Bryan Caplan  

Putin's Textbooks; or, Why Russians Should Embrace Russophobia

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Putin's backing new textbooks for social studies and modern Russian history, and they sound awful. The Times says that the social studies book:

...presents as fact Mr Putin’s view that the Soviet collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
Frankly, even on Putin's own terms, I can't see why the Russian Revolution wasn't a bigger catastrophe - and why the Soviet collapse wasn't a necessary precursor for Putin's "Sovereign Democracy."

The history text sounds even worse:

The book describes Josef Stalin as “the most successful Soviet leader ever” and dismisses the prison labour camps and mass purges as a necessary part of his drive to make the country great...

Mr Putin gave them his seal of approval at a conference he hosted for teachers at his presidential dacha last month. He described Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, in which 1.5 million people were imprisoned and 700,000 killed, as terrible “but in other countries even worse things happened”. Discounting the Soviet Union’s long history of oppression, he said: “We had no other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance.”

The Daily Mail elaborates:
The manual informs teachers that the Great Terror of the 1930s came about because Stalin ‘did not know who would deal the next blow, and for that reason he attacked every known group and movement, as well as those who were not his allies or of his mindset.’

It stresses to teachers that ‘it is important to show that Stalin acted in a concrete historical situation’ and that he acted ‘entirely rationally - as the guardian of a system, as a consistent supporter of reshaping the country into an industrialised state.’

I guess Stalin's alliance with Hitler was a clever ruse to provoke the Nazis into invading Mother Russia so the Red Army could destroy them.

In fairness, some people in the comments claim that The Times mistranslates key passages. (Any EconLog readers care to weigh in?) According to one Russian, the text reads:

The person of Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin is one of the most controversial in the politics and the history of our country. It's hard to find any other figure in the history of Russia which brought about such controversial opinions during his rule as well as after his death. For ones he is the hero and the organizer of the victory in WWII, for others - the personification of the evil.
Frankly, this is still pretty bad. But it's about what I'd expect from modern Russia. Lending credence to the absurd Stalinist line that he was just murdering would-be traitors is disgraceful even by Putin's standards.

Putin's backers unsurprisingly argue that the new history text is an antidote to neighboring countries' "Russophobia":

"I have analysed books on Russian history in neighbouring countries and came to the conclusion... that our neighbours excel at educational Russophobia," the editor, Alexander Filippov, was quoted as saying.

"The Russian people is presented as a source of all evil. It was necessary to respond," he said.

When Russian nationalists take offense at their neighbors' "Russophobia," it reminds me of reckless drivers who curse everyone else on the road as "idiots." The sad truth is that an honest history textbook would turn even the Russians into Russophobes. The Revolution, the Civil War, the terror-famines, the Purges - the greatest murderers of Russians have long been... other Russians.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
KipEsquire writes:

Are you aware that the Times story is dated 7/30/07?

Just saying...

liberty writes:

I agree with this bit "[Stalin acted] entirely rationally - as the guardian of a system."

That system required such actions if it was to be guarded.

Horatio writes:

The book describes Josef Stalin as “the most successful Soviet leader ever”

This may be the only accurate statement. Successful != good. Success is merely achieving your goals. Genghis Khan was probably the most successful military leader in history.

Stan Greer writes:

Since Stalin was, of course, a Georgian, and many of his top henchmen were not Russians, either, I don't know why Russian nationalists would consider an accurately horrifying depiction of his reign to be "Russophobia."

Can't the nationalists defend Russian identity simply by pointing out that the Georgian Stalin oversaw the murders of millions and millions of ethnic Russians, who clearly constituted the majority of his victims?

B.H. writes:

Not Russiaphobes. Communism-phobes.

Pavel writes:

Here's my take on the above issues as a Russian. I grew up in Russia and received graduate training in economics in the US. So, I hope I can insulate myself from both American and Russian biases.

I've read a little about these controversial books in the Russian print media (Russian TV news never bring up anything controversial). However, I have not read the original in Russian. But, based on the quotes above and other comments I've read elsewhere, it appears to me that the book is doing a positive (i.e. objective in econ jargon) analysis of Stalin's rule without a zealous desire to stigmatize him. Yes, Stalin was a murderous dictator and I don't think the book denies it. Yes, some people may get upset about a rather neutral take on Stalin, but is it really better to use history books as smear tools? Don't economists explain why people behave the way they do based on incentives and rational thinking and not because some people are bad (stupid) and others are smart? Statements like "the greatest murderers of Russians have long been... other Russians" do not promote a positive analysis.

By the way, Stalin was not an ethnic Russian, but Georgian. Several Soviet leaders were Ukranian and Catherine the Great was a German. Hence, I would not advise framing this debate in terms of ethnic lines. Moreover, aren't we, as economists, interested in finding out what factors/institutions might explain such a tragic history in Russia rather than simply blaming the people who live there?

Has Russia been getting too nationalistic lately? Yes! Too much for my taste, at least. However, Russia is not much different from many other countries in Europe and former Soviet Union in this respect. I wonder why nobody gets upset about Stalin's statue that still stands in a supposedly democratic and pro-western/market country of Georgian? Saakashvilli's wife stated in an interview that he is a fan of Stalin. Why is nobody upset, but the Russians, about open and proud fascist parades in the three Baltic countries that are now members of the EU and NATO? Oops... That is somewhat embarrassing, isn't it? Furthermore, I am a bit shocked by the surge in nationalism and xenophobia in the U.S. after 9-11. What about the pledge of allegiance? That's a somewhat scary custom for a country that claims to have a limited government and freedom of religion. I used to say its Soviet equivalents as a child, but there are no longer used in Russia (at least not yet).

As for translation inaccuracies, media bias, and Russophobia, I believe they exist. Many former Soviet Republics are still going through their "growing up" phase, which is characterized by an overzealous attempt to distance themselves from the old (i.e. Russia) by embracing fervently nationalistic views (fascism for example). Russia is getting its nationalistic fix as well, unfortunately. Also, I think that Putin's famous or infamous statement that the Soviet collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” is often misinterpreted in the Western media. Let me explain. I was in my early teenage years when the Soviet Union began collapsing and it was not a happy time, to say the least. Only by 2007 did Russia reach the same real income per capita as it had in 1990. Moreover, the disintegration of the country and economy was accompanied by dramatic increases in violence, crime, drug usage, income disparity, inflation, corruption, barter (as opposed to monetary exchange), and decreases in government social programs, longevity and quality of life, education standards, and health care. Moreover, Russia was draw, directly or indirectly, in many local conflicts in the post Soviet space. Was it a catastrophe? I lived through it and I would say yes. Was it a bigger catastrophe than the Russian Revolution with its civil war? Probably not, but the Great Depression is a mild recession compared to what Russia went through in the 1990s and I would not wish the same to my worst enemy. Thus, I get offended when people attempt to diminish the amount of suffering that the Russians went through in the 1990s.

Obviously, the simplest thing to do is to use derogatory terms to explain something we do not fully understand. If I wanted to view the world as a simple place with bad (i.e. Russians) and good guys (i.e. Americans), white and black, or as "my way or the high way" I would not have become an economist. So, let's do what we preach and do not allow our normative biases to substitute for our positive thinking. Of course, learning the culture and the language of the country one is analyzing would also help.

parviziyi writes:

The Soviet Union achieved spectacular economic and cultural progress during the Stalin years. The facts that back up that statement are endless, but here are a couple of examples that I particularly like.

The soviet republics in the south, which are independent countries today, and whose people are overwhelmingly islamic in their religion (excluding Ukraine), all have had near 100% literacy for decades now, and have much higher education attainments than the people in the bordering islamic countries further south that weren't part of the soviet union. You've got to give great credit to the Stalin-era communists not just for wishing to achieve universal literacy for the common rural people of Turkmenistan and such places, but for actually achieving it.

At the end of World War II a major outbreak of typhus disease took place at the German concentration camps, affecting nearly all camps and causing a large death toll. When the British arrived at the Bergen-Belsen camp and saw all the dead bodies, they ordered them buried via bulldozer in mass graves. When the Soviets arrived at the Auchwitz-Berkenau camp and saw the same, they ordered coffins to be rushed to the front and soon a large number of new coffins arrived by train, with the train lines having been rapidly restored to working order from recent extensive bomb damage. This small viginette illustrates a big fact, namely the soviet communists were POWERFULLY well organized. As another illustration, they produced a huge number of tanks in a small amout of time out on the steppes, after they had had been forced to retreat to the steppes in the early part of the war. They didn't win WWII by a fluke.

Their powerful organization was running out of spirit towards the end of the 20th century, and losing its power, but in the collapse of the early 1990s the baby was thrown out with the bathwater, so to speak. A lot of value was destroyed. The Russian economy was set back by it. A more gradual process would have been much better, like what the Chinese government is doing.

Pavel writes:

I forgot to mention something else in my previous post. I feel that there are serious double standards in many respected American and European publications. For example, imagine that Putin came up with the impossibility theorem rather than Arrow (just imagine that for the sake of argument) and the Russians would start writing books about how democracy may not be any better than dictatorship under certain conditions. How do you think the Russophobes would respond to that? Enough said.

parviziyi writes:

Bryan Caplan isn't a nationalist and so should find a likeable nugget about Stalin in the following, which relates to Soviet nationalities policies in the part of their territories that today are sovereign countries. In 1923 the communist party congress declared "Great Russia chauvinism" to be more dangerous than local forms of nationalism, partly because the former tended to inflame the latter. Stalin repeated this policy in his speech at the 1930 party congress, saying that Russian chauvinism was the main threat to the party's nationalities policies in the non-Russian Soviets. Those policies at the time included affirmative action quotas to hire more non-Russian ("indigenous") people (despite loud complaints from Russians who were probably better qualified); establishing the local non-Russian language as the primary medium in the schools and in local party-operated newspapers (despite very little writing being in existence in most of the languages prior thereto); etc. At the 1934 party congress Stalin subtly qualified is position, declaring that "local nationalism" could be just as harmful as "great power chauvinism" depending on the circumstances.

The truth is there's good and bad in Stalin. The Russian textbooks tell that truth. Every country's history has good and bad.

Bryan's post is bigoted.

Vit writes:

"The Soviet Union is a country with an unpredictable history."

This is not the one change in the last year and not the most important one. It seems Putin & Co are preparing citizens for a deep economical crisis. The old proven enemy capitalist's world is a good scapegoat for this.

PS: I think the best signal is the preparation of a large-scale reform in the media. ( http://www.rbcdaily.ru/2008/08/29/focus/374279)
From the automatical Google translation:
It touches primarily ideological orientations: replacing the promotion of personal freedoms, wealth and consumption will come cult [of] education, health and the desire for self-realization. In advancing new ideals of the state is counting on voluntary assistance to the media.

José Azpúrua writes:

History is basically written by the "winners" (the ones in power). Thus, history is generally biased.
Democracy may be a convoluted meaning word.
Is democracy choosing every four or five years the dictators who will tell us how much money we must give them, or else?
Or, is democracy the situation in which every person may steer his/her own course in life as long as the person does not violate that same condition of the rest of the population?
Any person that takes the most precious possession of a person - life - is acting against the basic tenet of life: its preservation.
For life to be maintained, material goods are required; thus, respect for other people´s lives and properties is a basic principle that must be strictly upheld and respected (if we wish to be "human" beings).
If we do no care if we are human or simply animals, then we will end up living like jungle animals after destroying all vestiges of civilizaation (just as our unrestricted inner desires will drive us to achieve as our unknown objective)

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