70 years after his death, Stalin's spirit still haunts Russia (2023)

Seventy years ago, on the night of March 5, 1953, a certain Joseph Vissarionovich Djougachvili breathed his last. He was best known under hiswar name, Stalin, “The Man of Steel”.

An oppressed people; a reign of terror in the name of government; real or imagined enemies forced under torture to confess to the most absurd crimes; mass graves; purges; deportations; Hunger, censorship and "total" propaganda; a war against Hitler at the unimaginable cost of 27 million Soviet dead; a divided Europe; and a Cold War about to heat up:that was the legacy of the "Vodj"(The leader).

Three years after his death, in February 1956, his successor Nikita Khrushchev denounced "the excesses of his personality cult".during the XX Communist Party Congress. In 1961 his body was finally removed from Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow, to be buried in a more modest setting in the necropolis next to the Kremlin wall. During perestroika, the archives were opened and the truth about the 30 years of his rule was revealed.

But this rejection did not last long. If polls are to be believed, the Russiansthey started to like him more and more. The explanations for this are manifold. Of course, they have a lot to do with the personality and the view of history of the man who has been in the Kremlin since 2000 and who sees his distant predecessor in the same way as he does you"effective manager"and also as a symbol of the victory of World War II. However, a return to Stalin could also be uncomfortable for Putin.

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A relatively recent return to grace

It must be emphasized that the "Stalinist renaissance" is a more recent phenomenon than one might assume. In 2008, at the end of Vladimir Putin's second term in office, 60% of those polled by the Levada Center (one of the country's leading research institutions) said that the crimes committed during the Stalin era were unjust. 2012, at the end of Dmitry Medvedev's term in office,only 21% of respondents saw Stalin as a “great leader”, less than the 29% recorded in 1992, less than a year after the end of the USSR.

In 2015, a year after the annexation of Crimea, the dictator's popularity rose again. In 2019, 70% of respondents said that Stalin played a very or very positive role for them. Only16% see it negatively. From then on, even young Russians, hitherto indifferent to Stalin, began to express positive feelings towards him. In 2021, months before the invasion of Ukraine, 56% of them considered him onegreat entry(a great leader); that wasa new record.

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The main reason for this pro-Stalin sentiment is historical: the “leader with an iron fist” isa cliche deeply rooted in a fundamentally conservative political cultureand never really experienced democracy.

Besides, the Russians didn't really turn the page of Stalinism. After the death of its leader, the country experienced two small waves of "de-Stalinization" under Khrushchev (1953-1964) and Gorbachev (1985-1991), and then a much longer period"Re-Stalinization"Sobs Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko (1964-1985).

The Yeltsin years (1992-1999) were characterized on the one hand by"an archival revolution"revealing or confirming the extent of Stalin's crimes and, on the other hand, the lack of real decommunization on a moral or legal level. O"Trial of the Communist Party"In 1992 it failed because of the difficulty of defining the Communist Party, which was never a political party in the traditional sense but rather an "instrument of power control". Russia never knew its own version of the "Nuremberg Trials" with the PCSU in the dock; this could have educated the younger generations.

The nostalgia of "greatness"

The lack of a communist "Nuremberg Process" played a major role in Russia's failure to become a true democracy.

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In the second half of the 1990s, behind the country's geopolitical and economic decline, we were told of the resurgence of discourses and policies rooted in the long tradition of a strong Russian state: ("vertical force". This was a trend that was repeated and strengthened during Putin's first two terms, from 2000 to 2008.

Remember when Putin called for the breakup of the USSR in 2005 before the Russian Federal Assembly (the combined bicameral legislature of the Houses of Parliament).the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century". For many years, the same Putin insisted on this simple idea: it was Lenin with hisConfederation project approved December 1922, which was retrospectively responsible for the breakup of the USSR. The subtext was that if it had, the "disaster" would never have happenedStalin's "autonomy" project, then on the ascendant.

70 years after his death, Stalin's spirit still haunts Russia (2)

The War of Memory

Conspiracy theories are at the core of Stalinophilia in Russia. Putin has often emphasized that while he does not refute Stalinist crimes and the reality of the Great Purges of the 1930s,he is so wary of criticism of Stalinism, which he sees as a means of undermining Russia today by portraying it as a country that has ultimately not changed much from its totalitarian past. From this perspective, Putin sees the attack on Stalin as part of a Western conspiracy theory and as an attempt to downgrade Russia to a second or even third-rate country in contrast to its “legitimate” position.

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Criticism of Stalin becomes particularly suspicious when reference is made to his actions during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). The "cult" of this warfinds its roots in the Brezhnev era, when Putin was a young KGB officer. Through this cult, Stalin was rehabilitated in the eyes of millions of Russians, for whom he is closely associated with the 1945 victory"falsification of history", proved effective: the victor of 1945 eclipsed the tyrant of the Great Terror.

This policy of voluntary amnesia produced the results we are seeing now. And so, in a 2005 poll, 40% of respondents believed that the Red Army had been destroyed compared to the Stalinist purgesonly 17% agree with this vision in 2021. Even the Gulag was eventually exiled to the status of one"unfortunately side effect".

Can Putin "catch up and overtake" Stalin?

However, the "Stalinophilia" of the population remains a double-edged sword, since it can also stir up resentment against rulers. For Russians who pay respects to Stalin, he represents less of a historical figure and more of oneSymbol of a “Great Russia”, a powerful and respected country, a Russia where justice and order reign.

The decision to invade Ukraine in February 2023 must be seen in this perspective as a manifestation of Putin's will to "catch up and surpass" Stalin, in a parody of afamous slogan from the soviet era. Speaking to FSB counterintelligence leaders on February 28, Putin urged his men to redouble their efforts"with the support of the West, eradicate the worms trying to divide the Russians".

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Is a 1937 League witch hunt underway? At least the Russians can't say they weren't warned. Did they want Stalinism? You will make it!

This article was translated from French byflor macdonald.


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