WikiLeaks cables: Russian move to airbrush Stalin ‘too half-hearted’. Diplomats thought Kremlin’s efforts to rewrite history would fail, according to US embassy cables

David Hearst

A Kremlin campaign to airbrush Stalin’s role in Russian history by dictating how academics write about the past is only half-hearted, US diplomats believe.

A US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks also shows the diplomats feel there are enough Russians striving to remember the purge victims to combat any rewrite.

The cable concerns the so-called “history wars”, a nationalist campaign which came to the fore last year, but has since dimmed following the rapprochment between Russia and Poland, leading to the first joint commemoration of the Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forests in 1940.

The US embassy in Moscow concludes that reports of the death of Russian academic freedom are “greatly exaggerated”. The Kremlin, US diplomats say, is willing to adopt nationalist postures when it buttresses political support, but attempts to dictate the academic terms appeared “half-hearted”.

One academic at Moscow State University told the US embassy that Russia lacked a means of enforcing state ideology – that there was no institution tasked to create “historical propoganda” which prevented widespread attacks on academic freedom.

But some efforts were made. Less than a month after the Kremlin announced a commission to oppose historical falsification and the state duma introduced legislation to “defend Russia’s honour” in any debate on the second world war, a Russian Academy of Sciences professor leaked an email to US diplomats.

It was allegedly from VA Tishkov, chief of history, requesting academics to list all sources of falsification in their fields and inform on students. The trawl for dissidents was cast in the widest possible terms, asking academics to report students who expressed “concepts damaging to Russia’s interests”.

Masha Lipman, editor of the journal Pro et Contra, at the Moscow Carnegie Center told the US she personally knew of professors who had received similar memos asking them to identify “falsifiers”.

A similar campaign was waged in the blogosphere. Oleg Panfilov, of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, was quoted as saying a virtual war had flared between pro- and anti-Kremlin bloggers every time someone published papers on the internet detailing Soviet human rights abuses and he suspected at least some pro-Kremlin bloggers were in the pay of the Kremlin and the special services.

Both Lipman and Panfilov interpret the current campaign, more in terms of the present than the past. Panfilov said the Kremlin fears people learning about past atrocities and crimes, because if they knew the extent of them, the Kremlin would not be able to control the population.

While US diplomats take these views seriously, they point to a recent poll which found that 27% of Russians still had relatives who perished under Stalin’s rule. The cable ends by referring to the poet Anna Akmatova who wrote that when Khrushchev opened the doors to Stalin’s prisons, the other half of Russia would come face to face with its victims. The US cable ends on the optimistic thought that the “other half” still exists in Russian society and is not going to go away anytime soon.