Stalin’s Dead Hand

Why the fight over the tyrant's true brutal legacy is the fight for the future of Russia.

Imagine if Hitler had ranked first in a current German survey of the greatest figures of history. While that did not happen, last year Stalin finished first among Russians in a Carnegie survey of the most influential figures of history, proving that people do not learn from history, they learn from the victors of history.

Stalin died in March 1953. Sixty years have passed since then, but the old tyrant remains a shadowy presence over Russia offering the simple solution of the bullet and the gulag. Iosif, the robber and government informant is dead, but in his place is the meticulously manufactured idea that Stalin’s way is the only way. The war over that dark history represents the political struggle over the soul of Russia.

Stalin became a post-ideological tyrant, posturing as a nationalist when necessary, reviving the country’s religious identity when needed, and purging people less out of ideology and more out of freewheeling paranoia. The Russian people viewed his successors, men like Khrushchev and Brezhnev, with contempt, but despite all the torture and atrocities, he retained his iconic status.

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, Stalin remains a popular figure having transcended the ideology that most Westerners associated him with. The Communist left claims Stalin as a Communist while the Nationalist right claims him as a destroyer of Communism. Stalin endures among these groups as a symbol of power and decisive action.

The old Communist icons have faded away, but Stalin remains the quintessential tyrant. A figure closely associated with Russian greatness and Georgian glory, rather than with Communism.

Russia has historically vacillated between well-meaning inept leaders and ruthlessly brutal tyrants. The current governing scheme has given Russians both at the same time, with Medvedev playing the role of the well-meaning inept leader and Putin that of the ruthless tyrant stepping in when he falters. The historical pattern is as old as the czars and the outbreaks of democracy have not yet freed the Russian people from that bloody cycle.

During the end of the Soviet era, only 12 percent named Stalin a significant figure, but last year he was in first place again. The 1989 figures largely reflected Soviet orthodoxy with Lenin and Marx depicted as the dominant figures of history. Marx has since largely vanished, falling from 35 percent to 6 percent in 5 years, indicating that his placement was a product of ideological conformity and that there is no affinity at all for his economic ideas.  Lenin took a sharp tumble, but still ranks second.

The Soviet-era survey reflected the Communist interpretation of history, but the post-Soviet surveys reflect how that history has been massaged, interpreted and reinterpreted. Communism has been defeated, but its greatest tyrant lives on. The old statues might have been torn down, but the idea of Stalin as the pivotal tyrannical force of history could not and would not be so easily disposed of. Not when it is so useful to his spiritual successor.

A number of the contributors to the Carnegie study link Stalin’s rise in popularity to the Putin era, but Stalin’s popularity had increased significantly during the 90s before Putin came to power. Stalin’s star rose even higher under Putin, raising the question of whether Putin elevated Stalin or Stalin elevated Putin, or whether there was a synergy with tyranny feeding off tyranny.

There is no question that Putin’s regime has resurrected some Soviet monsters. The bust of Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police state, has been restored to a position of honor, and while Putin publicly disavowed some of Stalin’s atrocities, his political allies have paid tribute to the old monster and his regime put Stalin back into the school system.

Sixty years after Stalin’s death, Russia is on the cusp of losing the last few citizens who lived through his reign as adults. The Stalin of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is a historical figure assembled from scraps of propaganda by a state-controlled media.

Stalin polls best among the teenagers who have been immersed in the propaganda of the new regime and the older citizens who lived under the waning decades of the Soviet era. The most educated are most likely to view him negatively while the least educated are most likely to view him positively. The ratings split similarly among the big cities and the villages suggesting that pro-Stalin images and texts are more influential in the media than in the educational system. In Russia as in the United States, television programming and infotainment may be more effective than education.

Stalin carefully controlled his own image while alive. In death his image has been remade a dozen times.  Most Russians denounce Stalin’s atrocities, but nearly half view his contribution to Russian history positively. Most would not want to live under his rule, but view his rule as largely beneficial. Rather than being contradictory, these clashing views reflect a willingness to embrace the tyrant’s ethos of the ends justifying the means.

Mussolini never did quite make the trains run on time, but Stalin is credited with everything from the electrification of Russia’s rural areas to defeating the Nazi armies during World War II. The history is often wrong, with industrial accomplishments overstated, defeats minimized and the degree of foreign aid received from the United States largely buried, but the myth has become a vital part of the official history of Russia’s new rulers. By measuring Stalin’s atrocities against his results, the implicit message is that nothing of significance can be accomplished without harsh measures.

The fictionalization of Stalin’s accomplishments justifies Putin’s atrocities in a version of history where getting anything done requires a strong leader willing to spill blood across the snow. And when Putin’s hour on the stage is done, it is all too likely that Stalin will go on serving that same purpose for the next tyrant and the one after that.

The struggle over Stalin’s place in history is also the struggle over the soul of Russia. Tyrants need a Stalin to justify their tyranny, while the democracy movement needs to definitely end the Stalin era once and for all. The struggle over history will determine whether Russia will be free.

In the battle over history, the state, with its monopoly over the media and the educational system, has the upper hand, diminishing Stalin’s atrocities while emphasizing his achievements. And when the last witnesses to the Stalin era have died, then history will be fully in the hands of the interpreters of history.

Stalin, as the study points out, has become an idea, more than a man. A dead hand weighing down Russian history.

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