Vienna, March 29 – Neo-Stalinism, the cult-like devotion to the late Soviet dictator, is found almost exclusively among Russians, even though observers might expect it to be found in Ukraine where the communists are strong, in Belarus where Alyaksandr Lukashenka admires the dictator’s approach, or in Georgia, where some remain proud of their native son.
Instead, Lev Timofeyev, a dissident in Soviet times who is now a rights activist, this phenomenon is “a purely Russian diversion,” one that cannot be explained, as many try to do by a desire for “order, a strong hand, a strong power, and a mobilizing force for modernization,” things other nations are interested in without being attracted to Stalin as a positive model.
In an article slated to appear in the next issue of “Kontinent,” Timofeyev argues that this Russian disease has its roots in a willful ignorance of history, a desire to accept myths rather than face facts, and the hope that someone else will take responsibility for solving all their problems. (Timofeyev provides a summary of his argument in grani.ru/opinion/m.176178.html.)
“It is not difficult to understand direct hatred” of Stalin, the man sometimes described as “the last Soviet dissident” writes, given the Soviet dictator’s role in ruling over a brutal “multi-national concentration camp,” from which all tried to flee and “not one from the ‘friendly family’ of Soviet peoples has shown a desire to return, either to ‘the family’ or to former times.”
But it is far more difficult to explain the attitudes bordering on devotion of many Russians. “Before the icon of Stalin are ready to pray not only former and present-day communist apparatchiks and not only their direct descendents.” Instead, a full “third of the population of Russia is ready to see a new Stalin at the head of the country!”
Everyone is told and has read that the explanation for that lies in a desire for “order, a strong hand, a strong power, a mobilizing resource for modernization,” Timofeyev goes out. But why don’t the Kazakhs or the Ukrainians or the Lithuanians equally need order and a strong hand as well?”
And what about the Germans, who no worse than [the Russians] know just what ‘order and a strong hand’ is and who have a modernization which thank God, do not require such a mobilizing resource?” The reason is simple: “The Germans well remember their history!” But Russians have forgotten theirs.
“Cunningly designed myths block out and at times confuse the memory about real events,” Timofeyev continues. “Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov have been read, but they are rarely recalled.” Vast numbers of studies have documented Stalin’s crimes, but his supporters, in order to boost him have “mythologized the history of the 20th century.”
An example of this is the claims of Abbot Yevstafii, who gained notoriety for putting up an icon with Stalin on it. He said that Stalin’s years in power “were the best years in the history of the USSR. People could go about freely. Prices declined every year, and “all the residents of our apartment house … could always buy any products,” including caviar.
After saying this, “the little father Stalinist,” Timofeyev continues, was welcomed as “an authority and a desired guest on the pages of a number of papers and Internet portals. [And] even the First television channel considered it necessary to acquaint the country with this colorful personage.”
The scope of the lies of such neo-Stalinists is so sweeping, Timofeyev says, that one hardly knows “how to react.” Those telling the lies certainly know they are lying: the abbot is certainly aware that there was rationing under Stalin and that “Stalin’s years were the hungriest in Russia during the 20th century.”
For Russians, the commentator continues, “National Myth Number One” is that “’Stalin took Russia with a plough and left it with a nuclear bomb.’” Yes, says Timofeyev, “Stalin really left the country with a nuclear bomb … but also with an ‘updated plough.” The dictator’s spending on defense impoverished everything else, as the facts show.
Medical services and housing lagged behind every European country as a result and despite the claims of the neo-Stalinists. But one can be certain, Timofeyev says, that the neo-Stalinists won’t be moved, and that those they lie to won’t be moved either “because people love myths” – and these myths are circulated in the mass media while truth “lies on library shelves.”
“Belief in myths allows people even in today’s difficult economic circumstances to be hopeful:” a “New Stalin” may come to a Russia that already has a nuclear bomb and leave “every Russian (or only ethnic Russian?) with an apartment and an automobile” without anyone having to think.
Aleksey Levinson (with the assistance of Svetlana Koroleva) of the Levada Center provides another perspective on what Timofeyev calls “the complete ‘Stalinization of Russian Public Opinion’” in an article entitled “Why Do Living Russians Need the Dead Stalin?” (www.polit.ru/institutes/2010/03/25/stalin.html).
Given that Stalin died 57 years ago, Levinson points out, there “remain very few” Russians who have direct personal memories of him, but, as the most recent polls show, the Soviet dictator still casts an enormous shadow on the opinions of even the youngest groups in the population.
While half of young people say that they are “indifferent” to Stalin, Levinson says, the other half divide more or less equally between those who have a positive and those who have a negative view of someone they know only by the reports of others, a pattern especially interesting because of the struggle over Stalin in the last years of Soviet power.
. In Gorbachev’s time, liberal hopes for socialism with a human face generally were tied to Lenin rather than Stalin. Indeed, the latter was viewed as the gravedigger of those hopes. But the illusion of that kind of system, one that was crushed by Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia in 1968 died in Russia together with the Soviet Union in 1991.
The succeeding social differentiation, when a few became fabulously wealthy and a larger number suffered enormous losses left the population at a loss, one that Levinson says led to “a radical shift of public attitudes in the course of a few years.” As faith in democracy and Yeltsin declined, Russians began to look to the KGB and similar agencies.
And as it did so, as the population “turned from ‘democrats’ and from Lenin, it found its ideal in Stalin.” Polls taken in 1994 showed that already 20 percent of Russians included Stalin among the “great people” of history, twice the percentage of only a few years earlier, and by 1999, that number had reached 35 percent.
Putin both reflected and accelerated that trend both by his personal style of rule and by his insistence that like Stalin, he would ensure that Russia had its own political system rather than one “imposed by the West” and that as a result, Russia would in the future “speak with the West on the basis of equality.”
According to Levinson, “Stalin in the mass consciousness of people today is an emblem of this type of rue. With the arrival of Putin on the scene, Stalin rose to third place among the “great” people, remaining only a single percentage point behind Peter the Great by 2008. And Putin himself by that year entered the list of “the ‘great’ five.”
Attitudes toward Stalin among Russians divide along many lines, Levinson says polls show. Older people are more pro-Stalin than younger ones, men are more Stalinist than women, and people living in cities outside of Moscow are more Stalinist than those living in the Russian capital.
Fundamental changes in society have played a role in the survival or rise of Stalinism in Russian society, the sociologist continues, but the actions of the powers that be have also played a role, because they see Stalin as providing “sanction for autocratic rule” and his role in World War II as the basis for national unity.
Few Russians are so “naïve” as to think that the powers that be are promoting Stalin to restore the Soviet system. Only eight percent think that. “The remainder understands that this is only a sleight of hand, with 23 percent saying that the current cult of Stalin is “a surrogate for the lack of a national idea and 23 percent saying it boosts the power of those in office.