Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Every spring, buses covered in portraits of Joseph Stalin appear on the streets of Russian cities. His face replaces ads for cell phones, soft drinks, laundry detergent, and cat food. With each passing year, the dictator gets more handsome and more glamorous; a portrait of him in his gorgeous white generalissimo’s jacket has become especially popular. He casts his stern gaze on the citizens, as if to say, “Remember me? I’m here, I didn’t go anywhere—and don’t you forget it!”
The ads aim to remind the country of the dictator’s role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. For those who would rehabilitate Stalin, that victory is their final argument, their last chance to drag the tyrant out of oblivion and put him back on his pedestal. They use it to make excuses for the dictator, to wash his hands of the blood he shed, and to recast him as the savior of the motherland during the hardship of the war years. The victory, in this version of history, legitimizes and justifies the entire repressive Soviet regime.
In the eyes of the Stalinists, admiration for the tyrant ought to be public and compulsory. That’s why they’ve chosen such an assertive way to inject the dictator into public space. Many want to go even further. There’s talk of erecting monuments to Stalin. There are annual calls to restore the city of Volgograd’s Soviet-era name: Stalingrad. Newly published histories in Moscow’s bookstores perpetuate the mythologized image of Stalin as a strict but fair ruler. Their titles—The Other Stalin, Stalin the Great, Stalin: Father of a Nation—say it all. There is even a new popular literature attempting to justify the actions of Viktor Abakumov, Lavrenty Beria, and other odious leaders of Stalin’s secret police. The monsters of Stalin’s era are coming back from the dead. And some of Russia’s leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, are exploiting the ideology of Stalin’s era to serve their own ends.
At first glance, the resurgence of admiration for Stalin seems surprising. The leader of one of the twentieth century’s bloodiest regimes, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of between ten million and 12 million people in peacetime. At least five million of these died of starvation and disease in 1932–33, during a famine caused by the mass collectivization of agriculture. (Because the records are so scanty, accurate numbers are hard to determine. Some historians put the famine’s death toll even higher.)
The most intense period of deliberate killing, although it saw fewer overall deaths, came during the Great Terror, which took place in 1937–38. At Stalin’s direction, the Soviet secret police, known as the NKVD, killed hundreds of thousands of former kulaks (well-off peasants who had been stripped of their property during collectivization) and other “anti-Soviet elements,” along with members of ethnic minorities, especially Germans and Poles, who might be tempted to betray the Soviet Union. All told, nearly 700,000 people were shot in a roughly 15-month period that began in the summer of 1937. Many others were sent to the gulag, the vast system of labor camps spanning the Soviet Union that held over 1.5 million people by the start of World War II.
In the eyes of the Stalinists, admiration for the tyrant ought to be public and compulsory.
Despite this bloody history, Russian authorities today avoid giving official assessments of either the Soviet past in general or individual Communist leaders in particular. That was not always the case. In 1987, during the period of liberalization known as glasnost, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in which he said that Stalin had committed “enormous and unforgivable” crimes. Today, such a clear statement would be unthinkable. In 2000, during his first inauguration as president, Putin set the new official tone, declaring that “there have been both tragic and brilliant pages in our history.”
Since then, the Kremlin has maintained this official line. On the one hand, in 2015, the government announced a new policy called the Program for Commemorating the Victims of Political Repression. Last October, as part of that policy, Moscow saw the opening of the Wall of Grief, a memorial to the victims of Soviet totalitarianism. This marked an important watershed: official government acknowledgment of the scale and gravity of the mass repressions. But many human rights advocates have expressed skepticism of the Russian government’s ability to properly acknowledge the past. They point to the growing human rights violations in Russia and the fact that the archives containing the records of the security services’ crimes remain closed.
Official public memory also has a darker side. Authorities still refrain from officially describing Stalin’s deeds as crimes. They carefully refer to them as “mistakes,” justifying them by pointing to the difficulties of the pre-war period and the need to prepare the country for war, as well as through misleading comparisons. At a press conference in 2013, a British correspondent asked Putin how he felt about Stalin. Putin shot back: “Was Cromwell any better?”
Contradictory views of Stalin are not limited to politicians. A popular high school textbook, The History of Russia, 1917–2009, claims that “as a statesman, Stalin was a great hero, but in terms of human rights, he was an evil murderer.” More and more often, Stalin is referred to as “a great statesman” who undertook a controversial but nonetheless effective push to strengthen the country. It’s as though Russians have two national histories.
The resurgence in public appreciation for the Soviet regime became possible in large part because Russia has never put its communist past on trial. Stalin flagrantly violated the constitution his own government had ratified in 1936. Despite constitutional guarantees including freedom of speech, the press, religion, and assembly, he created extrajudicial organs that issued death sentences in the absence of the accused and personally signing off on execution lists. More than six decades since Stalin’s death, there has been no official reckoning with this lawlessness.
In 1991, President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree terminating the activities of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The CPSU then challenged the decree in the Constitutional Court. Memorial, the civil rights group for which I work, prepared an expert analysis for the court in support of Yeltsin’s decree that included many archival documents testifying to the multitude of crimes perpetrated by the party’s leaders, from Vladimir Lenin to Gorbachev—but most of all by Stalin. The report marshaled vast quantities of evidence to prove that the party was a special instrument of the state that crudely violated constitutional norms, supplanting the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
The court ruled in Yeltsin’s favor, authorizing his closure of the CPSU. “For a long period of time,” the decision declared, “this country was ruled by a regime with limitless power founded in violence, controlled by a small group of Communist functionaries, united in the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU, led by the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU.” But the court had not set out to determine whether the CPSU had broken any laws and so gave no assessment of the crimes committed by the party or its leaders. It even declined to rule on the constitutionality of the CPSU before Yeltsin’s ban. Thus, the opportunity for a reckoning with the crimes of the Soviet regime was lost.
Authorities still refrain from officially describing Stalin’s deeds as crimes. They carefully refer to them as “mistakes.”
Today in Russia, it is impossible to take former Soviet security functionaries to court because their crimes were committed so long ago and the current government has failed to extend the relevant statutes of limitations. The Russian government even attempts to interfere in court proceedings in other former Soviet republics. In the 1990s and early years of this century, Estonia and Latvia conducted investigations and trials of former associates of Stalin’s security forces, charging them with genocide and war crimes. In 2004, Latvian authorities convicted Vassili Kononov, a Red Army soldier, of war crimes for his participation in 1944 in the murders of nine unarmed people, including a pregnant woman, in Mazie Bati, a village in modern-day Latvia. In 2008, Estonia put Arnold Meri, a former Communist functionary, on trial for his role in the mass deportations of Estonians in 1949. (Meri died before the trial concluded.) In both cases, the Kremlin launched loud propaganda campaigns in protest.
There’s no doubt that Stalin was a criminal, whether or not the Kremlin deems him one. Still, official acknowledgment of the criminality of both Stalin himself and the system he led is important, as it would help prevent the state from reverting to the policies that made Stalin’s regime possible. In modern Russia, with its deep-rooted tradition of authoritarianism, the danger of returning to bad habits is real.
In that light, the new popular Russian ideology is worrying. It consists of a paternalistic conception of government paired with the glorification of the past, including the entire Soviet period. The ideology’s basic principles are simple: the government is always right, and if in the past its policies created any victims, even a great many of them, they were necessary to continue down the special path chosen by the country. To ensure popular acceptance of these ideas, the state increasingly intervenes in the teaching of history.
For the government, history is not a subject to be treated objectively; instead, it is an instrument to advance the ideology of the state. The official “historical and cultural standards” that guide public school curricula mention the “mistakes,” not the crimes, committed by the Soviet regime. Textbooks dryly present the facts about the Great Terror without properly assessing them. They either list the total number of people arrested and executed or just claim that Stalin had decided to carry out a “general cleansing” of Soviet society as part of a necessary purge of a potential “fifth column.” These accounts aim to rationalize events rather than present a clear picture of what happened and what it meant.
These history texts form part of an official Russian state program of “patriotic education.” This endeavor not only runs counter to the principles of a free and democratic society but also contradicts the Russian constitution. That document, adopted in 1993, states that “no ideology may be established as the official state ideology or made compulsory in any way.” In theory, educational historical texts should aim to develop independent thinking, which can form the basis of civic consciousness. But in practice, the desire to promote patriotism prevents an honest analysis of history and takes textbooks out of the realm of scholarship. The result is biased writing that twists the facts to support ideologically determined conclusions.
There is no place in the Kremlin’s fine-tuned propaganda for an honest public discussion of Soviet-era political repression, resettlement, famine, and mass murder.
At the personal level, many people still remember relatives and loved ones who died in the purges. They are not afraid to discuss the past, but their memories are often framed by an acceptance of the official line about the necessity of Stalin’s deeds. “That’s just the way things were back then,” Russians often remark. Rather than blame the government, most see the Great Terror as something akin to a natural disaster. Very few Russians privately acknowledge—and fewer still are brave enough to publicly declare—that the mass Soviet political repression of 1937–38 was a crime, planned and perpetrated by Stalin and his government against the Soviet people.
There is no place in the Kremlin’s fine-tuned propaganda for an honest public discussion of Soviet-era political repression, resettlement, famine, and mass murder. Instead, the prohibition against remembering past horrors goes hand in hand with patriotic fervor for the modern state. Putin’s government has enacted laws that limit the freedom to speak, rally, or demonstrate and has restricted the activities of nongovernmental civic groups. All of this is justified as necessary to prevent “foreign intervention” in Russian affairs. Kremlin propaganda and pro-Kremlin historians insist that Western media and institutions use the “intentional negativization” of Soviet history as a weapon against Russia.
Russia’s modern resurrection of old ideologies reaches back further even than the Soviet era. A new dogma deems the Soviet government the inheritor of the Russian empire, and modern Russia, in turn, the rightful heir to the Soviet Union. According to this view, Russia has inherited both the empire’s old enemies and the confrontational thinking that went with them. Russia’s foreign policy reveals its leaders’ archaic ideas. An old conception of “geopolitical principles” has become their go-to rationalization for the country’s actions.
In particular, the Kremlin uses the 1945 victory over Hitler’s Germany as an instrument for rehabilitating the Soviet regime. The victory has taken on a universal significance. Modern Russian propagandists acknowledge that leading Western countries also fought Hitler’s Germany but claim that they did so in their own interests. Only the Soviet people fought for the interests of all humanity, the propagandists contend. To them, this demonstrates the messianic essence of the Russian people and that the Russian victory was the single most important event of the twentieth century. Stalin’s great achievement, they say, was that he returned the country to the Russian geopolitical doctrine.
The irony is that the Soviets would have rejected this interpretation. The third edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, published by the state during the government of Leonid Brezhnev, defines “geopolitics” as a “bourgeois, reactionary conception” based on the idea of a state as a geographic and biological organism seeking to expand and noted that geopolitics “became the official doctrine of fascism.”
But today, Russian politicians and political scientists unashamedly defend the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union with reference to geopolitics. This allows them to present the forced sovietization of neighboring countries—and even the mass repression that followed—in a positive light.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the communist government in 1991, it seemed that history would be laid bare. Declassified archival documents demonstrated that the country had been run by a group of criminals led by Stalin and that the mass murders they perpetrated were crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the new Russian government, busy with more immediate problems, never got around to passing a legal verdict on the Soviet past and calling its crimes by their names. And paradoxically, the very freedom of the 1990s allowed previously hidden Stalinist voices to make themselves heard.
Two and half decades later, the Russian public has been left disillusioned by lackluster economic reforms, widespread official corruption, and politicians who have turned their backs on the people. They dream of a strong leader capable of installing a just order. The renewed sympathy toward the Stalinist past is based on idealized conceptions of the orderliness, peace, and justice of the decade after 1945. The desire to turn back the clock also flows from the legacy of Soviet education, which taught the masses that the Soviet people were superior to the citizens of capitalist countries. Every Russian above a certain age knows the slogans from their childhood: “Our system is the best and the fairest. We are going down the most correct path, leading the way for the rest of humanity.”
The Soviet Union that propagated those mantras collapsed into a cloud of dust. But a slave mentality remains deeply ingrained in Russian minds, along with a latent monarchism and paternalism. The general mood is summed up in a formulation long accepted in conservative circles: “We don’t need a government that serves us; we need a government that’s like a father, even if that father is strict.” Back in Brezhnev’s time, these attitudes were common among the masses, but the political elite prevented the return of a dictator in Stalin’s mold, afraid to see the reemergence of Stalin’s style of governance. Today, however, the Kremlin has instilled the cult of strong government in the public consciousness, proclaiming in its propaganda the exceptional nature of the Russian people and their history and the special value of unifying all Russian-speaking people, no matter where they live. All of this serves to justify Russia’s expansionism abroad and repression at home. As long as Russia refuses to officially acknowledge the darkness in its past, it will be haunted by ideas that should have died long ago.