70 years after Stalin’s death, his ghost still haunts Russia

A supporter of the Russian Communist Party stands next to a portrait of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during a May Day demonstration in Moscow, Russia, May 1, 2022. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov (MAXIM SHEMETOV/)

70 years ago, On the night of March 5, 1953, Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known by his nom de guerre Stalin, “the man of steel”, died.

A muzzled society terror as a mode of government, an all-powerful political police, real or imaginary enemies forced to confess to the most absurd crimes under torture, mass graves, purges (700,000 people executed in 1937-1938 alone), deportations, famines, concentration camps, “total” censorship and propaganda, a war against Hitler won at an unimaginable cost of 27 million Soviet deads (including 8.6 million military dead against 4.1 million Germans), a divided Europe and a Cold War about to become hot: This was the legacy of the Vojd (Leader).

Three years after his death, in February 1956, the “excesses of the cult of his personality” were denounced by his successor, Nikita Khrushchevat the XX Party Congress. In October 1961, his body had finally been removed from Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. to be deposited, more modestly, in the necropolis near the wall of the Kremlin. During the perestroikawith gorbachevand especially in the early nineties, with YeltsinWhen the archives were opened and hitherto forbidden testimonies were published, much of the truth about his thirty-year reign became known to all, and a large majority of his former subjects were able to freely express their revulsion and horror at the memory. of his bloody time.

But this rejection did not last long. If we believe the polls, the Russians appreciate him more and more. There are many explanations for it. Of course, they are largely due to the personality and historical vision of the man who has been in the Kremlin since 2000 and who considers his distant predecessor an “effective manager” and, above all, the incarnation of victory in the Second World War. World War. The truth is that, for Vladimir Putinthe reference to Joseph Stalin can also be cumbersome…

A relatively recent return

The “Stalinist renaissance”, it must be emphasized, is a more recent phenomenon than one might imagine. In 2008, at the end of Vladimir Putin’s second term, 60% of those surveyed by the Levada Institute (one of the country’s main polling centers) considered that the crimes committed during the Stalin era were not justified; in 2012, at the end of Dmitri Medvedev’s presidential term, “only” 21% of those surveyed said they considered Stalin a “great leader”, a lower result than the 29% registered in 1992, less than a year after his disappearance from the USSR.

Negative views of Stalin only really began to wane in 2015, the year after Crimea was annexed, a time of patriotic exaltation and glorification of the history of the State. In 2019, 70% of those surveyed stated that for them Stalin had played a fairly or very positive role, and only 16% perceived it negatively. It was also from this year that young Russians, who until then had been rather indifferent towards Stalin, began to express favorable opinions about the dictator. Finally, in 2021, a few months before the invasion of Ukraine, 56% considered it a veliki vojd (great guide), a new record.

Although naturally one must be wary of opinion polls in a “memocracy”, a dictatorship that derives part of its legitimacy from the rewriting of the past for political purposesHowever, opinion polls reflect a reality that must be analyzed.

The first reason for these favorable feelings towards Stalin is historical: the “strong leader”, the “tough leader” is a cliché firmly anchored in a fundamentally conservative political culture, which has never really experienced democracy.

Soviet communist leader Joseph Stalin (1879 – 1953) lies in the lobby of the House of Trade Unions, Moscow. (Keystone Photo/Getty Images) (Keystone/)

On the other hand, in Russia never really turned the page on Stalinism. After the Leader’s death, the country experienced two brief waves of “de-Stalinization” under Khrushchev (1953-1964) and Gorbachev (1985-1991), and above all a long period of “re-Stalinization” during the Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko years. (1964-1985).

The Yeltsin years (1992-1999) were characterized, on the one hand, by an “archive revolution” that revealed or confirmed the extent of Stalinist crimes, but also by the absence of a true decommunization on the legal-moral level. – The famous “Trial of the Communist Party” of 1992 was a failure due to a definition problem of the Communist Party, which was never a political party in the classical sense, but a “power control mechanism”. Therefore, Russia will not have had its “Nuremberg trials” of the CPSU, which could have educated the younger generations.

Nostalgia for “greatness”

This leads us to the failure of the transformation of post-Soviet Russia into a true democracy.

During the second half of the 1990s, against the backdrop of the country’s geopolitical and economic decline, there was a return to discourses and practices that revived the long tradition of a strong Russian state (“the vertical of power”), a trend that was resumed and amplified during the first two terms of Vladimir Putin, in 2000-2008.

Stalinist sentiments were then fueled by the idea of ​​continuity between the Russian Federation and the USSR, and the demise of the latter was no longer presented by the authorities as an inevitable event, but rather as a combined effect of Western and US goings-on. of the action of a “fifth column” within the country.

Recall that in 2005, before the Russian Federal Assembly (the two houses of the bicameral parliament together), Putin described the dismantling of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” The same Putin who, for years, has not stopped insisting on a simple idea: it was Lenin, with his project for a federal State adopted in December 1922, who was retrospectively responsible for the disappearance of the USSR. In other words, the “catastrophe” would not have occurred if Stalin’s “autonomist” plan had prevailed at the time: the republics that made up this unified and centralized state simply could not have been separated as in the case of a federation, which is what happened in the early 1990s.

memory wars

This brings us to the essential element of Stalinophilia, conspiracy. Vladimir Putin has frequently argued that while he does not deny Stalinist crimes or the reality of the Great Terror of the 1930s, he is equally wary of criticism of Stalinism as a means of weakening Russia today by presenting it as a country that has not changed much from it. to its totalitarian past. From this point of view, For Putin, attacking Stalin is tantamount to participating in the plot hatched by the West to make Russia a second- or even third-rate country, contrary to what would be its “natural place.”

Criticism of Stalin becomes suspect especially when it focuses on his actions during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). The “cult” of Stalin has its roots in the Brezhnev era, during which Putin was a young KGB officer; it is through this cult that Stalin has been rehabilitated in the eyes of millions of Russians, for whom he remains closely associated with the 1945 victory. history” finally had its effect: the triumph of 1945 eclipsed the tyrant of the Great Terror.

This policy of voluntary amnesia led to the results we know of. Thus, in a 2005 poll, 40% of those surveyed considered that the Red Army had been decimated by the Stalinist purges; only 17% said so in 2021. While the “memory wars” with the Baltic countries and Poland over the origins of World War II are in full swing, Putin does not hesitate to describe the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as a “triumph of diplomacy”. Even the Gulag has been relegated to the category of “unfortunate side effect.”

On February 2, 2023, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad (Volgograd since 1961, but reverting to its old name during the commemoration period), the city had seen giant busts and banners glorifying the Leader , while propaganda referred to Stalin as the “generalissimo” (a title actually awarded in 1945), the architect of victory: a shameless new rewriting of history.

Will Putin be able to “catch up and surpass” Stalin?

Souvenirs are displayed for sale at Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's museum in his hometown of Gori, Georgia, March 1, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
Souvenirs are displayed for sale at Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s museum in his hometown of Gori, Georgia, March 1, 2023. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/)

The “Stalinophilia” of the population continues to be a double-edged sword, since it can also generate resentment towards the leaders. For Russians who express respect for Stalin, he is not so much a historical figure as a symbol of a powerful and respected “great Russia,” a Russia of justice and order, not unlike the sentiments of the Russian peasantry toward Tsar Nicholas II. .

From this perspective, Stalin may lose his status as “ally” and “guarantor” and become an embarrassing competitor for Vladimir Putin. With Stalin, the bar is set very high, and the Russian president is doomed not only to constantly be measured against his illustrious predecessor, but also to see his popularity eroded, as happened in 2020-2021, in the context of the enactment of the reform of pensions, and the no less unpopular management of the Covid-19 pandemic, when not wearing a mask became an act of defiance to the authorities.

destani, to parody a famous catchphrase from the Soviet era. Undoubtedly, Putin felt the “icy breath of the Commander” who raised the easy conquest of Ukraine and the installation of a puppet regime in kyiv. It was also Stalin’s model that guided him in his decision to mobilize to drown the Ukrainian army “under heaps of corpses”, as the Leader had done in World War II. On February 28, 2023, addressing the leadership of the FSB, the Russian counterintelligence agency, Putin told his men to redouble their efforts to “eliminate the vermin who seek to divide the Russians with the support of the West”: could Is a 1937-style witch hunt brewing? At least we can’t say that the Russians weren’t warned. Did they want Stalin? He can come.

*Article originally published by The Conversation- By Andreï Kozovoï, University Professor, University of Lille.

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