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A meeting of minds in Tehran and Moscow

During the continuing street protests in Iran, in the wake of the disputed re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, protesters have been heard shouting “Down with Russia”. This is not as strange as it seems. In fact, as the show trials get under way in Tehran, the slogan carries more historical significance than the marchers may know.

The Russian government was the first to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his “victory” in the 12 June elections. So denouncing Moscow makes sense. And the marchers also wanted to distinguish themselves from the usual “Down with America” slogans of state-orchestrated demonstrations in support of the regime.

Many of those on trial in Tehran have apparently “confessed” to "acting against national security" and "conspiring with foreign powers to stage a velvet revolution". Opposition leaders have denounced the torturing of those arrested and the staging of a mass trial where the defendants have few if any legal rights.

The historical connection with Russia, of course, is the most infamous show trials of modern times, which were held in Moscow between 1936-8. The principal leaders of the 1917 Revolution similarly “confessed” to working with and for “foreign powers” and were executed. Senior generals in the Red Army were tried in secret and also shot.

Only a half a century later, in 1988, during the perestroika and glasnost period inaugurated by Mikhail Gorbachev, were the Old Bolsheviks officially rehabilitated. However, Russian is once more rewriting its history to present the Stalinist period, including the notorious trials, in a more “favourable light”.

On 19 June, Russia’s largest online history resource at www.hrono.info was shut down by the home affairs ministry in St Petersburg. Founder Vyacheslav Rumyantsev said the closure followed after an article criticised the city’s governor for cutting an allowance given to survivors of the Nazi siege of Leningrad.

In December, police in St Petersburg raided the human rights organisation Memorial, removing much of the material used by Orland Figes in The Whisperers, his book on family life under Stalin. It included interviews with gulag victims, photos and personal testimonies.

The attack on the website comes in the wake of the publication of school textbooks that now portray Stalin not as a mass murderer but as a great national leader and an "efficient manager" who defeated the Nazis and industrialised a backward Soviet Union. In May, president Dmitry Medvedev announced he was setting up a new body to counter the "falsification of history", which, naturally, actually means the opposite.

The commission will be dominated by members of Russia's FSB intelligence service rather than professional historians. Its first job is to counter interprations of the 70th anniversary of the August 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, under which Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up Europe, with Moscow annexing the Baltics and two-thirds of Poland.

As a taster of the “new history” to come, this month Russia's defence ministry posted a lengthy article on its website claiming that Poland provoked the Second World War! The article said Poland refused to yield to Germany's "modest" ultimatum demands in 1939 for a land corridor to East Prussia and Gdansk. The ministry withdrew it after Poland protested to Russia's ambassador in Warsaw.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a former vice-president arrested for protesting against Ahmadinejad, reportedly testified in Tehran that now he understood that the vote was "clean" and that allegations of fraud in the election were "a lie". No doubt there is quiet approval for all this in the Kremlin, where the rehabilitation of Stalin is proceeding apace, in a country where anti-government demonstrations are usually banned and where investigative journalists are gunned down.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
3 August 2009

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