So the other day I was watching this documentary series from a state run channel that had a pretty positive view about an empire associated with slave labor, famine, and war. I am of course talking about the BBC and the 5-part series called Empire with Jeremy Paxman. Now some people who thought they saw where I was going might be a bid angry now. “Are you really going to compare the British empire with the Soviet Union?” Well no; that’s an unfair comparison. The British empire was responsible for far more death and suffering, but this isn’t the reason I was inspired to write this article.
The series, which I watched as part of my recent Victorian binge, is available in its entirety on Youtube and well worth watching. One need not watch it in order, but I recommend seeing at least a couple episodes before watching the fifth and final episode, which is entitled “Doing Good.” This last episode was most likely the most controversial, and in order to judge it properly one needs to see some of the previous episodes to get a feel for how balanced it is. Once the reader has done that though, you must watch “Doing Good” to the end.
There are two ways of looking at this series. Conservative admirers of the British empire will no doubt call it “politically correct,” and complain that it doesn’t show enough of the good the empire supposedly did in the world. Radical leftists will no doubt see it as imperial apologetics, insisting that it doesn’t cover enough of the empire’s crimes. To be sure, however, there were a lot of crimes, with entire books dedicated to specific episodes such as Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II. Even John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire, while providing a great overview, probably misses a massacre here or a market-driven famine there. Coming from a far-left point of view myself, there are times when Paxman sets off my imperialism apologetics alarm, but the ringing stops when he does take the time to go into gory details about subjects like slavery.
In his conclusion, Paxman points out how one’s view of the empire depended on one’s experience with it. If you were a slave on a sugar plantation in the West Indies, your experience was brutal, cruel, and inhuman. If some decades later you were a captive African freed from a slave ship by the Royal Navy, which patrolled the seas in an effort to end the then-outlawed slave trade, the British empire would seem not only humane, but it offered salvation. There’s really nothing ideological about this, it is just a plain fact. Some people’s lives were made better by the British empire, while at the same time there were ordinary English people in London or Manchester who felt its brutality. Paxman isn’t trying to apologize for the empire or say that it was good. What he’s saying is that it should be acknowledged, in its entirety, the good and the bad. In other words, it happened.
It’s a kind of attitude I can respect and I think it’s sorely needed in America, a country which is indeed built on genocide, land grabbing, and slavery, and yet which has done so much to raise millions of people out of poverty and provide unprecedented levels of personal freedom. We Americans cannot handle grays; we prefer black and white. We think if we give an inch somewhere, others will take a mile. That’s why conservative Americans attempt to rewrite American history in a way that is laughably infantile in its patriotism. It’s also why leftists and liberals get hesitant to admit better aspects of American society; we’ve trained ourselves to constantly insist that things are worse than ever perhaps in the belief that we’ll recruit more people or out of fear that acknowledging the West’s proven good attributes somehow means selling out. Saying anything good is taken to mean that the speaker doesn’t see any problem with American society.
Unfortunately Russia doesn’t have that nuanced, British attitude. Instead it has an even more binary version of the American view. Whatever is the polar opposite of your opponent is what you support. This is the problem Russia’s opposition has with the Soviet Union. Even as Putin rehabilitates Tsarism and openly brings back the trappings of the Russian empire, Russian opposition figures only know how to fight the same fight they did in the 80’s, i.e. against the Soviet Union. They see Putin as some left over of the Soviet system as opposed to what he really is- a product of the 90’s and the failure of Russia’s liberals.
Many of Russia’s opposition supporters attribute the hostility towards them to a Soviet attitude. Having talked to many of Russia’s “Communists,” I think this view is extremely naive and self-serving. Many of these people have a negative view of Russia’s liberals because they remember these people constantly spouting words like freedom, democracy, and human rights without actually delivering on those promises. While ordinary Russian citizens suffered in the 90’s, many of these people were more interested in discussing the alleged crimes of Stalin in the 1930’s. Many of these people continue to do so today, ever ready to attribute any post-Soviet Russian problem to the dead Georgian. To the outside observer, including perhaps a large portion of Russians, it would seem like these people believe that all Russia has to do to succeed and prosper is heap enough blame on every single event that occurred between 1917 and 1991, and then somehow, magically, democracy and prosperity will reign supreme.
I know for a fact that Russia’s intelligentsia and pro-Kremlin crowd contains many obstinate pseudo-historians who will deny and explain away almost any allegation against the USSR, however minuscule. One should remember, however, that these same people will also tenaciously defend every action of the tsarist Russian empire as well, proving that their motivation doesn’t stem from any affinity for Communist ideology. Quite the opposite, in fact. They defend the USSR out of political necessity stemming from Russia’s farcical democratic system, in which the largest opposition party is the “Communist” party of the Russian Federation. In any case, most of these psuedo-intellectuals have turned the Soviet Union into nothing more than a re-branded Russian empire, sweeping its Marxist values under the carpet. In any case, I don’t believe that on should confuse these figures with the rank in file Russians. Personal experience tells me that many people may have adopted these views because they became alienated by the gap between what Russia’s liberals said they were for and what they at least appeared to deliver. If you’re suffering from corruption and poverty while someone is screaming, “Stalin, Stalin, Stalin,” you’re probably going to develop some measure of hostility to such a person. I myself have read works of both foreigners and Russians which simply cannot allow any discussion of any aspect of Soviet history without somehow denigrating it, even if that means mentioning some event which is entirely unrelated to the topic at hand.
I realize I’ve probably angered some opposition-minded readers out there by pointing this out. There are some people who insist that Russia will only succeed when it totally discards its Soviet past in its entirety. That’s interesting, because apparently China didn’t get the message. Though China clearly took the capitalist road, it continues to laud Mao Zedong and glorify the revolution and the long struggle of Communists in China. What this tells us is that Russia’s problem isn’t a Soviet one, it is a Russian one, and that’s the crucial issue here because another problem with the blame-it-all-on-Stalin narrative is that it absolves Russians, and occasionally other Soviet nationalities, of their role in making the Soviet Union what it was. As the Russian saying goes, “Every dissident had 1,000 sons.” I would add that every NKVD man, and every petty careerist who falsely denounced someone to curry favor or steal their job, utterly failed to reproduce. Russia’s liberals and their supporters outside the country would like Russians to see what happened in the Soviet Union as something akin to the Holocaust. Yet at the same time they want to imagine the Russians as the Jews, when really they would have to be the Germans. While Germany has accepted that the Nazi party did not consist of aliens who descended from the heavens and made them do horrible things, many of Russia’s “dissidents” would like to blame one man for their ancestors’ deliberate actions.
Of course, I do not believe that the excess deaths in the USSR should be compared to the Holocaust, an explicit, deliberate attempt to exterminate people based on their ethnicity. What I think would be far more constructive for Russians and other former Soviet nationalities, would be a more sober, realistic look at the history of the USSR, akin to Paxman’s look at the British empire. Most crucial for Russians is answering the question as to how a revolution proclaimed in honor of ending exploitation and providing true democracy and equality managed to go so horribly wrong. A certain portion of the blame can be attributed to external pressure and intrigue against the USSR, but at some point Russians must confront the reality that their state abandoned its lofty ideals, abandoned a true socialist path, and did indeed become an imperialist state benefiting Muscovite Russians at the expense of others.
This kind of understanding is crucial because the blanket condemnation of the USSR has also led to the condemnation of the ideals for which the Soviet Union was created and with which it was associated in spite of how poorly it might have lived up to some of them, values such as anti-racism, women’s rights, and anti-colonialism. It’s no secret that Russia and most of the former eastern bloc has a problem with far right politics. After the fall of the USSR, anything which presented itself as the polar opposite of Communism was lauded, including, of course, fascism and National Socialism. Even Russia’s phony “Communists” reject the progressive aspects of historical Communism while still clinging to its symbols. Just as it is in the United States, right wing extremists attack progressive ideas by their associations with Communism.
A far more historically accurate, constructive point of view to promote would accept that Communist goals were worthy, but the revolutions of the 20th century failed to live up to them. This might sound difficult for some to swallow, but we basically make this same bargain with liberalism all the time. We attack the actions of liberal democratic regimes when they fail to live up to their ideals, but we tacitly accept that those ideals are good. Otherwise we wouldn’t care whether or not they live up to them.
I realize that this kind of viewpoint will still meet great hostility from Russia’s opposition and their supporters, but since they’ve had nothing but failure in the past 15 years, perhaps its time they opened their minds a crack. Otherwise they could be accused of the same unrealistic, obstinate mentality as the Kremlin supporters, and since many of them deserted to Putin after the annexation of the Crimea, such accusations would be apt. The British empire was not all massacres and famines, and neither was the USSR. One need not be a supporter of colonialism to acknowledge the former, and one need not be a Communist to acknowledge the latter. As Paxman tells his British viewers, Russians and other former Soviet nationalities must stop pretending the Soviet Union has nothing to do with them.