With the 60th anniversary Victory Day celebrations set for May 9, the architect of perestroika and a leading historian of that period have spoken out against what they both see as the rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin.
There are ample signs that something like a rehabilitation of the Soviet dictator is underway. Kaliningrad, for example, has put a bas-relief of Stalin’s visage back on a memorial to Soviet soldiers who died in the war against Nazi Germany. The bas-relief was removed from the memorial at the beginning of the 1960s, but Regnum reported on May 5 that it was restored at the request of local veterans of the Great Patriotic War — as World War II is known in Russia — who had appealed to Kaliningrad Governor Vladimir Egorov. Legislators in the city of Oryol have called for building monuments and renaming streets in Stalin’s honor, and the city of Volgograd is planning to erect a statue by the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli depicting the Soviet dictator along with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Volgograd Oblast Governor Nikolai Maksyuta recently came out in favor of changing the name of Volgograd back to its old name of Stalingrad. Maksyuta also said he had no problem with efforts to resurrect statues and busts of Stalin, saying that he did not see this as an attempt to resurrect Stalin, adding that he “did a lot for the victory” over Germany (Interfax, May 3).
In an interview with Novaya gazeta published on May 5, Alexander Yakovlev, the one-time Politburo member and the brains behind Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform program, said he could not recall a more “blasphemous campaign” than the current efforts to rehabilitate the Soviet dictator. Stalin, he noted, “personally signed…execution lists containing 44,000 people — without knowing them, without reading the materials in their case files. That’s just personally, not including those millions who were destroyed as a result of his policies. How is it possible to elevate a person who personally killed 44,000 people?” In a separate interview with Interfax, Yakovlev estimated that more than 30 million Soviet citizens died in World War II — rather than over 20 million, as current estimates put the figure — and that a significant portion of those deaths were the result of “the talentless leadership” of Stalin, “who destroyed people for sake of taking this or that city earlier than the Americans or British” (Interfax, May 5).
Yuri Afanasyev, the historian who during the Gorbachev era played a major role in correcting Soviet historiography, discussed the issue at a conference on perestroika held on April 27. “Attempts are being made to ratify an official or semi-official history of Russia,” he said. “It is history like in the Stalin period — falsified, tendentious, ideologized. They are trying to put up statues to Stalin, the rehabilitation of Stalin is taking place…We are now being invited to return exactly to the Stalin epoch, interpreting many facts of history the way Stalin interpreted them.” Afanasyev cited the example of the 1939 non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. “The war began for the Soviet Union with participation in the struggle against Europe on the side of Hitlerite Germany,” he said. “But try to find that in our textbooks” (newsru.com, April 27).
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin made uncharacteristically critical comments about the late Soviet dictator. In an interview that the German newspaper Bild conducted jointly with Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the two leaders were asked how they felt about the fact that one’s father had fought for Stalin’s Soviet Union and the other’s for Hitler’s Germany. “I can’t understand you equating Stalin and Hitler,” Putin answered. “It goes without saying that Stalin was a tyrant, whom many call a criminal. But he wasn’t a Nazi” (Associated Press, May 5). In addition, Itar-Tass on May 5 quoted Putin as saying, without mentioning Stalin by name, that Russia, its people, and society “were viable in 1941, in spite of all the attempts by the regime at the time to destroy this viability through repression.”
These comments reverse Putin’s previous statements on Stalin. Last year, Putin ordered that the name “Stalingrad” should replace the name “Volgograd” on a plaque commemorating the 1943 battle and located near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. In May 2000, Putin authorized Russia’s Central Bank to issue 500 special silver coins bearing Stalin’s portrait and several days later unveiled a plaque honoring Stalin for his “heroic” leadership in war. In 2002, Putin told Polish reporters that though Stalin was a dictator, “It would be silly to ignore” the fact that he led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II (Washington Post, September 24, 2002).
Putin’s willingness to describe Stalin in somewhat harsher terms than before may indicate that the Kremlin fears a potential backlash both at home and abroad if official praise for the Soviet dictator goes too far. A poll conducted by the independent Levada Analytical Center, for example, found that 53% of Russians oppose erecting a monument to Stalin and just 34% support it (RIA-Novosti, May 5). In addition, Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Alexander Khloponin came out against putting up a Stalin bust in the city of Krasnoyarsk. Khloponin said that there was no “genocide” in Russia worse than what took place under Stalin, but added that Stalin’s role in World War II should not be “undervalued” (Interfax, May 5).
But while Putin may now be referring to Stalin as a “tyrant,” he appears unwilling to denounce key aspects of the Stalinist version of history. Asked in an interview with German television channels on May 4 about demands that he apologize for the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, Putin said the Soviet authorities had already done so back in 1989. “I think that some forces are trying to speculate on these problems for their own internal political reasons in order to solve their current internal political tasks,” he said. “The only thing that we keep hearing all the time is that our country should recognize the unlawfulness of those decisions and condemn them. Should we do it every day, every year?” (Itar-Tass, May 5). Yet only a day after Putin’s interview with German television, his ambassador to the European Union, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, actually denied that there was a Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. “There was no occupation,” Yastrzhembsky told reporters. “There were agreements at the time with the legitimately elected authorities in the Baltic countries” (Agence France-Presse, May 5).