> Columns > Boston
Globe > Stalin's resurgence in Russia
Stalin's resurgence in Russia
By Cathy Young | February 27, 2006
TWO EVENTS last week starkly illustrate the dilemmas of countries
grappling with a terrible past. In Austria, Holocaust denier David
Irving received a three-year jail sentence for his public assertions
that the Nazis did not carry out a systematic extermination of the
Jews during World War II. Meanwhile, in Russia, as the country marked
the 50th anniversary of its official turn away from Stalinism under
Khrushchev, many people regard the late dictator's legacy as mostly
positive -- and a new museum celebrating that legacy is about to
Irving's sentence reflects Europe's hard-line approach to its Nazi
past. Laws prohibiting Holocaust denial and pro-Nazi propaganda are
stringent in Germany and Austria, the countries most directly implicated
in Nazi crimes against humanity; but they exist in many other countries
on the European continent as well. Such laws are troubling to most
To some, the issue is not clear-cut. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate
dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that ''while Irving's rants
would not have led to legal action in the United States, it is important
that we recognize and respect Austria's commitment to fighting Holocaust
denial . . . as part of its historic responsibility to its Nazi past."
While I have no sympathy for Irving (who, faced with jail, tried
to weasel out of his position with the ludicrous claim that new evidence
has led him to believe people were slaughtered at Auschwitz after
all), I still think that the law used against him is a bad idea.
The state of Austria can own up to its responsibility to its past
without criminalizing even the worst of speech. In the United States,
even without legal sanctions, Holocaust denial is effectively marginalized
by public opinion.
Meanwhile, the criminalization of Holocaust denial may perversely
strengthen the hand of the deniers, leading some to argue that the
defenders of Holocaust history must have little confidence in their
facts if they feel they must silence challengers. Historian Deborah
Lipstadt is concerned that the jail sentence could give Irving publicity
and martyrdom instead of the obscurity he deserves.
On to Russia, where from the early 1930s and until his death in
1953 Stalin slaughtered his own people on a Holocaust-like scale.
It is estimated that at least 20 million died. The extermination
was not as systematically deliberate as the Nazis', but the victims,
in the end, were just as dead.
Fifty years ago at a secret Communist Party meeting, Stalin's successor,
Nikita Khrushchev, gave a speech denouncing Stalin's ''personality
cult" and the repressions under his rule. This speech began the process
of the de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union: most political prisoners
were released, and many of the dead posthumously exonerated. Yet
neither the Soviet Union nor, in later years, post-Soviet Russia
fully repudiated Stalin, or fully came to term with his crimes. In
recent years, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been advocating
a more positive view of the country's Soviet past. Cities have erected
monuments to Stalin.
The British paper The Independent said a Stalin museum is scheduled
to open in March in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad.
Polls show that 30 to 40 percent of Russians now regard Stalin's
role in history as mostly ''positive," crediting him with turning
the Soviet Union into a superpower and defeating Hitler.
Compared with this amnesia about state crimes against humanity,
the German experience is certainly a good model -- whatever one thinks
of Germany's Holocaust denial laws. Sadly, amnesia about the crimes
of communism is common in the West as well; historians who have downplayed
and minimized those crimes, such as Miami University of Ohio historian
Robert W. Thurston, have not been ostracized the way David Irving
has been for a long time.
The resurgence of the Stalin cult in Russia shows the danger of
such amnesia. Holocaust denial and Gulag denial should be finally
seen as the twin evils they are.