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Young Russians love Stalin Everyone gets rehabilitated eventually

Selfie time on the 66th anniversary of Stalin's death. (MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Selfie time on the 66th anniversary of Stalin's death. (MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images)


August 24, 2021   6 mins

Sixty-five years have passed since Nikita Khrushchev stood up at a closed session of the 20th Communist Party Congress to denounce Stalin. So shocked was the Polish communist leader Boleslaw Bierut to hear his former master so traduced that he had a heart attack and subsequently died. But this was just the beginning: Stalin’s mummified corpse was removed from the mausoleum on Red Square where it had been enjoying an eternal slumber party with Lenin; countless monuments were torn down; institutes and buildings were renamed; and Stalin’s books disappeared from shelves. The evil demiurge of the USSR was gone, never to return.

Or so Khruschev hoped. But Stalin, it turned out, could not be so easily forgotten. This June, Russians named him the “most notable” figure in history for the 10th year running; and now, a mere two months later, a new poll by the the Levada Center has found that nearly half of Russians want a Stalin statue to celebrate the USSR’s victory over the Nazis — a figure that has nearly doubled in the past ten years. Surprisingly, this is largely driven by people under the age of 40, among whom support for a monument has quintupled over the past decade.

Around this point in articles on Stalin it is customary to observe that the Russians, unlike the Germans, have not reckoned with their dark past. But this comparison is not exactly apples with apples. If Stalin had killed himself in a bunker surrounded by Karl May novels after starting and losing a war that had led to the collapse of the Soviet regime then nobody would be talking about erecting a monument to him today. But Stalin won — beating Hitler, establishing a vast empire and making the USSR respected and feared in the process.

In fact, if Stalin is on the verge of making a comeback, then he is about the last significant figure from Russia’s past to do so. This is a country exceedingly keen on resurrection: it is, after all, the land that produced Nikolai Fedorov, a philosopher who believed that it was mankind’s duty to reconstitute the dead of all past generations, atom by atom, that they might live again and colonise space.

Indeed, I can’t think of another country that has destroyed or suppressed so much only to bring back so much. When Gorbachev implemented glasnost in the 1980s, the response of many was not to look ahead but backwards. Authors and artists who had been memory-holed were rediscovered and republished, while the crimes of Stalin, buried by Khruschev, were exposed. Suddenly it was possible to read Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov without fear of punishment; it is no coincidence that one of Russia’s main human rights organisations, founded during this act of unearthing, is called “Memorial”.

Then Russia’s imperial past was exhumed. Nikolai II, the last Tsar, was dug up months before the USSR collapsed. Leningrad became Saint Petersburg once again, Gorky became Nizhny Novgorod and countless streets reclaimed their pre-Revolutionary names. Monumental buildings destroyed by the Soviets reappeared as shiny replicas: I vividly recall my first day in Moscow in 1997, walking down the street to the school where I was going to be teaching English to New Russians, when suddenly I saw looming ahead of me the golden dome and concrete shell of the Church of Christ the Saviour, reborn on the exact spot where the original had stood before the Stalinist regime blew it up. This was not the only cloned old building in the area: half a mile away, the gates to Red Square which I thought were ancient turned out to be a replica, as was the nearby Kazan Cathedral.

New monuments commemorating figures from history also appeared. The most notorious was Zurab Tsereteli’s enormous statue of Peter the Great standing on a toy boat in the Moskva River; the story goes that he had originally pitched it as a sculpture of Columbus to the authorities in NYC, but when they rejected (presumably on the grounds that it was terrible) he simply placed a different head on the body and had his good friend the Mayor of Moscow commission it instead.

Later, Tsar Alexander II got a monument in the grounds of the church of Christ the Saviour, while Dostoevsky got a giant statue in front of the Lenin Library in central Moscow — thus the great critic of revolutionaries got to cast his shadow over a building named after the greatest revolutionary of all. Meanwhile, the last Tsar and (most of) his family were buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg in 1998, seven years after their exhumation. They were canonised two years later.

Yet even as Russia was resurrecting symbols of its Tsarist and Orthodox past, so Soviet elements were already creeping back in. A monument to the Second World War-era General Zhukov was unveiled a stone’s throw from the Kremlin in 1995. When Putin became president five years later, he almost immediately brought back the Soviet national anthem, albeit commissioning new lyrics from the 87-year-old children’s author Sergei Mikhalkov (who had written the original words for Stalin in 1944, and a second set in 1977).

At the eternal flame by the Kremlin Walls, the “hero city” of Volgograd was commemorated by its old name, Stalingrad. By the time I needed to get a police report for my US green card application in 2005, a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, first head of the Cheka, was waiting to greet me at Petrovka 38, headquarters of the Moscow police. There were also more innocuous manifestations of this fascination with the past — a TV channel called “Nostalgia” played back-to-back broadcasts from the USSR, while restaurants modeled on Soviet-era canteens were serving up compote and bowls of borscht.

No doubt this is all a response to the war on memory and culture that was waged by the Soviet elites against their own people for much of the duration of the USSR’s existence. But it is also the case that the Soviets themselves had a complicated relationship with what had preceded them and were also quite keen on resurrecting selected bits of it. To begin with, they would not let their founder die — rather they preserved his body in a glass box, and spent decades declaring “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!” And while the likes of Vladimir Mayakovsky composed avant-garde poems addressed to readers living in the future, the art that would dominate — Socialist Realism — owed much more to the 19th century novels and poems and paintings the regime’s leaders had enjoyed in their youth.

Yes, the Soviets destroyed a lot of churches (and other religious buildings), but they also assiduously maintained the cathedrals inside the Kremlin, preserved the painted interiors inside Saint Basil’s and collected the finest examples of icon painting in a dedicated museum in the capital of world communism. During World War II, Stalin rehabilitated Tsarist era generals such as Kutuzov and Bagrationov to inspire the war effort against Hitler. Post-war, the Soviets reconstructed historic buildings that that had been destroyed by the Nazis, preserved entire villages as open-air museums, published scholarly and popular collections of folk tales, and even formed “folk orchestras” to keep alive traditional songs. Thus, the new civilisation was obsessed with and beholden to the civilisation that had proceeded it, (although these acts of recreation also entailed mutation, needless to say).

Meanwhile Putin, now that he is ageing out of posing shirtless with tigers, has taken to penning long historical essays which are published on Kremlin.ru. In Russia, the past is always coming back. Viewed in that context, it’s as if the rising support for some sort of formal commemoration of Stalin is the terminal point of that urge towards resurrection, the last stage in a process that they can’t quite pull the trigger on.

You can understand why: Stalin was an evil, murderous bastard. But it’s important to realise that many Russians have reckoned with this: the Levada report notes that Stalin’s “repressions, executions and military blunders are well-known” and that “only a small number of Russians” would “completely deny these facts”. But Russia is also no stranger to monsters. Ivan the Terrible — who received his first monument in 2016 — murdered his son, murdered princes, slaughtered priests, massacred the population of Novgorod, implemented a reign of terror and invented the oprichniki, the prototypical secret police organisation. But “terrible” is a mistranslation of grozny, which in Ivan’s case might be more accurately rendered as “formidable” or “awesome.”

Now that the generation directly oppressed by Stalin is dying out, and a new generation raised on tales of heroism in World War II has come of age, it would seem that increasing numbers of Russians are coming to the conclusion that Stalin, like Ivan before him, was just one of those rulers who had to do terrible things to achieve great things. In fact, if you really want to see a monument to Stalin you don’t need to wait; according to Der Spiegel there are already quite a few busts and statues knocking about — they just tend to be out of the way. A Stalin in mosaic form very nearly made it into the Cathedral of the Armed Forces, which was inaugurated last year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Included in the original plans for the interior dĂ©cor, he was ultimately dropped.

For now, however, Stalin lacks a grandiose monument. Perhaps he will never get one. But the truth is, Stalin began his long comeback during Glasnost, when the archives were opened; he returned with his victims. From that moment on it became impossible to keep him buried. And so, despite Krushchev’s best efforts, the old man’s back again — whether we like it or not.


Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

I tried playing Devil’s Advocate on this (quite a few years ago) with some young students who were convinced “genuine” Communism would solve all the ills of the world – if we could just gloss over its failure every time it has been attempted.
I took the deliberately provocative position of, ‘if only we could try real Fascism, and get it right this time, that would solve society’s problems too’. Naturally they hit back with â€œâ€Š but Hitler
” and ” 
 but the holocaust
” arguments, as they were absolutely right to do. Yet couldn’t see that if those examples negated any possible justification for Fascism then â€œâ€Š but Stalin
” and â€œâ€Š but the Gulags 
” should do the same for Communism.
Frankly, wearing a Che T-shirt or a Stalin badge in public should receive the same horrified response as sporting a swastika or SS symbol would.
But, as ever, the Left manages to absolve its ideology of its sins without ever admitting the double standard in their thinking.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Excellent comment, especially this:-
“Frankly, wearing a Che T-shirt or a Stalin badge in public should receive the same horrified response as sporting a swastika or SS symbol would.”
As a matter of fact, I sometimes wear my Che T-shirt in public. It bears the caption “communism killed 100 million, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

We live in a stagnant world. Globalization and technology have destroyed jobs and left much of the young generation without a meaningful future. Our betters (in the form of the so-called global elite) tell us we must cut back our lifestyle to conserve resources and fight global warming (the elite will not, however, be giving up their private jets). Young people in many developed countries are having kids at below the replacement rate for their population. That is one of the strongest signs of the despair, the refusal of life, that has seized so many younger people.
The concept of the nation state is now anathema and patriotism a sure sign you’re a conservative of the very worst kind. Future generations are expected to live in a sort of stateless, genderless, cultureless void where no one can say anything for fear of offending the most easily offended among us.
And young people aren’t buying it. Like generations before them they want to belong to their own culture and to be proud of that culture. They want to explore and build and create. They want to be part of something dynamic and growing
So they turn to history and people they perceive to be heroes who built their culture into something to be proud of. The young are looking for historical figures who reflect their own aspirations, and if some of those heroes also happened to have done terrible things, that can be forgiven or perhaps simply overlooked.
In the original Jurassic Park movie, one character explained how there was no way for the dinosaurs to escape their island. They had been genetically modified to require a particular dietary supplement and would die without it. Another character noted, however, that ‘life will find a way.’ Yes, if you deny young people a future they will find a way, perhaps a dark and destructive way, to create a meaningful life. And they’ll find role models to guide them.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

It’s not just young Russians either – I watch an Englishman on YouTube who speaks Russian and travels around the old USSR, having adventures, talking to the locals and searching for traces of the old empire (it’s called Bald and Bankrupt and well worth a watch btw).

Whenever he asks a person over 50 whether life better now or in the old Soviet days they invariably say it was better in the past. Obviously it is rose-tinted but it is such a common response that simple nostalgia for their youth can’t be the only reason. Occasionally he comes across shops and homes which still have portraits of old Joe up on the walls!

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Thank you Matt, I just had a look at the Bald and Bankrupt. I think I’m a fan.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Stalin’s rehabilitation was only a matter of time, given the fellow travelling tilt of global elite opinion. He only does more brutally what they are seeking to achieve through soft, continual coercion. That his means included genocide doesn’t seem to bother them much. Of course, one of the ways in which the global elite enforces its pro-communist tilt is by objecting to the use of notions like “genocide” in this context – he didn’t kill on racial grounds, but on the basis of class, so it’s “not the same”, which implies that it is somehow better, even justifiable.
To this we might say that being tortured to death is evil on any grounds; that the sheer numbers – conservatively estimated at 20 million civil victims – demand the condemnation “genocide” involves; that in transporting whole peoples from their homelands and in the process killing many, his attacks were “racial”, but it makes no difference. We are dealing with centrist cowardice, underpinned by granite faced fanatical leftism, which has patiently and stealthily regained its old dominance.
As to Russia, its ingrained chauvinist exceptionalism prevents many of its citizens from squaring up to the horrors of their past. Not for them a German style reckoning with totalitarian crime. Indeed, a Russian of my acquaintance – non-communist, as far as one can tell – explicitly denies any comparison between commissar and gauleiter, whereas the Poles and Hungarians I know have sombrely endorsed the parallel. Victims and even their descendants find it hard to discuss the abominations perpetrated upon them – a fact on which the neo-communist elite now capitalises.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

So there is hope for me then. Mind you I would rather be rehabilitated while I am still alive.
Where is Judy Englander? I get flippant in her absence.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham
Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago

With the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, perhaps guess-who will one day be rehabilitated. I hope to have left this world by then.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
2 years ago

A key point is that Stalin’s “repressions, executions and military blunders are well-known”; that places one limit on the extent to which he can be rehabilitated. Another limit is the Orthodox Church, busy reopening churches and declaring victims of Communism to be saints. It’s sadly ignorant that people try to credit Stalin with the victory in WWII, while ignoring how much he weakened the country before the German invasion (e.g. by purging the best generals). But there will be limits to his rehabilitation.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I cannot think of a national Persona as pronounced as Russian. That they are patriotic has been a given, they have so many years of hardship, and survive as Russians.

I thought of Paul Robeson reading this – the great American Black singer who felt as much Russian as American from the 1930s to the 1950s when America took his passport to stop him visiting. Russia can exert a cult like pull on people, something about it, the hardness and mystical, the vastness.

I think of the Volga Boatmen who lived that almost living death of man-hauling the boats up the river, the last place to go once you had hit the rock bottom – where food and necessities were barley adequate pay to keep one to haul another day, ‘Once more boys; and yet once more’

“Yo, heave ho! Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more.
As the barges float along,
To the sun we sing our song.
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
To the sun we sing our song.
Hey, hey, let’s heave a-long the way,
To the sun we sing our song.
Yo, heave ho! Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more.
Volga, Volga our pride,
Mighty stream so deep and wide.
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Mighty stream so deep and wide.
Volga, Volga you’re our pride.
Yo, heave ho! Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more.”

Sung by Paul Robeson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfsWoNpHg2s

such a feel of Russia…….. I always am moved…

(try playing Paul Robeson ‘Old Man River’, Showboat too…)

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Robeson is excellent
. but Boris Christoff’s ‘Volga Boatmen’ is vaster and more austere, IMHO

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I thought of the Volga Boatmen as kind of the archetypal Russian worker – brutal hard, but they can bear it, they have that quality to an amazing degree – you saw it in WWII beyond what any solider could do in any war, the hardship they withstood – it is a great deal of the national image – and the Volga Boatmen Song is very much revered in Russia for that exact reason.

Edit Szegedi
Edit Szegedi
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Now imagine these boatmen were prisoners of the Gulag.
In Romania there is a nostalgia for Ceausescu, even many women over 50 who lived in permanent fear of unwanted pregnancies and were submitted to monthly mandatory checkups by gynecologists (200 women and a single pair of rubber gloves) have fond memories of his regime.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago

There’s a lot of misunderstanding of the article in the comments. The rise in support for Stalin isn’t a pro communist position by the Russian young. It’s a nationalist position. He defeated the Germans.

The Russians have built a new cathedral for their armed forces just a few years ago. It’s a pretty formidable building.

There’s no rise of communist feeling, the communists are steady at 13% or so.

Say what you want but a country building statues to its past is more stable than a country deleting its history.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Interestingly enough, an American storyteller of the 19th-century, Edgar Allen Poe, wrote a story that was a prescient indicator of the Stalin phenom–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Seriously, though, we must acknowledge Stalin’s role in defeating the German demon. Thanks, Joe. I guess it took a demon to strangle a demon.
But that’s about as far as it goes. For more information, consult Solzhenitzyn.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

“…..the cause of any Russian fighting for hearth and house is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.” – Churchill
“If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” – Churchill
Let us also remember that Stalin’s pact with Hitler freed the latter (and the former) to invade Poland, which is what really started the war in Europe. And sadly, Poland was again the victim in 1945, when the devil collected his debt.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Whenever I encounter one of these children, I explain to them that for all practical purposes communists are fascists.

John Tyler
John Tyler
2 years ago

They’ve always loved a ‘strong leader’. 🙂