Airbrushing History

Other countries could blame Russia for their lost decades; Russia, having no one to blame, couldn’t face its history” This piece of rhetorical puffery appeared about two years ago as an explanation for Russia’s alleged “de-democratization”. Not only does it ignore such things as the abortive trial of the CPSU in May 1992 and the Butovo Memorial, but it has a serious blind spot: the former communist countries have not come to terms with the fact that many of their people eagerly participated in the Bolshevik experiment and that they have a share of responsibility in the disaster. Bolshevism was not a purely “Russian” phenomenon.

A Latvian government commission has been working away to produce a monetary figure to put on the losses suffered by Latvia as a result of its incorporation into the USSR from 1940 to 1990. It has not finished its calculations yet, and may never, but the numbers that are bruited about are in the many billions. When it completes its work, the final number will be as accurate or as inaccurate as such numbers will always be.

But it seems to be expected that, when the commission arrives at a number, Latvia will present a bill to the Russian Federation. But why should Russia be expected to pay? Bolshevism was not especially “Russian.” Determining ethnicity in a multi-national state like Russia is always somewhat a matter of opinion and Russian has two words to distinguish between ethnic Russians (русский “russkiy”) and citizens of the state (российский “rossiyskiy”). Thus, while all members of the Bolshevik Central Committee which plotted and executed the seizure of power in Petrograd in 1917 had been born into the Russian Empire, only two were ethnic Russians (Lenin and Bubnov); the remainder were Jews – certainly not considered “Russians” at the time – (Zinoviev, Kamenev-Rosenfeld, Sokolnikov-Brillyant, Trotskiy-Bronshteyn) and Lenin’s “miraculous Georgian”, Stalin-Jughashvili. But the true leadership can be gauged from Lenin’s famous “testament” of 24 December 1922 in which he criticises his likely successors: Stalin, Trotskiy, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Pyatakov and Bukharin – the last the only “Russian.” The leadership of the Bolshevik Party cannot be said to have been especially “Russian” and Volkogonov’s biography many times shows Lenin’s contempt for all things Russian. “Russians” alone did not make the Bolshevik Revolution; the Bolsheviks were, as they always claimed to be, “internationalists.”

Where did the Bolsheviks get the force that allowed them to seize power? The most reliable and potent military force that the Bolsheviks controlled was the Latvian Rifles: this force supplied the bayonets in the Petrograd coup and the dismissal of the Constituent Assembly. Without the power of these disciplined troops the Bolshevik coup might not have happened at all. The other force behind Bolshevik rule was the Cheka, the political police. Its first leader was the Pole Feliks Dzherzhinskiy-Dzierzynski and, when he briefly resigned after the assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918, his principal deputy, the Latvian Jekabs Peters-Peterss, served as head, ably assisted by another Latvian, Martins Latsis-Lacis.

So, given the essential role of Latvians in the coup itself and the creation of the Red Terror, perhaps Latvia should ask for compensation from itself.

The actual takeover of Latvia in 1940 was the decision of Stalin-Jughashvili (who ruled the USSR for nearly half its existence) assisted by his political police chief Lavrenti Beria (a Mingrelian or, in today’s parlance, another Georgian). This was hardly a “Russian” decision: as Donald Rayfield says in Stalin and his Hangmen (p 356): “In 1939 the whole of the USSR could be said to be controlled by Georgians and Mingrelians”.

Therefore, perhaps Latvia should apply to Georgia for compensation.

Or, perhaps, Russia should demand compensation from Latvia or Georgia. It is pointless to argue about which nationality suffered most but Russians also suffered greatly: as then-President Putin said at the Butovo memorial: “This is a particular tragedy for Russia because it took place on such a large scale. Those who were executed, sent to camps, shot and tortured number in the thousands and millions of people. Along with this, as a rule these were people with their own opinions. These were people who were not afraid to speak their mind. They were the most capable people. They are the pride of the nation.” The communists killed millions: they did not distinguish among nationalities: They were “internationalist” and their murders and their murderers were too. The fact that Beria was from Georgia did not prevent him from wiping out the Georgian intelligentsia. As Latsis said, perfectly defining the Red Terror: “The first question you must ask is: what class does he belong to, what education, upbringing, origin or profession does he have? These questions must determine the accused’s fate. This is the sense and essence of red terror.” There is nothing to suggest he excluded Latvians.

Several of the post-communist states are engaged in an exercise of re-writing their history. Native communists and their involvement in Bolshevism are airbrushed out of the picture. Gone from the new picture are Latsis and Peters, Derzhinskiy and Orjonikidze; gone are Kossior and Zhdanov; Sultan-Galiyev, Narimanov and Vakhitov are airbrushed out; Vares and Snieckus are gone. In their place is erected a narrative of Russians imposing Russian-invented communism on innocent nations. Perhaps the most preposterous example of this reconstruction of reality was the proposal that the still-existing museum in Gori to its favourite son, Iosef Bissarion-dze Jughashvili, be re-named the museum of the Russian occupation of Georgia. Perhaps Russia should create a museum of the Georgian occupation of Russia: given the effect on Russian mortality of Stalin, Beria, Orjonikidze, Goglidze and Gvishiani, that would have more historical credibility. Some people in Ukraine want to paint the great famine of 1932-33 that killed so many Ukrainians as an act of Russian genocide. In fact the famine was caused by the drive to export wheat to obtain the capital to fuel Stalin’s ambitious industrialisation plans: the whole black earth zone of the USSR was targeted; people starved in the Kuban, as well as in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. It is simply otiose to say that because the Russian Federation assumed responsibility for the USSR’s debts, left-over troops, nuclear weapons and Security Council seat (to the approbation and relief of the West, be it understood), it also assumed responsibility for the doings of Stalin or Peters.

The view that Bolshevism and the USSR was “all-Russian” has persisted over some time, usually as an unstated background assumption in some piece about Moscow’s desire to re-occupy post-Soviet space. But it’s false history and false history is an impediment to reality.

As for one country claiming reparations from another, there is no one to present the bill to: those truly responsible are long dead, they were not products of their countries and all peoples of the USSR were equally ruined.