you’ve seen one History War, you’ve seen them all

There’s a fascinating article at The National about the debates in Russia over the reputation of Leonid Khrushchev, the eldest son of Nikita Khrushchev. Because the clique around Putin wants to rehabilitate Stalin (or, at least, discredit those who attack hm), they seek to trash Nikita Khrushchev, since he delivered the so-called ‘Secret Speech’, at which some of the crimes of Stalinism were vented. One way to do that is to portray his son, who was formerly considered a war hero, as a pro-Nazi traitor, thus tarring his father by association. Bizarre, yes, but you can see how it works. Anyway, this passage caught my eye.

Khrushchev, who had planted the seedling of the Soviet demise, quietly and almost magically morphed into a force for bad, the antithesis of what the new leadership represented, which meant that he would have to be countered, undermined, repudiated: if one wanted to curry favour with the Kremlin one might train his sights on Nikita Sergeyevich, in a book, a newspaper, maybe on a nationally broadcast television programme. This was never stated, of course. There were no memos or secret speeches. Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev would never deign to get involved in this sort of thing.

The best recent example of this two-step process – in which the leader signals some vague wish or discontent and his minions subsequently bend over backward to fulfil that wish or correct the perceived injustice – was on display in Putin’s remarks at a June 2007 conference of high-school teachers in Moscow. As the historian Orlando Figes recounts in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Putin denounced the “mess and confusion” that had afflicted the teaching of Russian history. Four days after the conference, the Duma introduced a law, which was quickly passed, giving the Ministry of Education the right to choose which textbooks should be published and used in Russian schools. Government officials at the conference promoted – and soon adopted – a textbook whose main author, Alexander Filippov, was the employee of a pro-Kremlin think-tank. The office of the president, which commissioned the book, had issued instructions to Filippov and his co-authors to portray Stalin as “good” (because he “strengthened vertical power”), Khrushchev as “bad” (“weakened vertical power”), and Brezhnev as “good” (“for the same reasons as Stalin”).

John Howard wasn’t Putin and the process here wasn’t nearly as intense but the paragraphs above do capture something about the History Wars here. Howard let it be known that he had certain opinions about the white settlement and how it should be taught and, lo, an army of flunkies trimmed their op-ed pieces and books accordingly

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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