This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Stalin's increasing popularity in Russia is worrying, but its importance should not be exaggerated.
This week, yet another poll confirmed Joseph Stalin’s unwavering hold on the popular imagination of Russians. Surveys have documented steadily rising admiration for the Soviet leader in the last several years, but Monday’s open-ended study published by the Levada Center established him as “the most outstanding person” in history, for 38 percent of respondents. Vladimir Putin came in joint second position at 34 percent, alongside the poet Alexander Pushkin.
The poll sounds particularly alarming because instead of answering multiple choice questions, respondents were asked to name the first person to pop into their head – not just Russian, but anyone, anywhere. The fact that for 38 percent of people that was Stalin – without the respondent first being prompted – seems to confirm what many have been fearing for some time: that Russians are steadily forgiving and embracing a tyrant who oversaw a system that slaughtered tens of millions of its own people.
The exoneration of Stalin is real – and we will get to why this is happening and what it means in just a moment. But first it is worth noting at least one important aspect of this poll. The trouble with the way the question was posed – “who is the most outstanding person of all time and of all people” – is that “of all time and all people” is already an epitaph linked to Stalin in the popular imagination. Sure, like any hyperbole, this Russian phrase has gone on to frame listicles about everything from cartoons to toxic relationships, but the original – “the greatest leader of all time and all people” was lauded upon Stalin during his lifetime and already widely associated with him. That is like asking “who sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake, who knows when you’ve been bad or good” and acting surprised when the answer is Santa Claus. (Of course, a Christmas song in which an all-knowing demiurge is making a list and checking it twice is also about Stalin, but that is a different matter).
Understanding Stalin worship
Putting problems with this particular poll aside, ratings for Stalin have been rising across the board, and they have directly correlated with rising approval ratings for Putin. According to another Levada poll, the number of Russians who felt “admiration”, “respect” or “sympathy” for Stalin increased from 37 percent in March 2016 to 46 percent in the beginning of 2017. That’s an increase of 9 percent in one year and puts Stalin approval at the highest level in 16 years. Those blaming Stalin for excessive casualties in World War II also dropped to a record low of 12 percent, down from 18 percent in 2011 and 34 percent in 1997, according to a poll last week.
All of this is alarming. Why do so many people continue to admire a tyrant who stood above the law and literally slaughtered thousands of their own relatives? Perhaps Russians refuse to believe in the repressions? A closer look denies us that caveat: the number of Russians who know about Stalin’s repressions has remained steady at a little over 50 percent and the number of Russians who believe the repressions to be a crime has gone down from 51 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2017. But here is another interesting nugget − the same poll found that 49 percent of respondents said they believed that nothing justified the human sacrifices made during the Stalin era.
Sentiment about Stalin in the Russian population is genuine, and exists for a number of complex reasons.
The data is alarming and, above all, contradictory and confusing. But so is the collective id, and not just for Russians. Warm sentiments towards Stalin are primarily about power, not politics, and it is easier to worship a living god than an abstract one, for his sheer power alone. The irrational, primordial logic of this kind of worship comes down to the idea that if he can do this to us, just think what he can do to our enemies. And, in the context of World War II, in the collective imagination, that is just what happened.
We can blame these numbers on some nebulous idea of the masochistic Russian soul, or we can look at the conundrum presented by World War II from the Russian perspective to try to find actual reasons why so many people feel this way. Stalin (and Stalinism by extension) repressed its own population, but in the popular imagination it also defeated pure evil. It would be demanding a lot of the popular imagination to accept that, in the case of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, pure evil was defeated, to a great degree, by pure evil, even if that is, to an extent, exactly what happened.
One important factor motivating this sentiment is top-down validation of pro-Stalin sentiment that would otherwise have largely remained latent. During his third presidential term, Vladimir Putin has overseen a campaign to whitewash Soviet history and promote a positive view of Russia’s past – all of which has spread to education and propaganda. Concrete government-sponsored efforts to rehabilitate Stalin have become the norm today. Lawyer Henri Reznik has just resigned his position in protest over a plaque commemorating Stalin in the central Hall of the Moscow State Judicial Academy. And, in his recent interview with Oliver Stone, Putin spoke out against “demonizing Stalin,” calling it an “attack” on Russia.
All of this is important, given that sociologists readily admit the vulnerability of public opinion, especially in Russia, to state propaganda. But sentiment about Stalin in the populace is also genuine, and, latent or not, exists for a number of complex reasons. For instance, a great deal of Russians wish to let sleeping dogs lie (50 percent believe those who took part in repressions should be left alone, and 47 percent of people believe that repressions shouldn’t be discussed so much), but 52 percent of respondents also remain in favour of keeping archives open.
And so, carefully, tentatively, we can speak of a slight silver lining. Russians might not be ready to give up their admiration for a tyrant (especially not amid the current official climate, which must change before popular sentiment can begin a healthier process of understanding what exactly Russians went through under Stalin), but it should add some clarity to know that at least they recognise him as a tyrant and don’t entirely deny the fact of the repressions. Above all, these sentiments reflect emotional hero worship rather than political opinion – and these two things, as we are increasingly seeing in Russia, are not necessarily the same.
The paradox of Putin as politician and ruler
To illustrate that point, we have another, more immediate public opinion paradox to consider. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, Putin’s ratings on specific issues across the board – from Ukraine to the economy – have dropped by anywhere from 12 to 20 percentage points in the last two years. But overall confidence in Putin himself has remained steady, at 87 percent, reflecting a similarly steady rating according to the Levada Center of 82 percent.
This is peculiar: plummeting opinions about specific issues like the economy and corruption are not denting sentiment towards Putin. Why?
This divergence is a reflection both of the nature of the Putin phenomenon in itself, and of how civil attitudes towards politics are changing. These two sets of figures show that, on the one hand, Putin is not a political figure – admiration and approval for him stand above the fray and above the law. His annual call-in show, held earlier this month, was not about politics either but power.
On the other hand, there is evidence that Russians are taking increasingly active positions on problems facing the country, such as corruption. More Russians are seeing corruption as a problem, and they don’t hesitate to blame Putin. Indeed, 67 percent see Putin as either fully or in a large part responsible for corruption according to a recent poll. And, strikingly, more people than ever before – 58 percent – support protests against corruption, as the recent demonstrations of Alexei Navalny’s supporters have shown. All of these figures considerably overlap with the unconditional approval of Putin himself.
What we are seeing, in other words, is a peculiar splitting of the civic mind – on the one hand is the subject, who views Putin as a ruler and Stalin as a hero, above the fray, above the law, and on the other, often within the same person, is the emerging citizen, who is capable of agency on specific issues affecting his or her country.
When Putin is gone, it is this second, emerging mindset that will play a role in politics. Putin, like Stalin, will be relegated to the role of hero. And in his stead, hopefully, politicians will emerge.
Anna Arutunyan is a Moscow-based journalist and author of 'The Putin Mystique'.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.