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Airbrushing Stalin and Mao’s Horrific Crimes

Image courtesy of davitydave/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by World Affairs in June 2017.

“It’s easy predicting the future,” an old Soviet joke went. “What’s difficult is predicting the past.”

There is a war going on over the interpretation of history. A search for a “correct” version of the past has been launched in a number of countries, often by embittered nationalist forces, as in Poland. But the most aggressive assault is being orchestrated by dictators like Vladimir Putin, and China’s Communist Party leadership.

There is much at stake in this revisionist enterprise. The most alarming goal is to reappraise leaders like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, to whitewash their atrocities and ensure that, at least for a domestic audience, they are presented as heroic figures whose crimes were miniscule in comparison with their achievements. Another objective is to depict the country in question as both the ultimate victim and the ultimate winner.

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The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War

Depiction of the Kremlin, Courtesey of the Center for Eastern Studies

Depiction of the Kremlin, Courtesey of the Center for Eastern Studies

This article was originally published by the Carnegie Council for Ethincs in International Affairs on 9 June 2016.

In this transcript, journalist Arkady Ostrovsky discusses his recent book, The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, which recently won the 2016 Orwell Prize for political writing.

As has been said, in December of 1991—you may remember that day, the Christmas Day of December 1991—Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the Soviet people on television, 5:00 to 7:00 in the evening, and said the following:

Destiny so determined that when I found myself at the helm of this state, it was already clear that something was wrong in this country. We had a lot of everything—land, oil and gas, other natural resources, and intellect and talent in abundance—but we were living much worse off than people in other industrialized countries, suffocating in the shackles of the bureaucratic command system. All the half-hearted reforms fell through, one after another. This country was going nowhere and we couldn’t possibly go on living the way we did. We had to change everything, radically.

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History is the Key to Making Sense of Nuclear Weapons

“Distant Early Warning Line” for a Soviet attack. Image: wikimedia

This article was originally published by The Conversation on 21 July, 2015.

In the early days of his first term, US president Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague in which he called for a world without nuclear weapons. His argument was based on a risk assessment:

In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets abound. The technology to build the bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one.

Even leaving aside the recent historic deal with Iran, this is a problematic interpretation. It ignores the important historical context. As far as the risk of nuclear weapons is concerned, there is no fundamental difference between the Cold War and today’s world. Research has found that terrorist groups are not too keen to acquire nuclear devices. Most of the countries that Western societies would regard as especially risky today (such as Iran and North Korea, Pakistan and India) already began their nuclear programmes during the Cold War. Moreover, history has shown that what matters in terms of risk is not whether or not a country has nuclear weapons: it’s what it intends to do with them. And that we often don’t exactly know. » More

Turning Back Time: Putting Putin’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Defense Into Context

Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov (left) and Joachim von Ribbentrop (right) agreeing on a non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Image: unknown uploader/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radion Liberty on 16 May, 2015. Editor’s note: Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Russian President Vladimir Putin got the world’s attention on May 10 when, during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he unapologetically defended the infamous 1939 nonaggression pact between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — named after the two foreign ministers who signed it in the late-night hours of August 23, 1939 — was formally a nonaggression pact. But it also encompassed a secret protocol under which the two dictatorships agreed to carve up Eastern Europe. » More

From 1989 to 2014: Young Vladimir Putin and the Irony of Helsinki

Mikhail Gorbachev & George H.W Bush signing an agreement on chemical weapons in Washington , D.C, 1990. Image: Executive Office of the President of the United States/Wikimedia

A quarter of a century has passed since the end of the Cold War. In the West, a new generation of leaders is in power, most of whom had little personal involvement in the East-West standoff that defined international politics for most of the post-1945 era.  By contrast, Russia has been under the stewardship of a leader who came of age politically with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Mikhail Gorbachev recently warned that a new Cold War is emerging. But what, if any, are the links between the events of 1989 and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014? Can we make sense of Europe’s renewed confrontation with its eastern neighbour by peering into the past? Reflection on the events of 1989 sheds light on those of 2014 in two ways: by illustrating how Vladimir Putin’s personal experiences of the end of the Cold War have shaped his foreign policy priorities, and by highlighting the importance of Mikhail Gorbachev’s acceptance of the Helsinki principle in shaping the post-Cold War European order. » More