Stalin – a hero for our time

The myth of Russia’s beautiful past has gripped the popular imagination, thanks to state propaganda, the poet Tatiana Shcherbina laments. Stalin is the nation’s hero, heir to the Tsars. Russia is once again ‘encircled by enemies’ and the people’s list of those who ought to be shot grows longer daily.

Stalin has suddenly become the point of reference in Russia today.  Not really suddenly, of course – there was the TV programme “Name of Russia”, and his was the name people voted for.  Though there was an amusing switch at the last moment to Alexander Nevsky, hardly a well-known figure among the masses.  The Prokhanovs and Zyuganovs of this world went banging on about their hero, as they have done for years; elderly men and women wear medals with his portrait to their mini-demonstrations; seasoned drivers and long-distance lorry drivers have been hanging them on their windscreen as talismans from time immemorial.  This did all actually happen.  For 4 years Putin-TV has drummed the image of the efficient manager of «great construction projects» and the face of World War 2 into the collective sub-consciousness.  But the masses know (and not only in their DNA) that Russia means poverty, thieving, bribes, lawlessness, injustice and backwardness, and it has always, always been that way…..  Or perhaps not always?  After all man, like society, has to be able to think that something which is bad is not going to go on for ever, that it's not a sentence or a diagnosis of ingrained feeble-mindedness – once things were really good.  Not just good, but in superlatives – great, powerful, abundant and worthy.  If this is the case, then the people who destroyed it were evil.  You can point a finger at them («the borders are open, get out of our country!») and they can be made either to toe the line or be shot (from 1 January 2010).  Then the question «who is to blame?» that interferes with our sleep, work or life will let up again for a bit.   

The main advantage of a beautiful past is that if you had one, it will come again, once exile, imprisonment or capital punishment have been meted out and not just to individual Khodorkovskys, but to all of them – in folk perception this is about two thirds of the adult population.   

Shoot them! 

Firstly the «embezzlers of national property», from Putin, who is rumoured to have an astronomically enormous fortune (some bloggers name figures in the trillions of dollars) to the oligarchs or not-oligarchs – people whose castles, palaces or just houses are protected by high stone walls.  Whoever has a dacha that is not a complete wreck will certainly have a wall like this to protect him (or his elite village) from thieves and bandits.  These are not the «godfathers», whose funeral ceremonies are shown on TV for a week, but common thieves.  Both kinds would be bumped off by the people, after the embezzlers. 

Actually opinions vary about the leader of the nation and his entourage:  less emotional people think that the residents of the Kremlin will be packed off, if not like that, then to their luxurious villas, which they have bought in that same pernicious West.  So they don't include them in the lists of those they would like to see shot.  Others don't want to let them get away and think they should be publicly hanged.  Yet others think the Tsar can do what he wants, that it's not up to us, the hoi polloi, to discuss or condemn his actions. 

Next come the bribe-takers.  Probably half the population falls into this category from minor officials to nurses.  In short the longing to clean up the country is becoming stronger in the national subconscious by the day.  But we did have a positive example – Stalin!  Rootless cosmopolitans, spies, fifth columnists, traitors to the motherland (including those closest to him), their wives and children, older comrades and teachers were all sent to the gulag or executed.  As were the MeyerholdsMandelstamsWeismannist-Morganists and geneticists.  As was Uncle Vasya from the collective farm - no papers, a former kulak (we would say farmer) - who had his business taken from him («everything belongs to the people, everything is mine»), and indeed any worker or peasant, uneducated and very poor.  Because someone had denounced them.  Or because he had «given himself airs» (defended his human dignity) before a low-ranking official.  Uncle Vasya is, of course, not Jewish (the recent wave of hatred for the Jews is the strongest yet), but (in today's terms) a yid and at that time – a class enemy. 

During the last two weeks I have been coming across the term «yid» to mean not people who are Jews or who are actually anything to do with ethnos.  They're just people who don’t fit in, not one of us, like the Soviet «dissidents».  Tsvetaeva wrote that «all poets are yids», so those «poets», if you give our lot their head, would also be singled out.  Some bloggers think that it was right to punish Mandelstam for his anti-Stalin poem and that any country would have done the same.  The «repressions» were justified and the results are obvious: the USSR succeeded in stealing the secret of the atom bomb and the tall, Stalinist apartment blocks were well-built and have still not collapsed.  The Belomor Canal was built by those who needed to be reformed by labour for the good of the motherland.  Back then the elite, including the modest leader, lived in spartan conditions.   

There is no point in trying to convince the Stalinists that Stalin's comrades in arms lived in unheard of luxury, secretly, behind the same high walls as today, because they simply don't want to know.  Nor about wartime «cannon fodder», a subject on which volumes have been written.  They don't want to know about the starvation which caused death on such an enormous scale, or the fact that there were no laws, written or unwritten, which would guarantee your safety if you obeyed them.  How could there be?  Beria fancied a girl he saw in the street and a Black Maria picked her up for his sexual gratification.  I recently went to what was once his luxurious mansion – it's an embassy now.  What can one say?  The «historical image» of Kursk metro station in Moscow is being recreated, though there's no monument yet to give it authenticity, historical images (of the 30s and 40s, that is) will probably be officially rehabilitated all over the place and Stalin is a TV hero.    

Reimagining Stalin 

I said that Stalin had «suddenly»  become a point of reference.  It happened just the other day, when a Tendency acquired the force of  Truth.  When the TV programme about Stalin on Channel 1 asked viewers to vote, 54% said he was a hero, 7% an effective manager (as I understand it, these were probably Putinists), and 39% a criminal.  39% might seem quite a good figure, but the difference is the same as between a controlling stake in a company and all the other percentages, even if there are 39 of them.  This TV programme gave rise to heated discussions, which go on to this day.  By heated I mean 500 comments for each showing.   

These discussions have happened before, but this time something else happened.  The anti-Stalinists have ended up on the defensive, referring to historical documents, wringing their hands and clutching their hearts.  The Stalinists (it's as if in Soviet times a dissident had argued with a member of the Communist Party) simply brush these documents away, saying that  anyone can put any figures together.  They also dismiss arguments that the USSR was completely isolated, the cupboards were bare and that almost everything was forbidden.  Too right, say the Stalinists, what was forbidden was harmful, an infection from the West which corrupted homo Sovieticus.  Private property was just such an infection: today a honest man can't buy himself a flat or a dacha, whereas then they were handed out for free. 

You won't convince a Stalinist that a family would be allocated one room in a huge communal flat, that this was living in inhuman conditions, that people were sent to camps or shot for no more reason than there was nowhere to house them, nothing to feed them with or no means of paying them a wage – convicts worked for nothing and produced the lion's share of the GDP at the time.  Many of the Stalinists are quite young and didn't know even Chernenko – for them today's heroic mythology comes from the current agitprop.  They are sure that everything in the USSR was right and proper: the central figure was Stalin, so he's the one selected as the epic hero.  Lenin is currently out of the popularity stakes: he was a revolutionary, terrorist and extremist.  For the Putin generation he is not the forerunner of Stalin, just one of the many barely distinguishable spectres of communism.  Today Stalin is the heir of the Russian tsars.  For the nationalists – a majority among the Stalinists – he's not even a Georgian, but a Russian and a baptised Orthodox christian!  No, no – he didn't blow up the churches including the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, he didn't root out the opium of the people following on from Lenin.  After all, he went to seek the advice of St Matrona – you can see that on the TV.  Other priests have elevated that closet Orthodox christian Stalin to a saint and practically put icons to him into the church, but it's a bit early for that, so they've had to take them home. 

The role of state propaganda 

How much of a role has state propaganda played in this new mythology?  The main role, the controlling stake.  All these feelings of love for Stalin, the thoughts, the arguments are completely fresh and not talismans on the windowscreens of long-distance lorries.  From 1956 they were isolated cases, marginalised, the lumpen class who demonstrated their devotion more or less defiantly.  From the moment the party i.e. Khrushchev revealed the «terrible truth» about Stalin, which many knew already, that became the right, recommended and approved view of things.  If the internet and bloggers had existed at the time, anyone who had tried to write something laudatory about Stalin and that whole period would have been attacked and pilloried in the same way as is happening now, but the other way round.    If anyone had tried saying publicly that Khrushchev himself was one of the «notables» - the mayor, in today's parlance – of the Stalinist system and had as much to do with the repressions and executions as Beria and Malenkov, whom he annihilated in the struggle for power (though this is true), the youth of the time would have angrily condemned him out of hand, because the Khrushchev thaw was opening up the future.  Aksyonov-Voznesenky-Okudzhava-Vysotsky, the pleiad of unofficial artists and poets (Rabin, Brodsky) and the scientists who subsequently became the leading lights of world science:  oxygen had been released into this society of fear and terror and people could suddenly breathe.  No «historical truth» was more important than that.  But no one did say anything in public, because in Soviet times, even during the thaw, not agreeing with the policies of the party and the state was not an option.  There's no oxygen today, no sense of the future, just a disconnected nation which feels it has been deceived, humiliated, is helpless and futile.  This is why it can only rummage around in the past – a past which was also deprived of oxygen («we will perish openly», as Pasternak said), was as cruel and bloody as the reign of the second current hero, the completely prehistoric Ivan the Terrible.  The humane way doesn’t work, so let it be bloody and cruel, but we have to get out of our current psychological quagmire somehow.  And then, of course, there's the conspiracy theory:  we are encircled by enemies, no one loves us and we'll show 'em. 

Love Russia, love her government 

The Stalinists-nationalists see Putin as their ally.  FSB-KGB-MGB-NKVD-OGPU – each name is unable to get away from the sinister glory of its predecessor – in short naked power.  It's «our» «Russian» power and anyone who doesn't like it is not one of us.  Which was exactly what the propaganda was aiming for.  Anyone who loves Russia will love her government too – imperial, Soviet or post-Soviet.  State authority – state-country-people – is monolithic.  Yeltsin and Gorbachev were the exceptions.  They were «yids», enemies, accomplices, shitocrat-liberasts, so nothing to do with state power at all.  That is what puts you up against the wall if you do anything wrong.  Or if they simply don't fancy you.  Just like in Stalin's time.  No less a personage than the pro-rector of Moscow State University, A.P. Chernyaev, has said publicly that in his opinion the Stalinist concentration camps should be re-established. 

But state propaganda is playing with fire by using Stalin as their support mythology.  Stalin's name is more likely to sweep away this rotten regime than the vertical of power is to be strengthened. 

I had just written this phrase when I heard on the news that President Medvedev had criticised Stalin and Stalinism.  Responses came thick and fast.  A lawyer writes: «Do you want to kill off Stalin, Dmitri Anatolievich?  Do you really?  I'll tell you how to start.  Get rid of corruption (but without executions), increase productivity (without the gulag), strengthen our defence capabilities, rebuild science and education, settle the question of the health service, the birth rate, securtiy and law and order.  Do it.  You will inspire the nation.  You will convince us that you need us and will not allow anyone to hurt us.  You know what you have to do to achieve this – you know very well indeed.  Then no one will remember Stalin.  They will remember you, only you.  But for the moment we've got what we've got – Stalin, who is as relevant now as he ever was». 

And everyone sort of understands that nothing will happen without executions and the gulag.  If the «troika» courts represented the rule of law and security, with no courts and no investigations and with torture, which meant that anyone might admit they were a Martian spy.  If science and education, as well as industry and agriculture, were stronger than they were before the revolution.  The demographic argument has been raised endlessly: under Stalin, it goes, the population increased, in spite of the purges of the gene pool;  now, with no purges, it's shrinking.  But it's shrinking in Europe too, not hitting zero only because of migrants from Arab and African countries, whereas before it was growing.  In the 19th century people used to have 12 children in a family and in Stalin's time there was still an echo of the 19th century with its ideas about honour and dignity.  Now, if corruption and tax dodges were completely rooted out, what was left would be pretty pathetic. 

The most unpleasant thing is that, in spite of her open borders, Russia is psychologically isolating herself from the world.  A world where science and electronics produce miracles, where people think about the meaning of things and about trivia, where there is an unbelievable multiplicity of life forms.  It's as if there's sun and sky everywhere, but for us everything is clogged up, entrenched in battlefield positions:  are we for or against Stalin, for or against Putin?  This is what is vitally important and so urgent.  Everything else depends on that.  It's the meaning, the very sensation of life.   

And the richness of life is evaporating before our very eyes. 

Tatiana Shcherbina is a poet.  She lives in Moscow, speaks fluent French, writes poems in French and Russian and has translated a number of French poets into Russian. In 2002 she took part in the Poetry International at London's Royal Festival Hall and in a UK tour by Russian women poets. Her poems appeared in a special Russian women's poetry issue of 'Modern Poems in Translation', and a selection of her earlier poetry has been published by Zephyr Press in the US.

 

About the author

Tatiana Shcherbina is a widely-translated Russian poet. Her first five collections of poems,and a novel, appeared in samizdat, before her work started being published by the Soviet press in 1989. She worked for Radio Liberty in Munich and Paris 1992-7, and speaks fluent French. She has lived in Moscow since 1997.

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