Attempts to erase historical truths

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to see ‘Katyn’, the latest film of great Polish director Andrej Wajda. Since then I have been haunted by the final scenes in which we ‘see’ what we already know: the execution of 20,000 officers of the Polish army by the soldiers of the occupying Soviet army which, in mid-1939, in keeping with a provision of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, invaded eastern Poland.

The images from the film stayed with me less because of what happened in Katyn, horrifying and shocking as it was, than because another more awful and wide-ranging question: how was it possible to hide this event, twist the historical truth, impose silence, and propagate the deception that was practised for decades?
Very recently, in periodicals and on television, I came across other images related to the execution of the Polish officers which reinforced my question as to the extreme vulnerability and prolonged manipulation of historical truth.

These images are related to what happened in Moscow in the last days of December when large numbers of Russians celebrated the memory of Josif Vissioronavich, better known as Stalin, on the 130th anniversary of his birth. People wound through the streets of Moscow with portraits of the leader while newspapers, including ‘Pravda’, organ of the communist party which Stalin headed in his day, wrote of him in a tone we had thought had long disappeared and that, given what has been revealed about his actions, could seem repulsive at the very least.

Day of ‘grace’

But the celebrations demonstrate that even after so many of his crimes have been made known to the world, “the grave digger of the revolution”, as Trotsky would soon call him, still has his followers and admirers. Some of them even asked for the anniversary to be made a day of ‘grace’ during which no one could harm the memory of the “leader of the peoples”.

The process by which the truth about the history of Stalinism was made known was long and difficult. Though in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev presented the Central Committee of the Communist Party his report exposing the ‘errors’ and ‘arbitrary acts’ of the Secretary General, it would take decades before the world would have a clear idea of the nature of these ‘errors’: the terror and psychological cruelty which each Soviet citizen was subjected to, the economic, ecological, and ethnicidal disasters, the betrayals and machinations, the destruction of great Russian art and artists, the perversion of the utopia of equality, and above all the millions and millions of deaths that he caused or assassinations he ordered as head of the party.

Yet there are still men for whom these facts are irrelevant to the historical judgement of the man. The worst result of this sort of amnesia is that, to avoid admitting that they had been fooled, manipulated, and even perverted these keepers of Stalin’s memory have to shower praise on one of the most destructive men in history.

In May 2009, Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, urged the creation of a committee of experts to safeguard the ‘historical memory’, with the intention of “countering attempts to falsify the history and interests of Russia”. One of these ‘experts’ declared that it was necessary “to decide which history books would tell the truth and which wouldn’t”. And to censor. And a law was proposed to punish with fines and even prison those who dared question the acts of Stalin’s regime during World War II.

The whitening of the memory of Stalin and his system is completed with the closure of certain archives holding material relevant to the crimes committed during the war and to the deportations of various nationalities. It is no accident, thus, that history texts are appearing that refer to Stalin as an ‘effective leader’.

Although in Russia there are voices protesting this attempt at erasing historical truths that were brought to light in recent decades, and while Ukraine is demanding that the land collectivation process imposed by Stalin be recognised as an act of ‘genocide’, pressure against the vulnerable historical truth remains strong, and I do not doubt that it will prevail, as there are clear political interests involved.

In his monumental novel ‘Life and Fate’, Vasili Grossman comes up with this observation, among other pearls: “Neither tens of thousands, or even hundreds of millions, but enormous masses of people were involuntary witnesses to the massacre of innocents. But they were not only involuntary witnesses: when necessary, they voted for the annihilation in a clamour of approving voices”. Is it this clamour, now growing stronger,  that is seeking to wall in a creature as vulnerable as historical truth? Is it the inheritance of guilt, genetically-transmitted fear, and submission to the powerful that drives them to march in parades and maintain silence about atrocities? What fate awaits this, and other, historic truths?

IPS

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