Eighty years ago, Josef Stalin ended the Great Terror, citing as his reason “local excesses” that had “come to his attention.” His November 17, 1938 decree ordered extra-judicial tribunals, called troikas, to stop their sentencing of political prisoners. The troikas lay at the heart of political terror. They provided a thin veneer of “socialist legality” to what was mass murder and wanton incarceration. Stalin’s November 1938 action stopped in its tracks a killing machine that had been executing an unfathomable average of 1,400 victims per day. It wasn’t until two decades later that an obscure intelligence officer tallied the victims of the sixteen-month reign of terror at 1,334,360. Of these, half were shot, and the rest sentenced to the Gulag.
Political terror continued after November of 1938, but at a less breakneck pace. World War II fed Stalin’s camps with POWs, foreign nationals, residents of occupied territories, and returning Soviet soldiers. The Gulag continued to grow until it reached its peak of 2.5 million prisoners shortly before Stalin’s death.
The November 17 anniversary has again passed largely without notice even though a solid percentage of Russian families have grandparents, great grandparents, and distant relatives, who were, to use the Soviet term, “repressed.” Every year, the number of Gulag survivors declines. About one in five were women. Due to their longer lifespans, they are the last witnesses, but they will soon be gone.
Since the opening of the Soviet archives, Gulag researchers have dispensed with any doubts about Stalin’s pivotal role in the Great Terror. Stalin carefully orchestrated the mass killing and imprisonments. He met for hours in his office with his handpicked loyal NKVD executioners. He personally signed off on “shooting lists” of state and party leaders. Although sometimes presented as a purge of state and party officials, the vast majority of repressed “enemies of the people” were ordinary workers and peasants. Stalin personally put in place a “conveyer” that processed massive numbers of victims through the faux judicial process of troikas; and he did not hesitate to turn on his loyal executioners. To their dismay, they found themselves on the receiving end of a bullet to the back of the head in Lefortovo Prison when the “Master” needed scapegoats.
The facts are in. The Kremlin cannot deny the Gulag in the face of massive, irrefutable documentation and public memory. This is a problem for the Kremlin because Stalin’s murder of millions does not fit Vladimir Putin’s narrative of Russia’s need throughout history for a strong and heroic leader. Indeed, the Kremlin’s media masters proclaim that Russia now needs a strong man to face down the decadent United States and its NATO stooges. Putin’s is a Russia of past glories – the defeat of Napoleon, the victory over Hitler in the Great Patriotic War, rapid modernization, and Orthodox faith. The Kremlin’s media bombards the Russian people that war is imminent. As a besieged fortress in a hostile world, Russians are told they need an iron-fisted leader, like Judo-master Putin. They should brush aside small matters like a stagnant economy or the unsolved murders of opposition figures.
The historical figure of Stalin threatens this Kremlin narrative. Stalin ruled Russia with an iron fist for a quarter-century. His reign was characterized by violence, famine, deprivation, and mass killing. The Russian Federation is the legal successor to the Soviet Union and claims its Soviet legacy, and that means Stalin’s legacy, too. Putin would not want his subjects to fear a strong leader, who, like Stalin, could go bad. Putin, himself approaching Stalin’s record of a quarter-century in office, cannot afford the image of a bestial, paranoid, and cruel Stalin hanging over his head. He must somehow convince the Russian people that Stalin was historically necessary.
Here’s how the Kremlin argument goes: Stalin was a complex figure. Granted, he killed and imprisoned many innocent people, but in the process he eliminated a potent Fifth Column. Stalin had to use political terror to protect the world’s first socialist state from foreign agents, class enemies, and supporters of the old regime. He had no choice but to apply terror indiscriminately. Yes, Stalin’s forced industrialization imposed hardship – famine, work quotas, and extreme labor discipline – but his harsh measures toughened the Russian people for a war that was sure to come. The USSR could not have beaten Hitler without the Gulag camps that mined the resources of the godforsaken East and produced the tanks and airplanes that won the war. The death squads of political prisoners sent out into German minefields saved the lives of loyal Russian soldiers. Yes, Stalin did bad things, but he did them for the good of his nation – so goes the argument.
According to this argument, Stalin should be evaluated in terms of a cost-benefit equation that weighs his bad deeds against his good. State history texts, for example, encourage mock trials that debate whether Stalin was the “Father of Russia” or Russia’s “enemy.” Students are encouraged to keep their minds open. Adults are given other signs, some subtle.
Putin and his inner circle rarely have direct words of praise for Stalin. Putin has spoken of Stalin as an “efficient manager,” but he also paid a symbolic visit to the Butovo killing field outside Moscow. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is permitted to erect Stalin monuments and to march en masse to Stalin’s burial place on his birthday. More subtle signals of Stalin’s quiet rehabilitation are the return to the 1944 national anthem, the nostalgia of retirees for the old Soviet system, anniversary celebrations of the Great Patriotic War, photo-ops with a Stalin look-alike on Red Square, and even the return of Crimea to the Russian fold.
So, one might ask: Has the Kremlin’s “Stalin was harsh but fair” campaign paid off?
Surveys of Russian public opinion show that Stalin is rated as the most significant figure of all times and places, slightly ahead of Putin and Pushkin. Almost two-thirds praise his leadership in World War II “despite his sins and mistakes.” Less than half believe Stalin committed political crimes. One out of five believe that Stalin’s repression was justified by political necessity.
The Russian people do not hold these opinions because they are unaware of Stalin’s transgressions. Only 13 percent claim not to know about Stalin’s crimes. Russia’s youth is an exception. Half are blithely unaware of his repressions.
The poet Anna Akhmatova wrote in the aftermath of the Great Terror of two Russias that “stare each other in the eyes: the ones who put them in prison and the ones who were put in prison.” Akhmatova’s “second Russia” is in decline. A decade ago almost 70 percent agreed that “Stalin was a brutal tyrant guilty of exterminating millions of innocent people” – a conclusion disputed only by one in five. In 2018, 44 percent agree with the “brutal tyrant” description of Stalin. The rest disagree, or have no opinion.
The Russian people, notably, have a split opinion on whether Russians require a leader like Stalin who brings order. Surveys from 2008 through 2018 show a constant one-third in favor of such a strong leader, while the percent opposed has fallen from half to slightly above a third, with 30 percent not answering.
Time is on the side of re-Stalinization. The Gulag literature clearly describe Stalin’s crimes against humanity, but Russians appear not to care. Half of Russia simply want to move on – to let old wounds heal and not dwell on the past. The number of living Gulag survivors is dwindling rapidly. Women, as the Gulag’s last witnesses, are the only ones left to tell their stories before it is too late.
Paul Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He holds an endowed professorship in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, Texas, is a research professor at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, and is emeritus chair of the International Advisory Board of the Kiev School of Economics.