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Every second Russian supports a monument to Soviet dictator Stalin

06.08.2021
Halya Coynash

Several thousand Russians marched in the centre of Moscow on 9 May 2019. The placards are of Lavrentiy Berya, one of Stalin’s butchers, and Stalin with the young men holding placards reading He (Stalin is like a father to me) Photos Ekho Moskvy

A new survey carried out by Russia’s authoritative Levada Centre has found a terrifying increase in the number of young adults who support a monument to Joseph Stalin, and a sizeable majority overall who believe that there should be a ‘Stalin Centre’ museum complex.  While one of the arguments frequently given was that “this is our history” and “that you mustn’t forget history”, the same reasons could be used to justify statues of Adolf Hitler in Germany.  But they are not.  In Russia (and probably occupied Crimea), only one in five respondents were against the erection of a monument to a dictator responsible, among other crimes, for the Holodomor (the manmade famine in Ukraine in 1932-33,) the Terror in 1937/38 and the Deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar people in 1944.

The results of the survey seem particularly upsetting as they were published on the eve of the 84th anniversary of the beginning of the NKVD ‘operation’ now known as the Great Terror on 5 August 1937.  In fact, however, respondents were questioned back on 20-25 May 2021, soon after Victory Day.  That may be of significance since, under President Vladimir Putin, Stalin’s carefully laundered role in World War II has become a major part of the general hype and military pomp around the Soviet victory. 

The results demonstrate the change in public attitude since 2005.  People were asked in 2005; 2010; 2015 and 2021 how they would view the erection of a monument to Stalin.  The percentage of those in favour has jumped from 29% to 48%.  While all age groups contributed to this increase, it was among those aged 18-25 that the shift was dramatic (from 11% in 2005 to 50% in 2021).  People living in large cities; those aged 40-55 and people with a higher education were somewhat more likely to oppose a monument to Stalin.

A whopping 60% of respondents expressed support for the proposed ‘Stalin Centre’ museum complex, with 30% against.  Here, unlike with the question about a monument, respondents did not have the option of answering that they didn’t care, but could reply that it was hard to say (as did 9%).  Respondents were asked an open question regarding why they supported the idea of a Stalin Centre, rather than being asked to choose from set answers.

35% gave answers like:  “it’s our history; preserving history; people / youth must know history; we must remember; you mustn’t forget history”. 

22%  of the respondents claimed that Stalin was “a great man; a great leader; a significant individual; lord; ruler; father of the nation”

18% considered that “he raised up the country; established order; brought us up from our knees; created the state; he did a lot for the country / for people”

15% said that “he won the War”, that “with him, we won the War”.

The trend toward such ‘rehabilitation’ of Stalin has been evident for several years now, and the results cannot be called dramatic or startling.  Since 1989, the Levada Centre has been carrying out a survey to discover who Russians view as the most outstanding figures of all time.  In the last survey, in June this year,  by far the largest number of respondents – 39% - named Stalin.

By March 2019, a record 71% of Russians had a positive attitude to Stalin’s role in their country’s history, with just over half the population saying that they viewed the dictator “with respect”. 

In May 2019, Denis Volkov from the Levada Centre (appointed Director in August 2021) shared further information about their findings in an article entitled ‘Stalin, repression, firm hand’.  The article begins with a rather contentious assertion, namely that “the image of the Soviet dictator, like that of any significant historical person, always contains a combination of positive and negative points”.  Volkov says that in their group discussions, participants answered that “you can’t say that everything was good or everything was bad.  There were excesses, but there were also good things”.  

Volkov reports that “only a small number of Russians are prepared to deny these facts.”  For those readers who also have difficulty naming ‘good points’, it is worth noting that the Levada Centre did report, back in 2019, that the trend in Ukraine is different, with the attitude to Stalin and his role in history becoming more negative.

Volkov notes that the balance of positive and negative points is constantly changing, and that the negative aspects of Stalin’s image do not disappear altogether but do get pushed into second place.  “The image of Stalin as victor in the Great Patriotic War [i.e. World War II from 22 June 1941), as creator of the great Soviet state, as a severe leader who could create order in the country comes to the fore”.

The number of Russians who view Stalin as a criminal has decreased from 38% in 2009 to 26% in 2017, with the number of people supporting the erection of a monument to Stalin having risen over the same decade from 26% to 47%,

Volkov also notes the above-mentioned surveys about attitudes to Stalin and says that it would be hard to interpret this in any way but as Stalin’s “steady rehabilitation in Russian public thinking”. 

The position of the authorities plays a large role in this, although he suggests, rather charitably, that this is not so much a conscious position from above, as more “a side effect of the regime’s use of Victory Day to prop up its own legitimacy”.

Public discussion is not tolerated about the huge price paid for the Soviet victory, and the mistakes Stalin made. Old myths about the War, long debunked by historians, are still pushed by those close to the Kremlin (Volkov mentions Vladimir Medinsky, former Minister of Culture, now an advisor to the Kremlin).

In their focus-groups, Volkov notes, another motif used to justify Stalin is that it was he who turned the Soviet Union into a super-power. Participants in such discussions attribute that to Stalin and his supposed “wise leadership”.

“A new impulse for such explanations was given by Crimea. After that event [sic!], Russians’ belief that for the first time after the collapse of the USSR the country was being reborn as a great state peaked.

Surveys show that, in the view of the majority of the population, “it was Gorbachev and Yeltsin who destroyed the state, and Stalin who created it”.

One aspect that Volkov notes is of particular irony given Vladimir Putin’s responsibility, not only for Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and conflict with the West, but also for the mounting rehabilitation of Stalin and muffling of historical truth.  Many of those taking part in these discussion groups juxtaposed Stalin’s alleged lack of corruption and his ability to rule the country with an iron fist with the present regime, which is seen as very corrupt.

Volkov notes that the increase in demand for a firm hand and the rehabilitation of Stalin is taking place against the background of an ever-increasing number of people who wrongly view the repression and Terror as having been directed solely against the leadership; the intelligentsia and opposition nomenclature.  The number of people who consider that the repression was directed against the entire population decreased 1.5 times, from 58% in 2000 to 41% in 2017.

Volkov suggests a link with the even more shocking result that the percentage of those saying that “repression cannot be justified” plummeted from 72% in 2007 to 39% in 2017.   The rehabilitation of the figure of Stalin is running in parallel with the distortion and mythologization of public views about Stalin’s repression”.

Volkov was writing in 2019 and certain things have changed for the worse, including the number of Russian leaders willing to openly justify Stalin.  He did not devote any attention to evident moves to block information about repression, including political persecution of historians and harassment of the Memorial Society, nor to the distortion of history and frightening level of militarization among children and young people seen in both Russia and occupied Crimea.

Back in 2007, Putin expressed concern about the presentation of Russian history in schools, with this leading to the appearance of a manual for teachers by Alexander Filippov, which described Stalin as “one of the most successful leaders of the USSR”.   It was material like this that by October that year made Putin welcome “certain positive moves”, noting that “up till quite recently we read things in textbooks that made our hair stand on end…”

Since then, there has been a general trend towards glorifying Stalin’s role in WWII, concealment or justification of the Soviet Union’s collaboration with Nazi Germany during the first almost 2 years of the War.  This resulted in the surreal prosecution of Vladimir Luzgin and the Russian Supreme Court’s September 1, 2016 effective ruling that the USSR had not invaded Poland in September 1939.  The Russian authorities have blocked access to military archives, and the State Duma has now passed a bill criminalizing any comparison of the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. The situation is particularly grave in occupied Crimea, but also generally, given Moscow’s need to totally distort the facts, in order to justify their aggression against Ukraine.

See:

Russian libraries purge books telling ‘the wrong history’ about the USSR in WWII

Crimean children taught that Russia didn’t invade Crimea and that Ukraine was an accident

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