A Russian Mr. Hyde

24 september 2011

Why Pro-Stalinist Sentiment Is Strong in Russia

Nikolai Silayev is a senior researcher at the Center for Caucasian Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and head of the politics section at Expert magazine. He holds a Doctorate in History.

Resume: An unsuccessful attempt to galvanize Stalin by declaring him an “effective manager” (incidentally, this is a glaring instance of insensitivity to the Russian language, because the phrase “effective manager” sounds sarcastic today) failed not only because the government stopped it. The campaign bumped into society’s stubborn, albeit silent, resistance.

Two conferences held in 2010 and 2011 on the topic “A Great Victory through Unity: the Caucasus during World War II” are rare instances of an all-round Caucasian forum conducted under Russian auspices with substantial administrative support. Even though it is difficult to have an academic discussion on historical episodes within the conference framework, the format has merits of its own. First, when you meet with and listen to scouts searching for historical graves in different parts of Russia, you become convinced that, in addition to official propaganda, the local population still remembers the war very clearly, and that these memories do not recognize ethnic or political boundaries. Second, the conference format inevitably exposes the active nerve of historical policy, and watching it is both entertaining and instructive.

The author of this article was a moderator at both conferences and witnessed a remarkable evolution in judgments about the “Father of Nations” (Joseph Stalin) over the past two years. In 2010, everything boiled down to moaning along the lines of “Look, we’re celebrating victory, but we don’t recall the commander-in-chief.” In addition, there was some reserved reasoning about the usefulness of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols. The latter influenced a campaign that had unfolded in Russia on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, but which ended after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to Gdansk.

In contrast, in 2011 speakers would discuss Stalin at the top of their voices, stating that he “had eliminated the fifth column right before the war” and “repelled the European coalition’s aggression,” etc. Only one thing had changed from the previous year in that a program of de-Stalinization had been proposed in the country, and the proponents of the Great Leader rushed zealously to defend his immaculate image from insult. As if it were an echo of Stalin’s own doctrine about the aggravation of the class struggle along with the development of socialism, the degree of pro-Stalinist sentiment is increasing with the approach of a time when this Soviet-era figure is finally being reckoned with, as advocated by part of the Russian political elite.


One feels ashamed listening to speeches about the “destruction of the fifth column,” while efforts to contradict such rhetoric create the impression that rational discussion is impossible. Stalinism is multifaceted.

A certain kind of air has taken shape around Stalin’s image. In the 1970s, drivers stuck photos of Stalin to the inside windshields of their cars, thus displaying a whole array of emotions that ranged from challenging the thievish Brezhnev regime, to recognizing the “alpha dog” – if one uses the terminology of the U.S. embassy in Moscow – to serving a self-styled patriotism. Russian jokes about Stalin portray him much more as a natural disaster than a bloody tyrant. Misfortune has the power to enchant, and even those who are the least inclined to pardon Stalin’s repression may admire certain foreign policy decisions made during the Stalin era. Sir Winston Churchill paved this road when he put Molotov in the same rank as Talleyrand and Metternich. It looks like this fanciful air will be wiped out only if a figure of equal stature and an epoch of equal modality emerge –something that one would not wish on anyone.

Some people may consider Stalinism an ideology, but it is one that proves rather vague on a closer look. This is partly because of the personality that stood at its inception. Stalin transformed Marxism from an influential political and economic theory into an instrument of domination, dealing a blow to Marxism from which it has not yet recovered. With enough zeal one can still read Lenin’s works in a new light, but you cannot glean from Stalin’s texts any doctrine that would go beyond ministering to his own timeserving decisions. In general, the extremely instrumental character that Stalin imparted to Marxism-Leninism may provide a clue to the poverty of ideologies in Russia over the past fifty years. Stalinist Marxism was intended to impose the maximum possible restrictions upon the ruled, without tying the rulers’ hands in any way. This kind of situation does not provide very fertile soil for viable political theories. Therefore, it is no accident that contemporary “Stalinist ideology” is so indifferent towards Stalin’s writings. This ideology stems from a reaction to the liberal discourse about Stalin, but turns it inside out. This talk does not provide clear answers to whatever pressing questions Russia and the world may face today. Paradoxically, this ideology is a profoundly up-to-date, post-modernist, mass media product – something like a sound bite. The collection of trite metaphors like “Stalin inherited a Russia with a wooden plough and left Russia in possession of an atomic bomb” is just a bundle of patchy scraps and markers used to distinguish between friends and enemies. This is in no way an integral doctrine. Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov, “a Russian Orthodox socialist,” charged with an attempt on the life of Russian politician and businessman Anatoly Chubais, would not have remained free for even five minutes during the rule of his cult hero. Stalinists make up a subculture, a place for political Emos and Goths. Compared to them, radical anti-abortion groups in the U.S., for example, have a much riper and better developed doctrine.

This is why Stalinism has proven to be invulnerable or, rather, impregnable for polemics. When you cite archival data, people will respond with pseudo-historical kitsch. If you bring up the horrors of the Gulag or collectivization, you will be told about the film Volga-Volga [a 1938 Soviet comedy – Ed.]. Polemics are only possible in a frame-by-frame genre. However, such debates are unproductive at best. Memories of tragedies cannot be swapped for video clips – especially with an inequitable exchange rate – since people who openly glorify Stalin have almost no political influence in Russia today and their ideological leaders are marginal. The political mainstream rarely invokes the image of the Leader and does so in strict compliance with his unuttered political maxim – in an extremely instrumental way.


Stalinism is neither dangerous as an atmosphere nor as an ideology because it simply does not exist in these incarnations. However, it has a different incarnation that has not been scrutinized and a different manifestation of danger – that of political practice. Heaps of pro-Stalinist printed rubbish generate in the rational sectors of society feelings of anxiety completely different from what these people get from reading popular detective novels. In contrast to Stalin’s work Marxism and Problems of Linguistics, his political practices have outlived the “maverick Georgian.”

A Russian reader opens George Kennan’s famous Long Telegram with a distasteful feeling of recognition. The book was written amid very special political conditions, but the reader’s critical analytical skills fail when s/he reads the following: “The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth – indeed, their disbelief in its existence – leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.” Or you read in Oleg Khlevnyuk’s marvelous book The Master that Stalin persistently deprived enfeebled Soviet state institutions of real power and replaced them with mechanisms of personal power, and suddenly this prompts you to think about how power functions in Russia in general – from Peter the Great’s drinking parties with his close associate Franz Lefort to the Ozero dacha cooperative. This feeling is somewhat unrewarding and lingers, even if a tabloid editor starts spouting out quotations from Isaiah Berlin or Karl Popper.

One occasionally hears the phrase: “Stalin cannot be erased from the Russian consciousness.” This is quite possibly true, but not because of “the wooden plough and the atomic bomb.” The soil had been fertilized and Stalin continued the Russian traditions in the same measure as he destroyed them. He escalated these traditions to a degree that drove the Soviet Union and the Soviet people to the gates of hell. Moreover, he destroyed Russian traditions, which ironically is in line with Russian tradition.

The notorious thesis on the thousand years of Russian slavery has nothing to do with the situation. In essence, Russian history has known only three major tyrants – Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin. Stalin’s interest in Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great was not at all accidental in this context, nor can it be explained only by propaganda considerations. Paradoxically, all three were not bulwarks of Russian conservatism, but the apotheosis of Russian reformism.

These kinds of reformers view themselves simply as demiurges recreating the world from scratch. They perceive state power as the only source of creative strength and are ready to break the backbone of the old society, with its institutions and traditions. As this takes place, state power is transformed into personal power. The reformers see Russia as clay from which anything can be molded and, if necessary, from which unnecessary material can be removed. These people do not recognize any rules of the game set by anyone but themselves, since they regard any kind of regulations as obstacles to their own will. Their picture of the future is highly speculative and does not tally well with reality. Alas, so much the worse for the reality.

Such reform could be more or less successful. Ivan the Terrible left a practically bloodless country in a semi-disintegrated state for posterity. Peter the Great brought Russia into the ranks of the strongest European powers, albeit at a huge demographic and economic loss. Tsar Peter brought to life the culture of the Russian nobility in the 18th and 19th centuries, which was handed down to future generations.

The “Father of Nations” summoned the full strength of the bureaucratic machine, which his predecessors did not have, to serve his tyranny (or reformism), and that is why Stalin was especially horrible. He did not create a strong cultural tradition, as Peter did, and his achievements in building a state were far more modest than Peter’s, whose empire went on to develop and to endure for 200 years. In contrast, the superpower that the Soviet Union turned into under Stalin did not even last for forty years after his death. Russian economist and politician Yegor Gaidar traced the beginnings of the Soviet Union’s economic decline in his “Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia” to Stalin’s policy of collectivization, and his construct can hardly be called illogical. Incidentally, Ivan the Terrible’s death and the onset of the Time of Troubles [a period of interregnum between the Rurik and Romanov dynasties –Ed.] were also separated by a short period of about fifteen years.

That is why it is problematic to regard the Stalin era in Russian history as some kind of alien abnormality. Collectivization and industrialization were implemented along well-tested patterns, even though the vigor, brutality and persistence with which these programs were carried out rested on the capabilities of the 20th-century Russian state, unseen in previous epochs. Even now many Russian reformers demonstrate a hybrid of theorizing and political will that ignores the opinion of those affected by reforms. The feasibility of reforms is considered not in terms of how to rally popular support for reform, but how to impose them on society and overcome resistance. The most recent experiments with the specification of strategic objectives – from German Gref’s program to Dmitry Medvedev’s “Russia Forward!” article – are texts on how the government will build a better Russia. All other subjects of change and progress are simply ignored.

It is fairly well known that respect for regulations or procedures is not the biggest asset among Russians. We have traditionally showed an astonishingly light-minded approach to the idea of putting up systemic barriers to governmental arbitrariness. There are obviously many moral and material reasons for this, and the search for them will continue as long as the study of Russian history goes on. However, let me bring up one more non-material cause.

The debate over whether Russia is a European nation should have stopped a long time ago. The very fact that issues of national history become “damned issues” proves Russia’s European identity. A consciousness bent towards history, the confidence that the present flows out of the past and impacts the future, and the idea of progress are profoundly European and Christian features. The Chinese have managed to sort out their relations with Mao’s legacy once and for all. They simply adopted a high-status party document that registered the percentage of rights and wrongs in the activity of the Great Helmsman. We cannot act in the same way towards Stalin, though, because an entirely different notion of history is embedded in our consciousness.

A deep-lying cultural and political difference between the Protestant Netherlands and Catholic Spain is a normal thing for Europe. Russia’s difference from both of these countries also appears to be natural. Eastern Christianity senses the gap between ethic norms and immediate moral feelings much stronger than Western Christianity does, and when the never-ending conflict between law and consciousness surges, it definitely sides with the latter. One of the themes raised by the 19th-century Russian writer Alexander Pushkin in his novel The Captain’s Daughter revolves around the predicament of mercy versus justice. When justice is unable to bring about good and restore fairness, it is replaced by Catherine the Great’s mercy. Triumphant justice may warrant security and simultaneously close the doors to mercy. Absolute power can be infinitely cruel, but it also can be unboundedly merciful and make the ruler human in the subjects’ eyes. Some people condemn the poet Boris Pasternak for his sudden desire to talk about life and death with Stalin, but they should not forget that he never signed group letters urging the execution of “enemies of the people.” The focal point of his interest in that telephone conversation was not the Leader, but rather the existential situation.

For every Dr. Jekyll there is a Mr. Hyde; for every bright side of Russian consciousness, with its strong sense of morality, there is a dark side devoid of any ethics or consciousness. For Pushkin’s merciful Empress there will be a bloody tyrant. Neurotic disorders are not cured simply by repressing bad things. The only cure is to be aware of the wrongs and to synthesize something new.


Accounts of acquisitions and losses in each consecutive era of upturn in Russia will be endlessly drawn and reappraised by each new generation. This raises a general question of whether historical policy is possible in Russia at all.

It is possible, no doubt, as a set of administrative and financial measures, or as an instrumental state ideology. This policy is instrumental since it is quite difficult now to imagine an ideology that would be a creed rather than a tool for the ruling milieu, because creeds tie the hands of the faithful. However, it seems impossible right now as a final and non-controversial assortment of postulations about the past shared by the entire nation.

It was possible for Eastern Europe to renounce Communism and Stalin as an outside evil that had imposed its will by force, but the same scheme is impractical in Russia for reasons that are quite clear. One can try and push Communism aside as a phenomenon foreign to historical Russia, but two problems then surface. First, the question arises immediately about who imposed this alien phenomenon on Russia, and here is where vistas open up for the most distasteful conspiracy theories. Bolsheviks had a long antecedent history, which they themselves traced (whether justifiably or not is a different question) back to the Decembrists [Russian army officers who staged an uprising on December 14, 1825 – Ed.]. So should we throw away the entire “liberationist” aspect of Russian history? Sometimes we really feel like doing so, but what should we do about the fact that bombers from the leftwing terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya [People’s Will, a Russian revolutionary organization in the early 1880s – Ed.]. whom the educated city dweller of today dismisses as commonplace, dangerous maniacs, had an impact on political decisions on a national scale in a specific period of Russian history? If historical Russia boils down to Count Sergei Uvarov, an influential imperial statesman, and photos of the Imperial Family, then where is that state now? The results of the Bolsheviks’ activities have brought 1913 only slightly closer to us today than ancient Rome. Attempts to build conservative historical constructs are groundless in Russia today, because the traditions and institutions that they could have succeeded have all died out.

It is really difficult to put Communism on the same shelf where the Germans have put Nazism – a nightmarish, but relatively brief, dream. Hitler’s twelve-year Reich drove Germany to collapse, but the country subsequently rebuilt itself. The seventy years of Russian Communism also ended in collapse, but one unaccompanied by a military defeat or occupation by foreign troops. Moreover, the new Russia has inherited the Soviet Union’s legal rights. If the Soviet Union was a bad dream, whose place do we now occupy on the UN Security Council? Furthermore, who stood at the inception of the Yalta system of international relations, which Russia loved to mention in rosy terms until fairly recently?

If that was a frightening reality, then it is far from clear how one could possibly provide an unambiguous interpretation. The 20th century – and especially the 20th century in Russia – is a difficult thing for political philosophers to digest, and unpleasant paradoxes can be listed endlessly.

For example, an enslaved Soviet Union saved freedom and global capitalism in World War II. The seizure and maintenance of state power by the Communists in Russia predestined in a certain way the success of the left in the West and helped shape how we see the left today. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was one of the engines of global decolonization, and Communism industrialized entire regions of the world and opened up new opportunities for the people living there (thirty years ago life on the two banks of the Panj River was very different, but it is currently leveling out).

One more headache is the difficulty in separating the practice of the Communist state and private life. Our fathers would often make personal decisions under the influence of state policies. A feeling that they were helping the country to move forwards, promoting progress and making history, might prompt them to build a hydropower plant somewhere in Siberia. This may have been misguided thinking, but their creations continue to generate electricity today unless the present-day economic management has ruined them. The Soviet system envisioned the broad participation of an individual in the social life offered by the state. A conspicuous personal autonomy would mean a political challenge. Participation might be coercive at times, but in a multitude of cases it was voluntary. The way of life for several generations of Soviet citizens cannot be fully understood outside of this context.

It looks like we will have to get used to living with our paradoxical past – at least until the Soviet era becomes a fully accomplished past or, in other words, until it stops providing a source for current comparisons. Or until we resolve one of the biggest enigmas of the 20th century; namely, how is it possible that one of the harshest regimes made such a crucial contribution to the salvation of peace, freedom and democracy during World War II?


Stalinism cannot be removed as a political practice unless we learn how to win the trust of Russians to our own political programs, instead of imposing these programs on them with the aid of state power. This requires in-depth reflection on Russia’s political culture. Recognition that crimes are crimes would only be the first step in this process.

Stalin’s supporters are irritating, but we must admit that their opinions are not predominant. An April 2011 poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) revealed that 26 percent of those polled favorably assessed Stalin’s role in Russian history, compared to 24 percent who had a negative assessment. These opinions are a way to express dissatisfaction with the current political situation. Fewer people will think of Stalin when there is a broader political discussion about the problems of today’s Russia and more ways for a legal, meaningful, and fruitful manifestation of this dissatisfaction. This is exactly a case of “Let the dead bury their dead.”

An unsuccessful attempt to galvanize Stalin by declaring him an “effective manager” (incidentally, this is a glaring instance of insensitivity to the Russian language, because the phrase “effective manager” sounds sarcastic today) failed not only because the government stopped it. The campaign bumped into society’s stubborn, albeit silent, resistance. This was a rare chance to see the Orthodox Church and intellectuals on the same side of the barricade, which showed that the adepts of the Father of Nations do not have a monopoly on public consciousness. The anti-Stalinist solidarity that Russian society showed in the debates surrounding the controversial history textbook by Alexander Filippov and Alexander Danilov should lay the groundwork for elaborating assessments of Russia’s past. Remembering the victims of the Soviet regime should become a public cause, and the smaller the share of government involvement in it, the stronger and more sincere this remembrance will be. The Russian state still acts like a bull in a china shop all too often, and it is still not very skillful in dealing with subtle matters. It would be a genuine challenge and true de-Stalinization to awaken in society an active remembrance without relying on state power. This is far more difficult to accomplish than imposing an official ban on praising Stalin.

As for the state, it can only indirectly assist in raising the quality of debates about the past. The drive by the authorities towards devising and enforcing postulations regarding Russian history has a deplorable aspect regardless of the essence of what is being said. It inevitably weakens the standing of academic history in opposing pseudo-historical rubbish. The government should bolster the academic community and its self-government institutions by issuing grants, expanding opportunities for archival research, or simply by trusting historians. The uproar over a university textbook by Alexander Vdovin and Alexander Barsenkov is not so much a reaction to yet another effort to glorify the worst sides of the Soviet era, but to a lack of responsibility by allowing historians to pass off unreliable publicist materials as scholarly texts.

Finally, arguing with Stalin supporters is unproductive, since we consistently fail to bring up the problems that really matter. In the end the case in hand is not a specific historical personality or even the character of the Soviet system; rather it concerns values, ethics in politics, meaning, and the objectives of the state as such. Stalin’s supporters find that focusing too much discussion on the Leader is very convenient, because it allows them to avoid direct answers to these questions. However, it is not clear why people who take a sober stance on Stalin and on Soviet history should need this fixation as well.

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