When we examine the campaigns, events, and public manifestations that might be dubbed signs of creeping re-Stalinization, the rehabilitation of Stalin, his emergence in the public space amid public approval, we see that each such instance was obviously organized directly or indirectly by the state, rather than by private individuals.
The monuments that have been erected recently and whose numbers have, indeed, been growing, have usually been installed under the auspices of local branches of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). This hardly makes them popular or grassroots endeavors. I would imagine everyone knows what the CPRF’s network of regional branches and our parliamentary parties amount to in reality, the extent of their loyalty to the regime, and the degree to which they coordinate all their moves with local and federal authorities.
It’s Even a Good Thing
Way back in 2002, a street in a city in Dagestan was named Stalin Avenue at the mayor’s behest. It did not happen because the locals came and surrounded town hall, threatening to set it ablaze if the mayor didn’t agree to their demands.
In 2009, in another political era, a line from the Soviet national anthem, “Stalin raised us to be true to the people,” was restored to the visual design of the Moscow subway’s Kurskaya station. Medvedev was then the president. The authorities responded to the indignation then voiced by arguing it was historically accurate. They had simply restored the station to its original appearance.
Since then, the Moscow subway has been rendered a powerful tool of pro-Soviet and Stalinist propaganda: there are the trains in which we encounter portraits of Stalin, and campaigns like this year’s “Times and Eras.” The pretext is sometimes stills from a film or historical memoirs. But you realize none of this comes from the grassroots, from ordinary folk, but from subway top brass or Moscow and federal authorities.
In Mari El, a life-sized monument to Stalin (one of the few; busts are usually erected instead) was erected on the premises of the local meat processing plant. As the town’s main employer and a major local business, the plant naturally could not afford to be in opposition to the regime, so it provided the venue for the monument.
2015 saw the opening of a Stalin Hut Museum in the village of Khoroshevo. It was something of a scandal, because the museum was sponsored by the Culture Ministry and personally approved by the culture minister.
A bust of Stalin was erected in Pskov Region in 2016, also with the knowledge and approval of local authorities.
Art exhibitions featuring images of Stalin in paintings of his era, paintings glorifying him and other Communist leaders, opened in Moscow in 2014, 2015, and 2016—for example, a show of works by Stalinist court painter Alexander Gerasimov, who authored the painting popularly known as “Two Leaders after a Rain.” These cultural treasures were shown in the Tretyakov Gallery not at the request of the art community or the museum’s staff.
What is important to understand is the following. It does not follow from the things I have listed that there are no people in Russia who would, at their own behest, erect a bust of Stalin at their dacha or even be willing to donate money to restore a monument to him. Because we see a video of ordinary people in Sevastopol standing and applauding during the performance of a song about Stalin by a strange man in white trousers does not mean they were all specially dispatched there by the local authorities.
Sergei Kurochkin, “Bring Back Stalin,” August 2015, Sevastopol
What is the function of state propaganda? Speaking from a hierarchically superior stance, it establishes norms. It informs its audience about what is correct, normal, and permissible. It generates the ambience that lets people know that gadding about with a placard depicting Stalin is, at very least, safe, if not commendable generally. It lets them know that numerous books rehabilitating Stalin’s regime, which pack the shelves of bookstores throughout Russia, will not be deemed “extremist,” that their authors, publishers, and distributors will not face criminal charges under Article 282 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code, unlike other books that someone might think to display prominently in a bookstore. People are given to understand this is normal and not punishable, that it is permissible and encouraged.
When television presenters and state officials tell us there is no need to demonize anyone, that we can take a look at the Stalin era from different viewpoints, but whatever we want to say, the war was won, this is a signal that those who actually feel positive feelings in this regard and those who felt nothing in this regard should suddenly have them, that those who had no opinion on the matter should suddenly have an opinion, because they have been told it is permissible, normal, and even a good thing.
“They Want Their Own Stalin”
Theoretically, conformism is a psychological norm. We can rue the fact, but it is nevertheless the case. Individuals are inclined to join majorities. Individuals are inclined to compare their opinions with opinions they imagine are generally accepted. Maybe this is not the noblest manifestation of our human nature, but it is a sign of a mental health. We people, who are social animals, behave in this way for our own safety and to adapt successfully to society. This endows those who speak on behalf of the state, on behalf of generalized authority, with responsibility. Russia’s national TV channels are not considered sources of information and news, but voices of the powers that be. People consume TV in this way.
Let me remind you that such a sweet, innocent New Year’s TV holiday special as Old Songs about What Matters was first aired on January 1, 1996. The first program imitated the Stalin-era film Cossacks of the Kuban (1950). The film was the frame for the star-studded cast’s song and dance routines. 1996 was a presidential election year. Even the hazards of competing with the Communists in a relatively free election did not intimidate Russia’s ideologists and spin doctors. It did not stop them from organizing such a pretty, funny, sly rehabilitation of one of the most terrible periods in the history of the the terrible Soviet regime. This is what we call normalization. Look, they say, it was not terrible; it was pleasant, even. You can make fun of it and smile a good-natured smile when contemplating it. That was when the process kicked off.
Old Songs about What Matters, Russian Public Television (ORT), January 1996
Let me remind you of another early public campaign of this kind. In 2008, which, again, seems like an utterly different political era, there was a TV program, Name of Russia, which purported to pick the one hundred greatest Russians. The idea had been borrowed from the BBC program 100 Greatest Britons (2002), but was done completely in its own way. TV viewers were asked to select the one hundred most outstanding figures in Russian history, leading ultimately to the selection of a single finalist. Huge, persistent efforts were made to persuade viewers that Stalin had “really” won the popular vote, but since this would have been disgraceful, [TV channel Rossiya, known until recently as Channel Two] made the necessary adjustments, and Alexander Nevsky emerged the victor.
Name of Russia: Joseph Stalin, Rossiya TV, 2008
How did this vote really go? Now, with the know-how and knowledge we have amassed since then, we can more or less imagine how the so-called people’s will was determined, especially on television. But Name of Russia was, perhaps, the first time we saw this model fully deployed. The implied message was: they want their own Stalin, but we, the powers that be, are still shielding them from this on the sly. We still need to rein them in a bit.
A similar story involving alleged popular voting occurred in 2013, when Rossiya TV had to pick ten views of Russia, ten pictures, landscapes or historical buildings that exemplified the country. Then, as you remember, an ambitious regional leader organized the voting in such a way that the Heart of Chechnya Mosque would win. Federal officials found themselves in an uncomfortable position, and once again adjustments had to be made to the vote count so the Kolomna Kremlin would win. The ambitious regional leader got pissed off at the cellphone companies Beeline and Megafon, and they were shut down in the Chechen Republic; one of their offices was even pelted with eggs, such was the great indignation over the defeat. I mention this to illustrate how such things are organized and what their real purpose is.
We must face the truth and realize we are dealing with state propaganda, with notions of what is normal, acceptable, good, glorious, great, and outstanding that have been defined and imposed by the state. These notions strike a chord because they are voiced on the regime’s behalf and because they draw their power from actually existing needs.
A Nationwide Need for Authoritarianism Has Not Been Observed
How can we encapsulate these needs, the reality behind Stalin’s “high” rating?
I was first asked this question at an event sponsored by the Böll Foundation in Berlin.
“How can people in Russia love Stalin?”
When a question like that is tossed right into your face, you start to understand the grassroots need for justice, as understood in a peculiar way, the need for a paradoxically anti-elitist Stalin, the Stalin people have in mind when they say, “If Stalin were around, he’d settle your hash.” This Stalin was the scourge of the nomenklatura, foe of the strong and rich, and champion of poor, simple people. The degree to which this conception is mythologized and savage is beside the point, but it does exist. Many people who utter this phrase mean to appeal to strict law and order, to equality, to a primitive apostolic simplicity.
It is a sin, especially for academic researchers, to quote conversations with taxi drivers, but I too have been forced to listen to tales of how Stalin had one greatcoat and one pair of boots, but look at the way folks today live as they please and can afford everything. Meaning that the anti-elite demand is clearly encapsulated in this rhetoric. But the very idea that there is something to which one can appeal, that it is permissible, normal, and safe, was planted in people’s minds by the machinery of state propaganda.
Let’s see how successful this state propaganda machine has been over the course of several decades. Here is the simple, most basic question, as posed by pollsters at the Levada Center: “How do you personally feel about Stalin?” Look at the pattern of responses from 2001 to 2015. It would be wrong to say that any radical changes—sharp increases in respect, admiration, and sympathy—occurred. There is no evidence of this.
What emotions have decreased? Dislike and irritation. As part of the same trend, there has been a sharp increase in those would could not care less. What do we call that? The natural course of time. Indeed, Stalin is a quite heavily mythologized figure. When we are told that “our grandfathers fought in World War Two,” we must realize the grandfathers of the current generation of thirty- and forty-somethings saw no combat. Their grandfathers and grandmothers were children during the war years, meaning that for the currently active segment of the populace, the war happened a very long time ago. Stalin has been gradually fading into the pantheon of historical characters in which Napoleon is a beloved Russian cake rather than a French emperor, and Hitler is a meme from the cartoons shared on the VK social network.
Without discussing whether this attitude is moral and good, we do acknowledge it is inevitable, because living historical memory gradually fades away, and the symbolic field remains. So, we see that Stalin is not universally loved. Love of Stalin has not grown, and neither has the need to admire or like him increased. It would be wrong to say that the common folk adore Stalin more and more. It’s simply not true.
How do young people evaluate these distant historic periods? Here is the outcome of a survey on historical events of which we might be proud or ashamed. It was conducted among Russian and American students in 2015.
The correlation between the primary source of pride, victory in the Second World War, and the primary source of shame, the Stalinist terror, illustrates the ambivalence that invariably entangles attempts at complete de-Stalinization, which is impossible as long as “victory” and “Stalin” are fused in the national imagination. Nevertheless, we see that young people have a quite healthy moral focus.
Let’s look at a slightly more realistic question. It does not have to do with a person that neither you nor your grandfathers have never seen, but with the period in which you would have rather lived.
The outcomes in this instance are indeed interesting. For some reason, after 2014, there was sharp decline in popularity of the reply that the best time to live was before the 1917 Revolution. I don’t know why, but for some reason the amazing effect of the so-called Crimean consensus came down to the fact that this happy time “before tsarlessness,” as the saying goes, has lost its popularity for some reason. Very few people chose the Stalin era, as we see, and there was no change in this case: its popularity was low and has remained low. Meaning that maybe people “respect” Stalin, but no one is especially keen to live in the period during which he actually ruled.
The Brezhnev era is regarded as a more or less comfy, calm, peaceable time, but its popularity has been decreasing. No one likes perestroika or Yeltsin, for that matter. A good number of respondents were undecided, and since the time span from 1994 to 2017 is quite large, people decided that, given this paltry choice, our own time, perhaps, looked okay after all.
How do these figures—this attitude to Stalin and his era, which, as we have seen, are not at all one and the same thing—correlate with people’s overall socio-political views? I have borrowed data from Kirill Rogov’s research study “Proto-Party Groups in Russia: 2000–2010s,” for which I am extremely grateful to him. The data in question are the outcome of a so-called meta poll, meaning a summary of public opinion polls, conducted over the past eighteen years by the Levada Center.
Here is a survey on a topic most closely bound up with Stalin: “Does our country need a strong hand?”
Look at the darkest line, which matches the number of replies that a “strong hand” has been “constantly needed.” The second line represents the opinion that “sometimes this has been necessary, but not always” [sic], while the [light blue] line represents the opinion that it is not necessary in any case. Look at the right side of the chart. Here we also observed the quite strange turning point, as yet unexplained by researchers, that occurred after 2014. Perhaps five or seven years from now we will say the effect of 2014 and its impact on public opinion was not as it was described to us on TV. Look at the upward tendency of the third [light blue] line: after 2014, people suddenly began to say that in no case should all power be handed over to one person. The second line (“It’s sometimes possible, but generally not a very good thing”) has taken a nose dive. The upper line was headed downward, but starting in 2011 it climbed a little, before falling again after 2013. In 2014, it experienced a sustained, short-lived upturn.
What rights do Russians value the most? Let’s look at the trends of recent years.
Here we also see the mysterious, counterintuitive post-Crimea effect, when, in the wake of 2014, Russians gave access to information and freedom of speech a hard look, while experiencing a certain disenchantment in property rights.
Such are the interesting conclusions that Russians make from what they observe. However you look at this character, it clearly follows that we do not observe either a national yearning for authoritarianism оr the longing for a strong hand. Meaning we are dealing with an idea imposed on society about what it is like. Why is this done? Why are people told they long for the return of capital punishment when don’t particularly long for it? Why are they told that the whole lot of them want to resurrect Stalin? Why are they told they enjoy large-scale crackdowns?
European but Weak
The political regime, which wants, on the one hand, to concentrate power and resources in its hands, remain in power, and yet is not a full-fledged autocracy, does not have a well-developed machine of repression. It does not have a ruling ideology and the capacity for imposing it, and it does not want to be subjected to the procedures of democratic rotation. In fact, it finds itself in quite complicated circumstances.
It holds onto power by a whole series of pretty tricky tools. A considerable number of these tools relate to the realm of propaganda and represent different kinds of imitative models and patterns. Democratic institutions and processes are imitated, for example, elections, political parties, and a variety of mass media, which for all their variety report the same thing. Elections are seemingly held, but power does not change hands. Political parties exist, as it were, but no one opposes anyone. (This applies to the CPRF and the other so-called systemic or parliamentary parties.) This is on the one hand.
On the other hand, it is necessary to imitate autocracy’s rhetorical tools, meaning, roughly speaking, trying to appear in the public space as scarier than you are. Second, it is necessary (this is a subtle point, which is often not fully understood) to present oneself not as a terrible dictator, a bloody tyrant, but, on the contrary, as a civilizing, deterring force who is compelled, ruling over such a savage people with authoritarian tendencies, to keep it reigned in all the time, to constantly moderate its thirst for blood.
Meaning that it is necessary to transmit such ambivalent signals as “Let’s not demonize [e.g., Stalin], but let’s consider the issue from all sides.” It is necessary to pretend you are conceding and, simultaneously, resisting constant public pressure, which demands archaization, clampdowns, fire, and blood. If you didn’t resist the pressure, then everyone would have probably already been hung from the highest tree. Yet you are the selfsame power actor who generated the demand. You organized this entire normalization, to which you subsequently respond reluctantly, as it were.
Why is it necessary to fashion such a terrible reputation for one’s own people? To have an excuse for the crackdown on political rights, primarily voting rights, a crackdown in which you constantly engage. If people are savage, bloodthirsty barbarians, it makes sense to prevent them from electing the people they like at elections. For the time being you, a more or less civilized European, rule them, but if you let them have their way, they would immediately elect “Hitler” (the nationalist scarecrow) or Stalin (the left-wing étatist scarecrow). Both are arguments for limiting the rights of Russians to defining their own lives. Hence, the need for Stalin’s popularity.
What is my thesis? Filling society’s heads with false ideas about itself is meant to paint the government as the only “European” in Russia. Given the current social reality, this has long been untrue, to put it mildly. No, the dichotomy of the “civilized regime” versus the “savage society” does not exist, is not borne out by any reality, and cannot be measured by any instruments.
Our society is complex, multifaceted, and diverse. If we try to single out a public opinion, a common idea of values, as shared by the inhabitants of Russia (something that has been confirmed numerous times in research papers), we would see something like the following picture. We would see a society that espouses the values customarily identified as European. We would see a society that is individualist, consumerist, largely atomized, very irreligious, predominantly secular, and fairly intolerant of state violence, again, contrary to what is usually argued. It would be even more accurate to say that those who are intolerant of state violent are much better at joining forces and much more vigorously express themselves than those who put up with it.
We would see a society with values that researchers ordinarily describe as “European but weak.” We would see a society that is basically conformist, relatively passive, not terribly willing to express its opinion, and inclined to weaving the spiral of silence, which consists in people saying what is expected of them. Nevertheless, this society is not aggressive, not bloodthirsty, and does not long for the establishment of an authoritarian regime in Russia.
To govern a society like this with undemocratic methods, of course it has to be represented in a false manner. Of course you have to screw a little flag with Stalin embroidered on it into its head so as then to point at it and say, “See what they’re like.”
I urge everyone not to get involved in this game and not play up to those who engage in it much more seriously than we do, because these ideas about a wild and terrible people, first, do not capture the fullness and complexity of our reality, and second, hinder us, blocking our way to progress and development.
Yekaterina Schulmann is a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to the lucid, vigilant Sergey Abashin for the heads-up