Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Moscow historian on today’s Russia

Boris SOKOLOV: “The personality cult of tyrant Stalin, who launched that horrible war, taking 40 million lives, is again strong in Russia”
16 May, 2016 - 18:00
Photo by Artem SLIPACHUK, The Day

Among Den/The Day’s regular contributors is Boris Sokolov. This Moscow-based erudite historian and top-notch professional is also an outspoken public figure. He never hesitates to call a spade a spade (which in Putin’s Russia spells blacklisting and which is precisely what has happened to Mr. Sokolov). He declared that what Russia was doing in the east of Ukraine and in Crimea were acts of aggression and occupation. Most importantly, he unraveled the historical reasons behind these crimes, their genesis.

During his recent visit to Kyiv, Mr. Sokolov met with the Editors and discussed a broad range of issues, including Russian and Ukrainian media, prospects for the Kremlin regime, key WW II events, degradation of Russian historical science exposed to viselike “internal” and “external” censorship, fear, and intoxicating chauvinistic imperial doctrines. In the following interview the Russian historian offers expressly critical assessments that are in stark contrast with official Kremlin historiography. This is graphic proof that, fortunately, not all Russian humanities scholars are the Kremlin’s intellectual lackeys.

Ihor SIUNDIUKOV: “The impression is that, instead of a clear cut ideology, Russia’s political leadership offers the masses a mishmash of Romanov-imperial-Stalin-chauvinistic-anti-West tenets. How would you explain this?”

Boris SOKOLOV: “At one time I seriously suggested that a new monument be unveiled in Volgograd, one that would well illustrate Putin’s current mainstream, entitled ‘Stalin and Wrangel Discussing Plans for a Campaign against the White Army Poles’ [a humorous allusion to Baron Wrangel, commander of the anticommunist White Army (1917-22), and the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21. – Ed.]. I don’t think that Putin can be tagged as a Nazi or commie; he is neither of the two. What’s uppermost in his mind is strengthening his autocratic regime and the despotic Russian state as much as absolutely possible.”

I.S.: “Historians believe that the generational change takes place over a period of 25, possibly 30 years. Then one can see that the river of history has changed its course. Remember 1991, the end of perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the formation of new independent states. Now a closer look at Russian historiography, intellectually speaking, shows decline, regress, I mean all those flag-waving Russia-always-wins, enemy-around-us trends and suchlike. Why is that?”

B.S.: “There is no denying that the Russian humanities (history in the first place) have noticeably deteriorated since the early 1990s. Russian philosophy is in a critical condition, with the remaining philosophers, if any, to be found abroad. Most Russian historians (not all) have turned into ideologues professing various, mostly chauvinistic doctrines, without a hint of scholarly approach, with lots of flag-waving patriotic cliches, portraying Peter I and Catherine II as absolutely positive heroes, and so on. No one is allowed to mention colonization, allegedly because Russia has never had a single colony, that it never colonized Siberia, Central Asia or the Caucasus. The officially upheld theories are markedly primitive, listing facts (in a certain context, of course), using a comparative approach, boiling down to the thesis that Russia has always been and shall remain a strong power relying on noble principles compared to the evil West.”

Vadym LUBCHAK: “Your noted Russian colleagues must be aware of this. Are there many who aren’t?”

B.S.: “All of them are aware of this, but in reality some agree to play the game by the rules approved ‘upstairs,’ in return for what at times is quite a tangible sum; others have found jobs in the West, and still others have simply called it quits, doing something else for a living. I’m trying to remain a bona fide historian (with enthusiasm being the only remuneration) and I constantly find evidence that there is no historians’ community in Russia.”

I.S.: “Are you being pressured, say, by someone being close to someone in power? Are your research papers being published?”

B.S.: “All of Russia’s big publishing companies are under rigid imperial censorship, so having any of them publish my works about World War II is easier said than done. In 2012, I was lucky to publish a book on manpower losses during the war (with a limited print run). Today no publisher will even hear about printing an extended version. All popular historical journals in Russia are closely watched by the Putin administration and affiliated structures. I can’t be a college or university lecturer because I’m blacklisted.”

V.L.: “Our readers are fond of your contributions.”

B.S.: “I know and I appreciate that. I have a Facebook page, but I’d like to have an extensive audience in Russia, of course.”

I.S.: “You mentioned being blacklisted. It would be interesting to know who is drawing up such blacklists, using what criteria.”

B.S.: “I think such blacklists are kept top secret. In my case, no university rector would hire me anywhere in Russia, not with my publications. This is one of the typical Soviet methods and they are apparently being reinstated in Russia. No one is allowed to mention the occupation of the Baltic States in 1940; refer to the Holodomor in Ukraine, in 1932-33, as an act of genocide; tell the truth about the Soviet Union being an aggressor state at the beginning of World War II, just like Nazi Germany (which is a fact). Lots of things are taboo, including the losses the Red Army actually sustained during that war.”

V.L.: “Now that we’ve broached the important subject of WW II (1939-45), victory in that war remains the key mythologem for the Russian government and affiliated historians; they keep saying that this victory sanctifies and justifies everything.”

B.S.: “Yes, except that they refer to the Second World War only as the Great Patriotic War.”

V.L.: “How would you assess Putin’s concept? How are the Russian media handling the 71st anniversary of Victory in Europe Day?”

B.S.: “Same way they did last year, but on a smaller scale because the 70th anniversary was last year: lots of victorious fanfare and official pomp instead of just marking the Victory in Europe Day by paying tribute to all those who died in the war. As a matter of fact, Russia has not de facto ended the Second World War. For Putin, the proxy war in Donbas is a continuation of WW II (or what he knows as the Great Patriotic War). This isn’t propaganda, this is what so many people believe. This is Russia’s attitude to the tragedy of the Second World War; this war isn’t over, it is still being waged (even as that proxy war in Donbas), so there is no way to let the enemy know the weak points and losses of the Red Army! The modern Russian army is the Red Army’s flesh and blood, having inherited all its afflictions and drawbacks. That is why we [in Russia] can never have an objective picture of that war. It is officially admitted that there were ‘separate’ defeats in 1941-45, but starting in 1943, the Red Army allegedly showed a better performance than the Wehrmacht. The fact that the Red Army suffered defeats even in 1945 is somehow constantly omitted.”

V.L.: “We can see that the Stalin personality cult is being revived in Russia.”

B.S.: “It is, and to think that the man launched that war and that 40 million people died! Some polls in Russia read that 40 and over percent of the respondents regard Stalin as a prominent statesman. The younger generation is a different story; to them Lenin and Stalin remain abstract historical figures.”

I.S.: “Are the authorities blocking contacts between Russian and Western historians? Or maybe these contacts are maintained?”

B.S.: “The West is currently taking little interest in Russia. Outside the West no one has the money for such contacts, so they are maintained only on an official level.”

V.L.: “There is also Russian legislation concerning agents of influence.”

B.S.: “Yes, and this practically makes it impossible for any foundations abroad to fund any research project in Russia. In other words, any such project can be tagged as political.”

I.S.: “Is Marshal Zhukov still being portrayed as a great Russian military leader? If so, isn’t this part of the Great Patriotic War myth?”

B.S.: “Zhukov was a typical Soviet army general. One has to realize that there were no gifted Soviet military leaders during the Second World War, primarily because none had enough leeway in the field. Every decision was made by Stalin. The Red Army fought shedding too much of its own blood. My estimates show that the Soviet-German loss ratio on the Eastern Front was 10:1. In 1942-43, it was 15-20:1. Even during the last year of the war the Red Army’s losses were hair-raising. It sustained losses in defense, contrary to the textbook rule that the advancing troops suffer heavier losses than those defending their positions. Take Stalingrad in September 1942. From September 14 until September 22, Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division lost 1,325 KIAs and MIAs, and this considering that it wasn’t in combat on September 14. The two Wehrmacht divisions – the 71st and 295th infantry ones – opposing it lost 399 KIAs and MIAs, but over that period they fought not only Rodimtsev’s division, but also the 10th NKVD Division, the 95th Rifle Division, two infantry and three armor brigades.

“Here is my forecast. It is hard to say when Putin will decide that his second ‘Great Patriotic War’ is over. Putin will remain in power for as long as he lives.”

Interviewed by Ihor SIUNDIUKOV, Vadym LUBCHAK, The Day