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Russia

Russians And Stalin: ‘What Is Not Positive In History, They Prefer To Forget’

A poster with a portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin is seen during a May Day rally in Volgograd. (file photo)
A poster with a portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin is seen during a May Day rally in Volgograd. (file photo)

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March 5 marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Over the last 15 years or so, attitudes among Russians about the role Stalin played in the life of their country have changed dramatically.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson asked Aleksei Levinson, social research director of the independent Levada Analytical Center in Moscow, about these changing views and how we can understand them.

RFE/RL: According to your research, what is the view of Stalin in Russia at present and what sort of dynamic in that opinion have we seen in recent years?

Aleksei Levinson:
The evaluation of Stalin might seem a little bit contradictory because, according to the results of our survey conducted in February, people on the one hand agree that Stalin played a positive role in the life of our country. About 49 percent say that. And somewhat fewer -- 32 percent -- say that he played a negative role. That is, a majority think that Stalin played a positive role.

SPECIAL REPORT: 60 Years After Stalin

But when asked about the significance of Stalin's death, more than half -- 55 percent -- say that they associate his death with the end of terror and mass repressions and the release from prison of millions of innocent people. Considerably fewer -- just 18 percent -- say that the death of Stalin meant the loss of a great leader and teacher.

I think it is important to explain this contradiction. I think that this is just an apparent contradiction because Russian public opinion is attempting to extract the positive moments from Stalin's life -- saying he played a positive role and, of course, they mention the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the victory of Russia over fascist Germany. But also they extract positive moments from Stalin's death -- that wrongly condemned people were released.

Aleksei Levinson: "Great tension in the realm of symbols"Aleksei Levinson: "Great tension in the realm of symbols"
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Aleksei Levinson: "Great tension in the realm of symbols"
Aleksei Levinson: "Great tension in the realm of symbols"
This also corresponds with the way that Russians remember the repressions of the Stalin period. They unambiguously approve of the rehabilitation of those who were wrongly convicted -- and, in fact, the rehabilitation process went quite far in our society. But there has been virtually no lustration. There have been no trials of those who participated not in the role of victims but in the roles of executioners or compromised judges.

According to our surveys, Russians do not want such a trial to take place. Again, we see that they want to take as much that is positive from history -- even such a bloody and difficult history -- as they can. And as for what is not positive -- they prefer to forget about it.

RFE/RL: Is the process of evaluating Stalin somehow coming to an end or do you expect to see more changes in the future?

Levinson
: This process, as far as we can tell, has stabilized to a considerable extent. We saw over the last decade, over the Putin period, that Stalin has been transformed from one of the practically forgotten figures of the past into the most important figure. Of all the figures of the past that are recalled in the Russian public consciousness, only Stalin has had such an extraordinary career over the last 15 years. I think this must be connected with how Putin is trying to position himself and with how he is viewed.

Contemporary Russians, for the most part, see a kind of equation of the old authorities and the current ones, most of all from the concept of the strong leader. But I would say it isn't that they consider Putin to be the modern Stalin, but rather the reverse -- today's image of Putin is taken into consideration when we look at Stalin. This is an important distinction.

RFE/RL: Have you asked Russians about where they get their information about Stalin from – from the state media or schools or politicians?

Levinson:
I would say here that information about Stalin is not needed at all. It does not change the situation -- it is not needed. For the public mind, the eroding mythical image that already existed is sufficient. They don't really know anything in particular about Stalin. They know three things -- he was great; he won the war; he spilled a lot of blood of Soviet people.

From these three elements is formed the ambivalent image that can be viewed from both a positive side and a negative one. That is why, in a real sense, it is not definable. Criticizing Stalin doesn't produce any effect. People already know that he was a tyrant and a murderer. Praising Stalin also doesn't add anything to his image. Praising or criticizing him is just a symbolic way of conducting the struggle between various groups within contemporary Russian society -- or between different layers of the Russian public consciousness.

RFE/RL: You wrote in one article that Russians realize that Stalin is viewed much more negatively in the West than in Russia. How do they feel about this difference?

Levinson:
The thing is that these days, anti-Western rhetoric and anti-Western positions are very widespread in Russian society. So it isn't difficult in such an environment to include the idea that the West is trying to deprive us of our glory; that they want to minimize our role in the victory over Germany. In this context, these fit together logically. This context is very broad because quite a few people believe that the West in general is encroaching upon not only Russia's history but also on Russia's wealth and on everything that Russians value. These ideas are very widespread at present.

RFE/RL: Is there anything else that you think is important to add about Russians' attitudes toward Stalin?

Levinson:
I would like to emphasize once again that the present situation in Russia is one of great tension in the realm of symbols. There isn't so much going on in terms of real political changes in either direction. But there are a large number of attacks and parries in the symbolic sphere where opinions are clashing within the public consciousness. This is characteristic of the present situation and this -- by the way -- is a huge contrast to Stalin's times, when in addition to these kinds of tensions, there were also real actions such as the repressions and other huge-scale processes.

How Much Do You Know About Josef Stalin?

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 03, 2013 09:22
A beautiful picture! Thank you, RFE/RL!
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
March 03, 2013 14:03
A great post,worthy of your spiritual father and mother,Viele Danke Unser Liebling EU genio!!! And the Levinson mensch should be more thankful to our Great Koba-he was not a dictator but just a true georgian Vakhtang type demockrat.And we need him today more than ever as his soft version in the guise of Vladimir Vladimirovitch just wont do,but as they say He is the One and Only and we wont see the like of Him in a thousand generations!!! Why,the georgian superman created 2 jewish states -Birobidjan and the State of Israel and what did he get in return??? Not a single monument or at least a plaque in Yad Vashem,which is a crying shame!!! Dlya Rodinu,Dlya Putinu Dlya Jacku and Eugeniu,and please somebody wake me up when da Revolution turns the whole world red!!!
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 03, 2013 14:48
What kind of anti-semitic posting is that, Camel :-))??
In Response

by: Jack from: US
March 03, 2013 15:49
My friend Moisha is forever grateful to Comrade Stalin for creating Israel
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
March 03, 2013 20:40
Is that Moishe Zhirinovsky,Jackie?

by: Ben
March 03, 2013 11:07
For the Russians their tyrants are the inevitable hoops for the enormous but insecure cask- empire.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
March 03, 2013 18:08
Nice interview, but I think you neglected to mention one key reason why some Russians continue to look at Stalin in a positive light: the establishment of some sort of order. Granted it may have been an oppressive, arbitrary gulag-type of order, but party officials and others understood that if they fell out of favor with the authorities, they would likely be punished. Soviet citizens could rat out bosses who were skimming too much or turn in their neighbors if they took more than their share. Some people prefer to live in a semi-orderly prison than in a world where total injustice reigns.

by: Alex from: Russia
March 03, 2013 23:02
To say that everyone tries to forget the bad things and remember the good is true of any normal person. Who wants to depress themselves with constant self-flagellations and navel-gazing about the bad things that happen? Bad things happen everywhere, but not everywhere is there transparency like there is in this case (with Stalin). And yet everyone in the West wants to label him as a feared, bloodthirsty tyrant who did nothing good and brag about their "insight", forgetting that he also achieved a lot of good things in his time. We Russians, knowing more than is known in the West about all the bad things, say enough, remember what is worth remembering and get on with it. Good things and bad things happened, just as they always did everywhere - this case is not alone. We must consider it like this.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 04, 2013 09:21
Just one example of people trying "to forget the bad things and remember the good" ones: Just a few days ago the govt of the US announced unprecedented spending cuts that will result in that the US will re-enter recession for the second time in just three years. On the top of that, their national debt exceeds 100 % of their GDP and they have no idea how they will pay all this money back.
But these guys just prefer to "forget" for a moment the pitiful situation in which their country of bankrupt losers is stuck - and what is better to do that than writing and publishing "articles" about those died more than half a century ago?
In Response

by: Alex from: Russia
March 04, 2013 12:58
To be honest I have no idea, Eugenio, and try not to involve myself in American politics. They have to work it out for themselves. And if their heavy, one-sided contributions to the record of Russian history are the only good thing that they can think of at a time when they are shooting themselves in the economic foot, then I genuinely pity them in this morbidity! In all seriousness, when I said that one tries to forget the bad things, one tries not to talk about them. The memory of them will always be there, repressed or otherwise, and will always serve as an indicator in future decision-making. Likewise good memories will always be with us, although these are, of course, something we do actively try to recall for the pleasure they give us in recollection!
As far as the Dennis Rodman interview goes, I can barely understand what the man says, but I get the impression that he is just a simple guy who went to North Korea for very simple reasons. What it is with Anglo Saxons and preaching their version of how things ought to be to those they consider to be wrong is beyond me, but Rodman was in no position to say anything to Kim. He was a guest and non-diplomatic - Kim had no obligation to entertain him, as he is not even a politician. I do not understand the interviewer and the intensity of his moralisation apparently directed against Rodman on behalf. The Americans do a similar thing to everybody, to different degrees of intensity.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 04, 2013 14:54
Hi, Alex! Completely agree with everything you said. As far as the interview of Rodman is concerned: he is pretty much saying the same thing you did - he went to the DPRK to promote basketball and that Kim Jong Un was a nice guy, that he liked what he saw in North Korea and that he would definitely go back there.
And the attitude of the "interviewer" - or, better said, RFE/RL-style cheap US propaganda monkey, who will not find Canada on the map of the world, but who like all of those US-born bankrupt losers always has the urge to give others lessons - so his attitude was pathetic, of course, just as you said.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 04, 2013 09:41
By the way, talking about STALINISM today: Here is an interview of one US citizen who - quite surprisingly! - appears to have some brain, wow, what an anomaly :-). Anyway, here is an interview of Dennis Rodman on the US TV telling about his meeting with the DPRK leader Kim Jong Un: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GixKLkai6uA

by: john from: canada
March 05, 2013 01:49
The cancer of Stalin and his murderous state is not just the history that belongs to Russia, but also infected so many other states and peoples. ALL of the CIS states and their peoples were tragic victims of this monster. Post-war Germany was a victim too. ALL of NATO states had to spend trillions of dollars to protect themselves from this tyrant.

In countries like US, Canada, and Western Europe are the survivors who immigrated and brought with them their own family stories of victimization.

UN soldiers from US, Canada and many other countries who fought in places like Korea were fighting battles against the disease of Stalin.

It goes on and on...
In Response

by: Alexey from: Russia
March 05, 2013 09:44
> Post-war Germany was a victim too.

Yes, Hitler, Nazis and their friends were main victims of Stalinism.

> ALL of NATO states had to spend trillions of dollars to protect themselves from this tyrant.

All of NATO states continues to spend trillions of dollars till today to support your imperialistic ambitions.

> In countries like US, Canada, and Western Europe are the survivors who immigrated and brought with them their own family stories of victimization.

True, they always tells such "terrible stories" in order to get status of emigrant.
In Response

by: john from: canada
March 05, 2013 14:44
Ironic that so many Russian Nazis and extreme nationalists exist today, inspite of Putin's "bans" on such propaganda:
http://newspol.ru/hot/v-rossii-zapretyat-nacistskuyu-propagandu/

NATO provides security to Western nations, and in fact, Russia wants to be close to NATO, with such initiatives as the NATO-Russia Council (http://www.nato-russia-council.info/en/) and the Permanent Mission of Russia to NATO (http://natomission.ru/en/)

Not just the early post-war immigrants to Canada recognized crimes of Stalin and his cult of murderous totalitarianism but young Canadians today remember and stand vigilant against his cult returning:
http://www.edmontonsun.com/2011/11/26/never-forgotten
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 05, 2013 13:29
Aha, and those US and Canadian soldiers who were burning Vietnamese children with NAPALM were also, of course, these glorious heros who were fighting for freedom and prosperity. Congratulations, John!
In Response

by: john from: canada
March 05, 2013 19:08
What is wrong with fighting for freedom and prosperity? Viet Cong and their Soviet masters were fighting for tyranny and poverty.

Many Canadian soldiers were fighting in Viet Nam, they did it as part of up to 20,000 volunteers or draftees with US army in order to challenge Soviet-dominated communist forces. As well, Canadian exporters sold napalm and other supplies and equipment to our American allies - even as Canada accepted US draft-dodgers.

Viet Cong atrocities that killed thousands and tortured many innocent Viet Namese civilians, see last paragraph in the section:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viet_Cong#Launches_.22armed_struggle.22


by: Ben
March 05, 2013 13:00
Russian Stalin`s opponents are particularly angry that he obliterated communists or their supporters instead of the enemies.

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