Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Three Re-Interpretations of the Soviet Past and Russia’s Future

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 18 –Three new re-interpretations of the Soviet past –one that argues Stalin’s greatest mistake was annexing Western Ukraine, a second that asserts the communist struggle against religion led to the collapse of the USSR, and a third that claims the GULAG helped Moscow win World War II – could have serious implications for Russia’s future.

            At the very least, these new approaches to some of the most sensitive issues in 20th century Russian history underscore how difficult Moscow will find it to come up with a single history textbook for Russian schools and how dangerous it may be for the Russian authorities to re-open some of these old wounds.

            First, concerning the annexation of Western Ukraine: “All of the present-day events which are taking place in Ukraine are the logical result of the results of the well-known Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” under the terms of which Moscow annexed Western Ukraine “or as it was called earlier, Galicia,” Andrey Lebedev writesin the latest issue of “Voyennoye obozreniye” (topwar.ru/29505-prisoedinenie-zapadnoy-ukrainy-k-sssr-kak-neobhodimost-ili-oshibka-stalinskogo-perioda.html).

            It is clear, he continues, that because events at that time were developing at such a rapid pace, “the Soviet leadership apparently simply was not able to correctly calculate all the negative consequenes with the unification of Western Ukraine to the USSR,” but now the Moscow military analyst says, those consequences are increasingly obvious.

            Whatever the Soviet and Russian governments say, Lebedev argues, “Galicia before [1939] had never been Russian, and despite the passage of more than 73 years, it has not become genuinely Ukrainian either.” That is because its residents for centuries lived in other empires and states” and thus had different experiences and expectations.

            By annexing, the Soviet leadership unintentionally and “with its own hands” brought within the borders of the USSR “’a Trojan horse’” which contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and lies behind anti-Russian developments in Ukraine over the last two decades.

            That does not mean that Stalin had an easy choice. Galicia had been a hot bed of anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism before that time, Lebedev says, and the Soviet leader clearly preferred to try to transform it before a war with Germany would break out.  But he lacked the time to overcome the legacy of Western Ukraine which would continue to be a problem.

             “It was thus impossible not to annex these territories at that time,” the “Voyennoe obozreniye” writer says, but at the same time, joining this center of Western Ukrainian nationalism toSoviet Union was extremely unprofitable and dangerous as is confirmed by the entire post-war history of Soviet and post-Soviet Ukraine.”

            Second, concerning the impact of Soviet anti-religious policies: In yesterday’s “Vzglyad,”  Aleksandr Razuvayev argues religion helped make the Russian Empire great, the fight against faith in Soviet times led to the destruction of the USSR, and the revival of both Orthodoxy and Islam can make Russia great again (vz.ru/columns/2013/6/17/637561.html).

            His argument is not only intriguing on its face but carries with it some potentially far-reaching consequences.  “After 70 years of godlessness and the troubles of the 1990s,” the business analyst writes, “Russia is slowly but surely returning to its historical values, among which Orthodoxy and Islam are playing a key role.”

            In tsarist Russia, he notes, “the church was not separate from the state and this fact undoubtedly helped Russia survey many tests, although it did not save it from the catastrophe of 1917.” And today, Orthodoxy and Islam are helping Russia once again and should not be separate from the state because they promote Russia’s national interests.

            Many liberals believe, he continues, that the separation of church and state is necessary in order to have “a successful competitive economy.”  But in fact religious values help promote entrepreneurialism and hard work, and the destruction of these values undermine those positive trends, as Europe is demonstrating today.

             “From the point of view of a believer, turning away from God automatically leads any nation or person to self-destruction and death,” he writes. And it was “precisely the turning away from God that in the final analysis destroyed the Soviet Union” by undermining the work ethic of the population of that country.

            The communists have advanced another “’red’ myth” about religion, Razuvayev says. They argue that “a real believer must be poor and unhappy” and that in turn means that “a successful individual in the best case is a great sinner, and in the worst is a servant of Satan himself.”

            But the facts are just the reverse, he argues.  Religion encourages believers to be “strong and successful people.” And in an update of Weber’s writings about Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism, Razuvayev says that “in classical capitalism, poverty is almost always a synonym for laziness. And laziness is a sin because to be poor is simply shameful.”

            Today, he concludes, “Russia is one of the most promising markets in the world,” a reflection of the ways in which religion, Orthodoxy and Islam, are reducing to an absolute minimum something that plagued Soviet times, too many lazy people, by encouraging Russians to work hard.

            And third, concerning the contribution of the GULAG to Soviet victory: Russian and Western scholars have either ignore the role of the Soviet prison camp system during World War II or suggested that the USSR won despite rather than because of it, Yury Tarasov writes in “Voyennoye obozreniye.”

            But in fact, the military analyst says, the GULAG played a large, even critical role in supporting the Soviet military effort, providing a disproportionate share of the country’s extraction of needed raw materials and of military-related war production (topwar.ru/29590-gulag-i-nasha-pobeda.html#comment-id-1255504).

                On the basis of various scholarly works, Lebedev says that during the war there were approximately three million Soviet citizens in the GULAG or in special settlements and they produced more than 12.5 percent of the USSR’s industrial output. Moreover, they played a key role in the extraction of absolutely essential natural resources in Siberia and the Far North.

            And while he acknowledges that “the productivity of the labor of the prisoners was not great,” he argues that those who argue that the GULAG was not a major contributor to the war effort are simply wrong.  The Soviet leadership at the time recognized its value, and Russians today, he suggests, ought to do the same.

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