I have a wonderfully dear friend, Inessa, in Moscow and she is one of the most accomplished people I have met; single mother, finance director of a large international economics organisation, multilingual, professional concert pianist, latin dancer and once Soviet show jumping champion. So normally when she surprises me it is about how she finds the time to do anything new, which includes writing a letter to me.
But this week she managed to shock me in a new way.
In her last letter, in reply to mine offering my books as good reading for an upcoming business trip, Inessa politely declined with the words …. I have just started to read a book about life of Iosif Stalin. Have you heard something about him?
Inessa knows me quite well but her thought that I may not know something about Stalin was, to put it bluntly, initially an outrageous suggestion. If I had to compile a list of the top ten major political shapers of the twentieth century Stalin would be in there. Of course I knew something about Stalin. No, that can’t be what Inessa meant and so I started to look for other meanings
I dismissed imprecision in her language. Inessa is fluent in English and other languages.
I thought of other interpretations and I remembered a conversation I had three or four years ago. One of my best friends (I should add once one of my best friends – but that is another story to be told much later) Sviatlana a Belarusian and I talked about a UK government report into a plane crash in the UK.
Sviatlana was adamant the report, which managed to vaguely blame no one, was a cover up. ‘Of course,’ she would say, ‘the government wouldn’t let the truth be told. They will do just enough to avoid comment.’ For my part I would retort, ‘Of course it is all the truth. We have a Press who wouldn’t allow it to be anything but the total truth. If that is what the report said happened then, to the best of the knowledge of the scientists that is what happened.’
And so we would debate many issues each believing in our truths based solely on our backgrounds and core beliefs; we were both right and both wrong.
Our backgrounds and education give us very different prejudices and triggers which we don’t always recognise. We disparage and pigeon-hole the people of different nations as a whole. We will treat every Frenchman we meet as if he was the same as every other Frenchman. I know this to be patently silly but it is human nature. I checked the internet and it didn’t take long on Wiki to get these, among all the many stereotypes:
- Romanians are all thieving gypsies
- Arab men are womanisers and Arab women are totally oppressed
- Australians like to party, surf all day and drink all night
- British drink warm beer, eat lousy food, have the bulldog spirit but with bad teeth and hygiene, and finally
- Americans are arrogant, assertive, materialistic and ambitious. They have a US-centred world view, don’t have passports, are egoistical, fast food eaters, war mongers and believe always that God is with them.
Maybe in here was the crux of Inness’s words. Maybe the disconnect was in background and education.
Inessa was educated in Russia when it was still a communist state and I presume that Stalin was not core syllabus.
I have written many times of my admiration for the Slavic people in the Second World War and I am continually astonished that their role and sacrifices, which far outweigh that of the ‘West’ is not more fully recognised and commemorated. But I know why we overlook their enormous sacrifice; Joseph Stalin.
In the West we were brought up with the consequences of Stalin and the terrible legacy he bestowed on the Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик or the USSR. I knew of the Great Purge, the murders, killings and Гла́вное управле́ние исправи́тельно-трудовы́х лагере́й и коло́ний or Gulags. In the West, Stalin was labelled as demon or devil.
We heard in our school history lessons of the Yalta conference when Britain, America and the USSR met to carve up Europe and we were fed Churchill’s words: ‘No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have and I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it. But now the past, with its crimes, its follies, and its tragedies, flashes away ….. I have to declare the decision of His Majesty’s Government that any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid. The Russian danger is therefore our danger, the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free people in every quarter of the globe,’ and we followed Churchill and Roosevelt later being duped as Stalin continued on his expansionist plans.
But what was Inessa taught about these years of tyranny? The many times attributed ‘history is written by the victors’ is appropriate. Stalin was the victor and he wrote and educated his people in his history. Maybe even in her education Stalin himself has been purged, until now, from Russian history and she is now, for the first time, discovering her political roots.
As we try and get greater understanding and tolerance around the world, here is the rub.
And as we head into the Christmas season, the season of goodwill to all men, I urge you all to listen to the words of warring parties from around the world and recognise that everything may not be quite so clear cut as you first thought. Words of peace can be wrapped up in national traits and typecasting. You will need all your cultural sensitivity to understand the real aims and objectives.
And for Inessa’s question I have also reached a conclusion. My initial disbelief has diminished. As I researched the internet I learnt I know very little of the life of Joseph Stalin. What I did know was all wrapped up in cold war propaganda. However, Inessa, you will never convince me that he was a kind and gentle man. But the truth is I have heard something of him but, as ever, not as much as you will when you have finished reading your book.