Steve Chapman
Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in September 2007.

In most countries, the future is impossible to predict, but the past doesn't change. In Russia, it's just the opposite.

President Vladimir Putin, when he is not busy restoring autocracy to a country that has known little else, has taken on the task of refreshing Russian history with a novel perspective -- his own. He is on record lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." It was worse, apparently, than World War I, worse than World War II -- worse, even, than the creation of the Soviet Union.

Last year, the president informed a group of history teachers that Russia "has nothing to be ashamed of" and that it was their job to make students "proud of their motherland." His government has tried to help by commissioning guidelines and books that present a more balanced picture of Joseph Stalin, described in one approved volume as "the most successful Soviet leader ever."

That sentiment could be taken as ironic -- on the order of praising a slagheap as the most picturesque of its genre. In fact, Putin really wants to commend a dictator who, if he was not the most savage and destructive criminal of the 20th century, certainly ranks in the top three, with Hitler and Mao. The efforts at rehabilitation may be working.

One poll found that 54 percent of young Russians think Stalin was "a wise leader."

To reach that conclusion, you have to excuse or forget the biggest events of Stalin's quarter-century rule, which left vast piles of corpses. His first notable "achievement" was trying to raise agricultural output by forcing millions of peasant farmers into collective farms -- while wiping out supposedly prosperous farmers whom he condemned as vicious class enemies. In what a Marxist scholar later called "probably the most massive warlike operation ever conducted by a state against its own citizens," hordes of peasants were killed or sent to Siberia.

The new textbooks suggest that Stalin's methods, though harsh, served the important need of bringing about economic progress. But the collectivization drive brought on a famine that was one of the worst the world has ever seen.

In Ukraine, shortages were so severe that starving people were driven to cannibalism to survive -- forcing authorities to post signs that said, "Eating dead children is barbarism." In combination with the mass executions and deaths in concentration camps, the famine cost more than 14 million people their lives.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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