Why is Stalin still "alive"?
By Leni Friedman Valenta
Monday, November 16“Is it true,” I asked our cab driver, that a quarter of the former Soviet people admire Stalin?“ “Yes,” he said. “ Stalin won the war. He was a strong leader.” Unasked, he added, “Many people feel things were better under the USSR although there’s no going back now.” I said nothing. On the way to Gori last August my husband and I looked forward to further enlightenments at the Stalin Museum in the dictator’s birthplace.
The singular deficiency of this museum is, of course, world renowned -- zero exhibits on the major crimes of history’s worst mass murderer. True, there is Lenin’s letter describing Stalin’s unfitness to be General Secretary due to his rude, undiplomatic nature. In the gift shop, a female “Red soldier” was selling Stalin T shirts. The tour’s finale was Stalin’s death mask set like on icon in a solitary circle.
To an American this is shocking. These days, Americans only debate whether Hitler or Stalin was worse.. I asked our guide, “Why do so many Georgians revere a bloody dictator?” “It’s mainly the older folks,” she said. “The young don’t know much about either Stalin or Lenin.” (We also heard this from guides at Stalin‘s Sochi dacha and Yerevan‘s military museum). “Sometimes it’s necessary for a strong leader to take harsh measures to bring about the best results,” she adde.
Her comments reflected recent Russian polls which also show that views of Stalin became ‘’far rosier’’ under Putin. But her basic view that the “ends justify the means” is Soviet-speak, only furthering the nostalgic myth, seemingly shared by Vladimir Putin, that the dictator’s “ends”, largely benefited the empire’s people. They did not! Neither his terrifying police state with its arrests and torture of ordinary citizens, nor his introduction of a centralized, planned economy, nor the empire’s huge allocations to the military-industrial Moloch at the expense of agriculture, helped the Soviet people. It only starved them. Today’s generation has either forgotten or never knew that Mikhail Gorbachev launched economic reforms because by 1985 the USSR, still basically anchored in the Stalinist system, was falling into an economic abyss. Thereafter, in the maelstrom of transition, Yeltsin’s attempted democratic revolution was gradually reversed .
As for Stalin “winning the Great Patriotic War” few would deny the massive contribution of the Soviet people, or Stalin’s able stewardship. However, Stalin, in complicity with Hitler, also helped to start the war by parsing and masticating Poland and the Baltics with the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Imagination also blows a fuse, attempting to contemplate the new world order, had the Hitler-Stalin alliance remained intact!
Yet many Russians do abhor Stalin -- among them President Dmitri Medvedev. In a recent video blog of a holiday devoted to victims of repression, he deplored both the ignorance of the young and the efforts of revisionist historians and museums to gloss over Stalin’s crimes. Unfortunately, his welcome tropism towards pluralistic democracy and economic reform is overshadowed in the uneasy dual power arrangement with Putin.
The Stalin museum should follow Medvedev’s lead by exposing the rivers of blood that Stalin spilled. I have some starter suggestions for new exhibits -- and perhaps some intrepid Georgian history teachers can assign such topics to their students: The forced confessions, show trials and destruction of Stalin’s closest colleagues and rivals. The recreation of serfdom through forced collectivization. The 18 million people Stalin sent to the gulags. The bombing of the village communes and wholesale starving of the peasant class. The destruction of the Cossacks. The deportation of various ethnic groups to Siberia in freezing cattle cars. The hideous “Doctor’s Plot” and planned pogrom of the Jews days before his death. As a Jew myself, may I suggest new museum T-shirts bearing an X’d out Stalin portrait with the holocaust slogan, “Never forget.”
While visiting Gori, we interviewed residents bombed in the ‘08 war with Ossetia during the latest eruption of Russia’s imperial disease. Amidst their tales of helicopters, bombs, tanks, deaths, destroyed homes and looted stores, we noted that the enormous statue of Gori’s gory dictator was still standing in Stalin Square. I was reminded that Russia’s 1988-91 democratic movement was once largely powered by ‘Memorial,’ an organization devoted to Stalin’s victims. Is it possible Mr. Medvedev remembers too?
Author Leni Valenta is the CEO of JV&LV, an institute devoted to post-communist studies. The institute’s website is JVLV.net