Two significant events occurred last week. The first was the holding of the first session of the presidential commission “for counteracting attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests.”
The second was the opening of Moscow’s newly renovated Kurskaya metro station, whose walls once again bear a verse from the 1944 version of the Soviet anthem: “Stalin raised us to be loyal to the nation; He inspired us to work and be heroic.”
This phrase had been plastered over during Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s campaign against Stalin’s personality cult. On the eve of commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, both events can be viewed as elements of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies.
Praising Stalin on the walls of the Kurskaya metro station can be seen as an excellent test. But it is not so much a test for the public as it is a test for the political elite. It is telling that so far not a single official has taken personal responsibility for allowing the public praise of Stalin. Politicians are biding their time. They are in no rush to touch this hot potato. This especially applies to members of the main political parties who are currently engaged in an election campaign for seats in the Moscow City Duma. Only the Yabloko party has come out with a clearly defined position. It issued a harsh evaluation of Stalin and condemned the decision to by the Moscow authorities to adorn the Kurskaya station with words of praise for Stalin.
It is no secret that Stalin enjoys enormous popularity in Russia, as was demonstrated a year ago by the television project titled “The Name of Russia.” The fact that he is so popular is less a function of an organized state propaganda effort to promote Stalin than it is a result of the government’s lack of interest in setting the historical record straight on Stalin.
It is also a manifestation of the primacy of state interests over the interests of individuals — even when those individuals number in the millions. In recent years, the authorities have persistently cultivated the Stalinist myth in the public mind. Attention is increasingly focused on the greatness of the country and its achievements under Stalin’s rule — primarily the rapid modernization of the economy and the Soviet victory in World War II.
Even the occasional harsh criticism of Stalin refer only to his crimes and repressions in domestic affairs, while foreign policy was always viewed as peaceful. The cornerstone of post-Soviet ideology is the myth of the Soviet people — liberators who through their colossal sacrifices brought the world salvation from the “brown plague” of Nazism.
During his visit to Poland on Tuesday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — who in many ways propagates the spirit of the Stalin myth — is expected to articulate the latest version of the role the Soviet Union and Stalin played in World War II. Putin’s account of the Soviet role in World War II runs counter to that of all other leaders of countries that participated in the war.
History has given Putin a new chance to offer a more balanced and honest picture of Moscow’s role in World War II. On Tuesday, let’s hope he takes advantage of this opportunity.