Thursday, March 02, 2006

Failing Stalin Tests

Sarah E. Mendelson and Theodore P. Gerber - conducted sociological research in Russia and were horrified by the results. That’s what they wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Imagine that a scientific survey revealed that most Germans under 30 today viewed Hitler with ambivalence and that a majority thought he had done more good than bad. Imagine that about 20 percent said they would vote for him if he ran for president tomorrow. Now try to envision the horrified international response that would follow.
Of course, most contemporary Germans revile Hitler. But ask young Russians about Stalin, and you get answers very similar to those above.

The rest of the article is hysterical rants and ravings about bad Russian young people who "do not view Stalin — a man responsible for millions of deaths and enormous suffering — with the revulsion he deserves."

Can you imagine this?! Young Russians dare to disagree with the one and only possible opinion about Stalin as formulated by Big Democratic Brother!

Talking about the research results. First, contemporary Germans for having certain opinions about Hitler that don’t coincide with the official version could find themselves in jail. Then, “scientific” researchers a priori know that Stalin and Hitler are almost the same. I think Stalin should be better compared with Mao or Napoleon. And Hitler is better compared with the Japanese emperor Hirohito who is fully responsible for genocide of Chinese and Koreans. Actually, what contemporary young Japanese think about Hirohito? Third, the questionnaire of the research is very sloppy and unprofessional. Just for this question: “Do you agree that Stalin was directly responsible for the imprisonment, torture and execution of millions of innocent people?” they should’ve gotten F at their Sociological Research 101 class.

Ironically, Soviet students would’ve had straight A+ for their Stalin test from Mendelson and Gerber. Only in the 70’s they were allowed to think that Stalin did played a certain role in the Soviet victory in the WW2.

Irrespective what I personally think about Stalin and his deed I’m very glad that Russian youth have diverse opinions and views, that they don’t paint the world in black and white, that they are not afraid to speak their opinions out loud even if those opinions don’t coincide with the official schoolbook version.

The first thing most Russian students learn in the US or Europe – memorize what opinions are correct and what are not correct. Having incorrect opinions means that you will be socially ostracized and labeled as racist, anti-Semite, homophobe, machist, sexist, atheist, etc. etc. Sometimes I thought that many Americans had little Brezhnevs in their heads.

In this respect here's an interesting post from Owen who is a graduate student at St.Petersburg University.

What I still find astonishing is the level of openness to different ideas over here. I presented in a panel with graduate students of the best Russian universities, some of which held the standard Russian distrust of NATO. My presentation is somewhat hawkishly pro-NATO, and you would expect sneers and derision. Instead, there was genuine interest in what I had to say. The academic freedom dwarfs that in the United States. In college, I was always afraid to say anything that ran counter to the accepted views of academia, and we all know what those views are. Before speaking in front of a professor, I would always make sure I knew what they thought about the issue. And if my grade was on the line, I made sure to parrot what they said, or at least not stray too far from it. I can count on one hand the number of truly fair-minded professors I came across. That is truly a shame, and a detriment to the development of our civil society.

Fair and open debate is essential to the proper functioning of both society and government, and it's astonishing that elite Russian universities understand this better than elite American ones. Perhaps it's because they better understand the negative effect that thought control has on a country.


The Poster said...


I'll buy in to your arguments about intellectual openess. It may be better to characterize them as intellectual anarchy; whatever, better than a strait-jacket.

I am not sure that there is a direct link between the point that the researchers make; you make and I am about make - but here it is anyway.

After 10 years of living here I still believe that the biggest failure in modern Russia is its failure to have an open discussion about Stalin's era and the "peoples'" role in deportations and executions. They are non-subjects (for foreigners to touch on?).

A business colleague missed a meeting the other day because his mother was sick and she would allow no-one strange in to her house. Her husband, my friend's father, had been disappeared twice and failed to come back the second time.

The UK of my father's generation refused to countenance the end of empire. It took Thatcher to kick that particular habit. The analogy is poor but it will have to do.

I will buy your Mao as a comparison. Not sure who I would rather not be. Just because the West has a blind spot to China's economic potential does not reduce the number of people who died.

If I had a point I would make it; I just feel that your post misses the seriousness of the first paragraph.

Sean Guillory said...

Yes the Stalin paranoia among some Americans is rather silly. I wouldn't expect anything different from a journal like Foreign Affairs. I don't know why it is so difficult to understand why Stalin is still revered, while Hitler is despised. Just look how eah left their countries. Hitler's was a smashed state; Stalin's was a superpower. I went to a conference a few weeks ago where an professor of International Relations gave a presentation with similar silliness. He went so far as to blame ethnic and racial violence in Russia on Stalin.

Comparing Hitler to Stalin in the manner Foreign Affairs is rather reductive if not simply downright stupid. I think the great historian, and Trotskyist mind you, Issac Deutscher gave an interesting comparison between the two in his biography of Stalin (which is sadly out of print). In his discussion the similarities were short, while the differences were long. Deutscher put Stalin next to the likes of Napoleon, Robespierre, and Cromwell rather than Hitler.

That said, Alistair has an important point about the failure to have an open discussion about Stalin and the collective responsibility that went with it. I agree with him. Celebrated or condemned, I don't think Russians have fully come to terms with Stalinism.

Tim Newman said...

The academic freedom dwarfs that in the United States. In college, I was always afraid to say anything that ran counter to the accepted views of academia, and we all know what those views are.

Sadly, I can well believe this is true. Academia in the west tends to overwhelmingly favour left-wing views.

In all, a very interesting post.

Raffi Aftandelian said...

Enjoyed this post. And I think Alistair's point about having a conversation about the past is well-taken. I don't think it is a failure. But there is a cost when a huge scar on a national consciousness goes unnoticed. And what with the last 10 years of something close to genocide against all those who lived in Chechnya, we have more scars...

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Count me in among those who are deeply disappointed. Stalin was among the worst mass murderers in history. If people debate whether he was worse or better than Hitler only shows that he was indeed evil. As a Russian, I'm ashamed by those poll results.


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