Wednesday, June 29, 2016

‘Does Putin Know?’ – Another Stalin-Era Tradition Returns

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 29 – The longstanding Russian belief in “the good tsar and the bad boyars” took the form in Stalin’s time of a widespread insistence by members of the Soviet intelligentsia that “’Stalin doesn’t know what is happening in the country,’” US-based Russian historian Irina Pavlova says.

            That is why such people referred to the Great Terror of the end of the 1930s not as the “Stalinshchina” but as “the Yezhovshchina,” she says, thus effectively shifting in the popular mind all responsibility for the horrific crimes of 1937/38 from the Soviet dictator to his agent, Nikolay Yezhov (

            “Today, almost 80 years later, such talk is returning,” Pavlova continues, and this trend is highlighted in an Ekho Moskvy discussion about the case of Nikita Belykh by Yevgeniya Albats and Kirill Rogov two days ago (

            With regard to the Belykh case, Albats asks the leading Gaidar Institute researcher, were those who moved against the former governor “subordinate to Putin or not? Sergey Ivanov said that he didn’t know anything about plans to arrest Nikita Belykh. He heads the Presidential Administration.”

            Can it be, the Ekho Moskvy journalist continues, that “he really didn’t know?” If that is the case, then it means that the power vertical people like to talk about somehow bypasses the head of the Presidential Administration.  That is a question of principle, Albats suggests, given the history of Moscow politics.

            In Gorbachev’s times, for example, there were many decisions taken which people said he did not bear responsibility for; but Putin has made a fetish of being in charge so suggesting that he isn’t “responsible” for this or that action of those below him is a way of shifting blame away from him.

            Although Albats refers to the Gorbachev era to make that suggestion, the more significant comparison is with Stalin’s times, Pavlova suggests, noting in conclusion that there is of course one major difference between those who said then “Stalin doesn’t know” and those who say “Putin doesn’t know now.” 

            It is this: under Stalin, people said that very privately and only in the circle of their closest friends. Now, they are able to say it in public and even on the media. But, Pavlova notes, “precisely the public nature of such declarations makes the Putin regime more flexible and invulnerable than Stalin’s was.”


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