Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Another 1937 ‘a Lesser Evil’ than Another 1917, Russian Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 16 – Many Russians fear that Vladimir Putin is leading their country back to the horrors of the Great Terror of 1937, but historian Andrey Fursov argues that if that is the case, it would be “a lesser evil” than the only other realistic possibility for the country -- another 1917-style revolution.

            In the course of a long interview with Yevgeny Chernykh of “Komsomolskaya Pravda,” Fursov argues that “either Russia will finally fall apart with the prospect of the disappearance of Russians from history or it will be reborn on a new basis” and that the latter requires “a serious restructuring of the ruling stratum” (m.kp.ru/daily/26568.7/3583540/).

                This process won’t be exactly like either 1917 or 1937, he continues, because “there are no repetitions in history.” But there are “more or less equivalent situations.”  Today, “the Russian Federation resembles at one and the same time both tsarist Russia of the last decade of its existence and the rapidly deteriorating Soviet Union of its last decade.”

            In many respects, it is more like the former than the latter, given the social polarization, economic dependence on the West, a pro-Western elite, and the lack of a clear strategy of economic and political development.  But even these shortcomings by themselves “will not lead to a revolution” unless nothing is done. 

            Historically, Russia has “encountered several times the need to make radical changes or face collapse, internal and external. Changes can be introduced and carried out either from above or from below.”  They have happened from above when the rulers have recognized the need to make changes; they have happened from below when the rulers have failed to see that.

            1917 was very much a revolution from below, while 1937-1938 was “a revolution from above within the Stalinist system and one that put its final form in place.” It was about “the rotation of cadres from above” which eliminated “the Leninist guard” and put in a new group of people who did not need to be subjected to any new purge except for the Leningrad affair.

            According to Fursov, “the rotation of 1937 fulfilled its tasks. Yes, with blood! But one must judge the era by its own laws and remember that these were the final battles of a cold civil war” whose combatants on both sides could not imagine any other outcome. Today, there wouldn’t have to be executions, but there would have to be real punishments.

            “We are not China by the way,” the Russian historian says, and there they haven’t defeated corruption by executions. Confiscation of property, sentences to prison and exile in Magadan will be enough.” Such surgical strikes will ensure that a new 1937 achieves the goals of its authors.

            According to Firsov, “without a 1937 variant, without something like a neo-oprichnik movement but working for all national goals and not for the interests of a narrow circle, this variant will not be realizable.” And in that case, “the 1917 variant” will come and sweep away both those who might conduct a 1937 and those against whom it might be carried out.

            Any revolution from above will be carried out by the Russian president, but he will need first of all to create “a corresponding apparatus and ideology” in order to succeed.” Without that, Firsov says, Russia won’t be able to save itself and thus be in a position to win out against forces deployed against it from abroad.

            Challenged by his interviewer about the stark choice between a 1917 and a 1937 and asked whether there was not “a more humane variant,” Firsov responds that he is not the one suggesting this choice. Russian history is, and in it, there is no room for abstract humanism or ignoring the fact that thieves should be in jail.

            “Autocracy and communism are in many respects elements of a single whole, and that whole has its own laws, its own basis for change, and what is very important what does not change,” Firsov says. Efforts to introduce some changes like liberalism, he suggests, will have diametrically opposite effects than those intended.

            The historian says he will acknowledge that there are two other alternatives for Russia to the ones he offers. But one is much worse – the destruction of Russia with the confinement of Russians in “reservations” run by foreign powers – and another is unlikely – the arrival of extraterrestrials who will put everything right.

            Given that the first is unacceptable and the second can hardly be counted on anytime soon, Firsov says, he will continue to argue that the 1937 variant is “the lesser evil” than the 1917 one.  It is an argument that many, especially those who came out of the Soviet system as Vladimir Putin did, are likely to find compelling.

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