What Russians think about Stalin
Moscow history teacher Stephan Bochkarev often recalls a lesson he taught his students several years ago. It was a lesson about Joseph Stalin that he happened to be teaching on the day the director of his school decided to observe his class.
“I went strictly by the book, talking about the repression, when the director interrupted me and stopped the lesson,” he recalled. “She really did not like the fact that Stalin was presented in a negative light.” Bochkarev, who now works for a private school in Moscow, said his lesson caused a scandal at the school and he subsequently resigned.
The percentage of Russians with a positive attitude toward the Soviet leader is 30 percent today, according to a Levada Center study. Sixty years after Stalin’s death, he is still cursed, worshipped, and monetized in Russia. Communist Party members march under his image and tourists get their photos taken with Stalin look-alikes on the pedestrian streets. Yet what happened to Bochkarev is becoming less common—and less acceptable.
Asked whether they would like to live under Stalin now, only 3 percent said yes.
The perception outside Russia is that society is split into Stalinists and anti-Stalinists. But this is outdated, according to sociologists. A majority of Russians, 60 percent in fact, have two seemingly incompatible images of Stalin in their minds: the cruel tyrant who murdered millions of people and the wise statesman who led the Soviet Union to prosperity.
In the West, Stalin is best remembered for his forced collectivization of farming, which led to famine and millions of deaths, and the Great Terror, during which thousands were executed and millions more sent to the Gulag for long terms of slave labor. In Russia, his memory is more complex. For some, he is inextricable from the victory over fascism.
In Russian society, there is no rational understanding of Stalin’s role, said Boris Dubin, head of sociopolitical research at Moscow’s Levada Center. Any focus on the achievements of the U.S.S.R. under Stalin is interpreted as an attempt to justify his crimes, while putting the emphasis on the terror of his crimes upsets Russians who want to be proud of their past.
This duality can be seen in today’s classrooms, where opinions are changing slowly, even if history textbooks published in the last few years tend to ignore Stalin’s crimes.
“From my nearly 15 years of teaching, I have the impression that Stalin is the central figure in Russian history of the 20th century in the eyes of the vast majority of students,” Bochkarev said. “And, often, this image basks in an aura of heroic grandeur.”
At the request of RBTH, Bochkarev asked his students to write essays about Stalin to express their thoughts. He requested that RBTH use first names only.
“I think that Stalin’s terror will be imprinted on people’s minds for a long time,” said student Eugene. “And even now you can hear its echo in the position ‘I do not care about what does not concern me directly.’ Stalin is often spoken about in a half-bad, half-good light.”
When discussing Stalin’s popularity, sociologists refer to the “Stalin myth,” which reflects more of a generic heroic symbol of the Soviet people rather than a specific historical figure, Dubin said.