Russia’s Unpredictable Past

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with military officers after the Victory Day parade at Red Square in downtown Moscow on May 9. (ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

The Putin Government’s Campaign to Re-Interpret Stalin and Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact

“The future is certain; it is only the past which is unpredictable,” goes a Russian joke conceived in the Soviet era.

On September 1, world leaders gathered in Warsaw to mark 80 years since the Nazi invasion of Poland and the beginning of the Second World War, an event with a relatively consistent narrative in the West. One prominent leader who was not invited was Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Political prisoners in a Stalin-era Gulag. (Europeana)

Around the same time as the commemoration in Warsaw, the Russian foreign ministry released a three-and-a-half-minute video via its social media networks about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, with the introduction that, “One may have varying opinions on Soviet policy during the initial period of World War II, but it is impossible to deny the fact that it was the Soviet Union that uprooted Nazism, liberated Europe and saved European democracy.”

The suggestion that the Stalin-era Red Army, which after its victory over Germany dropped the “iron curtain” across Eastern Europe, is the force that “saved European democracy” sounds odd enough to Western-educated ears. The clip itself takes much bolder, or at least more creative, steps.

The “treaty of non-aggression” signed between the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, is commonly viewed as a deal between Stalin and Hitler that paved the way for them to simultaneously expand their boarders. A week after it was signed, Nazi forces invaded Poland from the west, and two weeks after that, the Soviet Union did the same from the east. Over the next year, as country after country fell to the Nazis, the Red army took control of the Baltic States and parts of Romania and attempted an invasion of Finland.

Yet the picture of a covenant between two expansionist and ruthless dictators is hardly the message that one would get from the Kremlin’s most recent version of it.

Against the backdrop of jerky techno-style music, an American-accented narrator opens his discussion of the treaty, calling it a “difficult decision that was forced upon the Soviet Union,” one that gave the country “additional time to mobilize forces and move its borders eastward,” ostensibly to plan for an inevitable war with Hitler.

The narrator goes on to describe the Soviet Union’s constant efforts to forge an alliance with Great Britain and France to fight Germany prior to the pact, visually represented by a quasi-cartoon paper cutout of Stalin sitting and waiting for a response to his generous offer.

However, says the clip, those countries opted to “avoid war, by directing fascism to the east,” that is, hoping a Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union would force Stalin into war against Hitler, the suggested covert motivation behind British and French appeasement.

Even in the face of such great odds, the Soviet Union offered to “help” defend Poland earlier in the summer of 1939, but “Poland hindered negotiations…reluctant to let the Red Army through her territory.” This benevolent offer no doubt would be viewed by most Westerners, and certainly Poles, as declining an option for Soviet invasion.

Whether one finds such a narrative amusing or shocking, it reveals a larger effort on behalf of Putin’s regime to reframe elements of its Soviet past. This campaign is not solely focused on the events of World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, but extends to the image of the man who led the USSR to victory, Josef Stalin.

Generally reviled in the West as the paranoid Machiavellian leader whose policies led to the murder and imprisonment of millions of Soviet citizens, through the Kremlin’s valiant efforts, Stalin’s image has been steadily improving in Russia, where a recent poll showed that some 70% saw him in a positive light.

While some Putin-era foreign policies, like support for Iran and Syria, might rile the West, at least self-interest as its motivation is understood. Yet why Putin, a self-styled revivalist of the Russian Empire who rejects Communism, should choose Stalin as one of his regime’s heroes requires a great deal more nuance to grasp.

The Ever-Changing Past

L-R: German Nazi Foreign Minister Joachimv von Ribbentrop; German Under-State Secretary Friedrich Gaus; Marshall Joseph Stalin. To the far right is Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, August 23, 1939, in Moscow after signing the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact. (OFF/AFP/Getty Images)

The Kremlin’s attitude towards Stalin or his prewar deal-making is not a straight line. In the waning days of the USSR in 1989, the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies formally condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and for more than a decade afterwards, Russia’s normative attitude towards it was more or less in line with that of the West. Yet by 2015, amid celebrations of the 70 years since the end of World War II, Russia’s culture minister Vladimir Medinsky referred to the treaty as “a great achievement of Soviet diplomacy.”

As early as the mid-1950s, then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev initiated a process of “de-Stalinization,” which sought to undo repressive laws and political prison systems, as well as trappings of what was labeled Stalin’s self-made “cult of personality.” After the fall of the Soviet Union, the movement to repudiate Stalin grew, and wide efforts were made to memorialize his victims. That effort has continued, and in 2017, President Putin himself participated in the unveiling of the “Wall of Grief,” a monument in central Moscow to victims of Stalinist political persecution.

At the same time, brave-looking images of Stalin have become increasingly common at Russian celebrations of “Victory Day.” Known in the West as V-E day, May 9, the day the Nazis surrendered in Russia, remains a major national event, marked by mass military parades and displays of patriotism.

This past May, a large metal bust of Stalin was unveiled in Novosibirsk, the largest city in the Asian section of Russia.

Putin himself has at times praised Stalin as an “effective manager.” In an interview for American media recorded two years ago, he cautioned against “forgetting the horrors of Stalinism,” but compared him to such checkered nation-builders as Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon, and called him “a product of his time.” In the same conversation, Putin added that “excessively demonizing Stalin is a means to attack Soviet Union and Russia.”

Jeffrey Mankoff, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, described Putin’s attitude towards Stalin as “complicated.”

“For most in the West, Stalinism is about totalitarianism and mass murder,” he told Hamodia. “Russians, including the government, don’t deny that; they aren’t saying it didn’t happen. What they are saying is, ‘Let’s look at the big picture. Stalin industrialized the Soviet Union and developed its capacity to resist and emerge from the war as a great power.’ They want you to focus on that rather than the gulag.”

Professor Peter Rutland, who teaches Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Wesleyan University, pointed to the 2000 switch of Russia’s national anthem as an early sign of a shift in the country’s attitude towards its Soviet past.

In 1991, after the disintegration of the USSR, President Boris Yeltsin scrapped the country’s Stalinist-era anthem and inaugurated a new one. Yet, in 2000, amid a wave of nostalgia, Putin reintroduced the old tune and commissioned Sergey Mikhalkov, who authored the original words chosen by Stalin in 1943 and was then still living, to write new lyrics.

“There was a gradual revival of Soviet symbolism, and it’s been increasing over time along with a greater focus on World War II and Soviet victory,” Professor Rutland told Hamodia.

Going beyond promoting a positive narrative of Soviet-era patriotism, Professor Rutland pointed to the Kremlin’s actions against Russian non-profits seeking to spread awareness of Stalinist terror and to pay homage to its victims. In particular, a Moscow-based organization known as Memorial – which in addition to its efforts to remember the horrors of Stalinism also advocates on broader human rights concerns – has fallen under particular scrutiny.

A “Last Address” plaque which reads: “Here lived Yekaterina Mikhailovna Zhelvatykh, typist, born in 1905, arrested 11/01/1938, executed 4/05/1938, rehabilitated in 1957.” (Mlarisa)

“There’s been a rolling back of efforts of groups like Memorial,” he said. “Russia is not North Korea, and it’s not China either, so these organizations are able to exist, but they’re getting encroached upon with tax inspections and trumped-up charges against their activists; over time they definitely feel the screws being tightened on them.”

Another organization, the Last Address project, which installs small plaques at the last-known homes of those who perished under Stalinist oppression, has taken a less political stance and has not faced significant government pushback, but Dr. Mankoff added that its efforts and similar ones are not being promoted either.

“The story around Stalin has changed,” said Dr. Mankoff. “Russia opened up its archives and was building memorials to [Stalin’s] victims, but that’s stopped right now.”

Getting the Red out of Stalin

A man arrives to lay flowers at the Wall of Grief, a memorial dedicated to the victims of political oppression, in central Moscow on October 30, 2018. (YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Much of Putin’s nearly-two-decade reign has been defined by attempts to restore Russia to what his supporters see as its former glory. One aspect that is in line with Soviet-era attitudes, is the promotion Russia as an ideological opponent of the West. Only now, in a shift that carries with it a healthy dose of irony, that does not mean atheism and socialism, but a Russia steeped in faith and tradition against an immoral heathen America and Western Europe.

This movement has been marked by increased power and funding for the Russian Orthodox Church and the promotion of Imperial-era images and heroes.

Against such a backdrop, Stalin – the Bolshevik revolutionary whose brutal tactics were at least under the guise of ushering in an era of Communist utopia – seems an unlikely hero in Putin’s Russia.

Stephen Sestanovich, the senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, said that Stalin’s addition to the eclectic mix of Putin-era icons is rooted in the dictator’s wartime success.

“With his back to the wall, Stalin relied on Russian patriotism to save the Soviet system and – this is the crucial point – he won. There’s a lot in tsarism that Putin likes to appeal to, but the Tsar lost the First World War. Stalin won the Second, and that’s important to Putin,” he told Hamodia.

In the immediate post-war era, and increasingly under Putin, Soviet victory in the Second World War plays a central part in showcasing Russia’s military might and rallying patriotism.

“There’s no ambiguity that Stalin led the Soviet Union to victory, so if Putin wants to pick World War II as the focal point of Russian identity, he can’t do that without Stalin,” said Professor Rutland.

Professor Rutland added that in many ways Putin’s beatification of Stalin is a result of his own personal experience. His older brother died as a baby as result of the deprivations suffered during the siege of Leningrad, and his own coming of age occurred during the Brezhnev-era, when Stalin’s modernization of the USSR was praised and his crimes were largely ignored.

Dr. Mankoff said that the Kremlin’s efforts to rehabilitate Stalin speak to a broader goal of reframing the Soviet era and building national unity.

“The government’s emphasis now is on rallying the country behind a common narrative of the past, emphasizing Russia as a pillar of the international system. Whoever contributed to making Russia great is supported, and whoever diminished that state are minimized,” he said. “On the former list you have Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great and Stalin, and on the latter you now have Lenin and Gorbachev.”

Many observers comment that Putin’s actions seem to be led by a concerted effort to add his name to the first list, pointing to his government’s expansionist military incursions; Chechnya in 1999, Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014.

While in the decade after the Soviet Union’s fall, Russia sought to divorce itself from the Communist period, Putin, Dr. Mankoff said, has worked to reverse this trend, promoting a linear story of Russian nationalism where ideology is minimalized.

“It’s no longer about who was on the right or wrong side of history. The new narrative is that the struggle between the Reds and the Whites was a tragedy that destroyed the country, and there were good people on both sides, and then Stalin came and brought the country together again,” he said. “They are trying to make Stalin from a Bolshevik to a Russian nationalist. Their message is that the Soviet Union was another name for the Russian Empire and that Stalin was a great empire builder.”

A Reckoning

March 10, 1953. Pro-Stalin parade in Dresden, Germany. (Deutsches Bundesarchi)

Just as the horrors of Stalinism are well documented and in the West take center stage in his biography, few outside of Russia give much merit to the Putin government’s attempts to shift the conversation on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact to one of self-defense.

“All governments of the late 1930s behaved shamefully, but Stalin was the only major leader to ally with Hitler to be a partner in his conquest. There’s no ‘framing’ of the issue that can dodge this fact. Both Soviet and Russian officials have been defensive about it ever since. That’s why it’s a crime in Russia to talk about the similarities between the fascist and Soviet systems,” said Professor Sestanovich.

Dr. Mankoff said that the Kremlin’s defense of the treaty, though historically fraught, fits neatly into its broader Weltanschauung.

“The Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact contributed to the expansion of Soviet borders and if expanding the state is a good thing, then the fact that it allowed for an expansion into Belarus, the Baltics, Poland, and Western Ukraine is a positive outcome,” he said.

Pointing to both its retelling of the treaty as well as the broader efforts to portray Stalin in a positive light, Dr. Mankoff said that the political harnessing of history carries with it significant dangers.

“It means that you’re not having an honest reckoning with what actually happened during the Stalin period, and that lowers the antibodies of resistance to something like it happening in the future,” he said. “It would be a lot healthier if they would be saying, ‘Yes, Stalin was a state builder, but at what cost?’” n