The Magazine

The Great Man Theory of History

Russian style.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By CATHY YOUNG
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No less depressing is the fact that the historical figures associated with Russia's frail tradition of liberty fared quite badly in the "greatest Russian" vote. In the semifinals, the physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov received about 275,000 votes, dwarfed by Stalin's more than a million. In the final round, the most "liberal" of the candidates--Tsar Alexander II, who abolished serfdom and made the first attempt at broad liberal reforms in Russia--came last.

While the "greatest Russian" vote was in no way scientific, serious polls have found that about half of Russians view Stalin's role in history as mostly positive (though fewer than one in ten say the terror was justified). He is widely credited with defeating Nazi Germany in World War II, one of Russia's few genuine achievements in the 20th century--even though Russia's horrific losses in the war can be blamed largely on Stalin's failure to prepare for the German invasion and his prewar purges, which decimated the officer corps. Many Russians also see Stalin as the man who turned the Russian state into a leviathan feared around the world--even if it was equally feared by Russians themselves.

In today's Russia, plainly, the Stalin legacy is ambiguous. Stalinism and its crimes stand officially condemned; in July, Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to lay a wreath at a memorial to Stalin's victims. Yet at the same time, there is a strong trend in official propaganda, from the media to history textbooks, to treat Stalinism as a mix of bad and good: terror on one side, industrialization and the victory in World War II on the other.

The growth of Stalin's popularity has been partly a response to the economic and social chaos of the 1990s. But in the Putin era, state propaganda is feeding the trend--emphasizing Russia's greatness and imperial power and cultivating the image of "Fortress Russia" surrounded by enemies, while downplaying the idea, embraced under Yeltsin, that the totalitarian Soviet past should be rejected as evil. The semi-exoneration of Stalin was evident, for instance, in June when the national NTV channel aired the program Who Was 'Asleep at the Wheel' at the Start of the War?, challenging the notion of Stalin's responsibility and presenting him as a wise leader whose decisions were undercut by feckless underlings.

In early December, Russia hosted its first-ever scholarly conference on Stalinism, which drew both Russian scholars and Western historians such as Hélène Carrère d'Encausse. Such an event, supported by official institutions, could be seen as a positive step. Yet the conference also generated some disturbing news. According to a report by Nikita Sokolov on Grani.ru, the panelists included two high-ranking Russian academics who acted as near-apologists of Stalin. One observed that many Roman emperors also did evil things but nonetheless built a great empire; the other noted that Stalin's nationalities policy resulted in the survival of virtually every small ethnic group in the Soviet Union, in contrast to the near-extinction of Native Americans in the United States. The Russian minister of education defended a textbook that whitewashes Stalin on the ground that it meets demand from both instructors and students.

For that matter, even if the organizers of the "greatest Russian" project were eager to distance themselves from their bronze-medal winner, there were signs that officialdom was not entirely displeased with Stalin's success in the vote. The series' segment on Stalin was introduced by Mikhalkov, who noted that the very fact of a public debate on Stalin was "a victory for society"--presumably an improvement on unambiguous condemnation--and then spoke of Stalin's "magic" and the reverence he inspired.

The day after the results of the vote were announced, the pro-government paper Izvestia ran a "pro and con" feature on Stalin's third-place finish. For the "pro" side, the newspaper's deputy editor in chief, Elena Yampolskaya, argued that, awful though the late tyrant may have been, the vote was not an endorsement of "blood, paranoia, and barbarism," but a rejection of liberalism, political correctness, and consumerism and an embrace of "victory, power, indifference to monetary gain, statecraft, and imperial ambition (a phrase that is, at last, no longer considered pejorative)."