Why the Kremlin flirts with Stalin

Niyaz Karim

Niyaz Karim

Even flirting with Stalin's name for the sake of political expediency has long-term implications.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine, a web editor for a major Russian news portal, told me: “You know what the best way to get the maximum number of hits on a page is? Just put a picture of Stalin as the main illustration, and you are done! Only Hitler comes close in this competition.”

He was proven right over the years. Russia's unhealthy fascination with the late dictator hasn't diminished, despite nearly a quarter of a century of horrific revelations about the extent of Stalin's crimes.

Over the past few weeks, a fierce debate has been going on in Russia – and Stalin was once again at the centre of public attention. On the eve of celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the battle of Stalingrad – renamed Volgograd during Nikita Khruschev's anti-Stalinist campaign in the 1950s and the early 1960s – the regional assembly proposed that the city be given back the dictator's name as a tribute to the fallen and a few surviving veterans of the gigantic battle, which is widely considered in Russia to be the turning point in the war against Nazi invaders.

The communists, as well as quite a large segment of society still venerating the Soviet past, reacted to the proposal enthusiastically. President Vladimir Putin, who stopped short of formally endorsing the idea, offered what he thought was a compromise – to call Volgograd by its previous name for just six days out of a year. Moscow eggheads reacted immediately: “Does that mean we have to call Putin 'Comrade Stalin' during those six days, too?”

Few people believe that the city will be renamed Stalingrad again, but the Kremlin's unmistakable flirtation with Stalinism is a disturbing sign. The government has seemingly abandoned any semblance of wanting to reach out to any segments of society other than those in deeply conservative, provincial Russia, who worship state power and for whom Stalin is an unrivalled icon of law, order and greatness. This will certainly have implications for Russia's domestic politics, where authoritarian and isolationist tendencies are growing.

No one believes that president Putin is personally a big fan of the tyrant. But for a large number of people (whether they are a majority depends on the opinion polls and personal experiences under consideration), Stalin is someone who won World War II and ensured the Soviet Union's status as a global superpower by giving it nuclear weapons.

For these people, no tales of millions of GULAG victims are ever a convincing argument against venerating their political idol. They will most certainly support harsh measures against the opposition and fall for the government’s propaganda about the “perfidious West” trying to subjugate Russia and steal its mineral resources.

Reaching out to these people has a certain advantage for the president. It helps to consolidate Vladimir Putin's base of support in the face of growing disenchantment with his policies.

However, even flirting with Stalin's name for the sake of political expediency has long-term implications. It keeps a large part of Russia's population frozen in time, eternally looking back at the mirage of a supposedly glorious Soviet future. This may be useful, as such people are much more prone to believe that whatever the government is doing is good. But it ultimately undermines Russia and denies its citizens the dignity and respect without which modern society cannot exist and develop, cannot dream or make dreams a reality.

In March it will be 60 years since the dictator passed away on the floor of his dacha near Moscow, in a pool of his own urine. He was abandoned by the cowards and flunkeys from his Politburo, who finally realised they may shed their fear of him. But even in death, Stalin casts a very long and very dark shadow over Russia's future. As long as this remains the case, Russia's chances of ever becoming a democracy remain in grave danger.

First published in RIA Novosti. 

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