Stalin, Russia’s New Hero

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Source: The New York Times – by Alex Luhn (Stalin, Russia’s New Hero)

Penza, Russia — At School No. 58 in Penza, a regional capital that is an eight and a half hour drive southeast of Moscow, the jury is still out on Joseph Stalin.

“He was a great man, unique in history,” Zhenya Viktorov, an 11th grader, told me on a recent visit. His classmate Amina Kurayev was more circumspect: “It wasn’t as terrible as they say.”

And what about the millions of Soviets who were shot or sent to the gulags? “No one was repressed for no reason,” Zhenya said. When I asked him how many political opponents Stalin killed, he told me “thousands,” and argued that the purges weren’t as “big or inhumane as the media likes to say.”

At least 15 million people were killed in prisons and labor camps under Stalin and his predecessor Vladimir Lenin, according to Alexander Yakovlev, who led a commission on rehabilitating victims of political repression under President Boris N. Yeltsin. Estimates vary, but Stalin’s victims alone certainly number in the millions.

And yet views like Zhenya’s are becoming more common in Russia. Polls show a gradual improvement in perceptions of Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from the late 1920s until his death in 1953. A survey released on March 1 by the Levada Center, a research organization based in Moscow, found that 40 percent of Russians thought the Stalin era brought “more good than bad,” up from 27 percent in 2012. In an annual Levada survey published in January 2015, a majority of Russians (52 percent) said Stalin “probably” or “definitely” played a positive role in the country.

This quiet rehabilitation began after Vladimir V. Putin came to power in 1999. Stalin’s legacy has become a tacit justification as the Putin government has strengthened its own grip on power. Under Stalin, “order” and national prestige trumped human rights or civil liberties.

“By raising the figure of Stalin, the Putin regime is trying to raise the idea that collective interests are more important than individual lives, and that means the regime has less responsibility to society,” Lev Gudkov, who conducts the Levada Center’s Stalin polls, told me.

Here in Penza, the Communist Party opened a Stalin Center in December. It’s just a few rooms of old photographs and newspapers and a lecture hall with a giant portrait of Stalin, but it makes a statement. A golden bust of Stalin stands in front of the building.

Sites like these are becoming more and more common. In 2015, the Communist Party, which has 92 of 450 seats in Parliament and often toes the Kremlin line, raised a banner with pictures of Lenin and Stalin as the backdrop for the party plenary session. At Victory Day celebrations last May 9, his image adorned a fence next to a Moscow police station. Moscow’s best-known bookstore was recently promoting a book called “How Stalin Defeated Corruption.”

School textbooks and state television programs, even if they briefly mention his human rights abuses, celebrate Stalin as a great leader. Mr. Putin has backed a planned monument to the victims of Soviet political repressions in Moscow, but that’s likely pure politics. He wants to play to the masses who are growing enamored of Stalin without alienating those Russians, such as the Moscow intelligentsia, who abhor him. The president has also carefully praised Stalin: “We can criticize the commanders and Stalin all we like, but can anyone say with certainty that a different approach would have enabled us to win?” he once said about World War II.

But Stalin receives more than just cagey rhetorical support. On Feb. 22, the Russian Military History Society — which Mr. Putin founded in 2012, is headed by the minister of culture and receives millions of dollars in state funding each year — paid for a bust of Stalin to be installed at a war museum in the city of Pskov, near the Estonian border. The minister of culture recently supported an exhibition of Socialist Realist paintings by Aleksandr Gerasimov, one of Stalin’s court painters, featuring portraits of the “generalissimo.”

Why is Stalin now gaining popularity? For one, people remember less and less about his purges and prison camps — which in Russia began to be thoroughly investigated and openly discussed only in the 1980s. As the sharp edges of Stalin’s image have gone out of focus, he has become what Ilya Budraitskis, a leftist thinker and activist, described to me as an “empty shell that can be filled with different meanings.”

I saw this firsthand in Penza. The Communists at the Stalin Center longed for his command economy, arguing that the hyperinflation and collapses of the 1990s were far worse than Soviet-era shortages; a right-wing, neo-pagan taxi driver told me that his favorite historical figures are Stalin and Hitler because they were able to “keep order.”

In today’s Russia, corrupt officials steal from the budget, police officers demand bribes and judges are believed to be bought and sold. Longing for the “order” of the past is palpable. The problem is that the fans of order never picture themselves as the ones being repressed, said Sergei Oleynik, head of the Penza branch of the liberal Yabloko Party. “When they talk about the Stalin era, they imagine the holster at the side, but not the barrel to the back of their neck,” he told me.

The Kremlin also plays on Russian nostalgia for superpower status, stressing the glories of the Soviet past — first and foremost, victory in World War II — over the persecutions and famines. When Russia is besieged by enemies, including a government in Ukraine that the state news media has described as a “fascist junta,” the image of Stalin the defender against Nazis wins out over that of Stalin the paranoid tyrant. Can Mr. Putin’s strong hand similarly defend the motherland?

The Putin government is able to capitalize on Stalin’s legacy because Russia has not fully reconciled with the dark side of this heritage. The Moscow city administration opened a gulag museum last year, but most labor camps and mass graves around the country have not been commemorated. Russia’s only preserved gulag camp and museum, Perm 36, was recently taken over by the government, which changed the site’s focus to its contribution to the victory in World War II. Memorial, a nongovernmental organization that works to document Soviet abuses, has called for a ban on Stalin monuments. It’s a worthwhile proposal, but an unlikely one: The Justice Ministry has deemed several branches of Memorial “foreign agents.”

Russia won’t be able to reform its increasingly authoritarian and corrupt government — which rejects “Western” values like human rights and democracy while buying into its capitalist economic model — as long as it refuses to acknowledge the excesses of the most tyrannical government in its past. Victor Erofeyev, a novelist whose father was a translator for Stalin, has said that “when Stalin dies in the soul of the last Russian, then you can say our country has a future.” Unfortunately, Mr. Putin is happy to keep him alive.

Stalin, Russia’s New Hero


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