The Russian Government hoped nobody would notice, and sure enough, most of you did not. The 80th anniversary of the order that began the ‘Great Terror’ was ignored for lavish celebrations of Naval Day. In addition, the unveiling of the ‘Wall of Sorrows’ was ignored due to the release of Matilda.
As President Vladimir Putin stood at a podium in St. Petersburg earlier this year speaking of the high morals and professional qualities of Russia’s navy, its great victories in battle and importance the motherland, #помнимбольшойтеррор (We remember the Great Terror) circulated the internet. Relatives of the Great Terror’s victims told of their ancestors decrimination in sufficient detail. Unsurprisingly, many never heard of their relatives again.
Fast forward to October 30, a few days out of the revolution’s centenary, the dark side of Stalin’s legacy couldnot be ignored any longer. One hundred and seventy natural stones from fifty-eight regions connected with the Soviet era repressions were handed over to sculptor and author of the ‘Wall of Sorrows’, Georgy Frongulyan, to fulfill President Putin’s 2015 decree of creating a monument to the gulag’s victims.
Except, most people had no idea. As president Putin spoke of how this monument appeals to our sentiments, dealt a harsh blow to our people’s roots and was completely indefensible, Moscow carried on with its daily routine. There was in Putin’s speech, perhaps, a hint to the 1917 revolution as he ended by saying “we remember, but this does not mean settling scores. We cannot push society to a dangerous conflict yet again”.
I do not seek to repeat the story of Stalin’s terror, nor do I intend to defend his legacy. Instead, I hope to highlight what Stalin’s legacy says about Russia today and why this is an auspicious tool to do so.
How is it that 43% of a VTsIOM poll believe the terror was ‘necessary’, yet another 49% stated it cannot be justified by any argument? How can Stalin still be respected by half the population who still admit he was truly awful in the next breathe? Why is being a Stalinist still considered an indecent thing in Russia when his portrait is used to attract voters? What’s more, why does the Russian president criticise the ‘excessive demonisation of the terror’ yet make a sincere speech like on October 30th?
These are not easy questions to answer, nor do many people in the West like the answers they get.
Let’s begin with Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech at the 20th Party Congress 1956. Khrushchev in a single speech revealed the scale and nature of the crimes committed by the Stalin regime. The Soviet people and Communist Party elite did not deny what Khrushchev told them or refute it as ‘fake news’. However, nor did they have to like what he told them, and sure enough they did not.
The reason why is quite simple. Agreeing with Khrushchev meant they had been mistaken.
The thing about Stalin is that he commanded respect and under his rule, things worked or else. The Soviet people saw a man who dressed modestly, came across as warm and caring and stood toe to toe with Roosevelt and Churchill. Even at the height of the terror, the thought that Stalin was personally responsible was unthinkable to most ordinary people. There are plenty of accounts supporting this, and most prominent historians on the Stalin era assert this.
By comparison, Khrushchev was quite the country bumpkin. His behaviour was not classy or typical of a statesman, let alone the leader of nuclear superpower. Brezhnev was even worse. Towards the end, he could hardly speak or walk yet was a four star Hero of the Soviet Union. The rumors surrounding his family’s private antics displeased many, as well. Although life hugely improved during and after the Thaw and an immense optimism existed among the Soviet people, Khrushchev and Brezhnev never commanded their respect; Stalin did.
The official narrative of Stalin today dictates (no pun intended) that he was an efficient manager. It is in school textbooks and is why monuments and busts of him continue to go up around Russia. Moreover, Russians love stability, and this card is not unplayable with Stalin.
The fear element helped hold the USSR together. Stalin shaped the Soviet system into one that was unworkable, purely because it relied on fear. Khrushchev tinkered with it too much and fell from grace as a result. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to eliminate the worst defects of the system through openness (Glasnost) and restructuring (Perestroika) only to melt the cement holding the bricks together.
Returning to the point I made about the people being mistaken, what does it achieve to admit that modernising from a third world agrarian economy into a nuclear superpower came at a tremendous human cost? Especially considering ‘terror deniers’ do not exist. Acknowledging that Russia’s greatest military victory (1941-45) was also led by its most brutal dictator burdens the message of glory, sacrifice and triumph. It is an unwanted distraction to say the least.
It takes time for countries to move on and being caught up in a blame game is extremely regressive and detrimental to the modernisation process. Broken down to a more personal level, how many people enjoy dwelling over uncomfortable or traumatic episodes of their own lives? Especially if they have already dealt with it. Or, if a person has done nothing wrong, why would they want to feel guilty, let alone be made to?
The Stalin period is not quite the equivalent of “don’t mention the war”. That would be the invasion of the Baltic States in the Second World War. Coincidently, school textbooks depict the Molotov –Ribbentrop Pact as the USSR being forced into an unholy alliance because the West refused to include it in their own collective security, and that Hitler in fact decided who received what territories.
The terror and gulag is a dark cloud over the Stalin period and Russia today. The leadership acknowledges and condemns it on a case by case basis, usually knowing it will not create disharmony. The past in Russia today is good at exposing the divisions in society. Nobody, however much they like or dislike Putin, Stalin or the West wants a greater fracture to occur.
The Communist Party use Stalin’s portrait during election time and lay carnations on his grave to stay relevant. It attracts media attention, discussion and keeps them in the public eye.
The terror was truly horrific, but repeating this, to my mind, misses a much larger point; this was still a system that so many people genuinely believed in, terror notwithstanding. After his death, Stalin’s name was completely removed from history textbooks in the USSR, which says it all.
Perhaps to give the best explanation, I will paraphrase a statement from Russia’s most notable journalist, Vladimir Pozner; in his autobiography to help give the reader a sense of why Stalin remains revered (among some at least):
“Telling an elderly Russian that their life would have been better if not for Stalin is pointless. It means less than nothing to a person whose existence was transformed by Stalin, and whose children benefitted from the Soviet system. It means nothing to a person wholost nearly everythingin the 1990s. Really, it is little wonder they see Stalin in such a positive light”.
On November 7th a military parade will take place on Red Square. The same day that marks Stalin’s speech to soldiers who went to the front line in the Great Patriotic War, and 100 years since the October Revolution. Stalin’s role in the former and nature of the latter show that Russia’s past is as uncertain as its future. No wonder the Russian government wants consensus on its past.