Accessibility links

Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Memory And Forgetfulness

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russians remain deeply divided in their assessments of Iosif Stalin 46 years after his death, 43 years after his successor Nikita Khrushchev condemned the dictator's 25-year reign of terror, and nine years after the Soviet Union passed into history.

According to the results of a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Fund and released on Monday in advance of the 120th anniversary of Stalin's birth this week, approximately one-third of all Russians -- 32 percent -- consider Stalin a cruel tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions of their fellow citizens.

But two-thirds -- 66 percent -- feel that Stalin's rule was more good than bad or equally good and bad. Moreover, one in every five Russians maintains that "Stalin was a wise leader who promoted the USSR's power" and that only someone like him could "have maintained order under conditions of acute class struggle, external threat and the general turmoil" of his times.

These divisions about Stalin among Russians today have more than historical interest for three reasons.

First, they suggest just how far many Russians still have to go in repudiating even the worst aspects of the Soviet past, an action that appears to be a precondition for progress in the future.

Indeed, at least one of the reasons why East Europeans have made more progress toward democracy and free markets has been that they overwhelmingly condemn Stalin and the system he helped to create and with which he was so closely associated.

Russians, this poll suggests, have an entirely different reading of their history. Not only do many openly support Stalin, but again nearly one in five believe that "our people cannot manage without a leader of Stalin's type and he will emerge and restore order sooner or later."

Second, these continuing divisions among Russians suggest that the Soviet period is likely to remain politically divisive even if support for communists as a political party wanes. What is striking about the poll results is the distinction many Russians clearly make between supporting Stalin and opposing communism.

Thus, only 14 percent had an opinion as to whether Stalin had continued "Lenin's course," with eight percent suggesting that he had "deviated" from it and six percent maintaining that he had been a loyal follower of the founder of the Soviet state.

At the same time, far more Russians had an opinion about Stalin's responsibility for the initial Soviet failures and ultimate Soviet victory in World War II, with 18 percent blaming Stalin for the failures and slightly more -- 20 percent -- giving him credit for the victory.

And third, these divisions among Russians pose a challenge to those Western governments interested in promoting democracy and change in the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet states.

Having decided early on to oppose lustration -- the removal of senior communist officials from office -- and to avoid focusing on the past lest it overshadow the future, the West now finds itself in an increasingly difficult position as it tries to promote democratic and free market change in Russia.

As this poll about Stalin suggests, many Russians still feel positively about one of the most brutal tyrants in all history, and it is likely that even higher percentages of them feel positively about other periods of the Soviet experience.

Many who feel that way are likely to be unwilling to repudiate the past, and those who are wavering between a positive and a negative assessment have been given little encouragement to do so by many Western governments and organizations.

As a result, both communism as a whole and Stalin in particular are likely to enjoy considerable prestige among many post-Soviet Russians. That in turn is likely to limit for many years the possibility that large numbers of Russians will be prepared to reject their own past for a future modeled on the West.

And if these attitudes remain unchallenged either domestically or from abroad, Russia's movement toward democracy and free markets is likely to prove far more difficult, to take far longer and to suffer more setbacks than anyone had assumed when communism fell.