The Unbearable Persistence of Stalin

March the 5th last saw the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s death. The circumstances of his passing remain a mystery; some, like his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, supported the theory that her father was poisoned by Lavrentiy Beria, the Minister of the Interior; others claim he died from a stroke.

Stalin’s daughter recalls those moments in her memoirs. In January-February 1953, her father had many of his closest collaborators imprisoned, among them his personal physician, Vinogradov. Thus, when on March 1st the staff of Stalin’s dacha at Kuntsevo, near Moscow, found him unconscious, no one dared to call a doctor. As the caustic British film The Death of Stalin shows, the government rushed to the dacha. It was his housekeeper, Matriona Butuzova, who came up with the diagnosis: a stroke. But Beria assured everyone that Stalin was only asleep. “When my father died on March 5th,” his daughter recalls, “and his body was taken away for the funeral service, those of us who were in the dacha received a threatening order from Beria: “Silence!” The official government announcement would tell the nation a lie: ‘Stalin died in his Kremlin apartment'”.

Since his death, the Russian population has been divided between those who believe that Stalin was a competent politician who turned Russia into a world power and those who abhor him as a dictator under whose repression 20 to 30 million people died. Vladimir Putin, throughout his 23 years in power (now close to Stalin’s 26), struggled to clean up the dictator’s image. Since for Russians the awareness of their country’s importance on the international stage is paramount, the idea that Stalin was a capable politician has been gaining ground.

One of the ambitions of the Putin regime is to turn Stalin into a symbol of victory over Nazi Germany. The current Russian president uses the rhetoric of fighting “Nazis” (referring to Ukrainians and Westerners) to draw a parallel with Soviet military supremacy during World War II and thus gain the Russian people’s approval of the aggression against Ukraine. In recent weeks, busts and statues of Stalin have been erected in different cities. As in Volgograd, (called Stalingrad until 1961 when Khrushchev, a detractor of the cult of Stalin, ordered its original name to be restored), where the decisive battle against the German army was fought. In this way, Putin’s speech associates the victory over Nazism with his own image, that of one who continues the great national work that Stalin initiated.

While Ukraine, the West and a large part of the world see the current Russian war against Ukraine as the continuation of Stalinist imperialist methods after World War II, and Russia as the heir of bloody Soviet methods, this is not the view of the majority of Russians.

This year, the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s death and burial, and eight decades since the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, all coincided in one week. In Moscow, more than 1,000 admirers of Stalin gathered in Red Square to lay flowers at the totalitarian leader’s tomb at the foot of the Kremlin wall. Dissenting voices, as in so many other matters, were in the minority and repressed. Throughout his long rule, Putin, with the approval of many of his fellow citizens, has suppressed historians (like Yuri Dmitriev) researching the gulag and Stalinist oppression, and institutions (such as Memorial International, the Russian NGO that struggled to preserve the memory of the victims of Stalin’s terror.

According to the Levada Center, the Russian sociological and statistics center that has so far managed to remain independent – and which was founded during Gorbachev’s perestroika, just like Memorial – in 2018, 51% of the population considered Stalin to have been an efficient politician. Since then, the percentage of approval has risen to 70% of the inhabitants, a majority of whom describe the totalitarian leader as an “extraordinary politician” and justifiy his crimes as “necessary”. The war against Ukraine also boosted Putin’s popularity, which in February of this year reached 80%. From the Levada Center’s results it can be concluded that the more freedoms the Russian president has curtailed and the more repression he has implemented, the higher the percentage of approval he and his regime have gained.

Having said all this, it seems that the present and the immediate future of Russia are clearly outlined: to maintain a police state whose main goal is the greatness of Russia, no matter how much suffering it costs, at home and abroad. And most Russians agree.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)