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The personality of Joseph Stalin, a national leader in the first half of the 20th century and a cruel tyrant, who eliminated millions of Soviet people’s lives and turned the Soviet Union into a powerful and awesome empire, still evokes acute and mixed feelings in Russia, 60 years after his death. The traditional interpretations of Stalin’s policy range from sharp criticism to cautious praise. Some see Stalin as the man who defeated Hitler and created a strong industrialized country, and others slam him as the most bloodthirsty tyrant of all. Stalin is openly lauded only by Russia’s Communists, marginal left-wingers and nationalists.
The 60-th anniversary of Stalin’s death, which was marked on March 5, remained practically unnoticed. His loyalists in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation laid flowers and wreathes at Stalin’s tomb at the foot of the Kremlin wall. Members of the Yabloko party on the same day demanded that Stalinism should be declared a crime at the state level.
There were many commentaries and speculations about why so many people still like Stalin.
It is sixty years since the death of the dictator, but he is still remembered. In Russia there are practically no living witnesses who were already grown-ups under Stalin’s rule. All of his closest associates died a while ago. Even monuments to him have been pulled down. However, the participants in many demonstrations still carry his photographs. Various artifacts with his image, including badges, are still in great demand at street kiosks trading souvenirs. Moreover, Stalin is still in the minds of many people.
On the eve of Stalin’s death the Levada Center held an opinion poll to find out that 49 percent of Russians believe Stalin, in their opinion, played a positive role in the life of the country, and only 32 percent disagreed with this.
At the same time 55 percent of the polled said that Stalin’s death for them was associated with the end of repressions and purges, and only 18 percent of people see Stalin’s death as the loss of a great leader and teacher.
The director of the Levada Center Institute, Lev Gudkov, pointed to what he described as “amazing revival of Stalin’s popularity” in modern Russia. In 1989, in response to sociologists’ question about “the most outstanding personalities, public and culture figures, who caused the most considerable influence on world history,” a tiny 12 percent mentioned Stalin (11th line on a list of more than a hundred personalities). Twenty three years later Stalin – for the first time ever since the public opinion began to be surveyed - rose to the top of the rating with 42 percent.
The sociologist said the “restoration of Stalin’s image to greatness” was observed steadily during the 1990s, and the turn in the public attitude to him came in the early 2000s. The exoneration of Stalin, he said, was cautious and dubious: without denying the very instance of mass repressions and crimes of the Stalinist regime political technologists sought to push both into the background and to emphasize in every possible way his achievements as the commander-in-chief and a state figure who succeeded in upgrading the country and in turning it into one of the world’s two superpowers.
The people who tend to describe Stalin’s activities in positive terms outnumber those for whom Stalin in the first place is a tyrant, says the general director of another major pollster, the national public opinion studies center VTSIOM, Valery Fyodorov. “It is the senior citizens who account for this bias,” he said. On the average, opinions are split evenly. Some see Stalin’s achievements in the statement that he “inherited the country with the wooden plough, but left it with the atom bomb.” Others are certain that no achievements can serve as an excuse for GULAG. As for the younger generation, Fyodorov said that it is just indifferent towards Stalin.”
“The Stalin nostalgia in Russian society will last till the day when there will appear genuine democracy and genuine social equality,” says Nikolai Naumov, a lecturer at the history department of the Moscow State University. Then, according to his forecast, society will not be split into those for whom Stalin is a “bloody butcher”, and those who see him as an “effective manager.” Joseph Stalin for all will be just “one of the greatest actors on the historical scene.”
For today’s university students, Naumov believes, Stalin is history. Moreover, the younger generation has developed “immunity against leaderism.” But if the current bottomless abyss between the rich and the poor keeps growing deeper and wider, the longing for a tyrant and iron-hand rule will keep getting stronger, because the poor will see them as the sole way of restoring justice.”
Ekho Moskvy observer Anton Orekh believes that one of the reasons for Stalin’s popularity in today’s Russia is people’s total ignorance.
“A country that through Stalin’s fault lost millions of lives during the years of repression and the war would have never had an indifferent or favorable attitude to him, if the people had full and genuine idea of what he did. There would have never been the weird sociological polls, had Stalin been slammed as a criminal long ago, the Soviet regime declared criminal, too, and the children been taught this from the very first days of their life and excuses for mass reprisals been punished as a crime. Instead of conducting endless idiotic discussions about whether it was right to sacrifice so many lives to build the Dnepr Hydro, or whether there was a way of winning the war other than burying the Nazis under heaps of corpses.”
In the meantime, one cannot deny that the terrible statistics characterizing Stalin’s activity have long been made public. According to the KGB archives, in 1921-1953 about 800,000 were executed for political reasons and millions died during collectivization and famine and in labor camps.
MOSCOW, March 6