YES, DEAR READERS, Stalin lives on Russian television. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article on the late-deceased absolute leader of the late-deceased Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and on that I will comment shortly. But first, allow me to explain the byline.
I am in Long Beach, California this week, attending the annual convention of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG). Why not? I have been a dues-paying member of AAPG for 30 years (even during my Navy days) and have learned quite a bit about the world of oil and gas by participating in the organization and reading its many excellent publications.
As for the annual convention, a lot of the premier oil finders in the world are here in Long Beach, as well as people from many of the critical vendors who sell articles and services to the oil industry. Everyone is gathered together to talk shop and compare notes about what is going on in the energy industry, from remote sensing to seismic, from exploration prospects to drilling decks, from total depth to the pipelines.
So this convention is exactly where I ought to be, considering that my beat is oil and other natural resources. And yes, it means that I must travel to sunny Southern California. It’s a tough job and somebody has to do it. But I do it all for you, dear readers. As the week wears on, I will be writing about the AAPG convention, and you can be certain that the best of the information that I pick up here will find its way into future articles in Whiskey & Gunpowder, as well as into the other Agora Financial publication for which I write, Outstanding Investments.
The Man of Steel
I mentioned above that last week the LA Times published an article about a television series currently being broadcast on Russian television concerning Joseph Stalin. This prompts some thoughts about the late comrade and generalissimo, and what the revival, if not the rehabilitation, of Stalin’s legacy may tell us about what is happening in Russia.
The man’s real name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, born 1878 in Georgia, and died 1953 in Moscow. Early in his adult life, Dzhugashvili studied for the Russian Orthodox seminary. But not long into his godly pursuits, he gave up notions of sacrificing material things on Earth for the prospect of gaining them in heaven. Instead, young Dzhugashvili pursued material things on Earth, adopting and embodying a hard line of Marxism and communism in the process. Through his own brand of that ideology, the man pursued these material things with a vengeance. “The death of one person is a tragedy,” he once commented. “The death of a million is a statistic.” You have to be a hard, cold person to think like that. And the Georgian adopted a name that suited his character. He called himself Stalin, which in Russian means “man of steel.”
One would truly have to be a child who was, as the modern expression goes, “left behind” in school not to have heard about and to know at least something of Stalin. Stalin was one of the key players in the Bolshevik Revolution of Russia in 1917. He worked with Vladimir Lenin to found the USSR out of the remains of the Russian monarchical government. After Lenin’s death in 1924, a death in which some scholars believe that Stalin played a role, Stalin rose rapidly to power in the USSR and ruled that nation with a grip of…well, with a grip of steel, until his own demise due to complications from a stroke. Yes, a stroke. At least that is what the Soviets said about how Stalin died, back in 1953. Not long afterward, they blamed a conspiracy of Jewish doctors.
Stamp out Religion in Russia
After seizing power in the 1920s, Stalin, the former seminarian, moved to stamp out religion in Russia, a place where Orthodox Christianity had traditionally been thought of as part of the very soil. Thousands of churches were destroyed, and the clergy sent away, which in Russia is very far away (to Siberia). As the 1920s and 1930s wore on, Stalin presided over the collectivization of property in Russia, to include establishing state ownership of essentially all resources both natural and man-made. Stalin collectivized Russian agriculture and drove off or killed any who opposed him, and many who did not. Similarly, Stalin forced a pattern of massive heavy industrialization on Russia, at something approaching a breakneck speed. And he broke many necks in the process. Stalin’s secret police arrested and imprisoned anyone who was considered an enemy of the state, and of those there were many. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of well over 20 million of his fellow Soviet citizens, “a statistic” in his words, but a statistic that staggers the mind.
In the late 1930s, Stalin purged his army of tens of thousands of its most senior and experienced officers. And then, in 1939 through his foreign minister Molotov, Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Germany and its leader, Adolph Hitler. When Hitler’s German armies attacked Russia in June 1941, they sliced through the ineptly led Russian formations and battered their way to the gates of Moscow. When, in July 1941, Stalin initially addressed his Soviet people to urge resistance to the Germans, the first word out of his mouth called his millions of listeners “brethren,” a devout reference back to his seminarian days, and to the ancient Orthodox religion that he had done so much to destroy. When all else was failing, Stalin attempted to enlist God into the Red Army.
A Common Soviet Soldier
During the war with the Germans, Stalin’s son Yakov was captured by the invading troops. At one point, the Germans sent a message offering to bargain with the Soviets over the return of Yakov. Stalin replied with words along the lines that the leader of the Soviet Union does not concern himself with the fate of a single “common Soviet soldier.” Yakov eventually died in German captivity. The Man of Steel had settled the issue.
The fate of this “common Soviet soldier” concerns us in this article because a rather idealized and sentimental, even maudlin, version of Stalin’s relationship with his son forms part of the background to a 40-part series currently running on Russian television, called “Stalin Live.” The theme of the show is a rather flattering portrayal of an elderly Stalin, a few weeks before his death, recalling and flashing back to events from the past. The show is presented as a history of the Stalinist period in the USSR, as recalled by the “Best Friend of Soldiers” himself.
The Legend of Stalin
To admirers of Stalin, of whom there are many in Russia today, the show is an educational and informative vehicle by which to bring the legend of Stalin to a younger generation of Russians. To many critics, however, the show is a long campaign of historical distortion and outright propaganda that glosses over and whitewashes the inexpiable crimes of a horrific dictator.
Georgian actor David Giorgobiani, who plays Stalin in the series, states that “Many more years have to pass before we can make an unbiased judgment on that great man [sic]…One hundred years from now, no one will pay attention to the fact that so many people perished and the costs were so terribly high.” In reference to the war against the Germans, Giorgobiani states that “Everyone will remember that such a great country was saved” by Stalin.
However, Danill Dondurey, editor of a film-themed Russian newspaper, states that “In the show, Stalin is portrayed as the savior of the people, the country, and all of civilization, the leader who destroyed fascism…Not for a split second do we see Stalin soaked in blood up to his elbows, as he really was.” And because the TV series is focused on Stalin just before his death, there is no plot device through which to offer the perspectives of Stalin’s contemporary critics. There were, of course, those who knew Stalin well, such as Nikita Khrushchev who as Soviet premier later gave the famous “anti-Stalin” speech that denounced much of Stalin’s legacy and sowed the seeds of the illegitimacy of the founding myths of the USSR.
“The message is clear,” states Dondurey. “Russia needs a wise leader…The main goal of this show is to preserve and nurture in the people the desire to obey a supreme leader, to take pride in having a supreme leader, to see no alternative to this model in the development of society.”
Apparently, this message is getting through, if not touching nerves. The LA Times article quotes one satisfied Russian who has a fond recollection of the good old days. States one fan of the series, a viewer named Viktor Kurenkov, “Under Stalin, we had the best weapons, the best planes, the best tanks. He built the country that was first to send a man into space. As for the repressions attributed to him, their scale was always exaggerated.”
Mr. Kurenkov’s sentiments are not exactly a minority view in Russia. In fact, no less an authority and scholar of the USSR than Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the demise of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.”
A Word From the Sponsor
Interestingly, the Russian network NTV, which broadcasts the Stalin series, is owned by the state-controlled entity Gazprom, the massive energy company that has effective monopoly control over the vast natural gas resources of Russia. According to editor and critic Dondurey, by sponsoring and broadcasting such a program that glorifies the Stalinist past, the Russian state is essentially promoting and encouraging the trend toward authoritarianism in contemporary Russian political life. So the broadcast of the “Stalin Live” show is not exactly the equivalent of, say, Texaco sponsoring the New York Metropolitan Opera over the past many decades.
The show’s producer, Grigory Lyubormirov, states that his goal is to portray both the historical Stalin and the myth of Stalin. “Our Stalin is not only Joseph Dzhugashvili. It is Comrade Stalin, (whose) myth is still alive in the minds of Russian citizens.” No doubt it is.
Lyubormirov goes on, “I categorically refuse to show Stalin as a paranoid, bloodthirsty wolf, because everything Stalin did had ironclad logic to it…Stalin was doing all that for logical reasons. Stalin was responsible for everything that happened in the Soviet Union after 1924, everything good and everything bad.”
The Medium and the Message
So we see in Russia a popular television program, sponsored by energy giant Gazprom, which tends to glorify Stalin and the days of his dictatorial reign over the USSR. The show depicts Stalin in the context of using communism and political repression to build a strong nation, defend Russia against foreign invasion, and save the Soviet state, if not the world, from German fascism. The series glosses over the almost bottomless, decades-long brutality of the Stalinist period. The series also elevates Soviet Communist cultural myth over historical reality, and recalls how a supreme leader was able to offer some semblance of what the producer depicts as domestic stability and security from external threat to the Russian people.
All of this may well be emblematic of the current political evolution within Russia. There is no question that Stalin was a critical player on the history of the 20th century, and understanding Stalin is helpful to understanding how our world came to be in its present state. But the message of the Russian series “Stalin Live” is ominous, particularly because it fits with so much else of what we are currently seeing in Russia, particularly in the area of Russian resource nationalism.
That is, the Russians are going out of their way to rewrite and reform, if not simply to renege and abrogate, agreements from the 1990s. Their goal is to recover Russian state sovereignty and control over natural resources from any semblance of foreign control, particularly foreign control over energy resources. The recent well-publicized troubles that Exxon and Shell have had with their projects on the Russian island of Sakhalin, or BP and the Sakhalin gas project in northern Russia, fit neatly into this new political paradigm. To the extent that any foreign business interests are permitted to operate in Russia, especially energy interests, it is only so long as they play the game, suffer along with whatever indignities are hurled their way, and look the other way when the Russian state displays its iron fist.
As more than one nation has learned to its eventual sorrow, the Russians will go their own way in this world. And it is not as if we in the West could (let alone, should) ever muster, let alone apply, sufficient resources to change the fundamental trajectories of Russian history. But we should at least understand the risks inherent in where the world’s largest country is headed. And wherever that trajectory is headed, it is not reassuring to learn that a show distorting history and glorifying Joseph Stalin is among the most popular items on Russian television.
Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
April 2, 2007