How Putin Is Striving To Emulate Stalin In The Kremlin — And In Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin is often compared to Stalin, the Soviet leader responsible for the deaths of millions. In the West, it's not a compliment. For Putin, it's encouragement. Meanwhile, some Russian nationalists ask if he's "Stalin enough."
Infamous Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who died 70 years ago this week, pushed millions of people toward the furnaces of World War II, built gulags where hundreds of thousands were tortured and perished — he also launched a veritable genocide in Ukraine.
His place in history is securely on the wrong side.
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His current successor in the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, instead thinks Stalin is overdue for a reevaluation.
After Stalin died, his successor Nikita Khrushchev had torn apart his legacy in a secret 1956 speech given to Communist Party delegates — an intervention so shocking to the party faithful steeped in the "Cult of Stalin" that some reportedly suffered heart attacks, and others took their own lives after the speech.
Condemned for his decades of murderous repression and scrutinized for his political and military decisions during the war, which led to countless deaths — Stalin was finished.
Monuments were torn down, portraits removed. What was left to talk about?
Then, eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a young, unassuming KGB officer became president and sought to restore the dictator's legacy. Vladimir Putin had decided to resurrect Stalin.
History is not hard to rewrite. It is enough to repeat the new truth endlessly, and erase all sources of the old truth.
When Putin came to power, he did not immediately start complaining about the tragic collapse of the Soviet Union. In his first term, he consolidated the power of the oligarchs, gradually separating the right-wing and the Kremlin-controlled media.
The pro-government press began to publish materials "reconsidering" the history of the USSR, Russia's role in the world, its unique path and Stalin's role. They credited Stalin with the Soviet victory against Nazi Germany, and excused his repressive methods: "Such were the times," they said.
"Putin has created a total atmosphere for the rehabilitation of Stalinism," politician and journalist Valeria Novodvorskaya said in 2009. That same year, Stalin's grandson sued editors of Novaya Gazeta over a story about the dictator's responsibility for the 1940 murder of tens of thousands of Polish prisoners in Katyn.
Re-Stalinization of Russia
Society began to change, and Stalin began to come alive. In 2001, 38% of Russians had a favorable view of Stalin; in 2021 - 60%.
This February in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, a monument to Stalin was dedicated on the anniversary of the battle to push the Nazis out of the city. Monuments to Stalin appeared in other Russian cities, alongside museums devoted to the great ruler.
At the same time as it pushed this new history, the government began to suppress dissent. On Feb. 28, 2022, the Russian Supreme Court dissolved the charity International Memorial, which was founded in 1987 to researchpolitical repression in the USSR and modern Russia.
It joined a long list of civil society organizations, media outlets, foundations, human rights activists and journalists who dared to criticize the official history and suffered the consequences.
The purpose of the Stalin revival is to lead Russians to accept the totalitarian rule.
"Most Russians have a positive view of Stalin, and this number is constantly growing. But with Putin's arrival, the real re-Stalinization began," says Lev Gudkov, sociologist and research director at the Levada Center, an independent Russia-based research organization.
Revived and cleansed of the sins of the past, Stalin became a fighter for Russia in the geopolitical arena of history, and finally, a role model for Putin.
A mourning parade in honour of Stalin in Dresden, East Germany.
"The most popular comparison now is 'Stalin-Hitler' and 'Stalin-Putin,'" writes Ria Novosti, a mainstream pro-Kremlin publication. The paper argues that the first comparison is used by the West and "cosmopolitans with ardent anti-Soviet views," to paint Stalin as "the hell-devil, murderer and perpetrator of the war that took over half of Europe."
Unlike Putin, as a military commander and general, Stalin achieved his goals at any cost.
In Russia and the West, Stalin is often compared to Putin, the paper argues — but where in the West, Putin's similarities to the Soviet butcher are seen as negative, that's not so in Russia: "In our country, the comparison with Stalin is a compliment to Putin, or a reproach that he is still 'not Stalin enough.'"
Some note that there are some important ways that the current Kremlin chief diverges from his predecessor. For example, Putin has amassed personal wealth and regularly dashes off to his lavish holiday home; Stalin visited his dacha just once and never went back.
Unlike Putin, Stalin did not suffer defeat: he cut off the head — literally and figuratively — of any official who did not cope with the task, especially on the battlefield. Unlike Putin, as a military commander and general, Stalin achieved his goals at any cost.
Still, they share an intention vis a vis Ukraine. Some four million Ukrainians are believed to have died in the early 1930s in a famine prompted by distribution choices that Stalin made.
Ukraine calls it, the Holodomor, "death by hunger," and considers it a genocide. Putin, as we know, has sought to bring Ukraine to its knees through his all-out military invasion that began a year ago, with civilians regularly targeted and multiple charges of war crimes.
Irresponsibility of power
There is also a difference in Putin keeping up a veneer of popular rule and denying evil deeds, while Stalin never whitewashed his murderous ways.
"Propaganda was embedded in the (Stalin era) top-down government system; every media campaign led to action. If in May an article is printed about a lack of vigilance at the Ministry of Water Transport, in November they will print a death sentence against the anti-party center in the Ministry of Water Transport," politician and blogger Maxim Katz says of the critical differences between Stalin and Putin.
The many differences do not hinder Russian propaganda. After all, the purpose of the Stalin revival is not to make Putin look alike, but to lead Russians to accept the totalitarian rule.
"There is one important idea behind this: that power has self-sufficiency. Power leads the country, whether the people want it or not, to some lofty goal and therefore does not have to answer for its actions to the population, which is like a herd," argues the Levada Center researcher Lev Gudkov. This is the idea of complete sovereignty and irresponsibility of power,
An estimated 4 million Ukrainians died within two years, though there's no precise figure and some historians say the toll may have been significantly higher.
Ukraine calls it a genocide, and nearly 20 other countries now agree — though not Russia.Russians are better off judging their tyrants while they're still alive; otherwise, they may return from the grave sooner than expected
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