On Stalin’s Endurance

In a recent poll conducted in Russia on who is the “greatest” Russian ever, Joseph Stalin came in third (after Alexander Nevsky, who repelled Western invadesr in the 13th century, and reformist prime minister Pyotr Stolypin).

As disturbing as this result may be, it is, sadly, understandable. Russia has not gone through a process similar to de-nazification in postwar Germany. And many older Russians, having experienced the upheaval of the collapse of the Soviet Union, long for a time when their country was powerful and feared around the world — while comfortably ignoring the political repression and poverty of the time. Arseny Roginsky, a Russian historian and human rights advocate, at a recent conference on the history of Stalinism, posited another factor in Russia’s ambivalent attitude toward that period:

In the Soviet terror, it is very difficult to distinguish the executioners from the victims. For example, secretaries of regional committee in August 1937 all wrote death sentences by the bundle, but by November 1938 half of them had already been shot themselves.

In national, and particularly regional memory, the “executioners” – for example, the regional committee secretaries of 1937 – are not unambiguously evil: yes, they signed execution warrants, but they also organized the construction of kindergartens and hospitals, and went to workers’ cafeterias personally to test the food, while their subsequent fate is worthy of sympathy.

And one more thing: unlike the Nazis, who mainly killed “foreigners”: Poles, Russians, and German Jews (who were not quite their “own” people), we mainly killed our own people, and our consciousness refuses to accept this fact.

In remembering the terror, we are incapable of assigning the main roles, incapable of putting the pronouns “we” and “they” in their places. This inability to assign evil is the main thing that prevents us from being able to embrace the memory of the terror properly. This makes it far more traumatic. It is one of the main reasons why we push it to the edge of our historical memory.

There is no easy way out of this mindset, though there are at least some things that could be done to keep the situation from getting worse. Unfortunately, the problem of the “inability to assign evil” seems persistent. Roginsky notes:

In the new history textbooks, Stalinism is presented as an institutional phenomenon, even an achievement. But the terror is portrayed as a historically determined and unavoidable tool for solving state tasks. This concept does not rule out sympathy for the victims of history. But it makes it absolutely impossible to consider the criminal nature of the terror, and the perpetrator of this crime.

The intention is not to idealise Stalin. This is the natural side-effect of resolving a completely different task – that of confirming the idea of the indubitable correctness of state power. The government is higher than any moral or legal assessments. It is above the law, as it is guided by state interests that are higher than the interests of the person and society, higher than morality and law. The state is always right – at least as long as it can deal with its enemies. This idea runs through the new textbooks from beginning to end, and not only where repressions are discussed.

Attitudes like this cannot be changed overnight, but that’s no cause for despair — the collapse of the Soviet Union caught everyone by surprise.

See former CEI Brookes Fellow Neil Hrab, in the National Post, on the endurance of Stalin here.