Did "Stalin die only yesterday"?How can the bizarre Stalin cult, which is haunting the political culture of today's Russia, be curbed? Why are organizations as Memorial, which has been dealing for years with the reworking of the Stalinist past, unable to influence wider population strata and make a decisive contribution to the historical truth? The ninth conference in the "History of Stalinism" series, which took place in Saint Petersburg at the end of October 2016, also dealt with these issues. Although these conferences are jointly organizedby numerous institutions, including Memorial, the Moscow publishing house ROSSPEN (Russian Political Encyclopaedia), which launched this conference cycle eight years ago, plays a leading role. The book series of the publishing house, which also bears the title "History of Stalinism", and now contains about 160 volumes, is relentlessly devoted to the Stalinist past.



Writers as “Stalin`s deputies”


The thematic focus of the Conference was Stalin’sand the Stalinists’ ambivalent attitude towards culture and/or cultural figures, especially   writers. Some speakers pointed out that Stalin, in contrast to Lenin, who had been extremely suspicious of the intelligentsia, constantly struggled to involve the writers and artists in his system of domination. He was aware that above all, the writers, the "engineers of human souls," could propagate the ruling ideology with anespecial efficiency. Stalin`s calculation did work out, thinks historian Oleg Leibovich. Many writers would have felt, in a sense, like "Stalin's deputies", trying to guess the most secret wishes of the Kremlin ruler and to put them into practice.The speaker even spoke of a kind of "mystical connection" of some authors with the dictator.


Almost all great writers of the time had a kind of "love affair with Stalin," added the literary historian Konstantin Asadowski. They had repeatedly conducted conversations with the tyrant (often on the telephone), who became a literary connoisseur and gaveadvice to various well-known authors. Even such regime-critical writers as Mikhail Bulgakov or Boris Pasternak playedStalin’s game, according to Asadowski. He also added that not only Soviet writers, but also a few Western authors fell victims of Stalin`s art of seduction, mentioning Romain Rolland as an example.


The conference discussed the question  why the dictator, who died 63 years ago, is still at the center of many political debates in the country in a way as if he had died only yesterday? The study of the history of Stalinism has an extremely timely political relevance, noted the leader of the ROSSPEN publishing house Andrey Sorokin in this context at the beginning of the conference: “An intra-social consensus can only be found if the past can be scientifically processed.”



The “generation of the 20th Party Congress” during the Perestroika or the second attempt in the fight against the Stalinist heritage


Sorokin's theses show great similarities with statements alreadyheard about thirty years ago, at the height of Gorbachev's perestroika. Even then, it was assumed that liberation from the still unworked Stalinian heritage was probably the most important prerequisite for a "recovery" of society.


Perestroika's most determined advocates included those politicians and publicists, who took an active part in the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU, as well as in the reform process primarily led by Nikita Khrushchev and were later  neutralized in the course of Brezhnev's restoration.


Now the group, which had been disempowered, receiveda new chance. Their ideological and political ideas shaped the first phase of perestroika very strongly. The ease with which the ruling bureaucracy succeeded in halting the process of renewal and regaining lost groundafter the fall of Khrushchev in 1964 became a trauma for the “20th Party Congress Generation”. They interpreted this as Stalin's retarded revenge, and attributed the party bureaucrats' victory mainly to the fact that Khrushchev had not dared to shake the Stalinist structures, the so-called "Stalinist command system," which had emerged in the 1930s. They longed for the Leninist past, the early days of Bolshevism, in which the party, in their view, had not been a willing organ in the hands of the leadership, but an openly discussing community of like-minded people. Gorbachev himself, as a rule, fell into a gloomy tone when Lenin was mentioned: "The turn to Lenin ... has played an extremely stimulating role in the search for explanations and answers to the questions raised," he said, for example, in November 1987.



Lenin vs. Stalin?


Lenin, especially in his last years (after the introduction of the NEP - the New Economic Policy - in 1921) symbolized for the "generation of the 20th Party assembly” internal party democracy, the struggle against bureaucratic excesses – all of which was later strangled by the Stalin-createdapparatus. The liberation of society from the suffocating embrace of this apparatus was regarded by the reformers as one of the most important tasks of perestroika.


The advocates of the old order anticipated very early, certainly earlier than Gorbachev, which catastrophic consequences the loosening of existing power structures, the departure from the communist infallibility dogma, or the promotion of social self-initiative might have for the regime. Their resistance to the Gorbachev's course therefore steadily increased. The reformers put this resistance back on the still living Stalin heritage: “Stalin died only yesterday...”, wrote the Moscow-based historian Mikhail Gefter in mid-1988 in the multi-faceted anthology “There is no alternative to perestroika…”. But not only the bureaucratic apparatus stood in the way of the reformers. Many Stalinist patterns of behavior and thought were internalized not only by representatives of the power elite, but also by broad sections of the population. In this context, some authors spoke of naive “People's Stalinism.” The journalist Len Karpinski identified the causes of “People's Stalinism” in the middle of 1988 as the following: “This includes the sincere identification of Stalin with the ideals of socialism, …the nostalgia for one's own militant youth, and… (also) the need for protection, a paternal superior force that punishes vice, rewards virtue, and puts everything on the right place.”


In the opinion of the reformers, there was one means which was particularly well suited to combat the Stalin mythology, namely the truth about the crimes at that time - the whole truth and not a carefully dosed one. With this truth, however, those proponents of perestroika who wanted to fight Stalinism with the help of Lenin's ideas got into a great dilemma:this obsessionwithtruth in which the country was caught up, began to shake the might of Lenin’s monument. It gradually became apparent that a pluralistic and open society was hardly compatible with Lenin`s principles, as the disregard for the most elementary democratic rules was also part of Lenin's system. The return to Lenin would thus hardly have been associated with the hoped-for emancipatory effect. So, the Leninisteuphoriain the journalism of perestroikagradually diminished. The system of war communism created by Lenin during the Russian civil war was increasingly regarded as the immediate precursor of Stalin's command system.


When Gorbachev proclaimed during the Perestroika “We need democracy like air to breathe," he basically rang in the end of the communist system. For the democratic principle, which the Bolsheviks had banished from their state structures, had inevitably put an end to the Communist system programmed for complete control.



The myth of a "good tyrant"


But now back to the Petersburg Conference. The phenomenon of “People`s Stalinism”, which Len Karpinski portrayed so vividly in 1988, was also addressed several times in St. Petersburg. It was first done by the scientific head of the Russian State Archives (GARF) Sergei Mironenko. The fact that Stalin's political action is positively valued by many Russians leads Mironenko back to the country`s profound longing for political myths, not least for a myth of a “good tyrant” who governs the country with a strict hand and protects the state from internal and external dangers. Mironenko thus meant not only Stalin, but, for example, Tsar Ivan the Terrible, to whom a monument has been recently erected in the city of Oryol. Mironenko considers the fight against such myths as one of the most important tasks of this time.  In trying to demystify the so-called “Panfilov’s Men” myth, Mironenko has already taken personal attempts in this respect. It was a highly praised heroic act by the soldiers of the Panfilov Division, which in November 1941 allegedly delayed the advance of the Germans towards Moscow by their unprecedented self-sacrifice. Mironenko, however, was able to prove that this heroic act had in essence been invented by the journalists of the newspaper "Krasnaya Zvezda" ("Red Star") and thus provoked indignant reactions from some nationalistic-minded circles. Among his critics was also the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. No surprise that Mironenko had to resign as Director of the State Archives that he had headed since 1992. After his dismissal, Mironenko was appointed scientific director of the archive - so it was a “soft landing”.



Stalin vs Stolypin


And what about the attitude of the Kremlin leadership itself regarding the Stalin mythology spreading around the country? It is characterized by ambivalence. Thus, Vladimir Putin, as well as his successor and predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, have repeatedly severely condemned in recent years the Stalinian terror system. Symbolic for this was, for example, Putin`s participation in a memorial service on the shooting range in a Moscow suburb of Butovo, where thousands of people were shot in 1937-1938 (during the so-called "Great Terror"). This event took place on October 30, 2007, on the anniversary of the victims of political repressions. Two years later, Putin said in a television broadcast: All the positive things under Stalin (Putin meant, in the first place, the Soviet victory over the Third Reich) was paid with an unacceptable price. Such a method of governing the state is unacceptable: “Undoubtedly, in this epoch, we were dealing with mass crimes against our own people.”


Dmitry Medvedev also expressed similar thoughts.


On the other hand, Putin constantly criticizes an all-too-negative view of Russian history, and thinks that “schoolbooks have to arouse pride”.


The attitude of today's leadership to Stalin and Stalinism was also discussed during the conference. According to Andrei Sorokin, the government dissociates itself from Stalin. He did not represent its political model, but rather Pyotr Stolypin did. In this way the director of the publishing house meant the Prime Minister of Tsarist Russia (1906-1911), who attempted to curb the revolutionary or terrorist threat in his country by means of comprehensive reforms, especially in the agricultural sector, and a repressive policy. In September 1911, Stolypin fell victim to an assassination attempt. According to Sorokin, although Stolypin was an authoritarian statesman, his political style and that of Stalin are worlds apart.



Why did the Soviet Union win the war against the Third Reich?


The actual highlight of the meeting was the speech of the 97-year-old writer and veteran Daniil Granin from St.Petersburg. What Granin found particularly objectionable in Stalinism was its striving to destroy the individual personality with all its bright and dark sides: “I had no right to err, no right to be sad. Man was condemned to a collectivist existence in Stalinism. We still suffer from it today.”


How then could this society, which Stalinism robbed of its spontaneity and authenticity, still win the war? Granin cannot understand it to this day. The victory over Hitler's Germany represents a sort of miracle for the writer. Stalin and his assistants, who had boasted before the war that the Red Army was invincible, made such catastrophic mistakes that the defeat of the country was basically pre-determined. Why did the USSR manage to escape this almost inevitable fate and ultimately defeat Germany, despite devastating losses? It was not the political leadership, but primarily simple soldiers -both the fallen and those who survived the war - who made this “miracle” possible from the point of view of Granin.


Granin talked about a conversation he had conducted with Helmut Schmidt, during which he asked the German Ex-Chancellor why Germany had lost the Second World War. Schmidt declared that the Germans were defeated mainly by the entry of the USA into the war. Granin was surprised by this response from his interlocutor. He assumed that the fate of the war was primarily decided on the eastern front. And, as you know, he was not alone. Similarly, during the war some of the most important actors of the events at that time, not least Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who were aware that the Soviet Union carried out the main burden since the beginning of the German-Soviet war. For example, Churchill wrote the following in this context in April 1942: "(From) the development of the gigantic Russian-German struggle (everything depends)".



Originally published here.