The legacy of dead dictators from vanquished totalitarian regimes should no longer be ambivalent. Only Germany’s lunatic fringe dares to commemorate Hitler. Not even the pathetic remnant of the Khmer Rouge celebrates Pol Pot’s memory. Yet, as Russia approaches the 60th anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany, marking Stalin’s role in that victory is proving to be damnably awkward.
Indeed, earlier this year, Moscow was roiled by debates about whether or not to build a statue to the dead dictator. In large bookstores across Russia, a huge number of political biographies and histories portray Stalin and his era. Some of these, based on newly opened archival material, are critical. But the majority of these books and authors portray Stalin in a positive light. Indeed, when Russians are asked to list the most important people of the twentieth century, Stalin is still tied for first place – with Lenin.
Some see the hand of what remains of the Communist Party behind this. The Party has moved far from its old Leninist ideals, as it seeks support nowadays through a witch’s brew of Russian nationalism, hyper-orthodox Christianity, and “state Stalinism.”
Of course, towns and cities are no longer named for Stalin. In the late 1950’s, countless Stalin monuments were demolished. Yet many symbols of Stalin’s rule have been carefully preserved, including the national anthem he personally approved in 1944. There are seven high-rises in Moscow that Russians still call “Stalin’s vysotki.” Next to Lenin’s tomb is Stalin’s grave and monument, where heaps of fresh flowers are always to be seen on the anniversaries of his birth, his death, and the victory over Hitler.
To be sure, Khrushchev’s uncovering of Stalin’s crimes and cult of personality in 1956 made a huge impression both in the Soviet Union and abroad. But many people in the political elite and military circles were enraged by Khrushchev’s revelations. This incited many attempts to rehabilitate Stalin, especially during the 20 years of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule, which we now call the period of “stagnation.”
Mikhail Gorbachev continued to uncover the crimes of Stalinism, shedding light on dark pages that Khrushchev lacked the courage to open to public view. During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, this criticism became even stronger.
But demolishing the ideological, political and economic structures of the past is not enough to renew society. Yeltsin understood this. Eight years ago the remains of the Romanov family were publicly buried in the Peter-Paul castle in Saint Petersburg. Nicolas II gained the status of saintly martyr.
The reburial of the Romanovs, however, didn’t touch the public’s emotions for long. Over 50% of Russia’s population, including teachers, scientists, doctors, and military personnel, have seen their quality of life fall since communism’s demise. No surprise, then, that they are nostalgic for the past, including Stalin.
People of the older generation do, of course, remember the hardships of the 1930’s and 1940’s. But most Russians do not view the entire Soviet period as some sort of black hole. They see a time of hardship, yes, but also of great achievements – in economic development, science, culture, education, and defense of the motherland during the war.
Today, Russians listen to old Soviet songs and watch Soviet-era movies. May 1 (Labor Day), and November 7 (the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution) remain much more meaningful than newly installed postcommunist holidays, such as June 12 (Independence Day). In fact, for many Russians, the declaration of Russia’s independence in 1990 represents a low point in the country’s history, a year of anarchy and disarray.
What can Russians be proud of in the 15 years of postcommunism? Shock therapy that ruined the economy and gave away the country’s wealth to private but rarely clean hands? Neither democracy nor markets are seen by most Russians as absolute values, because they have failed to deliver either prosperity or security. What victories has Russia’s army achieved in these years? It could not even subdue Chechnya, a small republic within the Russian federation.
The Russian federation remains a collection of multinational states in need of some unifying idea of statehood and nationality to keep them together. The easiest and the most understandable idea for Russians to cling to is patriotism.
Only two events have the power to mobilize and energize this sense of patriotism: the October revolution of 1917 and the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, which turned the USSR and Russia into a great world power. The victory over fascism, because so many of its participants remain active, is a living event in our memory.
Victory Day this year will likely be the last “round” anniversary of 1945 that Russia can commemorate while many thousands of veterans are alive and able to participate. So the Kremlin is preparing to mark the event on a scale that Russia has never seen before. Needless to say, Stalin’s name will be mentioned countless times during these celebrations.
But it would be a mistake to see this public recognition of Stalin as a real yearning for every aspect of the system he created. Instead, acknowledging Stalin is a way for Russians to recall a time of great deeds and perhaps even greater sacrifices. Patriotism everywhere is always based on such notions.