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 modest scale.
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 the USSR.
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).