Russia’s gradual embrace of Stalinism

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics

When it comes to Russia’s creeping rehabilitation of Stalin, a good follow-up read was published last month in openDemocracy: The Embrace of Stalinism. It was written by Memorial’s founder Arseny Roginsky, apparently on the eve of the police raid. It starts off slow, but ends up sketching an instructive panorama of the current junction in Russia’s development.

The urgency of the moment when it comes to determining historical memory reflects the same tragedy as Spain’s; any opening is about to be too late. The terror is “a passing memory. There are still witnesses, but they are the last of their kind, and they are dying, taking with them the personal memories and experiences.”

The difference, of course, is that Spain is witnessing a last-minute rush to uncover stories and records from the totalitarian past, while the last opportunities to do so in Russia are rapidly being clamped down on. All the signs point the other way – as was poignantly underlined by the raid on Memorial and the further assassinations of dissidents this month.

So why is today’s Russia romanticising the memory of Stalinism, Roginsky asks – and proceeds to walk the reader through the ingredients:

  • The lack of any substantive legal recognition of the Stalinist crimes, let alone prosecution of surviving perpetrators, by the national state after 1991.
  • The complexities of whittling down a simple story of good and evil about Stalinism. The same men who sent others to the camps themselves became victims later; the same leaders who signed execution orders “also organized the construction of kindergartens and hospitals” in an era of mass modernisation.
  • The way both the state and the Russian people, for different reasons, harken for an “image of a happy and glorious past”, and how this has favoured – after the failure of Yeltsin-era attempts to project it on Stolypin and such pre-revolutionary figures – the creeping rehabilitation of Stalin.

    [I]f the government craved legitimacy after the collapse of the USSR, people craved identity. And both the government and the population looked for a way to make up for these in the image of a Great Russia, of which present-day Russia is the successor. [..] Gradually and insidiously, the concept of Great Russia came to mean the Soviet period as well, particularly the Stalinist era.

    The post-Yeltsin leadership saw that people were ready for another reconstruction of the past, and made full use of it. I do not mean to say that [it] intended to rehabilitate Stalin. It just wants to offer its fellow citizens the notion of a great country, one which is timelessly great, one which overcomes all ordeals with honor. [This notion] was needed to consolidate the population, to restore the continuity of the authority of state power [..].

  • The role, in particular, of WW2 – the “Great Patriotic War” – in Russia’s historical memory. The celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Evil in that war makes for an irreconcilable contradiction within the image of Stalinism:

    “The memory of the hardships of the war [..] was extremely anti-Stalinist in the Khrushchev era. It was organically intertwined with the memory of the terror. Today the memory of the war has been replaced by the memory of Victory. [..] At the end of the 1960s, the memory of the terror was banned – for a whole 20 years! By the time this changed, there were virtually no soldiers left, and there was no one left to correct the collective stereotype with their personal recollections. [..]

    The two images of the Stalinist era were in harsh contradiction. There was that of Stalinism, of a criminal regime responsible for decades of state terror. And there was that of an era of glorious victories and great achievements,” – above all, that of [..] victory in the Great Patriotic War.” [..]

    It is impossible to reconcile these two images of the past, except by rejecting one of them, or at least making serious corrections to it. And this is what happened – the memory of the terror receded. It has not disappeared completely, but it has been pushed to the periphery of people’s consciousness. 

  • The existence of monuments, “memory books” and exhibitions commemorating Stalinism – almost invariably local, grassroots, fragmentised efforts, which are focused on memorialising victims rather than posing broader questions of guilt – and their failure to impact the collective historical consciousness.
  • The role that contemporary political rhetoric and state interests play in pushing the discourse on the communist past, whether it is on TV or in school text books, toward the celebration of national greatness and state primacy. This effectively marginalises the narrative of the Soviet Union’s mass suffering:

    Television programs about the Stalinist era are quite numerous and diverse: glamorous pro-Stalinist kitsch such as the TV series “Stalin-life” compete with talented and conscientious screen adaptations of works by Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn. Viewers can choose their own preferred vehicles for reading the era.

    [T]he number of viewers who choose “Stalin-life” is growing, while the number who choose Shalamov is shrinking. This is inevitable. Those whose world outlook is formed by anti-Western rhetoric and endless rants by TV political analysts about this great country that is surrounded by enemies on all sides hardly need to be told which image of the past best accords with this outlook. [..] 

    In the new history textbooks, Stalinism is presented as an institutional phenomenon, even an achievement. [T]he terror is portrayed as a historically determined and unavoidable tool for solving state tasks. [..] The intention is not to idealise Stalin. This is the natural side-effect of resolving a completely different task – that of confirming the idea of the indubitable correctness of state power. The government is [..] guided by state interests that are higher than [..] morality and law. The state is always right – at least as long as it can deal with its enemies. This idea runs through the new textbooks from beginning to end [..].



  1. Ludwik Kowalski  •  Jan 24, 2009 @8:23 am

    Several aspects of the “Great Patriotic War” are briefly described in my recent OpEd:

    Those who know very little about Stalinism will probably benefit from my short and easy-to-read book on that subject. For details see:

    Please share this link with others, especially students and teachers. Comments will be appreciated.

  2. nimh  •  Jan 24, 2009 @11:28 am

    Whew! An incorrigible, digressive link-clicker, I curiously followed the link on your homepage to the comments you received about your book from “Professor X3”. And then I looked up who Prof. X3 is — I’m not sure why you’re cloaking his name, but I’ll follow your lead — and read some of the things written by and about him. An actual, inveterate Stalinist! Teaching humanities courses at a US university. Who’d have thought?

    Pity that almost all of the negative stuff about him seems to come from his wingnut counterparts on the far right, the whole Horowitz crowd. The more such conservative wingnuts attack him in their typical way, the more an unsuspecting liberal student might feel tempted to think of Prof. X3 as a good guy. Which would obviously be a mistake. Yikes.

    I liked Michael Bérubé’s characterisation of the man and his “fringes of the Monty Python Left”, though. :-) Luckily, Stalinism has zero influence in the US – or in most of Europe, for that matter. Russia, however, obviously is a very different case…