the Pact was signed, the Soviet Union didn’t have a common border with Germany.
However, when Hitler attacked on 22 June, 1941, the common border existed and it extended for thousands of miles, making the offensive much easier.
That common border existed because the Soviet Union didn’t enter the war “almost two years later”. The USSR entered it three weeks later, when, in accordance with that criminal Pact, it attacked Poland from the east as Germany was attacking her from the West.
Rather than being saved, thousands of Polish and hundreds of Soviet soldiers were killed in the process. But that was only the beginning.
In the winter of 1939-1940, the Soviets pounced on Finland, identified as falling within their sphere of interest in the Pact. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost gaining the Karelian Isthmus – lost, not saved.
The occupation of the three Baltic republics, Eastern Poland, and parts of Romania followed. Since none of those countries resisted, no lives were lost on the battlefield. But hundreds of thousands of lives were lost nonetheless.
For NKVD units followed in the wake of the Red Army, bringing mass executions and deportations in their wake. The Baltics lost about a third of their population, while the Soviets were, according to Ivanov, busily saving lives.
Yet even that wasn’t all. For after the Germans attacked and the Red Army hastily retreated, the Soviets left behind a little memento for the people. They hastily shot tens of thousands of prisoners in their jails – many not yet tried and held on remand.
That, in addition to at least a million Soviet people shot, and many more millions “turned into camp dust”, to use Stalin’s expression, in the two years on either side of the Pact.
Perhaps Freeman was right. Some rulers indeed rewrite history to fit their rule. Let’s thank them for that: we can use their tricks to understand what their rule is all about.
Unless Valéry was right too: history teaches nothing, especially to those unwilling to learn.