Sixty years after his death on March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin still commands worryingly high levels of admiration in the post-Soviet space. The Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung co-hosted a discussion on the endurance of the Stalin phenomenon in a new publication, The Stalin Puzzle: Deciphering Post-Soviet Public Opinion, with two of the three authors, Lasha Bakradze and Maria Lipman and the editor of the report, Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal. Former Washington Post journalist Michael Dobbs moderated. 

Stalin Sixty Years Later

  • Indifference: The results show that 22 percent of Azerbaijanis do not even know who Stalin is, with the number rising to 39 percent among young people, de Waal said. Even in Georgia, where support for Stalin still registers at alarmingly high levels, there is a mix of hostility and indifference when it comes to discussing Stalin, Bakradze added. The process of forgetting is a natural one, and as more time passes since Stalin’s death the memories of the repressions become more distant, Lipman pointed out. 
  • Triple Identity: Throughout his life, Stalin projected three different identities: a Georgian, a non-national proletariat, and a Russian stateist, de Waal said,which explains why he commands popularity amongst groups with very different political outlooks. Stalin was popular with working class truck drivers during the late Soviet period as a form of political protest against the growing corruption within the Soviet system, Dobbs said. 

The Legacy of Stalinism in Russia

  • Hidden Hero: While statues of Stalin and namesake streets are nowhere to be seen in Russia, the Soviet dictator has steadily risen in perceived stature as Russia’s most important historical figure in longitudinal polls, Lipman said. The three de-Stalinization campaigns carried out by Khrushchev, Gorbachev, and Medvedev have all failed to settle the legacy of Stalinism, she added. 
  • The Great Patriotic War: World War II is a powerful, positive, and unifying historical event for contemporary Russia, which has led many Russians to view Stalin’s role as the commander-in-chief during the war to be more important than his atrocities, Lipman explained.  There have been attempts to bring Stalin back into public space by proposing to rename streets after the Battle of Stalingrad, or even once again changing Volgograd’s name to Stalingrad, she said. 
  • Urban/Rural Divide: Public opinion of Stalin in Moscow and St. Petersburg is mostly negative, while some rural areas and small towns perceive the dictator in a positive light, Lipman said. Despite support for Stalin among some elements of society, very few people would want to live during his time and most agree that he was a cruel tyrant, Lipman added. 

Views of Stalin in Georgia

  • Local Hero: Stalin is popular in Georgia as a Georgian who ruled over a large empire, said Bakradze. Genuine reeducation on Stalin never occurred in Georgia and there is very little information taught in schools on the Soviet period, resulting in an almost religious adoration for Stalin due to his Georgian background, he argued. 
  • Politicized Legacy: Stalin’s crimes have become conflated with contemporary politics, since the previous UNM government was staunchly anti-Stalinist, Bakradze explained.  The 45 percent of Georgians who view Stalin in a positive light may also be expressing their rejection of the previous regime, he speculated.