Sixty-two years after his death, Josef Stalin is still shaping the course of Russian history. Until Russia’s government comes to terms with its past, it will be impossible for citizens to believe what it says about the present.
Stalin still sells. In Moscow-based independent pollster Levada Center’s latest representative survey on the ten most outstanding personalities “of all times and all nations,” published at the end of June, 38 percent of 1600 respondents in Russia included Stalin in their lists. Putin and Pushkin were each named by 34 percent, followed closely by Lenin. The first non-Russian name on the list was the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, mentioned by 9 percent of interviewees.
Although the Levada Center frequently publishes surveys on all kinds of sociological topics, the results of this particular poll gained broad media coverage – and not only in Russia, but abroad as well as it seems to provide further proof that Stalin has been rehabilitated in post-Soviet Russian society.
It is, indeed, obvious that the role of Stalin has at least been re-evaluated in Russia during the presidential terms of Vladimir Putin; look at the “Putin interviews” between the Russian president and American film director Oliver Stone which were aired in mid-June. In the course of these interviews, the Russian president admitted that Stalin was a difficult historical figure, but warned against the “excessive demonization” that he sees as one of the ways to “attack the Soviet Union and Russia.”
The underlying ambivalence of this statement has become characteristic of the politics surrounding the history of Stalin and the period of Stalinist dictatorship. For more than ten years, patriotism, heroism, and pride have been major parts of Russia’s official historical narrative, particularly in connection with the Soviet victory against fascism in World War II. The victorious narrative is an important common national denominator and a strong force of national unity. In other words, while Russian society is deeply divided in many respects, the outstanding contribution of the Red Army to the liberation of Europe from fascism is something most people in Russia can agree on. It is as part of this victorious “patriotic” narrative that Stalin’s image as political and military leader of the USSR has been increasingly positive among the population since the start of the millennium.
Stalin has also become more present in Russian public life. A number of monuments, museums, streets, and even metro stations have been dedicated to the dictator in different regions of the Russian Federation in recent years; the most recent case was a plaque at Moscow Juridical University to commemorate a speech given by Stalin in 1924.
Nevertheless, it would be far too easy to simply state that Stalin has been rehabilitated. Stalinism has left Russian society (and societies in the post-Soviet space) deeply traumatized. But while other parts of the former USSR developed academic, political, and social means of coming to terms with this particular inheritance, Russia still lacks juridical, social, and academic processes.
The legacy of Stalinism is deeply rooted in family memories and private archives, as almost every Russian family was affected by Stalinist terror in one way or the other. Due to the work of civil society organizations such as the Moscow-based International Memorial, a tremendous amount of sources (photos, letters, diaries, artifacts, etc.) has been preserved, documented, and published. Every year on October 29, the national day to commemorate the victims of political repression, thousands of citizens cue in front of the Lubyanka, the former KGB headquarters and prison, now home of the FSB. They join MEMORIAL for the public reading of 30,000 names of Muscovites who became victims of Stalin’s “Great Purge” in 1937-38. This is just one example that shows how great the need within Russian society to commemorate the victims of Stalinism still is.
The Russian government is very much aware of this need, and tries to meet it with its own peculiar – and ambivalent – approach to Stalin. While Stalin on the one hand is celebrated as the victorious political and military leader of the country during World War II, the government also initiated and supports projects such as the GULAG Museum in Moscow and a monument to the victims of political repression set to be erected in the capital at the end of 2017. Memorial has been involved in a governmental commission to prepare the monument, even while the Russian Ministry of Justice in October 2016 included the organization in its list of so-called “foreign agents” under the new, repressive Russian NGO legislation. Ambivalence is the buzzword.
What does all this mean for the debate about the potential “re-Stalinization” of Russia? Is it much ado about nothing? Well, not exactly, and not really; there are some dangers that remain.
First, the more the official historical narrative emphasizes the “positive” role of Stalin, the more likely it is that the memories of victimhood and suffering will be pushed back once more into the private sphere. This will deepen the gap between “official” and “private” memory, and thus the distrust in politicians. Potentially, a new era of “whisperers” – to borrow a term from British historian Orlando Figes’ major study on private life under Stalinism – could emerge.
Second, as long as the official historical narrative does not support any public discourse about either the perpetrators or supporters of Stalinism, no process of historical reconciliation can happen within Russian society. When Memorial published a list of 41,000 employees working for the KGB predecessor NKVD 1935-39 in December 2016, it produced a heated debate in politics and media, including the demand for legal consequences – to be leveled against Memorial. It shows how controversial the issue of perpetrators and bystanders still is almost 65 years after Stalin’s death and more than 25 years after the end of the Soviet Union.
Finally, the longer the ambivalent approach toward Stalin and Stalinism remains part of Russia’s politics of history, the more unlikely it is that Russian society will move on with important and necessary steps of internal modernization. It might seem easier to present Stalin as a hero and a leader of victorious battles against various “others” and “external enemies.” But in the long run, Russia will only be able to take its appropriate place in the 21st century when it comes to terms with the dark and painful sides of its own history.