Why Russia Still Loves Stalin
When I was growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s, it was President Leonid Brezhnev that I loathed. The dreaded Joseph Stalin seemed merely a name from a distant past. Back in 1956, he had been outed as a monster by my great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, in the famous "secret speech" at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and deleted from history.
But Brezhnev, with his sinister eyebrows, was everywhere. He brooded over me and my classmates from school posters, promising the bright, shining future of communism. And he had made his ominous presence felt in my own family. My school on Kutuzovsky Prospect was a haven for the party elite, where Politburo members -- including the Brezhnevs -- sent their children. My friends boasted of grandfathers who were ambassador to England or head of the KGB. But my once-powerful great-grandfather officially didn't exist. In 1964, Khrushchev had been "retired" by Brezhnev, removed as Soviet leader for the mysterious, undefined crime of "voluntarism" and exiled to a country estate outside Moscow. Like Stalin, he had been written out of the past.
At home, I was told that I should be proud to be a Khrushchev. At home, history still existed. My parents told me about the secret speech, though it didn't mean much to me until I was in high school. While it hadn't gone far enough in demystifying the totalitarian system, the speech had launched the period known as the thaw, when millions of Soviet citizens were released from the gulag, and opened the door to a more frank exchange of ideas and to a limited flow of foreign visitors and goods. The freedoms that the former communist countries enjoy today have flowed from the cracks in the system that Khrushchev introduced with his speech of Feb. 25, 1956.
Yet nearly 50 years to the day from that speech, my great-grandfather has become a scapegoat for many of the perceived ills of post-communist, "democratic" Russian society. And Stalin, the man he exposed as a brutal dictator who terrorized and oppressed the nation, is enjoying a virtual rehabilitation, with opinion polls revealing his shocking popularity, especially among the young.
It's not surprising. After the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a period when democracy came to represent confusion, crime, poverty, oligarchy, anger and disappointment, it turned out that Russians didn't like their new, "free" selves. Having for centuries had no sense of self-esteem outside the state, we found ourselves wanting our old rulers back, the rulers who provided a sense of order, inspired patriotic fervor and the belief that we were a great nation. We yearned for monumental -- if oppressive -- leaders, like Ivan the Terrible or Stalin. Yes, they killed and imprisoned, but how great were our victories and parades! So what if Stalin ruled by fear? That was simply a fear for one's life. However terrifying, it wasn't as existentially threatening as the fear of freedom, of individual choice, with no one but oneself to blame if democracy turned into disarray and capitalism into corruption.
This is why the country rallies behind President Vladimir Putin. Putin promotes himself as a new Russian "democrat." Indeed, Russians view him less like the godlike "father of all nations" that Stalin was, and more like a Russian everyman -- a sign of at least partial democratization. Putin often notes that Russia is developing "its own brand of democracy." Translation: His modern autocracy has discovered that it no longer needs mass purges like Stalin's to protect itself from the people. Dislike of freedom makes us his eager backers. How readily we have come to admire his firm hand: Rather than holding him responsible for the horrors of Chechnya, we agree with his "democratic" appointment of leaders for that ill-fated land. We cheer his "unmasking of Western spies," support his jailing of "dishonest" oligarchs and his promotion of a "dictatorship of order" rather than a government of transparent laws.
"Putinism," an all-inclusive hybrid that embraces elements of Stalinism, communism, KGB-ism and market-ism, is our new national ideology. A man for all seasons and all fears, Russia's president pretends that by selectively adopting and adapting some elements from his predecessors' rule -- the Russian Orthodox Church of the czars, the KGB of the Soviets, the market economy of the Boris Yeltsin era -- he is eliminating the extremes of the past, creating a viable system of power that will last. But his closed and secretive system of governing -- the "vertical power" so familiar from the pre-secret speech era, with information once again manipulated by the authorities -- suggests that his proposed "unity" is yet another effort to rewrite the past.
And so the secret speech is no longer seen as a courageous act of political conscience, in which Khrushchev, in order to secure justice for Stalinism's victims and liberate communist ideals from the gulag's grotesque inhumanity, called for reform of the despotic system he had helped to build. In the Russian media today, the speech is dismissed as something far more ignoble: Khrushchev's effort to avenge his oldest son, Leonid, whom Stalin had allegedly persecuted for betraying socialist ideals by serving the Nazis during World War II.
These rumors about Leonid have been surfacing since the Brezhnev era. Until recently, the public had by and large dismissed them as "planted" KGB propaganda. But today, as the country looks for an easy answer to its feelings of insecurity, the Khrushchevs -- father and son -- have become favorite scapegoats for Russia's problems.
Khrushchev's critics consider the collapse of the Soviet Union to be as much his fault as Mikhail Gorbachev's or Yeltsin's. The fall of the communist system didn't exactly seamlessly usher in democracy, despite people's expectations. Russians were in such a hurry to get rid of the negative burdens of the Soviet regime that they got rid of everything positive, too. In a sweeping negation (much like Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin), they were told that the nearly century-long Soviet period had been completely useless. The 1990s refused to recognize the communist era -- which had indeed brought Russia oppression, but also industrialization, educational growth, near-universal literacy, victory in World War II, science and space developments. This tendency to dismiss the past, never to fully repent of its sins, is common in Russian history, and it allows for a film of nostalgia to take hold.
Deprived of national pride and their lifelong beliefs, Russians experienced the demise of the Soviet era as the end of empire and a sense of national identity. In a state of moral, material and physical despair, they yearned to feel better about themselves and their land. The image of Stalin, with his wise, mustachioed smile, filled the void. And because he refuted him, Khrushchev became the architect of Russia's ills.
In her book, "Stalin: The Second Murder," journalist Yelena Prudnikova writes of Khrushchev's posthumous denunciation of Stalin as if it were a murder: "If it weren't for [Khrushchev's] execution [of Stalin] we wouldn't have come to such a sorry state. Since then we have lived increasingly useless and dirtier lives," because this "murder of Stalin was also the murder of his people. The country, deprived of high ideals in just a few decades, has rotted to the ground."
My great-grandfather tried to begin the process of freeing Russia from Stalin's bloody past, but the nation has never fully dealt with the crimes of Stalinism. Instead, the complexities of life in a fragmented modern society that can boast of no momentous achievements -- no more superpower status, no new Sputniks -- have made Russians nostalgic for the "strong state" they once inhabited. It's a cycle that will keep on repeating itself until Russia finally and fully confronts its past.
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Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at the New School in New York. Her book, "Visiting Nabokov," is forthcoming from Yale University Press.