When Joseph Stalin died sixty years ago, Soviet
citizens sensed that their lives had changed forever -- and they were right.
During his nearly 30 year rule, Stalin transformed the USSR from the ground up
and led it to victory in World War II. He also killed, imprisoned, or displaced
tens of millions of his own compatriots; the full extent of his crimes will
probably never be fully known. His successors ruled on an altogether more
In October 2012, the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace commissioned a survey
of perceptions of Stalin in Russia and three South Caucasus states: Armenia,
Azerbaijan and Georgia. The results show with startling clarity that, for many,
the Soviet tyrant lives on. Of the four post-communist states surveyed, only
Azerbaijan (which seems to be more interested these days in emulating
Dubai than dwelling on its Soviet past) appears to have set Stalin on a path toward
irrelevance: 22 percent said they had no idea who he was. (Among the young this
number reached almost forty percent.) In Georgia, by contrast, a shocking 45
percent of the respondents shared a positive view of Stalin -- presumably
because he remains, as the most famous (and infamous) ethnic Georgian, a
powerful nationalist symbol. In Armenia this number was 25 percent, in
Azerbaijan it was 21.
Yet Russia is the place where, in many ways, the legacy
of Stalinism runs deepest. In the Carnegie survey, conducted Moscow's respected
Levada Center, 42 percent of Russians named Stalin the public figure that has had
the most influence on world history -- up from just 12 percent back in 1989, at
the peak of Gorbachev's liberalization push. Meanwhile, the number of those who
express a positive opinion of Stalin in the Carnegie survey reached 28 percent.
To quote the Levada Center's Gudkov, these figures represent
"an astonishing resurgence of Stalin's popularity in Russia" since the end of
There is, however, something curious about this
recognition: Traveling around Russia, one would never guess the Russian people believe
Stalin is their greatest compatriot. Stalin statues or portraits are nowhere to
be found, and there are no streets or cities named after him. For comparison the
embalmed body of Lenin, Stalin's Bolshevik predecessor, is still on display in the
mausoleum in Red Square. Lenin's name and monuments adorn every Russian city.
Yet Lenin is slowly slipping into oblivion: During the same period of 1989 to
2012 his popularity dropped from 72 to 37 percent.
Stalin is a hidden hero, and this status is part of
the inherently vague nature of Russia's post-communist statehood and national
identity. Russia does not have a
nationally recognized narrative of the origins of the new, post-Soviet Russian
state and no consensual perception of its Communist past.
Russian Stalinist groups, Communists, war veterans and
others have repeatedly come up with initiatives of paying tribute to Stalin,
such as bringing back the name of Stalingrad to the Russian city (now known as
Volgograd) where one of the major battles of WWII was fought. Most recently, a
Duma deputy has talked about naming a street in Moscow Stalingradskaya (after the
battle of Stalingrad). Neither of the two ideas has been fully implemented, but
Stalinists can claim some successes in endowing their hero with physical
presence. Buses adorned with Stalin's image have appeared in some Russian
cities on Victory Day and other wartime anniversaries.
In Russia the official discourse on Stalin is evasive,
and public perception of him is ambivalent and divisive. Almost half of
Russians surveyed agree with the statement that "Stalin was a wise leader who brought power and
prosperity to the Soviet Union." But over half in the same poll believe that Stalin's acts of repression
constituted "a political crime that cannot be justified." And about two-thirds
agree that "for all Stalin's mistakes
and misdeeds, the most important thing is that under his leadership the Soviet
people won the Great Patriotic War" (the name Russians give to World War II).
During the six decades since Stalin's death, the
Soviet Union and then post-communist Russia have gone through two and a half
phases of de-Stalinization -- but though his images are absent from the Russian
physical space, Stalin's presence can be
easily felt in the Russian political order and in state-society relations.
The first attempt to purge his legacy was launched in
1956 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who exposed Stalin as the mastermind of
mass repressions of innocent people. On Khrushchev's orders countless streets,
factories, and cities that bore Stalin's name were renamed. Stalin's body was
quietly removed from the mausoleum, but it still remained in Red Square -- right
next to where Lenin rests. Khrushchev's de-Stalinization only went so far.
In 1964, Khrushchev was deposed in a bloodless coup d'état. The post-Khrushchev
Soviet leadership, led by Leonid Brezhnev, quickly wrapped up his attempts to
achieve a reckoning with Stalin. During the "creeping re-Stalinization" that
followed, the condemnation of Stalin stopped, but he was not publicly
exonerated. Instead his name was practically removed from official discourse.
A new wave of de-Stalinization was launched two
decades later in the Gorbachev era. In contrast to Khrushchev's, this round of
de-Stalinization engaged broad public constituencies and radically de-legitimized
the Communist regime. By the end of 1991 the meltdown of Soviet Communism was followed
by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But the enthusiasm for dismantling the Soviet legacy was
soon overshadowed by the hardship and turmoil of the early 90s. In the face of
a collapsing economy, rising crime, growing inequality, and a tough Communist
opposition, Russia's first president Boris Yeltsin did not follow through with
de-Stalinization at a state level. Stalin's grave remained in Red Square (and
Lenin's body stayed in his mausoleum). The one attempt to secure a legal
condemnation of Soviet Communism fizzled; the 1992 trial of the Communist Party
of the Soviet Union failed to reach a verdict on the crimes committed by the
When Vladimir Putin emerged as Yeltsin's successor, he
put an end to the political turmoil and built a regime inspired by the Soviet
version of Russia's traditional model: centralized and
uncontested state power drawing heavily on the domestic security forces.
From Putin's Soviet-style emphasis on powerful state and powerless people
stemmed a symbolic return of Stalin. It was
under Stalin, after all, that Russia, in its Soviet guise, was at its most powerful.
Dmitry Medvedev, whose job was to put a softer face on
Putin's Russia, embarked on a third wave of de-Stalinization. In late 2009,
a passionate video blog on the Kremlin's website in which he condemned
"Stalin's crimes." The following year Medvedev's Council on Human Rights and
Civil Society announced an ambitious program of de-Stalinization. Yet not
too long after that, in an address to officers of the FSB (the successor of the
KGB, the Soviet secret police), Medvedev expressed confidence that the
current generation of FSB officers would "carry on the traditions of its
predecessors with dignity" -- those same predecessors who carried out the mass
repressions referred to in his video blog "as one of the greatest tragedies in
the Russian history."
The FSB itself has never rejected its Soviet legacy. Its
headquarters are still located in the Lubyanka, where so
many of Stalin's victims were tortured and shot in the building's infamous
basements. In the Russian informal system of patronage, the agency's political
clout is unparalleled. Throughout his leadership, Putin has drawn on the FSB for many of his
high-level government appointments and put members of the FSB in charge of lucrative
Medvedev's half-hearted de-Stalinization basically
wound down as soon as his substitute presidency ended and Putin returned to the
Kremlin. To this day there is no consistent official narrative of the Soviet
past in general or Stalinism in particular. Nor is there a memorial to the victims
of Stalin's rule.
While the official discourse reduces mentions of
Stalin to a minimum, public discussions have merely been marginalized, not
banned or suppressed. Memorial, a
well-known nongovernmental organization that conducts archival research
documenting Stalin's crimes, has been able to continue its commemorative work. Aleksandr
Archipelago and other literature about Stalin's terror are easily
available in bookstores and libraries. At the same time, books glorifying Stalin,
with titles such as The Forbidden Truth
about "Stalin's Repressions" or USSR
Without Stalin: The Path to Catastrophe, are on sale in major bookstores. A
conservative estimate of the total print run of the most popular titles amounts
to over one hundred thousand copies.
This juxtaposition reflects controversial perception
of Stalin as both a dictator to blame for the deaths of millions and a wise and
powerful leader who won the war against Hitler. In the minds of many Russians,
in fact, the two perceptions are not infrequently combined. In the collective
post-Soviet psyche, national greatness is inseparable from violence and brutal
For the Russian people, their nation's greatness is best
embodied by the Soviet Union's 1945 victory in the Great Patriotic
War. In today's Russia, the man who led the nation to this victory, comes
in handy as symbolic compensation for a nation suffering from Russia's loss of
status in the period following the collapse of the Communist empire.
Stalin's ranking as the greatest Russian may be seen
as an indirect reflection of a mentality that is common to many of today's
Russians, who maintain passive loyalty to the nation despite the injustice,
corruption, and egregious abuse of authority by state government officials. The
historical experience has taught the Russian people that they are powerless
against the omnipotent state and that their best strategy is to adapt to the
will and whims of their rulers. About 80 percent of Russians tell
pollsters that they have no "influence on political life in Russia."
The years of post-communist development have not been
fully wasted, however. The past few years have witnessed the rise of what one
might call "non-Soviet Russians". It was these younger Russians -- and
particularly those better-educated Moscow residents with modern professional
skills -- who joined the mass protests against Putin's regime that erupted in the
Russian capital in late 2011. In the Carnegie survey these same younger Muscovites
do not agree that "our people will always need a leader like Stalin, someone
who will restore order."
Russian society is becoming more diverse, and people's relation to the
state is a major line of division. The paternalistic model that Putin has
established derives its legitimacy from a system of symbols that could be
called "Stalinist": an infallible state, patriotism understood as loyalty to
the ruling authorities, disloyalty regarded as a criminal act. These symbols
may still be accepted by a conservative Soviet-style majority, but they have also
A true de-Stalinization process will require no less
than a reinvention of Russian nationhood based on a rejection of the
traditional concept of the state, an end to the political and historical
immunity of the secret police, and the emergence of a concept of "we, the
people." It is impossible to say whether and when Russia will rise to this
challenge. But until that happens, Stalin will not die.
Photo by EVGENY FELDMAN/AFP/Getty Images