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Russia: Analysis From Washington: Stalin As Role Model

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Georgian Communist Party has voted to rehabilitate former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, a man that group describes as "the most gifted politician of the twentieth century" and an obvious role model for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking at a party conference last week in Tbilisi, Georgian communist leader Panteleimon Giorgadze said that this decision, which was adopted unanimously, reflected the party's desire to boost the reputation of Georgia's most famous native son. But they added that its timing was the result of Putin's decision to restore the Soviet national anthem -- albeit with new words.

Indeed, Vakhtang Goguadze, a close ally of the Georgian communists, added that the Russian leader had inspired them because of his self-evident commitment to rebuilding a strong state: "Not genetically, not biologically, of course, but politically, because [Putin's] besotted with this brilliant man and it shows in what he does."

Even though they suffered as much or more from Stalin's actions, Georgians typically have had their own and more positive view of the late dictator. When Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes in 1956 and launched his de-Stalinization campaign, some Georgians tried to keep his memory alive by maintaining a museum in Stalin's memory in his native village of Gori and marking his birthday every December 21.

Because of this national history, many both in the region and elsewhere may be tempted to view this latest decision as a uniquely Georgian affair. But in fact, it both reflects and raises three larger issues of post-Soviet history.

First, it calls attention to a new break with the politics of the first post-Soviet decade. During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, few leaders, except for the communists, were prepared to look back to the Soviet past with anything but anger. And most explicitly cast their policies in terms of breaking from or overcoming that past.

Across this region and beyond, most people viewed politics as a struggle between democrats and communists, one that they believed time would resolve in favor of the former rather than the latter. Throughout his term in office, Yeltsin routinely exploited this conviction to gather support for himself. But now that has changed.

As political observers Antonina Lebedeva and Ilya Bulavinov point out in the current issue of Moscow's "Kommersant-Vlast," politicians in Russia no longer can be "simplistically divided into democrats and communists as they could be through almost the entire Yeltsin era." Instead, they argue, the dividing line runs between those politicians who are with Putin and those who are against him, with the latter being infinitesimally few."

Second, this Georgian decision, like Putin's promotion of the old-new national anthem and of Soviet-era military flag, inevitably opens the way for the reconsideration of issues that many had believed were settled. When the discussion of Stalin was anathema, few people could consider supporting any of his ideas or try to mobilize political support for any return to what he represented. Now, at least some will be willing to try to do just that.

By rehabilitating Stalin in this way, the Georgian communists have thereby opened the door to such discussions and such attempts at mobilization. Neither they nor others who follow them may succeed in winning that political struggle, but their decision last week at least permits them to reenter the political fray, a development that inevitably will change the political scene not only in Georgia but in other post-Soviet states as well.

And third, this decision highlights just how far some in the region have not come over the past decade and how much at least a few want to return to the past. Even as the Georgian communists were singing the praises of Stalin as Putin's role model, Moscow pollsters were reporting that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians support the restoration or a single state among them.

According to a poll taken by the Moscow Humanitarian Academy, 61 percent of Russians, 53 percent of Ukrainians, and 69 percent of Belarusians want to live in a single state, with 38 percent of the Russians, 43 percent of the Ukrainians and 57 percent of the Belarusians saying they favored the restoration of a unitary state of the kind which existed in pre-1917 Russia.

Again, even these widespread attitudes are not necessarily going to be translated into a new-old political reality, but both they and the rehabilitation of Stalin are a reminder that in many post-Soviet countries, the politics of the 21st century are likely to be defined by those of the 20th and the battle between those who want these countries to move toward democracy and those who do not seems certain to continue.