To Russia With Love: Be More Skeptical

On Radio Freethinker episode 30, we talked about a news story from Russia, involving one Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, the grandson of Joseph Stalin, suing a newspaper for defamation of his family honor. (You can download the podcast here) Sorry about the shameless plug, but this story should really concern skeptics all over the world. You can read about the story here.

Dzhugashvili is suing this newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, for claiming that Stalin personally ordered the deaths of soviet citizens. The actual article referred to Stalin as a “Bloodthirsty Cannibal.”

For those that don’t know, this refers to Stalin’s systematic “purges” of the Soviet Union’s political system, military, and ordinary citizens. Victims were often sent to the Gulags in northern or eastern Russia. These Gulags were prison camps where inmates were worked to death or murdered by other means. There are a lot of great resources out there for people to research and read so I’m not going to go into great detail about the Gulags and evidence we have for them. I will state however, Soviet documents released in the 1990’s do indicate millions died in the Gulags and it’s been established that Stalin himself was quite paranoid in his purges of anyone he felt was working against him

However all this being said, there has been some disturbing new trends in Russian culture, namely Stalin being seen as a new national hero.

To many people, Stalin represented a time when Russia was strong, feared, and respected. Apparently people have been all too willing to forget the purges and outrageous violations of human rights that occurred under Stalin. So on the one hand I’m eager for this case to come before a judge. I’d like to see the mountains of evidence piled before Dzhugashvili, the documents from the Soviet Union brought forth and authenticated, eye witness brought forth to testify, historians with their expertise and facts and peer reviewed research… but then I wonder, would that happen?

If this did become a court battle, would the increasingly nostalgic Russian society permit this? In reading some of the articles about this case I’ve come across reports of statues and plaques of Stalin appearing quietly here and there across Russia, Stalin even placed third in a national vote on the who was the Greatest Russian. There have even been rumblings from the Kremlin about the glorious past of the Soviet Union…this is all very disturbing for me as a historian but as a skeptic as well.

Will a court battle result in a reaffirming of the truth or a nostalgia view of the past?

Well it turns out that my fears have been temporarily assayed. The courts have ruled in favor of the newspaper. So a small victory to liberals in Russia who are concerned with the Kremlins recent activities in revisionist history.

Stalin’s grandson can appeal the case of course, and most likely he will. Some were concerned that such a case could even make it before a judge, as I was, and now it looks like we have the beginnings of a new denialist movement. Not to mention a major conspiracy theory.

Skeptics should be concerned whenever facts are repressed. Millions died in the Gulags. It’s a horrible and disturbing reminder of human cruelty. I’m sure there many people who would just like to forget it and move on. I can understand that mentality but I don’t condone it. The victims deserve to be remembered and to have the past quietly shuffled aside to make people feel better about their country is unacceptable. Sometimes we have to face unpleasant realities and this is one of them.

People like Dzhugashvili will use any set back as evidence of some massive conspiracy to suppress and silence him. Like other conspiracy theories, once this becomes ingrained in a culture it can be very hard to remove it. Dzhugashvili claimed that the judge was biased; that a document incriminating the Soviet Union and Stalin for the 1940 massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and priests at the Katyn forest in western Russia was a fake; ignoring the fact that the Soviet Union acknowledged in 1990 that Stalin ordered the killings.

He has also questioned the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939, a claim that flies in the face of real evidence it’s actually more shocking that he could be that brazen. As disturbing as it sounds, he claims that Stalin “was our country’s first democrat”

He and his lawyers also claim that anyone who supports the counter argument is part of a conspiracy to destroy Russia and that Poland fabricated evidence to extort reparations from Russia.

Sound familiar?

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.