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Russia: With Hindsight People See Stalin As Positive Leader

  • Gregory Feifer

This week (5 March), Russia marks the 50th anniversary of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's death. The watershed moment changed world history, putting an end to the worst excesses of repression by the Communist Party. But as RFE/RL reports, Russians today increasingly see Stalin as a positive figure in their country's past.

Moscow, 4 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Our Party, the Soviet people, all humanity have suffered a great, irreparable loss. The glorious life of our teacher and leader, humanity's great genius, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, has come to the end of its path."

These were the words of Communist Party leader Georgii Malenkov in 1953 at one of the pivotal moments of the 20th century: funeral ceremonies for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who died on 5 March of that year. Tearful millions poured into the streets to mourn.

It marked a major turning point in Soviet history that put an end to the worst of the Communist Party's repressions. Historians disagree about the numbers who died from execution, famine, imprisonment in labor camps, and other repressions under Stalin, but a commonly cited figure is over 20 million.

Despite the staggering figure, Russians are increasingly ambivalent about Stalin's image at the 50th anniversary of the dictator's death this week. Twelve years after the Soviet collapse and a turbulent transition toward democracy and capitalism, a public opinion poll this month says 36 percent of Russians think Stalin brought more good than harm to the country. Another 34 percent say they are ambivalent, seeing both positive and negative aspects.

Many laud Stalin for leading the Soviet Union to victory against Nazi Germany in World War II and forcing the country to undergo massive industrialization to catch up to the West.

A small exhibit on Stalin's image in central Moscow reflects these mixed feelings. It chiefly contains adulating portraits of the dictator and devotes only a small space to the Gulag concentration-camp system through which almost 20 million political prisoners passed.

Tamara Aleksandrovna, (she would not give her last name) works in the administration office at the museum. She lauded Stalin for bringing order. "I view Stalin positively. Because if there were such leadership now as there was under Stalin, there would be less disorder in our country. There wouldn't be thievery or such anarchy," she said.

She questioned those who say Stalin was a murderous dictator. "You know, I don't know whom he killed, I can't say that. It's all relative -- whom he killed."

Tatyana Kurmantsova, a museum curator, said such feelings at least in part are brought about by nostalgia. This, she said, is fuelled by the poverty and crime afflicting large parts of Russia today.

Alyona Kozlova is the head of the Gulag archives at Memorial, one of the country's top human rights organizations, set up in the late 1980s to catalog Soviet crimes. Kozlova criticizes as dangerous the fact that no officials have been tried for crimes under the Soviet Union, and that none of them has apologized for the past. "It is even allowed for politicians who say that there were no repressions to make statements and give their opinions. But if [the repressions] did not take place, then to some degree they are justified," she said.

She added that the authorities' current actions, such as orders to step up random police checks of documents on the streets -- drives aimed chiefly at dark-skinned passersby -- stem from a tendency left from the Soviet period of dividing members of society into "good and bad, us and them."

Tatyana Smilgo was sent to the Gulag under Stalin. Her father was a Bolshevik revolutionary, a Central Committee member who knew Stalin himself personally and argued with the dictator. For that he was later shot along with his wife and other relatives following the greatest wave of Stalin's purges in 1938. Memorial uncovered the remains of Smilgo's mother four years ago in a forest outside St. Petersburg, where she was shot.

Smilgo herself was arrested as a grade-school student in 1939 and sentenced to 4 1/2 years of prison camp and another 13 years of exile. Later denied work and acceptance in universities, she found work as a teacher. She said she is against the current exhibit on Stalin. "How can you look at [the exhibit]? How can one look at a person who shot your entire family and ruined your life? How, for God's sake? Even his funeral -- I find it funny. I thought I wouldn't live until the moment that he would die," she said.

"Without an apology" from officials, she said, "it will be possible to commit more evil," adding: "I think it was a nightmare for Russia. [Stalin] ruined not only [his own] generation, but future ones. People's psychology was completely broken. There was fear, slavery -- all this continues to be with us."

Lev Mishchenko was born in 1917, the year of the revolution. He attended the funerals of both his parents -- killed by Bolsheviks -- at the age of four. A junior officer in World War II, he was captured by Nazi forces and sent to the German concentration camp of Buchenwald. In the last days of the war, he managed to escape from a prisoner convoy and made his way to a U.S. tank division on the front line, where he turned down an offer to be sent to the United States.

On repatriation to the Soviet Union, he was accused of spying and sent to Siberia to work in labor camps, like many other former prisoners of war. Freed in 1954, he also now decries nostalgia for Stalin. "He was a maniac. The war was won despite Stalin and not thanks to Stalin. And what he did to Russia, to the Soviet Union and all the Soviet republics -- destroying tens of millions, at least 20 million innocent people -- [means] Stalin achieved nothing positive," he said.

"People talk about how bad the economy is today, but under Stalin, millions of collective farm workers died of famine," he said. "I saw how people lived myself. People had nothing to eat, and still had to give milk and eggs to the state."

Kozlova said Memorial's work to catalog and discuss Soviet-era crimes goes on despite increasingly difficult access to state archives. "It was only possible to begin talking about [Soviet repressions] 10 years ago," she said. "That is only a small amount of time to uncover such an enormous and deep period of history."

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