Why we still cross swords on Stalin
Just as during the perestroika, historic memory in contemporary Russia has again become a battlefield for different concepts of the past. In this context, our country still remains largely split and searches for its own identity.
Slogans promoting democracy, developing civil society and overcoming a totalitarian past were officially proclaimed 20 years ago. Much time has passed. Later, they were gradually replaced. Post-Soviet society first saw democracy as an economic blessing and looked with hope toward the West, expecting a sharp increase in their living standards. But as their traditional values and the principles of their daily life were destroyed and no improvement of their living standards followed, people became disappointed in democracy. The conflict of the times and the moral guidelines of our historic memory became even more pronounced.
Paradoxically, the Human Rights Council-proposed program on “Immortalizing the Memory of the Totalitarian Regime's Victims and National Reconciliation” poured more oil on the flames. Michael Fedotov dubbed the initiative a de-Stalinization program. This was a poor definition. Considering the growing popularity of the Stalin myth and strong traditions of government personification and the dominance of the state over society in Russia, the program may become another reason for a split as opposed to a catalyst for national reconciliation.
The myth about Stalin has not left us for over 50 years. The first attempt at Stalin’s official rehabilitation was made in school history textbooks in 2007 when he was described as an “effective manager.” However, the rehabilitation did not take place. Later, it turned out that the rehabilitation had simply been postponed.
The growing popularity of the myth about Stalin is linked with the present agenda. A series of loud corruption scandals aggravated by the culprits’ impunity have left society disappointed in the authorities. Protest attitudes are on the rise.
In the Russian system of values, the category of justice has always been above that of the law. The current myth about Stalin is based on his image as a cruel, but fair leader who eradicated corruption, arbitrary rule by officials and the crime rate. As for the reprisals, they are viewed as a forced, but acceptable necessity.
It is important to consider that the Stalin myth is not a product of the Stalin era alone. We have inherited the traits of the modern Russian philistine – mistrust of civil institutes, an expectation of resolute actions by the authorities, an ability to adapt oneself to practically any conditions, a cult consciousness and doubts in the significance of one’s own opinions. These concepts are the quintessence of the social and cultural practices of a number of preceding epochs.
Recently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the formation of the Popular Front – a broad coalition of different sociopolitical forces headed by United Russia. Earlier, it was believed that a popular front is a coalition of left-wing and left-centrist forces designed to oppose right-wingers and the ultra-right.
Popular fronts emerged in Europe in the 1930s to resist Nazism and the war and to defend the working people’s interests. In the meantime, the newly-established front has already been dubbed in blogs as a “bloc of Communist and non-party people.” A similar bloc was set up on the eve of the elections to the USSR Supreme Soviet in December 1937 based on the new 1936 Soviet Constitution. Indicatively, Putin announced his initiative on establishing the front while on a visit to Volgograd that was named Stalingrad from 1925 to 1961.
The Stalin myth is inseparably linked with the myth about the war because Stalin is viewed in this light as the leader who brought victory to the nation. However, whereas the victory in the Great Patriotic War evoked national pride among the people, the interpretation of Stalin’s role in the war reveals all but the main cause of our present misfortunes – a lack of respect for ourselves and our ancestors’ deeds, which have been depersonalized in the mythological consciousness.
There is no doubt that we need a program to overcome the negative heritage of the past. However, it will not be effective by itself, but only as part of a common strategy aimed at emancipating people and turning them into personalities and citizens able to think independently, make their own decisions and be responsible for their behavior.
To achieve this, we need a consensus on the fundamental principles shared by the civilized world. They include freedom, responsibility and human rights, devotion to the development idea and a respect for different views. Society, the government, schools and the media must work to perpetuate these values without which Russia will be unable to survive as a compelling society of contrasting cultures.
Denis Sekirinskiy is Academic secretary of the National Committee of Russian Historians.