Vienna, September 2 – The current Russian elite is defending Stalin because of the late Soviet dictator’s foreign policy and not because of what he did domestically, but many ordinary Russians, while not opposed to the former, also value the latter, especially because they view Stalin as someone who struck down a grasping bureaucracy.
And consequently, Yevgeny Ikhlov argues in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” by promoting Stalin as the Russian political elite has been doing in recent months, the members of that elite are “by a supreme historical irony” putting themselves at risk of being swept aside by others prepared to implement Stalinism at home (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=9414).
There is no problem in explaining “why [Russia’s] special services elite and its ideological supporters honor and justify Stalinist imperialism,” just as there is not problem in understanding why the members of this same elite are not interested in promoting the restoration of “’domestic’ Stalinism.”
The current rulers like “the naked and total imperialism” of Stalin, especially of the particularly “brutal” period following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact because they like to see themselves as behaving in the same tough-minded manner, even though so far they have not had much opportunity. After all, “South Ossetia is a poor substitute for the Sudetenland.”
But understanding why the Russian people “in its majority” is “nostalgic for Stalin” is more difficult but also more instructive, especially because popular support for the Soviet dictator is based not just on admiration for Stalin’s role in promoting the country as a great power but also his brutal attacks on the Soviet bureaucracy.
According to Ikhlov, there are two reasons for “the popular apologia of Stalinism.” On the one hand, and this is most often found among older people, is “the dream” of seeing members of the bureaucracy, non-Russians and intellectuals get their comeuppance from a powerful tsar-like figure.
And on the other, and this view is found among younger people, there are “almost erotic dreams” about having someone in power who will show everyone who is boss both at home and abroad, forcing “everyone to go down on their knees” and willing “to throw a bomb at the rabble” broadly conceived.
While the latter intersects at least in part with the Stalinism of the elites, Ikhlov continues, the attitudes of what might be called popular Stalinism even there appear likely to push Russia “toward a grandiose and possibly the last historic catastrophe for our unhappy country – mass terror or a full-blown war.”
And this represents the greatest historical irony” because the realization of both popular fantasies about Stalin most of all threat the elite which has encouraged them” because “at the basis of popular Stalinism is a striving toward an ‘oprichnik’ (that is, anti-elite terror and the striving to an aggressive assertion of the sense of being a great power.”
Moreover, because of Russia’s trajectory over the last two decades, there has been lost any conviction that repression should lead to “equality and a bright future” and thus that the construction of an empire is justified by “ideological messianism.” What remains is perhaps more ugly: the desire simply to “beat” those people may not like.
That is something some in the Russian elites now recognize, gradually understanding that what they are promoting with their “playing with Stalinism” is a kind of “velvet fascism,” a set of ideas that once taken up by the broader population could set the country off toward a truly frightening future.
As the “conscious fear of despotism is forgotten” given the regime’s praise of Stalin, the “next generation will give a new historical chance to movements and leaders” who will be prepared not only to promote Stalinist values abroad but also at home and ready to attack members of the current elite itself.
Russia has already seen example of this in the “almost animal-like satisfaction” that greeted the arrest of Khodorkovsky and the invasion of Georgia, and precisely because of the way in which those events mobilized the population, it is likely Ikhlov suggests that some leaders will take even more such actions in the future.
Given the likelihood that at least some of the members of the current ruling elite would be among the victims of such a change, their “fatal nearsightedness” is striking and their enthusiasm for “releasing the genie of terrorist despotism” out of the bottle by promoting Stalin and Stalinism among the population anything but encouraging.
Indeed, the “Yezhednevny zhurnal” commentator concludes, “the current Russian ruling elite does not have any historical chances” regardless of whether there is Stalinism at home or Stalinism in foreign affairs because either course will lead to a situation in which they will be swept away.
That could happen at the demand “either of a popular revolutionary government with its unending lists for lustration or by occupiers or – and [members of the current elite] would view this as a great happiness by the administration of NATO peacekeepers with their carefully dosed out humanism and de-totalitarianization programs.”
Some in the elite may think they can easily back away from this outcome by doing what Vladimir Putin did when he finally decided to call the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact “amoral.” But in fact, Ikhlov points out in a note, Putin’s remarks recall Stalin’s own “Dizzy with Success” speech at the height of collectivization rather than represent a departure from the master.