Reconciling Stalin with Victory

За нас за вас и за десант и за спецназ! I would like to start off by expressing my deepest respects to the Red Army veterans who fought and died so that (literally) hundreds of millions of their Slavic brethren could live. Вечная слава героям!

Last year I discussed four myths about the Eastern Front, and Fedia Kriukov unraveled a fifth in the comments. This year, I’m going to comment on one of the most contradictory, even harrowing, debates in Russia. How to reconcile Stalin, the despotic Messiah, and Victory 1945, now emerging as the primary national myth consolidating the Russian nation-state. I don’t intend to resolve this debate (I don’t believe that’s even possible), but I do believe it is necessary for people on all sides – Westerners, ordinary Russians, Russian liberals, and Stalinists alike – to understand it a bit better. This is my humble hope in writing this.

First, the facts. Russians are not hardcore Stalinists. Neither is the Russian government. President Medvedev unequivocally condemned Stalin, saying there is “no justification for the repressions”, and spoke out against Moscow mayor Luzhkov’s initiative to publicly display a few Stalin posters (amongst thousands) during the Victory celebrations. He was backed in this sentiment by 51% of Russians, while only 12% fully supported Luzhkov. Today, most Russians are either conflicted on or indifferent to Stalin. Neither for, nor fully against. Ambiguous.

Many Westerners, sparing themselves from hard critical reflection, like to condemn Russians for their ambivalence towards Stalin. Wasn’t he a mass murderer who killed more Russians than Hitler? (This is a constant theme of anti-Stalin and general Russophobe propaganda). Quite apart from this being simply wrong according to all objective estimates, Russians themselves say they suffered far more under four years of the Nazi yoke than under twenty plus years of Stalinism*.

According to polls, 50% had a close relative die in the Great Patriotic War (33% – injured, 16% – missing in action). Only 14% say that nothing particularly bad happened to a close relative during the war. These answers are in line with the statistics on wartime demographic losses – some 27mn Soviet citizens died in that war (13mn Russian), of them 8.7mn soldiers (5.7mn Russian)**. That’s out of a total Soviet population of 197mn in June 1941.

In contrast, in response to the question, “Did anyone in your family suffer from the repressions shortly before or after the war?”, 22% of Russians said “yes”, while 63% said “no”. (Note that “suffer” does not imply death, since contrary to the popular anti-Soviet mythology most Gulag inmates survived). This also tallies with the hard statistics. During the entire 1921-53 period, some 4.1mn people were condemned for counter-revolutionary activities, of them 0.8mn to death and 1.1mn of whom died in camps and prisons. After adding the 3.5-5.0mn excess deaths from the collectivization famines, it is hard to see how Stalin could have been responsible for more than ten million deaths at the absolute maximum.

Russian man with Stalin portrait, May Day 2010 (h/t Sean Guillory).

Russian man with Stalin portrait, May Day 2010 (h/t Sean Guillory).

And before some ideological fanatic comes out with the cheap “You’re a filthy Stalinist!” card, I would note that it is quite possible to condemn Stalin on the basis of his real crimes, without resorting to neo-Goebbelsian propaganda about “62 million victims of the Red Plague” or “Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler” spread by the ideologue Rummel. If anything, such rhetoric actually encourages the rehabilitation of Stalinism. No, really. Scratch a Stalinist, and you reveal a can of understandable human emotions – pride, nostalgia, defiance. From Sean Guillory’s post on meeting a small, old KPRF man holding a Stalin portrait during the May Day protest a week ago:

But for a little old man holding a photo of Stalin? For him, the dictator means something wholly different.  There is certainly a large element of historical nostalgia embedded in Stalin’s portrait.  Stalin is mostly about the USSR’s victory over the Nazis and a time when Russia was a superpower… The Stalin posters also signify a longing for an imagined past of stability, predictability, and ironically, a paternal state that dealt a measure of social and economic justice… Lastly, Stalin is also defiance.  People carry posters of Stalin simply because others tell them they shouldn’t. Hoisting Stalin to the sun is about the current war over memory.  It’s about saying without hyperbole: This is my Stalin and he has nothing to do with yours.

In contrast to Russians’ conflicted views on Stalin, the Victory is unambiguous, unequivocal, absolute. The Victory that cost 26.6mn Soviet lives, but saved the Slavic world entire from a historyless future of deportations, slavery, and death. A Victory reverently regarded by all Russians with a profound, bittersweet pride. And not only by Russians. Despite Yuschenko’s five year anti-Russian campaign***, 87% of Ukrainians say they believe Victory Day belongs to all people, only slightly lower than 91% of Russians. In a very real sense, Victory isn’t just Russia’s national myth. It belongs to and unites all the peoples of the former Soviet Union.

But here we stumble across the central contradiction. This Victory was won under the supreme leadership of Generalissimo Stalin, the despotic Messiah who ruled Russians like the God of the Old Testament. This isn’t fawning hyperbole. The tendency to ascribe semi-divine or “natural force” characteristics to Stalin is actually rather common amongst Russians. I suspect that is because it’s the clearest way to resolve their radical ambiguity towards Him.

The Kremlin is faced with a dilemma in reconciling Stalin with Victory. Promoting the Victory isn’t only feelgood propaganda. It is very useful. It stokes the social cohesion that Russia needs to consolidate itself, and to actualize her shift towards sobornost’ (the catch-all term for a deep sense of internal peace and unity between races, religions, sexes, etc, within a society). It also creates powerful bonds with other peoples of the erstwhile USSR, buttressing the Kremlin’s drive to (re)gather the Russian lands. For this reason, under Putin, Russia has devoted lavish attention to the public spectacle of Victory. The Victory parades in Moscow become ever more impressive, – indeed, imperial – with every passing year. Under the initiative of Kremlin-affiliated youth movements, the Ribbon of Saint George was popularized as a symbol of Victory since 2005. This harkens back to the Medal For the Victory Over Germany, which was awarded after the war to all the soldiers, officers and partisans who directly participated in live combat actions against the European Axis. A medal dominated by Stalin’s visage.

This very symbology reveals the crux of the dilemma. Stalin. Not as man, but as avatar. The idea. The imagined past of sobornost’. A Golden Age in which the intelligentsia and old Bolsheviks; the corrupt bureaucrats and oligarchs; the Western idolizers and rootless cosmopolitans, were condemned, and extirpated. Above all, the singular emancipation of Victory. Even neglecting the moral dimension, all this opens a frightening, churning vistage that the Kremlin elites dare not approach. Nor is repudiating Stalin an option, for that would also mean repudiation of Russia’s national myth. And that is the surest path to ruin…

So the Kremlin’s position is neither the rose-hued nostalgia of the old Stalinist protester, nor the desaturated grey of the moral relativist. Not in thrall to kitsch, like the blogger behind the Stalin bus (for even discredited kitsch can resurrect itself if enough people begin to believe in it again). Nor the uniform shadows of the Russian liberals (since that is simply too depressing).

When called out to defend or condemn it, the Kremlin is forced by the tides of history and fate into a position of radical ambiguity towards the Stalinist project.

A turbulent world of clashing white and black, the very essence of Stalinist metapolitics. Ironically, the permanent contradiction of both Russians and the Kremlin towards the Stalinist legacy is also its most fitting epitaph, for that was its very essence. Slavoj Zizek on When the Party Commits Suicide:

Precisely as Marxists, we should then have no fear in acknowledging that the purges under Stalinism were in a way more “irrational” than the Fascist violence: paradoxically, this very excess is an unmistakable sign that, in contrast to Fascism, Stalinism was the case of a perverted authentic revolution… the “irrationality” of Nazism was “condensed” in anti-Semitism, in its belief in the Jewish plot, while the Stalinist “irrationality” pervaded the entire social body. For that reason, Nazi police investigators were still looking for proofs and traces of actual activity against the regime, while Stalinist investigators were engaged in clear and unambiguous fabrications (invented plots and sabotages, etc.).

However, this very violence inflicted by the Communist Power on its own members bears witness to the radical self-contradiction of the regime, i.e. to the fact that, at the origins of the regime, there was an “authentic” revolutionary project — incessant purges were necessary not only to erase the traces of the regime’s own origins, but also as a kind of “return of the repressed,” a reminder of the radical negativity at the heart of the regime. The Stalinist purges of high Party echelons relied on this fundamental betrayal: the accused were effectively guilty insofar as they, as the members of the new nomenklatura, betrayed the Revolution. The Stalinist terror is thus not simply the betrayal of the Revolution, i.e. the attempt to erase the traces of the authentic revolutionary past; it rather bears witness to a kind of “imp of perversity” which compels the post-revolutionary new order to (re)inscribe its betrayal of the Revolution within itself, to “reflect” it or “remark” it in the guise of arbitrary arrests and killings which threatened all members of the nomenklatura — as in psychoanalysis, the Stalinist confession of guilt conceals the true guilt… This inherent tension between the stability of the rule of the new nomenklatura and the perverted “return of the repressed” in the guise of the repeated purges of the ranks of the nomenklatura is at the very heart of the Stalinist phenomenon: purges are the very form in which the betrayed revolutionary heritage survives and haunts the regime. The dream of Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist presidential candidate in 1996 (things would have turned out OK in the Soviet Union if only Stalin had lived at least 5 years longer and accomplished his final project of having done with cosmopolitanism and bringing about the reconciliation between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church — in other words, if only Stalin had realized his anti-Semitic purge…), aims precisely at the point of pacification at which the revolutionary regime would finally get rid of its inherent tension and stabilize itself — the paradox, of course, is that in order to reach this stability, Stalin’s last purge, the planned “mother of all purges” which was to take place in the Summer of 1953 and was prevented by his death, would have to succeed. Here, then, perhaps, the classic Trotsky’s analysis of the Stalinist “Thermidor” is not fully adequate: the actual Thermidor happened only after Stalin’s death (or, rather, even after Khruschev’s fall), with the Brezhnev years of “stagnation,” when nomenklatura finally stabilized itself into a “new class.” Stalinism proper is rather the enigmatic “vanishing mediator” between the authentic Leninist revolutionary outburst and its Thermidor…

But some things are certain. Victory can never be fully disassociated from Stalin. And Stalin is far too complex a historical figure to be reduced to an ideological for/against binary. Of course, by now I’m only repeating myself…

* Of course, there are some Russian families – and relatively more Ukrainian and national minority families – who did suffer more from Stalinist policies than under Nazism. That is because Stalin’s repressions tended to target particular social groups and families, such as former nobles or wealthy farmers. Their descendants tend to remember Stalin with much greater distaste than “normal Russians”, for whom just keeping your head down more or less nullified their chances of being repressed. Though even here, a qualification is necessary. On hearing of Stalin’s death, there were reports of even the Gulag inmates weeping. The contradictions, confusions, warping, psychoses, call them what you will, of Stalinism – they have always been there with us.

** Not directly related to this year’s topic, but I do want to recall one of the myths I covered last year on the GPW, the (Western) myth that the “Russians” lost five or ten or whatever soldier for every heroic Aryan. In reality, the ratio of Soviet to Axis losses on the Eastern Front was 1.3:1.

*** From the same article – the Ukrainian Minister of Education also said that Ukrainian textbooks will again refer to the “Great Patriotic War”, reverting back from Yuschenko’s ideological campaign to call it just the “Second World War”.

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