Joseph Stalin is not yet dead, it would seem. The Soviet leader who was responsible for the deaths of millions over his thirty-year rule still commands worryingly high levels of admiration for a host of reasons. These findings are clear in the first-ever comparative opinion polls on the dictator in the post-Soviet countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia. The surveys, commissioned by the Carnegie Endowment in 2012, suggest de-Stalinization has not succeeded in the former Soviet Union and most post-Soviet citizens have not come to grips with their history.
Post-Soviet citizens are confused. The poll results are more an illustration of feelings of dependency and confusion than genuine support for a dictatorial government. Russians in particular lack alternative historical models.
Stalin is still identified strongly with victory in World War II. The memory of the defeat of Nazi Germany remains very strong in all four countries polled, especially among older citizens. Stalin is still admired as a wartime leader—even as the same people reject his acts of repression.
De-Stalinization in Russia has been half-hearted. There have been two-and-a-half attempts to engage the public in a debate on Stalin’s crimes, but only one of them, begun under Mikhail Gorbachev, had some success. Putin’s Kremlin has found the image of Stalin useful in his effort to solidify his authority.
A new generation thinks differently. Many Russian urbanites are de-Sovietized, more self-sufficient, and more critical of Russian history. Stalin is losing his power to attract or repel this segment of society.
De-Stalinization in Georgia has not run deep. The anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin campaigns launched by the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili were conspicuous but superficial, and underlying opinions of the leader remain favorable. However, for Georgians, Stalin is much more a national icon than a political model.
Sixty years after his death in March 1953 and more than twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin has not been properly consigned to history.He remains in a prominent tomb in Red Square in the heart of Moscow, his image is on sale in flea markets in Russia and Georgia, his portrait is carried in political rallies. In 2012 Stalin held first place in a poll of great figures in Russian history. In 2013 buses carried his image as Russians marked the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad in the city of Volgograd, which had been renamed Stalingrad for the day.
It is natural to be alarmed about this—and over the last few years many panic-inducing headlines have warned about “Stalin worship” in the former Soviet Union.1 After all, this is a man the world regards as being one of the three chief monsters of the twentieth century, alongside Hitler and Mao, having been responsible for the deaths of millions of people between the early 1920s and 1953.
Yet the enduring admiration for Stalin is first of all a puzzle that needs decoding. Certainly, no one wants to restore the gulag, and even the authoritarian post-Soviet states are still a long way from being Stalinist.2 What exactly lies behind the positive expressions of support for Stalin? Who and where are the admirers and what motivates them?
The Stalin question is not just important as part of the debate about the uses of history. It goes to the heart of contemporary questions about politics, the relationship between society and state, democratization, and education in the former Soviet Union.
To shed light on these issues, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commissioned two respected polling organizations, the Levada Center in Moscow and the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) in Yerevan, Baku, and Tbilisi, to ask citizens in Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia eight questions about their attitudes toward Stalin. The surveys were conducted in October and November 2012.
This was the first time a full comparative cross-country survey of this kind had been undertaken. The Levada Center was able to compare its results with a number of previous polls in Russia on Stalin, but no such poll had ever been conducted in the three South Caucasus countries since they gained independence in 1991–1992.
The variance in survey answers is a reminder that among his former subjects, there is not just one Stalin but many—Russia’s Stalin is (very) different from Georgia’s, for instance. In a famous essay, the historian Alfred Rieber called Stalin the “Man of the Borderlands,” who built for himself a triple mythical identity as a non-national proletarian, a Georgian, and a Russian.3 Stalin’s success in projecting those three different identities at once explains why he is still venerated by categories of people who have little in common with each other (die-hard Communists, Georgian nationalists, Russian statists).
Some of the results are shocking. Perhaps the most worrying figures come from Stalin’s homeland, Georgia. An extraordinary 45 percent of Georgians have positive attitudes toward the dictator, and 68 percent call him a “wise leader.” Meanwhile, 38 percent of Armenians (the highest number in the four countries polled) agree with the statement, “Our people will always have need of a leader like Stalin, who will come and restore order.” In Azerbaijan, whose population—to its credit—showed the greatest antipathy toward Stalin, perhaps the most striking finding was that 22 percent of the population (and 39 percent of young people) do not even know who Stalin is.
There are many contradictions that give important nuance to the picture. For example, even those who say they admire Stalin also admit that they do not approve of his brutality. And the number of people who say there is “no justification” for Stalin’s crimes is fairly high, ranging from 45 to 57 percent across the four countries.
Not surprisingly, the poll also shows massive endorsement, especially among pensioners, for Stalin as the victor of the Great Patriotic War over Hitler. Interestingly, the support is even stronger in the Caucasus than in the country that bore the brunt of the conflict, Russia. This is a reminder of how even in the West (just take a look at the pictures of Stalin sitting with Churchill and Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference in 1945) Stalin’s brutal image is complemented by his role as the wartime leader who defeated Hitler.
Clearly, these figures deserve careful reading. In this volume, three respected scholars in Russia and Georgia reflect on them.
Levada Center director Lev Gudkov’s comparison of survey results in Russia since the perestroika period, culminating in the Carnegie poll, shows definitively that support for Stalin has strengthened rather than weakened since the end of the USSR. This of course has many explanations; at the least it suggests that many Russians continue to have strong feelings of dependency on and loyalty toward an autocratic ruler. Gudkov explains that in Russia, Stalin is a cipher for the perceived failings of democracy, and that the current president, Vladimir Putin, has deliberately manipulated the dictator’s image to reinforce his effort to build a “power vertical” in Russia.
Lasha Bakradze, the director of the Georgian State Museum of Literature, makes a powerful case that those Georgians who admire Stalin do so in a quasi-religious way that does not necessarily overlap with their political convictions. After all, when responding to a question in the October 2012 CRRC poll, a high number of Georgians also approved of democracy. (To add to the contradictions, polls show that consistently the most popular figure in Georgia is the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, the head of an ancient institution that has battled both Communism and Westernization.)
Around half of our respondents told the pollsters that they regard Stalin as a “wise leader.” And the authors address the question of why de-Stalinization has not worked in the post-Soviet Union.
Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center writes of “two-and-a-half” de-Stalinization campaigns in Russia, all incomplete, that have not penetrated society deeply enough. Lasha Bakradze analyzes how the proudly pro-Western government of President Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia dismantled Stalin statues but failed to engage the public in a debate about why it was doing so—or indeed failed to put up a memorial to Stalin’s victims. Just as in 1961, when Nikita Khrushchev withdrew Stalin’s body from Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square at night by stealth, so too the Georgian government in 2010 pulled down the massive statue of Stalin in his hometown of Gori without warning or consultation. In both Moscow and Gori, the body and the statue were moved only a few meters away.
Carnegie’s survey unfortunately confirms that in the post-Soviet space, Stalin is still a figure of the present, not the past. The hope is that this publication will help stimulate a new debate on the failures to de-Stalinize the minds of post-Soviet citizens and bury him once and for all.
On March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin died of a stroke at his dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. In 1959, Russian poet Boris Chichibabin wrote a poem called “Stalin Is Not Dead.”
It’s early still to celebrate—Let some other oracle shout out
That our old wounds will hurt no more . . .
That the dead foe’s body won’t be our banner . . .
Let him shout, but I know well—Stalin is not dead.
Echoing Chichibabin’s poem, American historian Martin Malia wrote over three decades later:
Although [Stalin] no longer lived physically, he still lived, and would continue to live.... The remaining four decades of Soviet history would be dominated by one overriding problem: How to bury Stalin. All three of his principal successors as General Secretary—Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev—were primarily concerned with the problems engendered by his legacy.1
When his book was published, Malia believed that Stalin “lived . . . until the end of the system in 1991.” But even today, sixty years after Stalin’s death and over twenty years after “the end of the system,” the Russian people still have not come to terms with Stalin’s legacy. The 2012 Levada Center poll conducted in Russia and commissioned by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for this publication is a graphic illustration of conflicting opinions about the dictator.
The Russian people still have not come to terms with Stalin’s legacy.
One might assume that the most common perception of Stalin is that of a cruel, inhumane tyrant guilty of exterminating millions of innocent people. The survey results, however, show a much more complex picture.
Consider the following: Almost half of Russians surveyed believe “Stalin was a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity.” But over half of the Russians surveyed 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).
Stalin is a hidden hero, and this status is part of the inherently vague nature of Russia’s post- Communist statehood and national identity.
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, and Russians now name Stalin as the public figure that has had the most influence on world history (see table 1 in Lev Gudkov’s chapter in this volume).
But there is 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.2 Stalin is a hidden hero, and this status is part of the inherently vague nature of Russia’s post-Communist statehood and national identity. The public perception of Stalin is ambiguous, and the official discourse is ambivalent and evasive. Though his images are absent from the Russian physical space, his presence can be easily felt in the Russian political order and in state-society relations.
Yet, that same year the process of release and (often posthumous) rehabilitation of gulag prisoners convicted of treason and other political crimes began. Meanwhile, Stalin worship appeared to continue as usual. The tyrant was placed in the mausoleum in Red Square, his body alongside Lenin’s, embalmed and preserved for eternity.
Behind the scenes, a fierce power struggle raged. Eventually, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the post-Stalin Soviet Union, and in 1956 he launched a campaign to expose Stalin’s personality cult, accusing him of mass repressions of innocent people.
Khrushchev had physical symbols of Stalin torn down and erased. Countless cities, streets, factories, and collective farms that bore Stalin’s name were renamed. Stalin’s body was quietly removed from the mausoleum, but it still remained in Red Square—right next to where Lenin rests. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization only went so far.
The dethroning of Stalin, however, was enough to generate controversy and turmoil in Soviet society. Some people were angry at what they saw as insufficient exposure and condemnation of Stalin’s crimes, while others were outraged by the vilification of the leader they worshipped as a god. In Georgia in 1956, this outrage led to mass pro-Stalin rallies that lasted for several days and were eventually brutally suppressed (see Lasha Bakradze’s essay in this volume).3
Some among the Soviet leadership watched Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization process with alarm. The condemnation of the supreme leader encouraged public debate and therefore undermined the legitimacy of a regime built on the concept of the absolute infallibility of the Communist state.
In 1964, Khrushchev was deposed in a bloodless coup d’état. The post-Khrushchev Soviet leadership quickly wrapped up his anti-Stalin campaign. During the “creeping re-Stalinization” that followed, the condemnation of Stalin stopped, but he was not publicly exonerated. His name was practically absent from official discourse. The precious few public contributions to Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization of Soviet life, whether in art, literature, or social thought, were shut down or driven underground. Chichibabin’s lines proved to be prophetic.
A new wave of de-Stalinization was launched two decades later in Gorbachev’s perestroika era, a key element of which was what observers referred to as the “return of history.” In the late 1980s, a stream of media publications, books, and public events exposed Communist lies and distortions. In contrast to Khrushchev’s disclosures of Stalin’s crimes, this round of de-Stalinization engaged broad public constituencies. The momentum of the effort was so great that it radically delegitimized the Communist regime. By the end of 1991, the meltdown of Soviet Communism was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia, had evolved into a passionate anti-Communist. Yeltsin’s Russia rejected the Soviet system and adopted—at least on paper—a Western model of governance with democratic institutions. The condemnation of Stalinism and the tyrannical Communist regime appeared final.
But the enthusiasm to dismantle the Communist legacy, and Stalinism in particular, did not last long. It was soon overshadowed by the hardship and turmoil of the early post-Communist reality, including the fierce political standoff that developed between Yeltsin’s government and the Communist opposition in the Russian legislature. The Communists evoked the Stalin era as a time of Russian glory. The comparison of Stalin’s Soviet Union—a nation that had conquered Hitler and become a superpower that kept half of the world under control—with dramatically weakened modern Russia was, in the eyes of the Russian Communists and their numerous supporters, definitive proof of the national treason committed by both Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
Facing declining support, a tough Communist opposition, and many other challenges, Yeltsin did not follow through with de-Stalinization at a state level. Stalin’s grave remained in Red Square (and Lenin’s body stayed in the mausoleum), and no national memorial to the victims of the gulag was created. The one attempt made to secure a legal condemnation of Soviet Communism was ineffective; the 1992 trial of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union failed to reach a verdict on the crimes committed by the Soviet regime.
When Vladimir Putin emerged as Yeltsin’s successor in 2000, his chief goal was to reconsolidate the Russian state. He put an end to the political turmoil in part by compromising with the Communists. By doing so, he was able to soften the political divisions in Russian society and move to recentralize political control.
The regime that Putin built drew on the Soviet version of Russia’s traditional state model: centralized and uncontested state power with the domestic security forces as its main instrument of control. Implicit in this political order is the principle that the people remain powerless vis-à-vis the omnipotent state.
Stalin’s symbolic return stemmed f rom the implicitly Soviet, paternalistic quality of Putin’s regime.
The return of an essentially Soviet political arrangement once again confirmed Chichibabin’s prophecy, reminding Russians that Stalin was not dead. Stalin’s symbolic return stemmed from the implicitly Soviet, paternalistic quality of Putin’s regime. But unlike Russian Communists, Putin’s government did not explicitly glorify Stalin as a founding father. Instead, Putin and his political allies were mostly evasive on the issue of Stalin. They rarely mentioned him, and if they did, such mentions tended to be negative rather than positive.
In October 2007, during his second presidential term, Putin visited Butovo, the site of mass executions at the height of Stalin’s terror in 1937–1938. Putin was visibly shaken. “Insanity,” he said. “It is incredible. Why [were they killed]? . . . Those who were executed, sent to camps, shot and tortured number in the thousands and millions of people. . . . We need to do a great deal to ensure that this [tragedy] is never forgotten.”4
The last two years of the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded Putin in 2008, were notable for something of a third wave of de-Stalinization. In late 2009, Medvedev posted a passionate video blog on the Kremlin’s website in which he condemned “Stalin’s crimes.”5 In a 2010 newspaper interview, he said that Stalin “committed many crimes against his people.”6
In early 2010, Putin, then serving as prime minister, commemorated the anniversary of the 1940 mass executions of Polish officers by Soviet state security forces at Katyn. Putin knelt jointly with his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, at the site of the killings and spoke of “repressions that smashed people regardless of their nationality, their beliefs or their faith.”7 At the same time, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, passed a resolution that declared “the Katyn crime was carried out on direct orders of Stalin and other Soviet officials.”8
Such explicit statements were fairly rare, and Medvedev’s de-Stalinization basically wound down as soon as his presidency ended and Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012. The ambitious program of de-Stalinization announced by Medvedev’s Council on Human Rights and Civil Society in 2010 was abandoned.9 But even before that, the anti-Stalin rhetoric of Putin and Medvedev was counterbalanced by their own statements and actions.
Less than two months after his emotional visit to Butovo, Putin celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of the domestic security forces. The hero of the anniversary was the FSB (Federal Security Service), the successor to Soviet secret police agencies such as the KGB (Committee for State Security) and the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Those secret police agencies perpetrated mass killings, including the Butovo executions and the Katyn massacre. At the festivities he hosted in the Kremlin, Putin naturally did not mention what he had called a “tragedy” that should never be forgotten. Nor did he reference the later decades when the KGB persecuted dissidents and locked them up in labor camps and psychiatric asylums—those same years in which Putin was a KGB officer himself. He said, “Our goal today is to remember the heroic pages in the history of our special services.”10
Medvedev, widely seen as a more modern and liberal figure, addressed the FSB no less warmly.11 In a formal message, he expressed his firm belief that the current generation of FSB officers would “carry on the traditions of its predecessors with dignity”12—those same predecessors who were responsible for the mass repressions referred to in Medvedev’s own video blog “as one of the greatest tragedies in the Russian history.”
It is to be expected that a regime based on the unquestioned power of the state and a prominent role for the state security services would avoid discussing what part these fundamental principles played in exposing Russia to a reign of bloody terror.
The FSB itself has never rejected its Soviet legacy. The security agency is located in the Lubyanka—Stalin’s victims were tortured and shot in the building’s infamous basements. And in the Russian informal system of patronage, the agency’s political clout is unparalleled. Throughout his leadership, Putin has drawn on the FSB for many of his high-level government appointments. Dozens of FSB officers and generals have risen to top-ranking positions in the government and to control lucrative businesses. A recent book about the FSB refers to its members as “a new nobility” and claims the organization is more powerful and intimidating even than its immediate predecessor, the KGB. The FSB is not accountable to anyone, not even the Kremlin.13
Even as Russia’s leaders occasionally condemn Stalin and his crimes, they make sure the official rhetoric of condemnation does not go too far. A modicum of mourning for the victims of Stalin’s crimes may be acceptable, but it is better not to raise the question of who the actual perpetrators were. It is to be expected that a regime based on the unquestioned power of the state and a prominent role for the state security services would avoid discussing what part these fundamental principles played in exposing Russia to a reign of bloody terror.
There is no consistent official narrative of the Soviet past in general or Stalinism in particular. And there is still no national memorial to the victims of Stalin’s rule—Putin’s government has firmly rejected initiatives to create such a center of commemoration.
Although Putin’s government has marginalized the anti-Stalinist discourse, it has not banned or suppressed it. Unlike the Soviet regime, the current government does not seek to impose an orthodox way of thinking on the people. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and other literature about Stalin’s terror is easily available in bookstores and libraries. And after consultation with Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Putin personally approved an abridged version of Solzhenitsyn’s epic for use in Russian secondary schools. Despite repeated proposals by a range of officials and loyalists that Russian schools should be assigned a single politically approved twentieth-century-history textbook,14 teachers can still choose which textbooks to use in class. Academic research of the history of Stalinism is mostly unrestricted (except that access to archival materials has been increasingly limited over the past few years). The environment has become inauspicious for the likes of Memorial, a well-known nongovernmental organization that conducts archival research documenting Stalin’s crimes. But the organization and its numerous local branches have been able to continue their commemorative work.
There may not be a national memorial to the victims of the gulag, but a large number of local ones, varying in style and scale, have been built during the post-Communist period.15 Nongovernmental media outlets have published and broadcast a great quantity of material about Stalinism. Even state television has occasionally produced films and documentaries that chronicle the horrors of the Soviet gulag.
At the same time, literature defending and glorifying Stalin is displayed side by side with the historical research of Russian and Western scholars. This literature is produced by several publishers, two of them affiliated with Russia’s largest publishing house, Eksmo. They publish popular nonfiction described by a scholarly researcher as “pseudo-history written from Stalinist positions.” There are estimated to be at least 100 such books in wide circulation. Titles such as The Forbidden Truth About Stalin’s Repressions, USSR Without Stalin: The Path to Catastrophe, and On the Way to 1937: Stalin Against the Red Oligarchs are apparently in high demand. As the scholar points out, they are invariably displayed with their covers facing outward on the shelves in bookstores while works by academic historians are placed on the shelves with only their spines showing.16
In the collective post-Soviet psyche, national greatness is inseparable from violence and brutal force.
This juxtaposition reflects the public perception of Stalin as both a tyrant to blame for the deaths of millions and a wise and powerful leader who won the war against Hitler. In the minds of many Russians, in fact, the two perceptions are commonly combined. In the collective post-Soviet psyche, national greatness is inseparable from violence and brutal force.
One aspect of this self-perception is Russians’ belief that they belong to a great and victorious nation. This view is centered around the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory in the Great Patriotic War, one of very few instances of consensual memory for Russians and an undisputed matter of national pride. Putin’s government has drawn heavily on the centrality of this war and victory in the minds of Russians and has stepped up the victory celebrations on May 9, which seem to grow ever larger as the war itself moves deeper into history.
The overwhelming significance of the war and of Stalin as the commander in chief who led the nation to victory is one piece of the Stalin puzzle, one explanation why unambiguous condemnation of him is impossible in Russia. In Putin’s Russia, Stalin remains the embodiment of the state at its most powerful.
In Putin’s Russia, Stalin remains the embodiment of the state at its most powerful.
With Russia no longer a superpower, Stalin also comes in handy as “compensation” for a nation suffering from Russia’s loss of status in the world at large. His image as the conqueror of Nazi Germany and the leader of the Soviet superpower that was on par with the United States during the Cold War in a sense helps Russia make up for the humiliation it went through in the period following the collapse of the Communist empire.
The perception of Stalin that has to do with the people’s victimhood and helplessness vis-à-vis arbitrary and brutal rulers is less direct. The Russian historical experience has taught the Russian people that they are powerless against the omnipotent state and that their best strategy is to adapt to the will and whims of their rulers. This experience has generated a mentality of dependency and of accepting state paternalism as a fact of life.
Today’s paternalism, however, is no longer Stalinist, no longer that of a sadistic father who keeps his children in constant fear of undeserved and cruel punishment. The Carnegie poll clearly indicates that the vast majority of Russians would not want to live under Stalin. The paternalism they remember with nostalgia—a nostalgia Putin draws upon—is that of the 1970s, when the Soviet regime was milder, when people no longer lived in fear, and when the state guaranteed a reasonable level of security and delivered somewhat improved living standards. Putin’s modern paternalism may deliver even better incomes, but that comes with shocking inequality, egregious cronyism, corruption, the impunity of state servants, and, more recently, a growing sense of uncertainty and insecurity—all of which makes the nostalgia for the 1970s even stronger.
Stalin’s ranking as the greatest Russian may be seen as an indirect reflection of this mentality of dependency. Most Russians still choose inaction and loyalty to the state despite the injustice, corruption, and egregious abuse of authority by so-called servants of the state. About 80 percent respond in polls that they have no “influence on political life in Russia.”17
Reliance on the state, however, is based on shunning responsibility and a fear of change, not on trust or genuine support. As long as the rulers deliver, a common sentiment goes, let them engage in their self-seeking practices—protesting or demanding better government is pointless, since the people cannot make a difference anyway. And deep inside, there is an almost-unconscious belief that at a time of terrible crisis, such as a foreign invasion, that same state will lead its people to victory and greatness.
In late 2011, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest rigged parliamentary elections. Their message, as it soon became clear, was barely political. Instead, it conveyed a moral, even emotional resentment of the model of state rule that Putin had established. Those who joined the mass rallies of 2011–2012 let it be known that they wanted to make a difference—or, as they would put it, they no longer wanted to be treated as cattle.
One way to describe the protesters is as essentially un-Soviet or de-Sovietized Russians who had shed the mentality of dependency. Most of the protesters are products of the new, postindustrial economy that has developed chiefly in Moscow. They belong to the modern globalized world and have learned to assume responsibility for their choice of careers and lifestyles. They have an achiever’s mentality, something the traditional Russian experience could not have taught them.
These people do not revere symbols of past Soviet greatness, Stalin or otherwise, because they do not need to compensate for any weaknesses of their own. As individuals they do not feel weak. They are part of the modern world, and they want their country to look forward and modernize rather than live with its back to the future, which Putin’s model of government entails.
Those who took to the streets may be a tiny minority. But they also seem to represent a constituency of nonpaternalistic Russians that is growing as more and more young people from the provinces move to Moscow and other large urban centers in search of better job opportunities and modernized lifestyles.
The perception of Stalin is a significant indicator of the rise of this new constituency, which becomes more visible when the poll results are closely analyzed and the differences related to age, urban/rural divide, education, and other factors become apparent.
An indication of this trend over the past few years is a growing indifference to Stalin, especially among younger Russians. The results of the Carnegie poll provide further evidence for this development: eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds are almost twice as likely not to care about Stalin one way or another as members of the fifty-five-and-older age group.
To the young, Stalin is increasingly losing his symbolic significance and becoming just a figure from a remote past. Younger Russians—the better-educated Moscow residents and those who use the Internet to get news and other political information more often than older Russians—do not agree that “our people will always have need of a leader like Stalin, who will come and restore order.”
Russian society is becoming more diverse, and people’s perception of the state is a major line of division. The paternalistic model that Putin has established derives its legitimacy from a system of symbols that could be called “Stalinist”: an infallible state, patriotism understood as loyalty to the ruling authorities, disloyalty regarded as a criminal act. But these symbols, arguably still shared by a conservative and inactive Russian majority, are increasingly incapable of bringing the nation together.
The symbol of Stalin may be slowly fading away, but it is still alive—not least because the new, modernized minorities, potentially a vehicle for Russia’s forward development, have not yet come up with alternative figures or ideas. Chichibabin’s 1959 poem still strikes a relevant chord:
Is not Stalin’s spirit in us now, . . .
That we do not seek out the truth,
So scared are we of novelty?. . .
I’ll take my stand against the past,
But what help is there when within us—
Stalin is not dead?
The transition Russia is going through is even bigger than that from Soviet Communism to market capitalism. Russia is engaged in a slow and uneven struggle to break free of its historical political legacy of monopolized state power and the dominance of the state over the people. As a symbol, rather than a historical figure, Stalin remains a significant part of this struggle.
A true de-Stalinization process will require no less than a reinvention of Russian nationhood—based on a rejection of the traditional concept of the state, an end to the political and historical immunity of state security forces, and an acceptance of the concept of “we, the people” united by a shared vision of the future of Russia. It is impossible to say whether and when Russia will rise to this challenge. But until that happens, Stalin will not be dead.
The name of Joseph Stalin continues to resonate in the post-Soviet space. This is not what was expected when the Soviet Union broke apart. In 1989, only 12 percent of Russians surveyed named Stalin as one of the “most prominent people or social and cultural figures who have had the most significant influence on world history.” Stalin held the eleventh position in a list containing more than 100 different historical figures.1
And yet, twenty-three years later, in a poll conducted especially for the Carnegie Endowment in 2012, 42 percent of respondents named Stalin the most influential, and he took first place for the first time (see table 1 below).
Vladimir Putin’s Russia of 2012 needs symbols of authority and national strength to validate the newly authoritarian political order.
The astonishing resurgence of Stalin’s popularity in Russia tells us that public attitudes toward him are driven not by a change in awareness about his historical role but by the political climate of the time. Vladimir Putin’s Russia of 2012 needs symbols of authority and national strength, however controversial they may be, to validate the newly authoritarian political order. Stalin, a despotic leader responsible for mass bloodshed but also still identified with wartime victory and national unity, fits this need for symbols that reinforce the current political ideology. Yet, the overall impact on the Russian public of this partial return of Stalin is a rising level of political “doublethink,” confusion, and apathy.
At the end of 1990, at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, few in Russia would have believed that Stalin would be mentioned for anything other than mass terror, collectivization, famine, the military catastrophe of the early phase of World War II, the fight against “cosmopolitans,” or other terrible events. In early 1991, 70 percent of Russians surveyed believed that Stalin would be forgotten or would signify little by the year 2000. Just 10 percent of respondents thought that in ten years’ time the name of Stalin would still mean something for the “peoples of the USSR.” (The remainder of those surveyed did not have a definite opinion.)
Stalin underwent a gradual popular rehabilitation throughout the 1990s. But the critical change in public attitudes occurred when Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and sought to reestablish authoritarian rule in Russia. Putin launched a comprehensive program to ideologically reeducate society, which culminated in 2004–2005 with the preparations for the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany in 1945.
The rehabilitation of Stalin has proceeded cautiously and ambiguously. Putin’s spin doctors did not deny that Stalin’s regime had conducted mass arrests and executions but tried to minimize the importance of these events. They did so while emphasizing as far as possible the merits of Stalin as a military commander and statesman who had modernized the country and turned it into one of the world’s two superpowers.
Stalin once again became a legitimate positive figure on television and in political discourse after 2002. The Russian government discussed introducing into schools a new officially sanctioned history textbook with an approving mention of Stalin, and politicians spoke of the need to fight against “the distortions of history” in teaching the next generation.
On Stalin’s birthday in 2004, Boris Gryzlov, then the formal leader of the governing United Russia party and the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, laid flowers at Stalin’s tomb by the Kremlin Wall and called for a historical reappraisal of the Soviet dictator. Gryzlov declared that Stalin’s “excesses” should not be allowed to obscure the “extraordinary” personality of a man who, “as leader of the country, did a great deal for Victory in the Great Patriotic War.” At the same time, Alexander Kuvayev, then the leader of the newly created Russian Communist Party of the Future, called Stalin “the most successful state leader” and a “politician whom Russia needs today.”
In line with this political shift, over the last twenty years, attitudes toward Stalin have changed from being sharply negative to judging his role in history to be “generally positive” (see table 2 below). In the first ten years of Putin’s rule, the number of people who respected Stalin fell, as did the number of people who harbored feelings of “repulsion, hatred, and fear” toward him. However, the most common emotion has become indifference.
The impact of Putin’s policy, and of the effectiveness of the propaganda effort, can be seen in the results of a 2008 opinion poll. When asked, “Will people in Russia remember Stalin in fifty years’ time and if so, with what feelings (good, bad, or mixed)?” respondents gave complex answers. Twenty-three percent of Russians said that in the future Stalin would be completely forgotten. But a relative majority believed that he would be remembered in the future, albeit “with mixed feelings.”
A smaller number of those surveyed had more polarized and clearly defined views: 7 percent of respondents expressed positive sentiments, 9 percent negative views, while 16 percent had difficulty answering. The fact that only a small number of Russians hold a markedly negative and morally critical opinion of a dictator presents an exceedingly difficult problem for the sociological analysis of Russian society and shows us how big the challenge is of transforming it.
The proportion of those expressing indifference rose from 12 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2008. Among younger people—at whom the efforts of Putin’s political technologists and spin doctors was mostly directed—indifference was the overwhelming response; it was given by 59 percent of those surveyed. The Carnegie Endowment poll of 2012 confirms the same spread of opinions (see table 3 below).
Looking at the different social groups for whom the name of Stalin inspires respect today, small but important differences stand out. Smaller numbers of young people, educated people, or urban residents revere Stalin or subscribe to the “Stalinist myth” than do elderly or poorly educated Russians or those who live in villages or small towns (see tables 3 and 4).
The key point here is not so much that Russia’s poor, depressed, stagnating, and often declining provinces are a repository of Soviet-style thinking, but the reasons behind those attitudes. These areas lack social diversity, most communication is basic and personal, and the price of human life is very low. A few institutions (mainly schools and television stations) compensate for the lack of development by indoctrinating citizens with collective symbols and ideas. In big cities, by contrast, increasing individualism and more complex social interactions lead to a rejection of the myth of Stalin, not just indifference to it. (Table 4 below graphically demonstrates this divide in Russian society.)
A similar breakdown of attitudes occurs in the other former Soviet republics polled for the Carnegie survey, with the exception of Georgia, which, as Stalin’s homeland, harbors very specific attitudes. (See Lasha Bakradze’s essay in this volume and figure 1 in the By the Numbers chapter.)
In big cities, increasing individualism and more complex social interactions lead to a rejection of the myth of Stalin, not just indifference to it.
The highest number of respondents in Carnegie’s survey who know nothing about Stalin was recorded in Azerbaijan, especially among young people. This may indicate the growing distance of Azerbaijanis from their Soviet ideological legacy as well as a culture and religion that is markedly different from the other countries surveyed.
In Russia as a whole, a high level of indifference to Stalin can be observed, with 50 percent of respondents displaying a markedly neutral attitude toward him. In particular, respondents with significant social capital registered a distinct unwillingness to express firm or definite views on Stalin.
Responses differ depending on geography as well. In Georgia, there were higher levels of indifference to Stalin in the capital cities than in villages. (There was no clear trend in Azerbaijan.) Meanwhile, in Moscow, 27 percent of those surveyed say they are indifferent to Stalin, and 30 percent of Russians residing in villages feel that way. In Russia’s small- and medium-sized towns, which form a kind of “reserve of socialism” and the social base of Putinism, the level of indifference ranged from 36 to 39 percent.
Beyond indifference, in Moscow, 18 percent of those surveyed perceive Stalin positively and 46 percent negatively, while in small towns the figures are 29 percent and 16 percent and in villages the difference is even more striking—35 and 18 percent.
Moving to the Caucasus, the same positive-negative divide is visible in the Armenian and Azerbaijani capitals, as in Moscow. However, in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, the picture is completely different, with 41 percent expressing positive views and 28 percent negative. More marginal social groups in Georgia (elderly people, inhabitants of villages, less educated respondents) are the main adherents to the Stalin myth, but there is a less marked discrepancy in attitudes between the social elite and the mass of the population than in other republics.
The good news underlying these findings is that the number of Russians with a positive opinion of Stalin’s merits is not in fact an indication of growing personal sympathy toward him or of a revival of totalitarian attitudes—even though it is quite tempting to interpret the findings that way. Russians have split attitudes on Stalinism and Stalin’s era: Stalin’s “historical role” is given a higher rating in public opinion polls even as perceptions of the era that bears his name retain their negative connotations (although not as strongly as previously).
This ambiguity appears to be lacking in logic, but it is rooted in reality. Analysis of the data shows that the very same people say that “Stalin was a cruel, inhuman tyrant who is responsible for the extermination of millions of innocent people” and also that “Stalin was a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity.” The same people say that “Stalin’s policies . . . meant the country was unprepared for war” and also that “under his leadership the Soviet people won the Great Patriotic War” (see table 5). The characteristic duality of attitudes observed in other countries (Stalin was both a “wise leader” and a “cruel, inhuman tyrant”) is also noticeable in Georgia.
A similar combination of not merely different but “incompatible” opinions recurs frequently in sociological surveys. This is not just a sociological construction or a methodological mistake in the polls, nor is it “the schizophrenia of mass consciousness” many observers are inclined to discern. Rather, it is the product of the mechanism of “doublethink” that defines totalitarian—and to a lesser extent post-totalitarian—thinking.
The ambivalence of mass thinking in Russia suggests that national authority and violence are inextricably linked and the combination of them helps form the characteristically traumatized collective identity of post-Soviet thinking. National authority cannot be expressed without violence. The Russian state has never represented public interests or the interests of society (in either czarist, Soviet, or post-Soviet times). It is thus unthinkable that it should carry out its public functions—enforcing military service, deemed to be a holy obligation and the duty of citizens, or controlling morals and culture—without an appropriate measure of force.
The majority of Russians no longer accept the Stalinist model of a national ruler, but they lack the individual resources to oppose the state’s point of view.
The association of collective values such as unity, prestige, and fame with violence creates what could be called a “fascination with evil”—the attraction of ordinary citizens to state history, the majesty of empire, or the sanctification of despotic power. This may explain why Russians’ selection of “the greatest figures of all times and peoples” consists mainly of “great villains”—czars, leaders, and military commanders—supplemented by symbols of state culture (such as Alexander Pushkin, Yury Gagarin, and Lev Tolstoy). The shocking appearance of Hitler on the list (in on average fifteenth place) is no longer such a surprise in this context.2
The strength of this collective belief helps explain the weakness of civic solidarity in Russia, which in turn decreases the likelihood of political change in the country. Private concerns are devalued for the sake of a great national project, over which the authorities have an exclusive monopoly.
In response to the polling question (posed in August 2009), “Who do you believe has primary responsibility for the persecutions and losses suffered by our country from the 1930s to the early 1950s?” Nineteen percent of Russian respondents replied “Stalin” and the same number mentioned “the state system.” But a relative majority—41 percent—did not share this view, with 6 percent stating that “enemies of our country” were responsible or naming other similar reasons, while 15 percent had difficulty answering the question.
While propaganda sympathetic to Stalin still has an obvious impact on the public, at the same time the Stalinist myth of an all-powerful dictator is eroding. The majority of Russians no longer accept the Stalinist model of a national ruler, but they lack the individual resources to oppose the state’s point of view. They hide from the painful fact that they are unprepared and incapable of delivering a moral judgment on the past.
They therefore retreat into the comfortable position of “we do not yet know the whole truth about Stalin and his actions.” An absolute majority of Russians surveyed in 2008, 68 percent, held that position and a further 19 percent who have difficulty answering the question can be put in the same category (see table 5 below). In other words, this stance is practically a universal public reaction to the trauma in the Russian national consciousness.
Very few Russians are ready to subscribe to the old ideological line of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which maintained that the repression perpetrated between the 1920s to the 1950s was a historic necessity because the USSR was encircled by hostile powers or was a result of the gravity of the “class struggle.” Nowadays, the majority of respondents view Stalinist repression as having been an inexcusable political crime.
Yet, even though the majority of Russia’s population understands the cruel nature of Stalin’s policies, they find it difficult to condemn Stalin as the bearer of supreme power. They do not acknowledge that a leader of the state (rather than a private individual, however influential) deserves to be brought to justice for his or her personal and legal guilt.
In August 2009, the Levada Center asked Russians, “Considering the scale of repression in the Stalinist era, do you agree that the ruler of the country Joseph Stalin should be considered a state criminal?” Thirty-eight percent agreed, and 44 percent did not agree (of whom 32 percent said “on the whole I cannot say that” and 12 percent “completely disagreed”). In other words, a sum total of 62 percent of Russians did not agree with the proposition and refused to admit that there was a need to pass legal or political judgment on the Stalinist (or Soviet) regime.
The Levada Center’s surveys show that the majority of Russians today do not want a return of the cult of Stalin, or even his partial rehabilitation. They oppose restoring the statues of Stalin that were taken down by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s, and they are also against erecting new monuments in Stalin’s honor to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany, as several deputies in the Russian parliament proposed. The majority of respondents were just as unequivocal in opposing the restoration of the former name of the city of Volgograd—Stalingrad—despite the heroic aura that is still attached to the 1942–1943 battle of Stalingrad.3
The symbolic status of Stalin and the state myth that surrounds him hamper e fforts to rationally analyze Soviet history and the real role of the totalitarian party and state.
There was a similar breakdown of opinions in the 2012 Carnegie poll. Twenty-three percent of Russians surveyed were in favor of erecting a monument to Stalin in Moscow and 56 percent were against, with the remainder not having an opinion or having difficulty answering. Similarly, 18 percent of respondents supported renaming Volgograd and 60 percent were against.
The deeply rooted fear that era still evokes and a suppressed antipathy toward Stalin is also revealed in Russians’ clear reluctance to live under the rule of Stalin or a similar dictator—74 percent of those surveyed in 2008 and 67 percent in 2012 said they would not live that way. There were similar responses in different post-Soviet republics, where the same question was asked (see figure 2 in the By the Numbers chapter).
And yet the symbolic status of Stalin and the state myth that surrounds him hamper efforts to rationally analyze Soviet history and the real role of the totalitarian party and state. Proposals for “lustration” or some kind of “Nuremberg Trials” to bring to justice the organizers of the terror and repression in the USSR have met with firm opposition. Even in 1990, 62 percent of those surveyed said that television stations and the press paid too much attention to “criticism of Stalin” and the “exposure of the crimes of Stalin” and that they were fed up with this issue.
This message was clearly articulated both in the media and in speeches by politicians: no more blackening of our glorious past. This theme has persisted and become an instrument to discredit liberals and supporters of reform.
In February 2011, a group of human rights defenders and political scientists appealed to then president Dmitry Medvedev to initiate a broad program of de-Stalinization, without which, they said, the program Medvedev had unveiled for the “modernization of Russia” and the “creation of a law-based state” could not be realized. Several democratic opposition parties had similar ideas.
But the ideologists of United Russia as well as of the Communists and nationalists fiercely opposed these initiatives. Loyal servants of the government saw the human rights activists’ program as a provocative move designed to “divide and destroy society” and split the governing class and United Russia.4 Russia’s Communist Party opposed the program especially strongly.
Historian, philosopher, teacher, and Communist Party supporter Mikhail Lomakov wrote, “Stalin’s rule took account of the mentality of the Russian people, while the power of liberals is rejected like a foreign body.” Lomakov contended that Medvedev’s modernization project was a “utopia,” while “against the background of what has happened over the past twenty years, the Soviet era, and above all the Stalin era, looks if not ideal, then at least [like] a romantic time, a time of achievements in toil and battle. And the symbol of that era is Joseph Stalin.” Along with many other commentators, Lomakov wrote that “liberals want to destroy Stalin because they understand that today the country has a social need for a personality such as Stalin because it faces the threat of full subjugation to the West.”5
Vladimir Putin and Kremlin propaganda often deliver the message that the country faces a danger coming from the West, which seeks to “impose democracy on Russia” in order to turn it into a colony supplying Western powers with raw materials. This idea strikes a chord with a large section of the Russian public, because it harks back to the ideological stereotypes of the Cold War era. The atmosphere of a closed society from that era has persisted, albeit in a weakened form, which is what Putin’s leadership needs above all. By re-creating the perception of a nation under threat by malicious enemies, the Kremlin’s approach disarms the criticism of Stalin—the simplest tactic is to discredit either the accusations or the accusers.
These scare tactics have only succeeded, however, with a small group of hard-core Stalinists, chiefly pensioners and generally former Communist Party activists or bureaucrats. In 2007, only 5 percent of Russians agreed with the proposition that Stalin’s political repression was an “invention, designed to defame the great leader.” But asked “Do you agree that the scale of the repression under Stalin has been strongly exaggerated?” around a third of respondents (29 percent in 1996) answered in the affirmative, although a noticeably higher number, 43–49 percent, did not agree.
Another line of defense of Stalin is to say that the dictator’s persecutions were merely purges of the higher echelons of the party or directed at “real enemies of the people.” But only a relatively small number of those surveyed shared this view—18 percent and 9 percent respectively in 2007, 14 and 10 percent in 2011.
The Russian public generally believes that Stalinist repression was total and indiscriminate and that it covered all categories of the population and social groups (table 6). When asked in April 2011, “Who, in your opinion, should be considered the victim of repression in 1937–38” a relative majority—48 percent of respondents—said, “Everyone indiscriminately, by the whim of the authorities or denunciations.” In answering a more general question in the same poll, Russians held similar views.
In other words, most of the public believes that the crimes of the Soviet authorities were committed against the whole Soviet population and not just a certain group. Moreover, it is important to note that public opinion does not regard as victims solely those who were slaughtered during the late 1930s, the years of the “Great Terror.” The public has a broader understanding of the extent of the persecution. Those persecuted included prisoners of war, Kulaks (slightly wealthier peasant farmers who were brutally persecuted under collectivization), those who were deported, and the families of those who were executed.
This means that the absolute majority of Russians have no trouble answering the question of whether or not a de-Stalinization program is necessary. Russian society already agrees with every point of this program and that the program itself is an idea whose time has come (see table 7 below).
The difficulties Russia encounters in defeating the myth of Stalin do not stem from a lack of knowledge about Stalin’s crimes, but rather from the fact that people do not regard the Soviet system as having been criminal. The Russian people do not see any alternative to Putin’s authoritarian model because they simply do not know how the state could be ordered any differently. Russian society today lacks figures of recognized moral and intellectual authority who are capable of making this diagnosis.
The Russian public is not capable of interpreting the country’s past by itself. As a result, the people’s only reaction to their frustrated state of knowledge about Stalin’s persecutions is general apathy and a desire to forget about everything. Indeed, this is the reaction that Putin’s technology of control is intended to produce—the absence of moral clarity and the presence of mass apathy have become the foundations of authoritarian rule.
In early March 1956, mass demonstrations broke out in Georgia apparently in defense of Joseph Stalin. They began just before the third anniversary of Stalin’s death on March 5 and shortly after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s famous speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party denouncing his notorious predecessor’s “cult of personality and its consequences.” They were the first mass protests in the Soviet Union against the central government since the 1920s. Four days later, in the center of Tbilisi, the government crushed the demonstrators. Troops opened fire, killing dozens of people.1
Even though the demonstrators in Tbilisi voiced Stalinist and Communist slogans, their public protest actually masked nationalist sentiments. As what eventually became known as Khrushchev’s Secret Speech was not broadcast or published at the time, a host of rumors circulated about its contents. Ordinary Georgians were particularly offended by the rumor that Khrushchev had explained Stalin’s personality as having been shaped by his Georgian nationality.
Georgians had a dogged admiration for their native son. Even those Georgians who were not brainwashed by Stalinist propaganda and who believed Georgia was a victim of Communist rule thought of Stalin as being more than just the Soviet leader and the architect of the totalitarian regime. For them too, he was also a Georgian, who remained the sole leader of a huge empire for three decades. Georgians made a crude trade-off: the Russians “have us where they want us,” but “our boy has them.”
Accordingly, Georgians’ attitudes toward Stalin were not directly associated with sympathy for the Soviet empire or Communist ideology—and today it would be incorrect to assume that approval of Stalin also means approval of authoritarian rule.
Up until 1956, in Georgia, Stalin was both a Soviet and a national symbol. At a time when expressing “ethnocentric” attitudes was forbidden, Georgians were able to take pride in their nationality by revering Georgian-born Stalin. The small house in Gori in which Iosif Jugashvili, son of a cobbler, had been born and that later became the center of the Stalin Museum was a kind of Soviet shrine as important as Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square.
In 1928, the Georgian poet Galaktion Tabidze wrote of Stalin’s house in Gori, “here is the secret of a little hut, the secret of mankind.” A few lines later, Tabidze wrote scathingly of the house’s inhabitant, “He does not have a real name, his name is Legion”—quoting a famous reference in the Gospels to Satan. In other words, even those who did not love Stalin saw him as a kind of Übermensch or superman and could enjoy some of his reflected glory.
This ambiguity has a fairly simple explanation: Georgia’s small size fosters a sense of inferiority among some Georgians that their country cannot become “great.” In the twelfth century, an anonymous historian wrote of the famous Georgian king, David the Builder, “If David [were] the King of the Persians or had forces like the Greeks and Romans or other big kingdoms, then the world could have seen actions which surpassed ones that were praised before his time.” Eight centuries later, Stalin became that imaginary, feared king.
The violent breakup of the March 1956 demonstrations ultimately led to the collapse of Communist ideology in Georgia. Given this very national perspective on Stalin, the reasons why are clear. The protests increased the antipathy Georgians felt for Soviet rule and even buried the belief in that leadership, triggering an upsurge of Georgian nationalism in Soviet times.
Despite Stalin’s leadership, Georgians did not feel a close affinity for the myths created by the Soviet Union. The idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome” and even the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War against the Nazis are not national myths for Georgians.
Georgia endured huge losses in the war of 1941–1945, suffering the greatest loss of life of any Soviet republic that did not see fighting on its territory. Accordingly, the poll commissioned by the Carnegie Endowment, and conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) and the Levada Center in October and November 2012, shows that Georgians take an even higher level of pride than Russians in Stalin’s role in winning the war with Nazi Germany. But the heroic legend of the Great Patriotic War does not have the same hold over Georgians as it does over Russians, and many Georgians associate the victory with their national leader, Stalin, rather than the Soviet Union. There is even a wide and generally positive interest in stories about the much smaller number of Georgians who fought against the Soviet Union in the Germans’ so-called “Georgian Legion.” They are not considered traitors in Georgia in the same way “Vlasovites” who fought with the Nazis are generally regarded in Russia.
Georgians and Russians express approval of Stalin for different reasons. Whereas in Russia, Stalin is a symbol of order and autocracy, in Georgia, he is regarded more as a rebel, who came from a colonized nation, fought against the existing order, and broke the rules by rising to the top of a system led by Russians.
In Georgia, Stalin is regarded more as a r ebel, who came f rom a colonized nation, fought against the existing order, and broke the rules by r ising to the top of a system led by Russians.
One consequence of this weak identification with Soviet power is that since the fall of the USSR, Georgia has not had—in contrast to Russia—an influential Communist Party and few feel strong nostalgia for the Soviet past. It is hard to find people in Georgia who share the view famously uttered by Vladimir Putin in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. For the Russian people it was a real drama.”
For many Georgians, Stalin thus simply remains a strong personality whom the whole world held in fear. As such, he has turned into an object of local patriotism and popular devotion. In but one example, a picture of the powerful cobbler’s son, portrayed as a saint and patron of cobblers, still hangs in a Georgian shoe mender’s workshop next to the icon of the Virgin Mary.
Despite Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, a full-scale process of de-Stalinization did not take place in the Soviet Union, including in Georgia. Unlike other totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany, where de-Nazification and a reevaluation of history began as soon as the regime was defeated in 1945, the Soviet system did not cease to exist but merely became less repressive. Men who shared the responsibility for Stalin’s crimes (including Khrushchev himself) remained the leaders of the Soviet state and no one questioned the Communist ideology that had helped install the totalitarian regime in the first place. The men who had built and perpetuated this regime never had to answer for their actions.
As a result, Soviet society never underwent the same reassessment of its history as post-1945 Germany. The broader public took an interest in their modern history but were informed about it only thirty-five years or so after the death of Stalin, in Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika era and as the Soviet Union broke apart. Because no work was done to inform and enlighten people about the evils of totalitarianism, Stalin never became a symbol of evil as unacceptable as Hitler. The cultural perception of this dictator was different.
Because no work was done to inform and enlighten people about the evils of totalitarianism, Stalin never became a s ymbol of evil as unacceptable as Hitler.
After Georgia regained its independence in 1991–1992, there was no interest in any serious analysis of recent history as the country wrestled instead with complex social and political problems. On May 9, 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, then Georgian president (and former Communist Party leader) Eduard Shevardnadze went to the Stalin Museum in Gori and said that it needed to become a center to study the “phenomenon” of Stalin—a word that carried positive connotations. But nothing came of the proposal.
This ambiguous situation unfortunately persists to this day. The decade that followed Shevardnadze’s ouster in the 2003 Rose Revolution has been dominated by the rule of Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and filled with much anti-Russian and anti-Communist rhetoric as well as criticism of Stalin. However, there has been no serious historical or political research conducted during this period on Stalin’s era that has been made available to or attracted the attention of Georgian society as a whole. The Museum of the Soviet Occupation, opened by Saakashvili’s government in 2006, was set up with a propagandistic agenda and has not increased public knowledge about the Soviet era in general and the Stalinist period in particular. 2
A few documentaries have been shown on Georgia’s Public Television Channel, but their content has been superficial. School textbooks do not provide young people with deep knowledge of the Soviet era, and Soviet history is practically not taught in universities. An initiative to rename the Museum of Stalin in Gori the Museum of Stalinism did not result in any public debate in Georgia, and evidently the government had no interest in such a debate occurring.
Moreover, several poorly executed anti-Stalin initiatives may have caused a backlash. In 2010 the Georgian government had the famous Stalin statue in the central square of Gori taken down at night, again without any public discussion. In May 2011 President Saakashvili signed a law ordering that all “Soviet and fascist symbols” (such as hammers and sickles and stars) be erased from public buildings.
It is impossible to prove empirically that Georgian society disapproved of these steps because there has been no sociological research on this issue. In fact, there was no opinion poll on Stalin before the one Carnegie commissioned in 2012, indicating either indifference or an unwillingness to acknowledge that Stalin is still revered in Georgia.
Due to this lack of data, changes in Georgians’ attitudes toward Stalin over the last two decades cannot be tracked, unlike in Russia. But less than three months after Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement was defeated in the parliamentary elections of October 2012 and the ideological pressures it had been exerting ceased, the population of the village of Zemo Alvani in northeastern Georgia decided to restore their statue of Stalin—which had been removed in 2011—to its plinth. The local authorities in Stalin’s birthplace of Gori are also considering reerecting their own statue of Stalin, although they intend to put it in front of the Stalin Museum rather than in its former position in the city’s nearby central square.3
Up until now the main source of information on Georgians’ opinions of Stalin was a television show—“The 10 Greatest Georgians”—broadcast by Georgian Public Television in 2009. To the surprise of many, Stalin did not even make the short list of 50 candidates, while the great nineteenth-century Georgian writer and public figure Ilya Chavchavadze won the greatest support. Given the results of the Carnegie opinion poll, it looks as though the vote count on the show may have been manipulated. (In similar fashion, in Russia, there was speculation that Stalin’s demotion down a list of ratings of historical figures on the television program “The Name of Russia” in December 2008 was due to intervention by the government.)
A shockingly high proportion of Georgians—45 percent—have a positive attitude toward Stalin.
According to the Carnegie poll, a shockingly high proportion of Georgians—45 percent—have a positive attitude toward Stalin. Even in Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the mythologized emotional connection to Stalin is much weaker than in Russia or Georgia, Stalin wins a fairly high approval rating. The most surprising result is from Azerbaijan, where almost one-quarter of respondents, 22 percent, and 39 percent of young people say they do not know who Stalin is. This result suggests that the name of Stalin is barely present in the current Azerbaijani education system.
A more precise breakdown of Georgian attitudes by age and social group does not reveal significant differences across society. For example, positive attitudes toward Stalin cannot be explained by a lack of education alone.
As expected, those Georgians that have achieved higher levels of education have less positive attitudes toward Stalin than those with only secondary education and especially those with secondary technical education. But the respondents’ answers to questions related to Stalin’s persecutions demonstrate that level of education does not make a big difference in attitudes. There are small, although statistically significant differences (with results ranging from 23 to 26 percent) in the percentage of Georgians of varying levels of education who approve of the statement that Stalin’s acts of repression were historically justified. Similarly, the population of Tbilisi is more critical of Stalin than are other areas of Georgia, but there are also no great differences in opinion by geography.
The results also show that a positive attitude toward Stalin is not a matter of a dream of a “firm hand.” Sixty-six percent of the population of Tbilisi, 66 percent of respondents with higher education, and 64 percent of younger respondents (aged between eighteen and thirty) register their strong disapproval for an authoritarian style of government when they say that they would not like to live and work under a leader like Stalin.
An astonishing 72 percent of Georgian pensioners harbor positive feelings toward Stalin—and this is despite the fact that a much smaller number of them, 35 percent, believe that the sacrifices the Soviet people suffered under his rule were justified. The power of nostalgia provides some kind of explanation for these views, but it is worth recalling that during Stalin’s era the majority of today’s pensioners were extremely young. Their sympathy for Stalin is probably more the result of nostalgia for the relative stability and prosperity of the late Soviet period, in particular the Brezhnev years of 1964–1982, which saw a partial rehabilitation of Stalin.
Sympathy for Stalin is probably more the result of nostalgia for the relative stability and prosperity of the late Soviet period.
Young people are a slightly different matter. Almost a quarter of young Georgians (aged eighteen to thirty) describe their attitude toward Stalin as being one of indifference. More than a quarter either refuse to answer a question about their attitude toward Stalin, do not know how to answer, or say they do not know who Stalin is. In general, “I don’t know” answers to these questions is also a sign of indifference and lack of knowledge.
Interestingly, attitudes toward Russia among Georgian respondents do not appear to strongly correlate with their opinions of Stalin. Views of Stalin are less positive among respondents who consider Russia to be Georgia’s main enemy than among the rest of the population as a whole—but the variations in opinion are not so marked as to suggest that attitudes toward Stalin depend on sympathy or antipathy for Russia.
So the unfortunate conclusion stemming from the Carnegie survey results is that across Georgian society there are few significant differences in attitudes toward Stalin—which are in general positive. These results show that in spite of the accelerated modernization Georgia has undergone since the Rose Revolution of 2003, changes have been superficial and the consciousness of Georgians is not much different. Despite or perhaps even because of the strong anti-Soviet ideology of the country in the past few years, Georgian society is still in the grip of Soviet-style thinking, and even Georgian nationalism still has a quite Soviet character.
Yet, this disappointing observation needs to be qualified: admiration for Stalin does not overlap with support for an authoritarian system of government. Responding to different questions posed in the same 2012 survey by CRRC, 68 percent of Georgians said they support the idea of democracy. Georgia’s much more authoritarian neighbor, Azerbaijan, meanwhile, displays the strongest anti-Stalin feelings of all the four countries in the Carnegie survey.
Georgian society is still in the grip of Soviet-style thinking, and even Georgian nationalism still has a quite Soviet character.
So for many Georgians, paradoxically, Stalin is still an important symbol but one without strong political content. What this poll underlines is that Georgian society is still unreflective and conservative—and indeed has become more conservative recently. Georgians have a tendency to avoid discussion of painful topics and find it difficult to reevaluate values. And a reassessment has failed to take place regarding one of its most enduring legends—the “famous son of Georgia,” Stalin.
Sixty years after the death of Stalin, his statue in his birthplace of Gori has been taken down only, it would seem, to be moved to a new site 500 meters away. So far Georgians have failed to rid their minds of the influence of the great dictator.
1 See for example Adrian Blomfield, “Why Russia Wants to Make Stalin a Saint,” Daily Telegraph, July 24, 2008, www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3560932/Why-Russia-wants-to-make-Stalin-a-saint.html; Dmitry Solovyov, “Liberals rap Kremlin as Stalin is worshipped,” Reuters, March 5, 2010, www.reuters.com/article/2010/03/05/us-russia-stalin-idUSTRE6241M820100305.
2 Arguably, Turkmenistan is an exception, although the country’s many political prisoners are more likely to be imprisoned than executed.
3 Alfred Rieber, “Stalin, Man of the Borderlands,” American Historical Review, vol. 106, no 5 (December 2001): 1651–91.
1 Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917–1991 (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 315.
2 A partial exception to this was set on January 31, 2013, when the Volgograd city council, responding to a campaign by veterans, voted that the city should be called by its former name Stalingrad on six days of the year, each of them a significant military anniversary. See Stalingrad Name to Be Revived for Anniversaries,” BBC News, February 1, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21291674.
3 See Vladimir Kozlov, “Politicheskie volneniia v Gruzii posle XX siezda KPSS” (Political unrest in Georgia following the 20th congress of the CPSU), Neizvestnii SSSR. Protivostoianie naroda i vlasti. 1953–1985 (The unknown USSR: The opposition of people and power, 1953–1985) (Moscow: Olma Press, 2006), http://krotov.info/lib_sec/11_k/oz/lov_va4.htm.
4 President Vladimir V. Putin, press conference after visiting the Butovo Memorial Site, October 30, 2007, http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2007/10/30/1918_type82912type82915_149844.shtml. [NB: The emotional words such as “insanity,” “why,” were deleted from the official transcript.]
5 Speech by President Dmitri A. Medvedev, “Pamyat’ o natsional’nykh tragediyakh tak zhe svyashchenna, kak pamyat’ o pobedakh” (Memory of national tragedies is as sacred as the memory of victories), October 30, 2009, http://kremlin.ru/video/256. Transcript (in Russian) is available at http://kremlin.ru/transcripts/5862.
6 Exclusive interview with President of Russia Dmitry A. Medvedev, Izvestia, May 7, 2010, http://izvestia.ru/news/361448.
7 “Putin v Katyni osudil stalinskie repressii, no prizval ne vinit’ za nikh rossiyan” (In Katyn Putin Denounced Stalin’s Repressions, But Asked That Russians Not Be Blamed for Them), April 7, 2010, Newsru, www.newsru.com/russia/07apr2010/katyn.html.
8 “Russian Parliament Condemns Stalin for Katyn Massacre,” BBC News, November 26, 2010, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11845315.
9 “Fedotov oboznachil prioritety Soveta po pravam cheloveka” (Fedotov sets out priorities for the Council on Human Rights), Interfax, October 12, 2010, www.interfax.ru/society/news.asp?id=159653.
10 President Vladimir V. Putin, “Vystuplenie na torzhestvennom vechere, posvyashchyonnom dnyu rabotnika organov gosbezopasnosti,” speech at the celebration of Security Agency Worker’s Day, December 20, 2007, http://archive.kremlin.ru/appears/2007/12/20/2033_type122346_154979.shtml.
11 The Day of the Members of the Organs of State Security of the Russian Federation was introduced by President Boris Yeltsin in 1995 and has since been celebrated as a professional holiday; on this day the Russian president addresses the state security agency with a formal greeting.
12 Speech by President Dmitri A. Medvedev, “Gala Evening Celebrating Security Agency Worker’s Day,” December 20, 2011, http://eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/3262.
13 Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan, The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (New York: Public Affairs, 2010).
14 Whenever such statements are made it is invariably emphasized that the introduction of a single high school history book should not “blacken” the Soviet past, but should instead inspire a sense of pride among the students by focusing on achievements, not criticism. As applied to Stalin, this means stressing Soviet industrialization, the victory in WW2, etc., and reducing mentions of terror, repression, etc., to a minimum. Most recently such an initiative was voiced by the Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky. See Vladimir Medinsky (official website), “Nuzhen edinii shkol’nii uchebnik istorii—dlya Rossii i dlya SNG” (We need a common History schoolbook—for Russia and for the Commonwealth of Independent States), News Section, November 17, 2010, www.medinskiy.ru/nuzhen-edinyj-shkolnyj-uchebnik-istorii-dlya-rossii-i-dlya-sng.
15 “Pamiatniki zhertvam politicheskikh repressii na territorii byvshego SSSR” (Monuments to the victims of political repressions on the territory of the former Soviet Union), Sakharov Center, www.sakharov-center.ru/asfcd/pam/list.html.
16 Philipp Chapkovsky, “The Mystery Triangle: The Source of Popularity of Apologetic Pro-Stalinist Literature in Russia,” paper presented at the University of Helsinki international symposium, “Narratives of Suffering in Post–Cold War Europe: The Second World War in Transnational Contexts,” Helsinki, September 3–4, 2012.
17 “O pravakh cheloveka, interesakh vlasti i obshchestva v Rossii” (On human rights, the interests of government authorities and the society in Russia), press release of Levada Center, November 2011.
1 All polls cited in this essay that were conducted in Russia were carried out by the Levada Center; those in the Caucasus were conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC). In a similar survey in 2000 that asked Russians who were the main figures in world politics in the twentieth century, Stalin occupied second place, tied with Hitler and after Lenin (who was named by 65 percent of respondents). Stalin and Hitler were named by the same number of respondents (51 percent), followed by Mikhail Gorbachev (42 percent), Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, and others.
2 Lev Gudkov, “Vremya i istoriya v soznanii rossiyan” (Time and history in the consciousness of Russians, Part 2), Vestnik obshchestvennogo mneniya, 2010, no. 2 (104): 39.
3 The Volgograd council recently decided to restore the name Stalingrad for six days of the year—all associated with military commemorations. See “Stalingrad Name to Be Revived for Anniversaries,” BBC News, February 1, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21291674.
4 See the speeches of leading politicians on this subject at www.politonline.ru/groups/4222.html.
5 See “Kaluzhskiy ekspert: Destalinizatsiya—provokatsiya napravlennaya na razval obshchestva” (Kaluga expert: De-Stalinization is a provocation aimed at splitting society), Regnum News Agency, April 11, 2011. www.regnum.ru/news/1392889.html.
1 See, for example, Timothy Blauvelt, “Status Shift and Ethnic Mobilization in the March 1956 Events in Georgia,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 61, no. 4, June 2009. Many original documents both on Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and on the March events in Tbilisi can be found at www.idfi.ge/archive/?cat=show_db&lang=en&db_id=19 and www.rusarchives.ru/evants/exhibitions/xxconvention_exp.shtml.
2 Until recently, the museum mixed Soviet and post-Soviet history in tendentious fashion, showing film images of the Rose Revolution and Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia.
3 “Georgian Village Reinstates Stalin Monument to Mark Anniversary,” Reuters, December 21, 2012, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/12/21/oukoe-uk-georgia-stalin-idUKBRE8BK0VP20121221; “Pamyatnik Stalinu na ego rodine budet vosstanovlen” (Monument to Stalin in his homeland in Gori will be restored), Ekho Moskvy, December 21, 2012, www.echo.msk.ru/news/973910-echo.html.
The Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program has, since the end of the Cold War, led the field of Eurasian security, including strategic nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, development, economic and social issues, governance, and the rule of law.
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