Stalin, “Totalitarianism”, and kebab: a response to CBC’s Chris Brown

Brown’s attempts to conflate socialism and fascism under the umbrella of “totalitarianism” are hardly anything original. Rather, they place him in a shameful tradition of historical revisionism amongst some of the most infamous bourgeois academics and other ruling class mouthpieces.

On January 15th, the CBC published an article titled Why a Moscow kebab shop has reignited debate over Stalin’s legacy, in which they report — insofar as the work of the CBC may be called ‘reporting’ — on a small business in Moscow by the name of “Stal’in Doner”. The journalist responsible, CBC’s Moscow Correspondent, Chris Brown, is seemingly employed solely for the purpose of casting Russia as an inherently backward country, prone to “totalitarianism” by nature, whether under the Tsar, under the “tyranny” of communism, or under Putin today. This article is no exception. While an article about a kebab shop in Moscow may seem on the surface benign, it demonstrates the sinister way in which the CBC, far from being a source of objective journalism, actively pushes anti-communist narratives that advance an imperialist agenda on behalf of the capitalist class at every opportunity. 

The piece begins with a headline stating that residents and authorities alike are all angry that the “totalitarian” leader’s name is being used to promote take-out food. Next, we are introduced to Moscow resident Mariana Turkenich, who explains that she is nauseated by the sight of Joseph Stalin, whose image appears on the shop’s sign. We are told nothing about this individual apart from her physically debilitating anti-communism, and her stated belief that Stalin and Hitler should in this case be considered equivalent. We are given little more information about any of the individuals interviewed, however, apart from Stanislav Voltman.

Voltman, the new kebab shop’s owner and chief cook, explains that the store’s opening was “a stunning success,” the “double Stalin burger” being particularly popular. Despite publishing responses to the new restaurant exclusively from Moscow residents with unambiguously negative feelings around Stalin, Brown knows that Stalin remains today more popular than ever since the criminal and tragic dismantlement of the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago. The independent Levada Research Center, which polls Russians regularly on their feelings regarding the Soviet Union, as well as present and historical leaders, has consistently shown increasingly-positive feelings about both the USSR and Joseph Stalin. As recently as March 2020, 75% of Russian citizens stated that the Soviet era was “the greatest time in the country’s history.” Similarly, 70% of Russian citizens polled in 2019 stated that Stalin played a “positive role” historically. 

There is no sense of this reflected in Brown’s article. Regardless of one’s opinion of Stalin as an individual or historical figure, Brown’s choice to exclude all but an anti-Stalin minority in spite of Stalin’s popularity in Russia is dishonest journalism. If 70% of Russians feel positively about Stalin, why were all three of the responses from Moscow residents interviewed about Stal’in Doner negative? Brown actually even acknowledged this same statistic in his article, but has deliberately presented a false sampling of responses! The bar for a CBC Correspondent is a low one indeed.

Brown correctly states that police demanded the popular restaurant change its name or close, and harassed and humiliated the owner, and that members of the government, including “Putin’s closest allies” refer to Stalin as a tyrant. Completely contradictory to this however, he would have us believe that the oligarchic Russian government is the primary force behind pro-Stalin propaganda driving Soviet nostalgia, and that it is only the Russians who are fooled by this cheap facade which no one is really hiding. In truth, increased longing for the days of the Soviet Union and socialism are a result of the difficult lived experience of three decades under capitalism, which while having destroyed the gains of socialism, never brought the promised prosperity for the vast majority of the population, whose quality of life today remains dramatically reduced by an alarming list of measurements. While Brown moreover implies it is younger Russians that are more comfortable with Stalin’s image, it is in fact older Russians with a lived memory of socialism who have historically demonstrated greater nostalgia for the socialist life they had known first-hand. Under socialism, people had access to quality healthcare, free quality education, including post secondary, vast libraries, gymnasiums, cultural centres, the right to a home, the right to a job, high pensions, lengthy vacations with access to vacation homes and resorts, and far more, including equality rights for women, as well as racial and national equality. It is this that Russians and many other citizens from other former Soviet republics miss, and in many cases what they associate with Stalin. The USSR, from it’s beginning until its very end, fought for racial and national equality inside and outside its borders, and never compromised with colonialism. To compare this with fascist Nazi Germany which used racism to bolster imperialism, sinking Europe into hell itself while building a colonial empire abroad in pursuit of profits for the rich, is not only absurd, but dangerous. 

Brown’s attempts to conflate socialism and fascism under the umbrella of “totalitarianism” are hardly anything original. Rather, they place him in a shameful tradition of historical revisionism amongst some of the most infamous bourgeois academics and other ruling class mouthpieces. While some of these individuals, like Ernst Nolte, wore their sympathy for the Third Reich on their sleeves, others have, regardless of intentions and more or less subtly, served objectively to rehabilitate the Nazis. Progressive historians like Vijay Prashad and Domenico Losurdo on the other hand assert that this false equivalency was deliberately propagated throughout the Cold War as a way to combat the inevitable force of decolonization inspired and supported by the October Revolution and the USSR. In 1953, for example, the US ambassador to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., created the Psychological Strategy Board with the explicit intention of depicting the Soviets as the imperialists and colonizers, even as the CIA was overthrowing the democratically-elected Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran. 

While for many, including Padmore, Césaire, and Fanon, the horrors of Nazi-fascism had clearly found their roots in the colonies — a direct result of the imperialist policies that motivated not only the Nazis, but the colonial empires of the British, French, Portuguese, as well as South Africa, Canada and others — the former colonial powers, now mere spokes of US imperialism, would work at the UN and at home to ensure that fascism was separated from colonialism in the minds of the public in order for colonialism to continue without further interruption. Imperialism would have to be redefined and replaced in the public mind to fit US interests, and that replacement would be “totalitarianism” – an ambiguous “unfreedom” in contrast to the “freedom” of US dominated liberal capitalism. It is quite clear however that the reality of this freedom referred to freedom of access to resources only, and in most cases, the most basic freedoms granted in the imperialist countries were forcibly denied to the former colonial and semi-colonial countries, with the United States shamelessly supporting some of the most bloodthirsty comprador dictators across the Third World so long as they were willing to repress the communists and labour activists while keeping their doors open to US and transnational corporations. In contrast to the old European colonizers, US led neo-colonialism allowed for “flag freedom,” while economic and political might backed up by military preponderance ensured that the real control remained in Washington. 

It is imperialism that built the first concentration camps, not in Europe, but in the colonies, the United States in fact utilizing such camps in Cuba and in the Philippines, where military and civilian prisoners alike were subjected to torture methods such as water bloating that for many inspire more nausea than Stalin’s face ever could. Barbed wire, genocide — was King Leopold, who murdered 10 million Congolese not a “totalitarian”? John A. MacDonald, an early promoter of the Aryan race mythology, whose racist policies against people of Chinese descent are topped only by his cruel and deliberate policies of extermination against Indigenous peoples — policies, which it is always worth repeating, directly gave inspiration to Hitler — is he also excused from the label of “totalitarian”? The colonizing countries are rarely considered fascist by most, nor are they considered “totalitarian.” Many of these countries have been categorized as part of the “Free World,” a term much beloved by Truman, which originally referred to those countries that fought against the Axis in WWII. It meant nothing whatsoever that many of these countries ruled over what by any definition might be referred to as “totalitarian” regimes in their colonies. Liberals cannot distinguish between fascism and communism because they have no understanding of imperialism, for one, and consequently of the source of racism. The concept of “totalitarianism” is a major obstacle in this — an obstacle which the ruling classes have every interest in maintaining. It is an inherently anti-Marxist, “above-class” analysis that denies the existence of ruling classes in societies, replacing them with abstracted personal dictatorships or cliques that have no historical basis, and cannot be understood as anything but an aberration, frequently reflecting the “nature” of the society which has adopted the “totalitarian” leader from their lack of desire for freedom, need for a “strong hand,” etc. — a fig leaf for racial and ethnic stereotyping used to justify inequality and oppression. A fascist state is still a dictatorship of the capitalist class — only a naked one. 

There is moreover a distinctly antisemitic element to the narrative of “totalitarianism”, which by equivocating the Third Reich with the Soviet Union, chronologically its predecessor, lends weight to Nazi apologist theories of fascism as a necessary “response” to the “horrors” of communism, which from the very beginning was slandered as a “Jewish conspiracy”. The Holocaust by this means too then is relativized, and its true origins in imperialism obscured, with those who carried out the Holocaust insultingly being equated with the Soviet people who sacrificed as many as 30 million lives to end it. Consequently, such revisionist history, based in Nazi theories of “Judeo-Bolshevism” and their post-war apologists, poses a real danger today — one which is reflected in the alarming growth of far-right, white supremacist, and fascist organisations, as well as the increasing proliferation of antisemitic themes which may be observed in these movements. 

Here in Victoria, we are still waiting for the CBC, so concerned with “totalitarianism” and man-made famines abroad, to report on such local businesses as “The Churchill,” a popular pub named after a genocidal racist responsible for the deaths of at least three million people in the Bengal Famine of 1943 (in Bengal alone); or “The Union Club” where this mass murderer’s portrait hangs unabashedly above a neo-Georgian stairway amidst brandy sipping patrons able to afford a membership — including women, only since 1994. Since this genocide took place in the colonies however, Churchill is not recorded by history as a fascist, nor a “totalitarian.”

Let it be clear: Brown’s article is far from harmless, the seemingly benign subject of the kebab shop being all the more insidious a vessel for what must be acknowledged as part of a broader ideological assault on socialists and communists today, with consequences being felt by working class people that are already playing out in real time. For example, in the two weeks since his Stal’in Doner article, Brown has also put out a flurry of polemics supporting Russian “opposition leader” Alexei Navalny, who Brown claims is responsible for some of the largest protests seen in years. Once again however, Brown demonstrates not only a disregard for the facts, but a troubling eagerness to deliberately mislead his audience. In common parlance, the “opposition” refers to the leading political party opposed to the one in office — in this case, that would actually be the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). The KPRF, with support from the Leninist Communist Youth Union of the Russian Federation, has played a major role in the many protests conveniently ignored by Brown which have taken place in recent years demanding higher standards of living for workers, opposing corruption and social inequality, and in which tens of thousands have participated. 

In truth, this “opposition leader” touted by Brown holds no elected position in government, and has in the past polled at about 2% support from the population at best — a stark contrast with his depictions in Western media. Despite his massive support from the imperialist West, Navalny has been unable to take advantage of widespread social dissatisfaction because as people in his own country know that he is not just a Western puppet, but an open supporter of the far-right. As an enemy of “totalitarianism,” Brown is remarkably silent on Navalny’s ties with prominent fascist leaders and participation in fascist demonstrations, his vocal racism, and his calls for mass-deportations of immigrants. Navalny, like a number of important players in the 2013-2014 “Maidan” US-backed coup in Ukraine that overthrew the democratically-elected Yanukovich government, was trained in Yale’s “World Fellowship” program. 

Gennady Zyuganov, General Secretary of the KPRF, once referred to this entrepreneur and stockholder as a “sober Yeltsin”. Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was fawned over by Western media, like Navalny, as a liberal and a democrat, who in 1992 would suspend parliament by presidential decree, make the Communist Party of the Soviet Union illegal, liquidate its assets and steal its funds, and ban its press and political activity. By 1993, Yeltsin would forcibly disband parliament altogether, along with every representative body, including regional and municipal councils, even launching an armed attack on the parliament buildings, killing some two thousand demonstrators, jailing thousands more, and placing numerous elected officials under investigation, in addition to banning labour unions from political activity, banning 15 political parties, monopolizing control over broadcast media, and stopping only just short of absolute power with his new unilaterally imposed constitution — events described in-depth by historian Michael Parenti in his book, Blackshirts & Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism  though certainly never by the CBC! Yeltsin also received massive support from Western sources, including millions in donations to his 1996 electoral campaign and a $10 billion dollar aid package from the IMF and World Bank when polls showed him trailing behind Zyuganov. Today however we hear only of Russian “interference” in elections.

CBC’s publishing of Brown’s deliberately deceptive and historically dishonest article is what some might call “irresponsible journalism”. Marxists however are not so naive as to believe that corporate media publishes fascist apologia by accident. The bourgeoisie today as ever hate Stalin, not because he was “totalitarian”, but because he was the leader in the fight against the vanguard of imperialism, the Nazis, and because he stood for revolutionary steadfastness in the anti-fascist struggle, playing a major role in laying the material basis for the anti-colonial and national liberation waves of the post-war years. Underlined of course is the need, as strong as ever, for the working class to control and to expand its press, particularly socialist publications like Rebel Youth. As Stalin himself stated, “the press must grow day in and day out — it is our Party’s sharpest and most powerful weapon.” What’s at stake is far more than Stal’in Doner. Historical revisionists don’t aim to control our perceptions of the past to change the names of kebab shops, but to have control over the shaping of the future — a none-too-distant future in which an ignorant and malleable working class has completely forgotten the logic of imperialism that unites not fascism and communism, but fascism and capitalism. 

Tyson Riel Strandlund, is a YCL-LJC member in Victoria, Canada

(Originally published on Rebel Youth)

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