‘The Provisional government in Russia failed because they were too weak and refused to use repression or the secret police to maintain power.’
This was supposed to be a recap of the previous lessons on opposition in Russia 1855 – 1917. I had a plan for the lesson which did not involve having a fierce discussion about whether dismantling a repressive apparatus is weak government. But that summary from a highly intelligent student snagged me in my headlong journey.
‘Wait! I’m not having that!’ ( I think I slapped the table with my palm.) They all looked up, alert, eyes glinting; *Game On!*
‘What do you think the Provisional government should have done? Do you support the use of terror to maintain government?’ I demanded.
Another student joined in, ‘It was necessary to be repressive in Russia at that time, in order to keep control.’
‘It was “necessary” to arrest people in the middle of the night, torture them and remove all civil rights, in order to rule?’
They were grinning, certain that they had the better of the argument. It was clear that I was just being an old hippy again, clinging onto idealism, playing acoustic guitar in Peace Park.
‘It was the only thing which would work in Russia. The Provisional Government should have used those methods for a while until they had established control and then gradually eased off, once people were ready for democracy and liberalism.’
I tried to drill down into what they were proposing, as the lesson ticked on.
‘Er. So, begin with mass arrests, censorship and torture and then gradually ease off? Perhaps torturing people less often, or slightly less rigorously? Ending with tickling – as a prelude to the introduction of democracy.’
They exchanged looks. I was being ridiculous. They needed to get it through to me.
‘They just needed to repress people for a while until they had established their control. There is no point being liberal if you cannot hold onto power. The Bolsheviks may have been ruthless but they were successful.’ The students all nodded in agreement.
‘Is it usual for rulers to establish a repressive regime and then use this as a platform to introduce democracy? Do you think Saddam Hussein needed a little more time to introduce his liberal ideas? Yoweri Museveni aimed to end the repression of Idi Amin in Uganda. He just needed to ensure stability and control before he could begin. 27 years later he is still dictator and threatening to execute gay people.’
They were wearing their, ‘What’s she going on about?’ faces.
Then someone said,
‘But sometimes it is the only way to rule a country when there is so much opposition.’
I tried a different tack,
‘What about if the coalition government here began to arrest people using a secret police force?’
At this point the class divided into those who felt this can be justified to prevent terrorism and those who felt it would be inappropriate in Britain.
It seems acceptable if it is happening to other people.
The debate raged on. In the meantime my carefully crafted lesson had exploded at the seams. But I can’t bear to hear A level students nurture a perspective of history which, although convenient , is simplistic and callous. History is about real people and real values. To make glib comments justifying repression and murder is to ignore the fact that at the sharp end of those methods were the beating hearts of other humans. Stopped dead.
It might work in the exam. But I’m not having it.
Right, where did I put my acoustic guitar….