Stalin – more popular than ever

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Read this, weep, and just think what the world’s reaction would be if 70 per cent of Germans approved of Hitler’s role in their history:

Seventy percent of Russian respondents told the Levada Center in 2019 that Stalin played a positive role for Russia. Stalin’s previous record approval rating stood at 54 percent in 2016.

A record low of 19 percent viewed Stalin’s role negatively, down from 32 percent in 2016…

The share of Russian respondents who said Stalin’s crimes were unjustified has decreased from 60 percent in 2008 to 45 percent this year, Levada said.

Of the 51 percent who viewed Stalin favorably as a person, 41 percent said they respect him, followed by 6 percent who sympathized with and 4 percent who admired him. Only a combined 13 percent said they dislike, fear or hate Stalin, while 26 percent had neither positive or negative views of the Soviet leader.

Stalin’s positive approval rating stayed consistent across all age groups, with the exception of the 18-24 age group who were largely indifferent.

This is why, being Polish-born, I consider contemporary Germany to be all sweetness and light, while Russia, which has never quite managed to come to terms with its past, is a continuing threat and menace to its people as well as its neighbours.

While Stalin’s continuing – and increasing – popularity is a terrifying phenomenon, it’s not at all inexplicable. While I can neither sympathise nor empathise, I can understand the many different levels of attraction and fascination for so many ordinary Russian people, who for most part no longer have a living memory of life under the second greatest (after Mao) mass murderer of the 20th century.

After the chaotic and unsettling political, social and economic roller-coaster of the past three decades of post-communist history, many in Russia would associate Stalin and his reign with relative stability and certainty (even if it also included the Great Terror and the Great Patriotic War). Putting the NKVD and later the KGB knocking on your door at night, life tended to be steady and predictable, absent the external shocks and surprises that have turned so many lives upside down under Yeltsin and then Putin.

More than that, Stalin’s was also the era when the imperial Russia (disguised as the Soviet Union) was a great power; widely feared, respected, imitated and recognised internationally. It has dragged itself into an industrial modernity in a record time (never mind that just about every other non-Bolshevik historical scenario would have achieved a similar result at a fraction of the human cost) and it has largely by itself vanquished Nazism. Under Stalin, Russia mattered and achieved great things; one could easily be proud of the collective achievement, even if – or maybe because – it required sacrificing tens of millions of lives.

Then there is the element of rough and often violent egalitarianism, which the Russians, communitarian as they are by nature, find particularly appealing, particularly nowadays, when faced with grotesque – and highly visible – inequalities of wealth under the robber baron-style parody of capitalism. Life under communism was like life in prison; without freedom but with all the basic necessities taken care of by the authorities (albeit this makes it more of a decent Western prison than a Russian one, which has always had a reputation as a terrifying hellhole). In the Soviet time, everyone had work providing basic income, and everyone had access to “free” health care, education and other basic social service; virtually everyone was relatively poor but by and large equally so. Poverty (and any other deprivation) is easier to bear if it’s shared. The Party elites might have had special privileges, but these were enjoyed out of sight of an average person and so did not generate much envy and resentment that is today focused on the “oligarchs”, criminals and crony capitalists. In any case, Stalin was a spartan figure, clearly not in it for money and opulence, unlike most of his successors, which is why it is he, rather than Khrushchev or Brezhnev, who is fondly remembered today. Those who after the fall of communism have been thrown into abject poverty (pensioners, factory and collective farm workers and many others) fondly recall the life of basic subsistence guaranteed by the state, whether a simple worker or an engineer or a poet.

Many, and there is a significant overlap with those thrown onto the economic scrap heap, also resent the complete reversal of values and virtues, with the ability to make money and get ahead being most highly prized in the new Russia. Life under communism, under Stalin, had a purpose, even if an illusory one, of building a new and better world for the common man. It appealed to idealism, rather than materialism so prevalent today. Personal sacrifices are easier to stomach if they lead to a higher purpose. The unity of purpose might have been brutally forced upon the people and heavily policed, but it also imposed a sense of community of sorts that was not (usually) dependent on one’s ethnic origin or educational background. Most of it was a sham, and a bloody one to boot, but memories mellow as we get older and we tend to remember more the good bits such as they were.

None of this nostalgia has happened in a vacuum and without official aiding and abetting. As the article notes, “Stalin’s image has been gradually rehabilitated in the 2000s from that of a bloody autocrat to an “outstanding leader.” President Vladimir Putin has revived the Soviet anthem, Soviet-style military parades and a Soviet-era medal for labor during his presidency.” It suits the neo-tsar Putin to model themselves after strong leaders of the past and hark back to the times of glory and greatness (which in Russia’s case almost always tend to also be the times of great suffering, which is of course much less remarked upon).

And so, through a combination of selective amnesia, wishful thinking, and official connivance, one of the most evil people in world history continues to enjoy a renaissance of respect undeserved under any rational calculus of cost and benefit.

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