Failing the Stalin Test

RUSSIANS AND THEIR DICTATOR

Imagine that a scientific survey revealed that most Germans under 30 today viewed Hitler with ambivalence and that a majority thought he had done more good than bad. Imagine that about 20 percent said they would vote for him if he ran for president tomorrow. Now try to envision the horrified international response that would follow.

Of course, most contemporary Germans revile Hitler. But ask young Russians about Stalin, and you get answers very similar to those above. Since 2003, we have conducted three surveys in Russia, and according to these polls, there is no stigma associated with Stalin in the country today. In fact, many Russians hold ambivalent or even positive views of him. For example, one-quarter or more of Russian adults say they would definitely or probably vote for Stalin were he alive and running for president, and less than 40 percent say they definitely would not. A majority of young Russians, moreover, do not view Stalin -- a man responsible for millions of deaths and enormous suffering -- with the revulsion he deserves. Although Stalinism per se is not rampant in Russia today, misperceptions about the Stalin era are. Few of the respondents to our surveys could be classified as hard-core Stalinists, but fewer still are hard-core anti-Stalinists. Most Russians, in other words, flunk the Stalin test.

And yet, whereas similar findings about Hitler in Germany would no doubt provoke international alarm, American and European political leaders have failed to respond to this trend in Russia -- and it is doubtful that they will anytime soon. Western policymakers prefer to ignore unpleasant news about the weakness of democracy in Russia, and this preference is unlikely to change before the next meeting of the G-8, the group of the world's leading industrialized nations, which is to be held in St. Petersburg in July. With U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq, American leaders are especially overwhelmed at the moment and have little attention to spare. They will be greatly tempted simply to declare Russia's democratic development finished and to avoid the difficult work of figuring out how to respond effectively to the dangerous legacies of Soviet rule that still trouble their new, uneasy ally.

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