Commentary Magazine


Stalin, Memory, and Moral Restoration

Today is the 60th anniversary of the death Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. There are many ways to mark such an occasion, though you could hardly do better than this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographic tribute to Stalin’s victims. As the introduction notes, at the height of the purge period, Stalin’s henchmen were executing 1,000 people a day. And the anniversary comes this year at a time when Stalin’s vision for society, the fear and terror of totalitarian Communism, lives on in North Korea.

Recalling Stalin’s crimes is important, if repetitive, because it seems to be what the world failed to do with Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who created the system maximized by Stalin and who should also be remembered as a monstrous criminal, only one with fewer victims than his protégé. At any rate, one person who has chosen the wrong way to remember Stalin’s death and legacy is exactly who you might expect it to be: Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports:

Support for Stalin has risen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gutted the social safety net, damaged national pride and left many Russians longing for the perceived order and stability of the Communist era.

But Lev Gudkov, director of independent Levada Center polling group, said the biggest shift occurred after Putin came to power in 2000 and “launched a comprehensive program to ideologically reeducate society”.

“Reeducate” is certainly an appropriate term for the ruse. And how successful have Vladimir Putin’s efforts to clean up the image of a tyrannical murderer been? He’s made some progress:

In the same poll, 47 percent of respondents said Stalin was “a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity”. And in a Levada poll last month, 49 percent said Stalin played a positive role, while 32 percent said it was negative – roughly the opposite of a 1994 Survey….

Nowadays, efforts to debunk the criticism and clean up Stalin’s image are a fixture of bookshop shelves, and school notebooks decorated with Stalin’s photo went on sale last year – something unthinkable at that time.

In Volgograd, the city where Putin celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad last month, local authorities now allow the city to be referred to by its old name at annual anniversary events and on five other days every year.

It should go without saying—though Putin’s antics suggest that it does not—that the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991 is still a relatively recent event by historical standards, and that Russians are ill-served by any effort to keep them bound up in the lies of Putin’s imagination. In the July 2012 issue of COMMENTARY I reviewed Leon Aron’s book on the fall of the Soviet Union, and mentioned that Aron critiques the poison that Putin injects into the bloodstream of a still-recovering nation by whitewashing the crimes of its past.

Aron writes in the book of the great responsibility on the shoulders of the political leaders who inherit any revolution. The public, after all, must go back to some semblance of normal life for the new state to have a chance. “People have to make a living, to care for families, and so they leave the public square to the political class, which at this early stage cannot be but a moral centaur: half forward-looking human and half beast of the past,” Aron writes. Here is Aron’s description of the process that Putin has interrupted:

One could, with greater or lesser precision, assess the damage to Russian culture from everything that was blown up, burnt, lost, thrown out, and spoiled under the Soviet regime, the writer Boris Vasiliev wrote in January 1989. From the starved-to-death great poet Alexander Blok to those who were lost to Russia because of forced emigration: Bunin and Rakhmaninov, Repin and Chaliapin, Shagal and Kandinsky. But who, Vasiliev asked, could ever calculate the moral loss inflicted by the regime? Those who led the moral revolution were well aware of the vastness of the distance that must be traveled before their work was completed. As the sociologist Vladimir Shubkin wrote in April 1989 in the leading liberal magazine Novy mir: “We have miles to go before the public morality is restored … before we even approach what might be called the moral Renaissance.” He was right, of course. Sixteen years later Vladimir Putin–then a mere president, soon the “National Leader”–called the demise of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.

Pundits have, in recent years, grown noticeably impatient with those who bring up the Cold War past, and implicit (and sometimes explicit) in their disinterest in the topic is the question of why it is necessary to again recount what the West fought to defeat in the Cold War. The attempt to even partially rehabilitate Stalin’s legacy is one answer that sadly, in 2013, still bears repeating.

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