Russia: Builder of Ruins

In the Soviet Union, they used to say that Lenin was more alive than the living. Today, more than a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the evil spirit of Lenin may have been exorcised, but the specter of Josef Stalin, his successor, haunts the Russian people like never before.

The Russian press marked the 50th anniversary of Stalin’s death this past March by commenting on the remarkable spike in his popularity. During the political reforms of the late 1980s, journalists and historians subjected Stalinism and the entire socialist period to relentless scrutiny, and the reputation of the Communist Party and its founding fathers suffered. But today, given Russia’s reduced international stature and the failure of market reforms to help ordinary Russians, Stalin’s name conjures visions of a glorious past.

“It’s a serious matter,” wrote Lev Pirogov and Evgeni Lesin in the centrist Nezavisimaya Gazeta (March 6). “Presidents come, and presidents go, but the idea remains that Stalin was bad for the past but is entirely acceptable for the present. In a country that once conquered space and tamed the atom but has now become a commodity exporter, Stalin symbolizes nostalgia for a lost industrial paradise. This isn’t a crime; it’s a mistake.”

There was hardly any such nostalgia among Russians in 1991, when former Russian President Boris Yeltsin fought back an attempted coup by communist hard-liners. Then, according to the centrist Izvestiya (March 6), fewer than 1 percent of those interviewed for a public opinion poll included Stalin on their list of Russian or Soviet civic figures who would be remembered in 10 years’ time. Today that figure is 20 percent.

Another poll, conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation on Feb. 22, found that 36 percent of Russians thought Stalin did more good than bad for the country. Twenty-nine percent expressed the opposite opinion, and 34 percent found it hard to express an opinion about his actions. At the same time, 61 percent of respondents said that Stalin was responsible for “the genocide of his own people.”

Writing in Izvestiya on March 6, Boris Dubin, a researcher for the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research, noted that reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev and then Yeltsin led to a rupture with the Soviet past and to an initial drop in Stalin’s standing. Yeltsin attempted to replace Soviet symbols with those of the Russian imperial past, but they couldn’t compensate for the falling living standards and chaos during the country’s transition to a market economy. These corresponded in the mid-1990s with a jump in the former dictator’s standing. According to Dubin, today’s popular imagination of Stalinism, “is a guaranteed stability and predictability—the regularity of a ‘normal’ life. It’s worth recalling that at the end of the 1980s, the media regarded life in the developed Western countries as ‘normal.’ ”

Many observers commented on Stalin’s timelessness and ubiquity. Lenin may have been everywhere before 1991, but he doesn’t have the same relevance for today’s Russians. “Stalin isn’t subject to demythologizing, and this proves that he is alive,” wrote Marina Koldovskaya in the liberal weekly magazine Novoye Vremya (March 9). “Lenin died a long time ago, almost 10 years back. At that time, during talk about spots appearing on his body, cremating his remains, and conducting a traveling tour of his body, he was transformed from a politician into a symbol of popular culture, a communist Mickey Mouse, who yielded to other revolutionary idols: Mao, Che Guevera, and even Ulrike Meinhof.

“So the idea of communism is no longer relevant. Leftist radicals and Marxist theoreticians are of interest to no one except bohemians. Politicians who call themselves communists today are really nationalists, conservatives, and national-socialists. Lenin is far removed from them, but Stalin is close to them—as a nationalist, conservative, and nationalist-socialist.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta (March 6) asked several writers to offer their views on the anniversary of Stalin’s death. Commented novelist Victor Erofeyev: “It’s a disgrace that we are marking the 50th anniversary of a tyrant’s death as some kind of an event. Like no one else, he made a mockery of his people. I’ve traveled the whole world, and there isn’t a people who still love and make a hero of a ruler who virtually destroyed them. What are we? A country of fools?”

Two writers of opposite ideological perspectives, liberal Vladimir Sorokin and nationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov, agreed that Stalin’s dabbling in various aspects of intellectual life was not a symptom of dilettantism. Rather, it indicated his commitment to creating a fully realized new world order, including ritual texts. “Stalin’s death marked the collapse of the ‘Stalinist cosmos’ in the souls of millions of little Stalins created by this system,” said Sorokin. “This, by the way, gave birth to the 1960s generation. In many ways, the people of the ’60s were deeply offended that by dying Stalin robbed them of this cosmos. And this ‘offense at the father’ who abandoned them engendered a literary break. The rage of this metaphysical orphanhood was reflected in their literature. And, in general, a literary reflection on the Stalinist epoch will, in my opinion, continue for a long time to come.”

Recounting the ecological and human costs of Stalinism, Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s Pirogov and Lesin concluded: “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no point invoking the spirit of Stalin. He wouldn’t relieve your sadness. He’d play another dirty trick on you.”