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Uses and abuses of Stalin’s image

The Levada Center has been monitoring Russian attitudes to Stalin for years. Alexei Levinson, reviewing changing attitudes to this iconic figure following the Center's latest survey, finds that he remains popular, and that people are strangely forgiving of his crimes. But there is some resistance to the way the authorities exploit his image to their own ends

Joseph Stalin died 57 years ago, in March 1953. Since the average life expectancy in Russia is about 68, very few people who were of reasoning age while Stalin was alive are still able to talk publicly about life back then. But attitudes towards Stalin and Stalinism are once again provoking public polemics, this time among the children and grandchildren of those people. Today, as shown by a Levada Center survey, about half of all young people say that they are “indifferent” to Stalin. The attitude of the other half to a figure they only know about from history is divided.

In the first decade after Stalin’s death, Soviet domestic policy fluctuated between condemning him, and condemning the condemnation of him. But interest in Stalin gradually faded. At the end of the 1980s, our surveys showed that not more than 10% in Russia thought he was one of the “great people of all times and nations” (about 20% accorded this honour to Gorbachev).  Liberal tendencies in vogue at the time were associated with the symbolic figure of Lenin. Stalin was seen as his antithesis. Under Gorbachev Soviet society cherished the hopes that had been crushed by the Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia in 1968: that a democratic system could be created in a socialist society. This illusion was destroyed by the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Yeltsin’s era was a time when the ideas of the Soviet communist utopia, and the utopia of socialism with a human face, were debunked. They were replaced by a mass determination to build a democratic state with a market economy right here and now, so that the country could begin to flourish and prosperity improve. What they got, however, was a severe economic and social crisis. A minority used the ruins of the Soviet system to become extremely rich; the majority saw a severe drop in their material wealth and, more importantly, the loss of their world and their status. Huge masses of people found themselves in a situation where it was impossible to move back to the past they had rejected or into the future which turned out to be a deception.  All they had was the destitute present.

The mood in society changed radically in just a few years. Our studies noted a loss in democratic hopes, more frequently illusions, among both the general public and the ruling groups. The latter began to look for a replacement for the “democrat” Yeltsin in the opposite camp, among officers of the KGB and similar departments. The public rejected both the “democrats” and Lenin and found their ideal in Stalin. In 1994 20% already classed him as a “great man”. By the end of the Yeltsin era in 1999 this number had grown to 35%.

Then the Putin era began. Putin was very effective in capitalizing on the disenchantment with democracy and democrats. With the aid of a number of simple gestures and signs, he showed that he could offer the public a type of leadership that was the complete opposite of democracy, which had become so compromised in people’s eyes. It wasn’t dictatorship or tyranny. His approval ratings stayed at 60% and higher for ten years. This shows that the signal he gave was the right one for the time, which was that the type of government was not a foreign model forced on the country by the West, but home-grown and that Russia would talk to the West as equals. We have a “democratic” constitution, but real power is not based on the laws and democratic institutions enshrined in this constitution, such as parliament, parties and elections, but on the rule of the leader, who has universal support. In today’s popular consciousness Stalin is an emblem of this type of leadership. Since Putin came to power, Stalin has moved to third place on the list of “great people”, and in 2008 was only 1% lower in the ratings than Emperor Peter the Great.  Putin was in fifth place on the same list.

Disillusionment with democratic ideals does not mean they have disappeared from popular consciousness. They are indeed present, though repressed and symbolically crushed. The figure of Stalin is in fact needed as an expression of this repression. Popular consciousness does not deny the attributes of this figure that are condemned (from the democratic standpoint). Almost 60% of Russians recognise that “the sacrifices made by the Soviet people in the Stalinist era cannot be justified by great goals and results”. This is even more obvious if one compares two figures. 35% of people born before Stalin’s death said that members of their families had suffered in the Stalinist repressions. But only 25% are prepared to call Stalin a “state criminal”. In other words, although the sacrifices cannot be justified, Stalin is forgiven for them.

The contradictions and divisions surrounding this symbol can be found in all sections of society. We have already mentioned that young people are equally divided into Stalinists and anti-Stalinists. But in many ways pro-Stalinist and anti-Stalinist moods reflect the opposition between young and old. Over 30% of the older generation believes that, with the death of Stalin, the country lost a “great leader and teacher”; only 9% of young people are of this opinion. There is also the gender aspect: 23% of men say that Stalin was a great leader, but only 15% of women. Analysis shows that the Stalinist principle of victory at any cost appeals to men of an active age, “real men”, so to speak. Women are more inclined to regret the sacrifices and excesses of this type of leadership. There is also a regional element in the opinions people give: in the capital 12% express respect, admiration and sympathy with Stalin, but in cities of medium size, this figure is three times higher.

A projection of Russians’ beliefs about attitudes to Stalin outside Russia gives some revealing results. 22% of Russians believe that people in the West think of Stalin as a “despot and criminal of the same ilk as Hitler and Mussolini”. 16% believe that in the West Stalin is considered a “great person, under whose leadership the Soviet Union became one of the most powerful countries in the world”. Another 19% believe that in the West people have “mixed feelings of respect, fear and indignation”. But Russians give a different answer to the question about attitudes to Stalin in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe i.e. they realize that there are far fewer illusions about Stalin there. Less than 10% believe that people remember Stalin as a great person in the socialist bloc. He is considered a despot and criminal to a greater degree than in the West, they believe. But most frequently (26%), Russians attribute this mixture of “respect, fear and indignation” to their former socialist brothers. In fact, they believe, this is what the attitude should be to a ruler sent by fate.

In addition, the public’s fluctuating attitudes to Stalin, have been given a helping hand by the government. Stalin serves as an authorization for autocratic rule, but he is also interesting for the rulers of Russia today because he is linked to the strongest symbol of integration in their armoury – the people’s memory of victory in the Great Patriotic War. This event is perceived by practically all Russians as the greatest event in history, and no one dares to dispute its importance. The only dispute is whether the victory was achieved because or in spite of Stalin’s rule. For all his errors, crimes even, Stalin remains in the eyes of many the organizer and inspirer of this victory, and the government tries to uphold this belief. The incredible price paid for the victory only increases its importance in the eyes of the majority. Stalin’s errors and even crimes are admitted, but they only make him a more solid figure as a symbolic resource. The public has no illusions as to who is making use of this resource, how and why. They are  not so naïve as to think that the authorities “are using the cult of Stalin to bring back the Soviet system”. Only 8% believe this. The rest realize that it’s just a cover, that in fact it’s not the Soviet system the authorities want, but their own. This is why twice as many people believe that the Russian authorities “try to use the cult of Stalin to justify their abuse of power”. Another 20% believe that for the authorities “the present Stalin cult serves to compensate for the lack of a national idea”. And 23% believe that the authorities use it “to strengthen their own position”.

The study showed that the number of people whose families suffered from Stalinist repressions was four and a half times lower among the medium and lower levels of bureaucracy, than in the engineering and technical intelligentsia. But hostility to the figure of Stalin is roughly similar in both groups. This medium and lower bureaucracy is more dissatisfied with the way the rulers of the country exploit this symbol for their immediate needs. They criticize the Moscow authorities’ plan to put up posters with Stalin’s portrait on Victory Day one third more than the average. Local government, like business, has no need of Stalin to solve its tasks.


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