Make Russia Great Again

In the NYT (where else), Adam Hochschild reviews the book Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia by Masha Gessen (with photographs by Misha Friedman). Hochschild begins his review with the premise that:

Human beings have long slaughtered each other with gusto, but almost always choose mass victims from a group defined as alien.

This is something to keep in mind. Hoschchild then gives a few examples, before asserting that what transpired under Stalin’s reign was something different:

The Nazis killed about six million Jews; Japanese invaders massacred millions of Chinese; European settlers in the Americas enslaved millions of Africans; the list goes on. But the striking thing about Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, as the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen observes in her new book, “Never Remember,” is that “Russians exerted the force of state terror against themselves. … The millions who died anonymously in the Gulag were not necessarily members of ethnic or religious minorities, or even homosexuals: The population of the camps largely corresponded to the population of the country.”

Hoschchild does not, however take a closer look at the milieu of perpetrators in the Soviet example, to see if any ‘group defined as alien’ dynamic might have taken place. Of Stalin’s murderousness:

Although at times the dictator’s venom did target particular groups, like Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and, at the very end of his life, Jews, this is largely true. The mass deaths at Soviet execution sites or in labor camps were a self-inflicted genocide: “Russians had no other nation to blame for their nightmare.”

Hochschild’s only mention of Jews is as victims in the about-face Stalin, in his last years of life, took towards Jews, and makes no mention of the possible, emergent, identifiable, and activist role that Jewish Bolsheviks played during Stalin’s much more deadly ‘pre-about-face’ period. For instance, Hochschild makes no reference to the Holodomor in Ukraine, a genocide if there ever was one, wherein Jews were less the victims per se than a disproportionate percentage of the perpetrators. (The same could be said of the NKVD, the unimaginably brutal Soviet Secret Police.)

When, as Gessen adds, “every museum, indeed every country, ultimately aims to tell a story about the goodness of its people,” how, then, do you remember a system that led to the outright execution of somewhere around a million people and the deaths by starvation or exposure in the Gulag of an unknown additional number, generally reckoned far into the millions? The answer, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is hardly at all…

So, we have here Hochschild taking offense at an alleged white-washing of history by today’s Russian nationals, but not too concerned about any white-washing done on behalf of Jewish Bolsheviks, whether through the perpetual depiction of Jews as victims (in any and all contexts), as well as through the ever-expanding franchise of Holocaust Remembrance™, with museums popping up in every Western country to remind, for example, Americans how the Shoah apparently began on June 6, 1944.

Taking a page from his own ethnic group’s penchant for both pioneering and dominating the Remembrance Industry, Hochschild recommends it for Russia today. Why, just follow the Holocaust template!

But the man with me from the Memorial Society, a human rights group, eagerly talked about how places like this could be turned into remembrance sites with lessons for today, as has happened at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.

Somehow, I think that isn’t going to happen. It’s not only a question of generous funding, but of a higher-level, purposeful Narrative. No NYT article on communism or fascism would be complete without the requisite Trump association, and Hochschild’s is a case study of Trump Derangement Syndrome. The final paragraph of his review reads:

Gessen and Misha Friedman, who took the grainy, haunting photographs for this book, also visited Butugychag, but found no memorials there. Virtually the only place in Russia where this has happened is a former labor camp outside of Perm, in the Urals, carefully restored over some years. But then something occurred that was never anticipated. Under Putin — whose motto might as well be “Make Russia Great Again” — Stalin’s rule is now remembered as a time of glory and order. Scores of new books and films portray the era in glowing colors, and vintage secret police uniforms are on sale. The husband-and-wife team who spearheaded the restoration at Perm lost their jobs, and the rebuilt camp has now become a site of pilgrimage for those who want to celebrate the old days. It is a grim reminder that once again, as in the 1930s, all over the world authoritarian strongmen are riding high.

Just in case you weren’t clear on the matter.

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