The independent pollster Levada Tsentr regularly tests Russians’ attitudes toward former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and it recently published a report showing that love, admiration and respect for Stalin is now the highest it has been since 2000. Some 70 percent of Russians currently see Stalin in a positive light, expressing love and admiration for him, while only 19 percent express negative feelings. Some 20 years ago, the Russian populace was split more or less evenly between those who liked or disliked Stalin. The drastic change in opinion began to manifest itself after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the accelerating confrontation with the West. Indeed, the number of those undecided and Stalin-haters began to decrease dramatically, while the number of Stalin-lovers increased within all age groups of the Russian populace, including young people who were born amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union or soon after. Furthermore, today, Russians are split in half when it comes to Stalinist mass repressions, with 45 percent believing that the killing of millions was deplorable and 46 percent (the latter number growing every year) considering the mass murder and Gulag labor camps necessary to bolster Russia’s strength (Levada.ru, April 16).
Modern Russian state propaganda has for years been promoting Stalin as the main organizer of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. And this victory is projected with more and more vigor as the defining moment of Russian state history and a popular focal point uniting all loyal citizens around the flag; consequently, annual celebrations of the Great Patriotic War become more and more lavish. In 1944, Soviet tanks marched westward into Europe, rolling back the Nazis and other Axis powers. At present, this Soviet triumphalism is replayed with vigor as the Russian state seeks to relive what the Kremlin views as its greatest moments in the run up to the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, coming in 2020 (see EDM, April 11).
The official cult of victory surrounding the Great Patriotic War has additionally promoted a Stalin adoration cult, which has apparently embarrassed Russia’s current supreme leader, President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Putin has been quite reluctant to allow a full Stalin rehabilitation and the rebuilding of his monuments nationwide. Putin has insisted that Stalin is a “complicated” historical character, who made Russia great again and stood up to the West, but also organized the mass murder of millions of Russians and non-Russians. The situation is further complicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, an important Putin supporter with extensive influence in the Kremlin. Top clergy close to Moscow Patriarch Kirill have, in recent years, denounced Russian admirers of Stalin and protested local attempts to rebuild monuments to this Soviet dictator, whom they characterize as a “bandit and murderer” (Newsru.com, April 16).
Still, the rise of popular Stalinism is changing the official narrative. In an address to a joint session of the United States Congress, on April 3, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg argued the need to further increase Western defense spending, enhance NATO deterrence capabilities and be ready to fight if deterrence fails. He proclaimed, “[Adolf] Hitler could not have been stopped with peaceful protest. Stalin could not have been deterred with words. ISIS [Islamic State] could not have been defeated with dialogue.” Stoltenberg’s rhetoric was angrily denounced in Moscow by the Russian foreign ministry as Russophobic. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, Stoltenberg “insulted” Stalin by comparing him to Hitler and the Islamic State. “Many Norwegians are today ashamed of Stoltenberg [a former Norwegian prime minister],” Grushko insisted, “because the Red Army liberated Norway [partially] from the Nazis” (RIA Novosti, April 4).
Grushko was the permanent representative of Russia to NATO from 2012 to 2018. He was recalled to Moscow in January 2018, and no one has since been appointed to replace him. As Grushko stated in a recent interview with the state-run news agency RIA Novosti, all lines of communications between Moscow and NATO, both military and diplomatic, have been effectively severed. Liaison missions (a NATO one in Moscow, attached to the Belgian embassy, and a Russian one in Brussels, accredited to NATO headquarters) still formally exist but are apparently dysfunctional. According to Grushko, Moscow has diplomatic and military-to-military contact with “some NATO countries” but not with the North Atlantic Alliance itself. Grushko blamed NATO for this breakup. The years he spent in Brussels facing a diplomatic stone wall and stonewalling himself (especially after 2014, when ties were cut because of Crimea and fighting in Donbas), have left the former permanent representative angry and frustrated. Grushko further claimed that after the disappointment of the joint engagement with the US in Afghanistan, NATO officials and their “American masters” decided to reinvigorate a nonexistent Russian threat to give the Alliance a common enemy to rally around. The deputy foreign minister repeated the old Stalinist mantra about Russia being a peace-loving nation that never attacks anyone, but must constantly defend against foreign aggression. As proof, he pointed to NATO (and the US) actively deploying forces closer to Russian borders, in the Baltic and Black Seas.
Since Russia’s armed invasion of Ukraine, NATO countries have, in fact, increased their combined defense budgets by some $100 billion per year, which is much more than Moscow could possibly muster. But Grushko alleged that European NATO members are being forced by US President Donald Trump to spend more on defense and buy US-made weapons, while neglecting social spending. Russia in turn will use its limited resources wisely, in avoiding a costly arms race, he stressed (RIA Novosti, April 15).
Meanwhile, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, recently lamented the lack of contact with Russian counterparts and reiterated that even during the Cold War, there was more understanding and predictability (Militarynews.ru, April 14). According to Grushko, a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia would be a “catastrophe for all of mankind, and we hope that is understood in Washington and Brussels. But unpredictable incidents, unintentional escalations and falsely understood intentions are a mounting risk that must be addressed” (RIA Novosti, April 15).
An increasingly Stalinist Russia is not just an adversary in realpolitik terms—its differences with the West look progressively more existential and ideological. To avoid a possible escalation of existing tensions into possible future “incidents” or an all-European war, it will be imperative for Western leaders to be able to parley with a neo-Stalinist Moscow. During the Stalinist period of the Cold War, however, such dialogue was never predictable or ultimately effective.