MOSCOW, March 5 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – Stalin’s handwriting is barely legible. One has to strain to make out what he wrote in blue pencil on a list of people held by the secret police, then known as the NKVD.
What he wrote is, “Execute everyone.”
A copy of the scribbled-on list was distributed Tuesday by the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial at one of numerous events marking the 60th anniversary of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s death.
They ranged in tone and spirit from the laying of flowers to unequivocal condemnation, and were accompanied by a flurry of op-eds mulling the “Great Leader’s” role in Russia’s past and present.
The death toll from the Great Terror of 1937-1938 – Stalin’s purges of Soviet elites – was 700,000, and historians estimate the total number of victims of his political repressions at anywhere between 3 million and 39 million.
Nevertheless, a sizeable part of the Russian population retains a fondness for Stalin, according to recent polls – though the main trend over the past decade has been toward growing indifference to the tyrant, who died on March 5, 1953.
Young people care particularly little about the notorious Soviet leader: 59 percent of respondents aged 18-24 admitted indifference toward Stalin in a recent survey by the independent Levada Center, which presented its Russian-language version in Moscow on Tuesday.
A similar poll by the state-run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), published Tuesday, found that 38 percent of respondents did not care about Stalin, up by 20 percentage points since 2001. Among 18- to 24-year-olds the figure was even higher: 44 percent.
“The main thing that’s happening is a slight increase in indifference,” sociologist Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center, said at the presentation.
Those who do care for Stalin are driven by nostalgia for the Soviet Union, not a desire for more purges, according to pollsters.
Still, Stalin’s name remains capable of triggering vicious debate in Russia – and is occasionally invoked by politicians, including some in the Kremlin, who simply lack another template to model relations between government and society, according to Gudkov.
“Society is seen as passive, moldable and in need of guidance, while the government is wise, setting development goals and leading the country to a bright future,” Gudkov said.
“In a sense, Stalin is still alive and serves as an embodiment of the greatness of the state,” said Maria Lipman, a Moscow-based analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which commissioned the Levada study.
One paradox reflected by the Levada poll, conducted in October with 1,600 respondents, was a simultaneous perception of Stalin as both good and cruel.
Forty-seven percent said Stalin was a “wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity,” while 64 percent said he was a “cruel, inhuman tyrant,” according to the poll, which was first published in English last week. This means at least 11 percent think Stalin was both things at once.
Just over half of respondents, 51 percent, said Stalin’s repressions were a “political crime” that cannot be justified, while 22 percent said they were necessary; a startling 23 percent had no opinion.
The VTsIOM poll, which also included 1,600 respondents, showed that 33 percent viewed Stalin positively – a figure virtually unchanged since 2001 – while 25 percent disapproved of him.
Much of the Russian public harbors nostalgia for the Soviet Union, idealizing its paternalist, predictable ways, which contrast favorably with a modern Russia plagued by corruption, crime and income inequality, Carnegie’s Lipman wrote in comments about the Levada poll.
People also tend to overlook Stalin’s atrocities because, in Russians’ view, after centuries of authoritarian rule, “national authority cannot be expressed without violence,” wrote Gudkov.
Six Days of Stalin
When mourners crowded around Stalin’s coffin on Moscow’s Trubnaya Square in March 1953, they crushed each other – how many died is still classified information – and wailed in what scholars later dubbed a fit of mass hysteria. Back then, the dictator’s image could be seen all over the country. But now, you need to know where to look.
In the southern city of Volgograd, for example, five minibuses – popular Russian stand-ins for shoddy public transportation – have been adorned since February with Stalin’s visage, a move aimed to commemorate the Generalissimo’s contribution to the famed 1942-1943 battle of Stalingrad, as the city was known back then. Many historians view Nazi Germany’s defeat in that confrontation as the beginning of the end of World War II.
Volgograd is now officially renamed Stalingrad – for six days a year. The confusing measure was instituted in January in response to a proposal by local Communists to call the city Stalingrad year-round – which, polls showed, was not welcomed by the majority of city residents.
Or go to Yekaterinburg, the main city of the Urals region, and turn on the television. You stand a fair chance of catching a 30-second anti-Stalin ad reminding viewers about the 700,000-some people whose executions were authorized by his regime in 1937-1938.
Both the minibuses and the ads are grassroots initiatives. Officials tread on Stalinist ground more gingerly – but tread they do. In 2009, Stalin’s name was restored as part of the interior design of Moscow’s Kurskaya metro station, from which it had been removed in the late 1950s. City officials cited the need to “uphold historical authenticity” at the time.
About a thousand admirers came to Stalin’s grave by the Kremlin walls Tuesday to lay flowers. Most were supporters of the Communist Party, which prefers to see Stalin as a “wise leader,” not an “inhuman tyrant.”
The modern Kremlin has never explicitly endorsed Stalin, and both incumbent President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, have voiced emotional criticism of the dictator’s policies.
The comments, however, were never touted by the powerful state media like many other presidential statements. Moreover, Putin also spoke in 2009 about some “positive aspects” of Stalin’s rule, including industrialization and the defeat of Nazi Germany, even though he denounced “mass crime against our nation.”
The Kremlin can justify its own paternalist and mildly authoritarian policies by drawing connections to the Stalinist regime, both Lipman and Gudkov said Tuesday.
Stalin is also understandably popular with the country’s left, including the Communists, the most powerful opposition party in Russia. Its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, led the flower-laying ceremony at Stalin’s burial site.
Getting the Tyrant Out of the System
The dictator’s name will continue to be exploited by politicians until Russia completes “de-Stalinization,” the head of Memorial, Arseny Roginsky, told RIA Novosti.
Stalin ruled Russia from 1924 until 1953, gradually consolidating his hold on power, a task for which the mass repressions were instrumental. During his reign, the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany in World War II and became an industrial superpower, though historians still argue whether Stalin’s purges sped up or hampered the country’s rise.
Victims of the purges were rehabilitated, many of them posthumously, and Stalin’s statues and portraits ordered to be removed after his death by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who denounced the dictator’s crimes. But “de-Stalinization” was put on hold after Khrushchev. And though the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and most recently Medvedev, who was president in 2008-2012, also made efforts to dismantle Stalin’s legacy, neither made renouncing his crimes a major part of state ideology or engaged the public in a focused debate about his regime.
“De-Stalinization remains a bitter but needed medicine” required to “restore a healthy social environment” in Russia, said Andrei Sorokin, head of the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History.
Sorokin co-presented with Memorial on Tuesday a new publication of the “execution lists” of some 33,000 victims of the Great Terror personally authorized by Stalin or his closest aides. It is this publication that includes the execution order scribbled by Stalin.
Last August, a man was detained in front of the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square for staging a solitary picket demanding the burial of both Lenin and Stalin, who shared the mausoleum from 1953 until 1961, when Stalin was quietly interred in the necropolis by the Kremlin wall.
The picketer was ruled insane and shipped off to a mental hospital, reports said at the time. But perhaps he understood more than most when he urged his compatriots to find a way to bid the Soviet leaders a final farewell and move on.