The Debate Over Stalin's Legacy Again Wide Open in Russia (Audio podcast)

Russia has long been deeply divided over Stalin’s role in history, with pro-Stalin sentiments surging in times of domestic hardships or perceptions of foreign threats

Thu, Jun 2, 2016
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Many Russians insist he was a great man and that he is not guilty of alleged crimes which are vastly exaggerated by a Russophobic West

Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US–Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.)

This week’s installment focuses on the upsurge of pro-Stalin sentiments in Russia as reflected in recent public opinion surveys, nearly 60 percent now viewing him as a positive figure in Russian history.

Cohen, who has studied and written about the Stalin era and its legacy for many decades (most recently in his book The Victims Return), points out that Russia has been deeply divided over Stalin’s historical role ever since his death 63 years ago.

Looking back, Russians see two towering mountains, both informed by contested history: a mountain of Stalin’s achievements in the form of industrialization and modernization in the 1930s, however draconian, leading to the victory over Nazi Germany in 1941–1945; and a mountain of human victims resulting from forced collectivization of the peasantry and the Great Terror, with its Gulag, both victimizing millions of people.

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Russian and Western historians, now with access to long closed archives, are still trying to strike a scholarly balance, but for ordinary Russians the balance is directly affected by their perception of their own well-being at home and of national security. Positive views of Stalin do not mean they want a new Stalin in the Kremlin or a recapitulation of Stalinism, but that the despot is a symbol of a strong state, law and order, and national security.

To illustrate this, Cohen briefly looks at the conflicts over Stalin’s reputation under Khrushchev, who assaulted the cult created by Stalin; under Brezhnev, when the conflicts were muffled by censorship; during Gorbachev’s anti-Stalinist Perestroika, when the divisions burst into the open as part of his “glasnost”; during the Yeltsin 1990s, when economic and social hard times afflicted most Russian citizens and Stalin’s popular ratings began to surge again; and now under Putin.

Three current American media myths are rejected by Cohen.

Under Putin, the Stalinist past is not again being censored. Anti-Stalinist historians, journalists, filmmakers, TV producers, and others continue to present their work to the public. In short, the horrors of the Stalin era are widely known in Russia.

Second, nothing like Stalinism is present or unfolding in Russia today, despite the assertions of several leading US newspapers.

And third, Putin, who has had to try to straddle and unite conflicting eras in Russian history—Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet—is not himself, in words or deeds, a Stalinist. Indeed, due to his personal support there is now in Moscow a large, modern State Museum of the History of the Gulag and (currently under construction) a national monument to Stalin’s victims, first called for by Khrushchev in 1961, but not built under Putin’s predecessors. (In Washington, Cohen points out, there is no monument to the victims of slavery.)

Nor is Stalin merely an historical issue. Intensified moments in the preceding Cold War always inflated pro-Stalin sentiments in Soviet Russia, and that is happening again today with NATO’s perceived military encirclement of Russia, from the Baltics to Ukraine and Georgia, and the Western economic sanctions that have contributed to hardships of the Russian people.

How this will affect Putin’s leadership and own popular support (still well above 80 percent) remains to be seen. But it is worth noting, Cohen adds, that the Russian Communist Party, the second largest in the country and itself somewhat divided over the Stalinist past, has decided to put Stalin’s image on its campaign materials for the forthcoming parliamentary elections in September. 

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