This spring, while in Moscow, I visited a central bookstore on Tverskaya Street. Shop windows displayed the familiar red and yellow jackets of J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy in Russian translation. But upon coming in, I found myself face to face with Stalin’s flamboyant photographs gazing at me from the red covers of Soviet-style editions, prominently placed by the entrance. For a few seconds, I was baffled and lost in time. Stacks of Rowling’s book were further back in the store, and I recalled an advertisement on a Russian website saying that her book was read by the entire world.
Promoting Casual Vacancy alongside Stalin biographies is ironic. This March marked sixty years since Stalin died, and one hopes his death left no casual vacancies. But in the past decade, Stalin’s popularity in Russia has visibly grown. When it comes to popular novels, Russians read what the rest of the world is reading. But when it comes to Soviet history, they are encouraged to read books that tell a different version than what the rest of the world knows.
While Stalin biographers in the West have produced factual accounts, the tendency in Russia is to bring back the myth. This is why the comprehensive Stalin and His Hangmen by Donald Rayfield is hard to find; as far as I know the book was published only marginally in Russia. This also applies to Anne Applebaum’s famous book Gulag: A History, which was translated into scores of foreign languages, but is barely accessible in Russian. Yet, one can easily find trashy editions that attempt to resurrect the myth of Stalin’s greatness.
Although millions died in Stalin’s mass purges, understanding the history of the gulag is still not believed to be essential. The dictator is celebrated with a new biography in the series of “Lives of Remarkable People” and such titles as Stalin Won the War, Stalin. The Military Genius, and a memoir How I.V. Stalin Lived, Worked, and Raised Children. Over a recent decade, scores of obscure authors have created his sympathetic portrait and even suggested his martyrdom in Krushchev Killed Stalin Twice and What Stalin Was Killed For?
Articles emphasizing Stalin’s achievements abound on Russian websites. In 2010, a website, “Truth About Stalin,” was launched. The most amazing thing about it is that it provides entirely false information. Unlike with the Holocaust, which now cannot be openly denied in most countries, deniers of Stalin’s mass murders are functioning in the open. In the absence of full information about Stalin’s regime, there is still no consensus in Russia about mass repressions, forced collectivization, and the organized famine, which depopulated entire areas in Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus.
There is no shortage of books about the gulag in Russia, including Solzhenitsyn’s volumes, which are sold everywhere. In recent decades, scores of memoirs by the gulag survivors were produced. I’ve seen these editions in a kiosk at the entrance to the former Lenin Library (now the Russian State Library) where they are sold by volunteers. Over the years, I noticed fewer people were buying them.
This situation invites a parallel with China where no full account of Mao’s Great Famine has ever been published, while memoirs of victims, less damaging to the current leadership, are available. Thus, a recent book by a journalist Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958–1962, is banned in the mainland China because of the author’s sweeping investigation. Mao’s disastrous policies were closely copied from Stalin’s and the reasons for historical amnesia and censorship in both countries are similar. But while in China is it no longer possible to openly admire Mao, in Russia, Stalin’s cult is being gradually resurrected and a school textbook discussing his accomplishments has been produced.