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Stalin lives...in spirit

By Russell Grenning - posted Friday, 2 February 2018


Russian humour to my mind is an acquired taste.

Consider these rib-ticklers which get them rolling with hysterical laughter in the aisles in Moscow: "A little boy found a machine gun, now the village population is none" and "Could a machine replace a man? The answer to this question is long known by cannibals".

Then again, when most of the history of your country has been one long unrelieved oppression by Tsars and Communist dictators, there hasn't been much for ordinary folk to laugh about.

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So, presumably, the rulers of Mother Russia then and now have no appreciation of satire, and especially satire which makes fun of them.

On January 23, the Russian Government banned the movie, "The Death of Stalin", a British-French political satire about the late dictator Joseph Stalin who ruled the USSR with an iron fist for some thirty years before he died aged 74 in 1953. Untold millions died under his regime through forced collectivisation of farms, ethnic cleansing, deliberately induced famines and assorted purges.

The Ministry of Culture announced that the movie was being banned only two days before its planned release with one official quoted in The Moscow Times as saying, "'The Death of Stalin' should not be shown in Russia due to signs of ideological animosity. The film insults our historical symbols – the Soviet anthem, awards and medals."

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky was stung by criticisms of the ban and declared, "Many older people, and quite a few others, view (this) movie as an offensive mockery of the entire Soviet past, of the country that defeated fascism, of the Soviet Army and of ordinary people."

In what was a quite memorable stretch of the truth, the Minister declared, "Most distastefully, they even see it as mocking the victims of Stalinism." And, to put everybody's mind at rest he added, "We don't have censorship. We're not afraid of critical or hard-hitting assessments of our history. In (my) department we could give anyone a run for their money...but there's a moral boundary between the critical analysis of history and pure mockery."

Medinsky has been Culture Minister since 2012 and he is a crony of President Vladimir Putin. A former member of the Communist Party prior to the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Medinsky issued a new Cultural Policy Blueprint in 2013 shortly after he became Minister calling for "a rejection of the principles of tolerance and multiculturism" and an emphasis on "Russian values". "Russian values", incidentally, are those "values" which reflect down to the last detail, the views of the ruling party of President Putin.

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This so-called cultural blueprint was published in the government supporting newspaper Izvestia and was liberally interspersed with quotes from Putin just as Soviet-era government programs quoted Marx and Lenin. It slavishly and indeed proudly follows Putin's pronouncements that, for example, multiculturalism was "neutered and barren" and even that contemporary art was not to be tolerated as, "no experiments with form can justify the substance that contradicts the values traditional for our society." "Traditional art" only, thanks very much.

One example of emphasising "Russian values" is the opinion of Minister Medinsky that statues of Stalin should be erected where the majority of local people favour it. Presumably his Culture Department will decide which areas favour the erection of these statues as there is no suggestion that local polls be taken.

A Moscow Times senior columnist has written, "It is impossible to argue that the film was banned because of aesthetics. The only reason is that it was banned for political or ideological reasons."

Arguments that asserted that the movie blackened the name of those who fought against fascism after the Nazi invasion (1941-1945) were dismissed by this columnist who wrote, "The action takes place in 1953 and makes no mention of the war – it takes a great deal of imagination to link the two."

He continued, "The only people who could actually take offense at a comedy about Stalin are those who support him, meaning that the Culture Ministry banned the film out of a sense of personal insult. The authorities' hasty decision to ban the film confirms this hypothesis, as if laughing at Stalin were a dangerous virus that must be stopped at all costs."

Medinsky is a keen re-writer of Russian history and, for example, eagerly endorsed the government's anti-gay stances by flatly denying that Russia's most famous conductor Pyotr Chaikovsky was gay despite many authenticated archival documents, including Chaikovsky's own letters, that leave no doubt that he was. In modern Mother Russia no gay person – now or in the country's past – could ever be considered talented, inventive or intelligent as they are all – that is if they exist or ever existed in Russia – degenerate.

Stalin himself would have warmly approved that view.

However Minister Medinsky's work for his doctoral theses have been met with scathing criticism by Russian historians who claim that he did not complete original research and that, at best, his work was high school level.

Dissernet, an informal group of journalists and academics, has identified in Medinsky's own published work extensive academic fraud and examples include a bogus bibliography (six books and three articles cited are not found in any library or collection), twenty pages of one dissertation "borrowed" verbatim from two other works, and just plain unapologetic plagiarism. One Russian historian has said that "only a very weird person" would be obsessed by searching for anything that had somehow hurt the Tsars centuries ago while another called him a "mirror of contemporary degradation."

Meanwhile, Medinsky's supporters and acolytes have been falling over themselves supporting the ban on the film describing it as "blasphemous" – which, incidentally, raises the bloody dictator Stalin to god-like status – and "vile, repugnant and insulting". "We don't have to be a country of masochists," one wrote.

The odd thing is that last November Minister Medinsky ruled out banning the film by solemnly declaring "We have freedom of speech here". He defended his u-turn somewhat disingenuously by saying that the ban was not actual censorship per se but was done to draw "moral boundaries" as it could not be right for such a film to be released on the anniversary of the 1943 victory at Stalingrad by the USSR army over the invading Germans. Obviously, last November he had not been given his riding instructions about this movie which was a bit embarrassing but he has lived through that little hiccup.

If anybody thought that this might possibly mean that it could be released some other less sensitive time they would be utterly delusional.

President Putin, 65, faces re-election on 18 March and he is widely expected to win another six-year term but he is taking no chances. Every organ, every department and every government resource is committed to his victory and woe betide anybody who even whispers any discontent.

Stalin, wherever in hell he is, must be enjoying all of this.

He was rather more robust in making sure that everything he said or even thought was implemented immediately and without the slightest change.

"Ideas are far more important than guns. We don't let the people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?" he once said. Minister Medinsky would most certainly agree.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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