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.
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”
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.
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