Emily Whitaker: Stalin’s Resurrection

Emily Whitaker is completing a masters degree in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Since Josef Stalin’s death in 1953, and especially following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, historians and the public worldwide have been united in condemnation of the Soviet leader and his regime. His ruthlessness, the purges, gulags and famines that left millions of his own people dead have meant that at best he has been viewed as a necessary evil, in recognition of his drive to modernise and industrialise the USSR. Yet, in spite of the millions who suffered and died as a result of his policies, Stalin has long been revered in Russia for leading the country to victory against the Nazis in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, an achievement which was remembered during 60th anniversary celebrations in 2005.

Since then the movement in Russia for Stalin’s rehabilitation appears to be broadening and a more disturbing picture is emerging, one in which the Little Father’s actions, character and legacy are being reconfigured and given altogether different attributes. In 2007 the Putin government directed an initiative to restructure the national curriculum, teaching schoolchildren that Stalin’s actions were ‘entirely rational’. In the same year the archives of the eminent human rights organisation, Memorial, were raided. Police confiscated images of Stalinist atrocities, along with 20 years’ worth of oral testimonies chronicling everyday life under his regime. Most remarkably, when a television station held a national vote for the ‘Greatest Russian Ever’ in 2008, Stalin came third, even after the station had made pleas for the nation to vote for other candidates.

Stalin has been re-introduced to the physical and cultural landscape of Russia. He has become a consumer icon, with a proliferation of watches and other paraphernalia for sale bearing his image. In 2009 a Moscow subway station was refurbished with large inscriptions reading ‘Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and to heroism’ – a direct quotation from the pre-1977 version of the Soviet anthem.

The mythologisation and resurgent popularity of Stalin goes hand in hand with changes in the way Russia is being governed... 

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