Putin warms to Stalin’s tac­tics

The Rus­sian pres­i­dent was once crit­i­cal of the Soviet dic­ta­tor.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Carol J. Wil­liams

MOSCOW — Only six years ago, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin vis­ited the Pol­ish port of Gdansk, birth­place of the Sol­i­dar­ity move­ment that threw off Soviet dom­i­na­tion, and re­as­sured his Eastern Euro­pean neigh­bors that Rus­sia had only friendly in­ten­tions.

Putin spoke harshly that day of the no­to­ri­ous World War II-era pact that for­mer Soviet leader Josef Stalin had signed with Adolf Hitler — an agree­ment that cleared the way for the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Poland and Soviet dom­i­na­tion of the Baltics — call­ing it a “col­lu­sion to solve one’s prob­lems at oth­ers’ ex­pense.”

But Putin’s view of his­tory ap­pears to have un­der­gone a star­tling trans­for­ma­tion. Last month, the Rus­sian leader praised the 1939 nonag­gres­sion ac­cord with Hitler as a clever ma­neu­ver that fore­stalled war with Ger­many. Stalin’s 29-year reign, gen­er­ally seen by Rus­sians in re­cent years as a dark and bloody chap­ter in the na­tion’s his­tory, has lately been ap­plauded by Putin and his sup­port­ers as the foun­da­tion on which the great Soviet su­per­power was built.

Across a resur­gent Rus­sia, Stalin lives again, at least in the minds and hearts of Rus­sian na­tion­al­ists who see Putin as heir to the for­mer dic­ta­tor’s model of iron-fisted rule. Re­cent

trib­utes cel­e­brate Stalin’s mil­i­tary com­mand acu­men and geopo­lit­i­cal prow­ess. His ruth­less re­pres­sion of enemies, real and imag­ined, has been brushed aside by to­day’s Krem­lin leader as the cost to be paid for de­feat­ing the Nazis.

As Putin has sought to re­cover ter­ri­tory lost in the 1991 Soviet breakup, his Stali­nesque claim to a right to a “sphere of inf lu­ence” has al­lowed him to le­git­imize the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and de­clare an obli­ga­tion to de­fend Rus­sians and Rus­sian speak­ers be­yond his na­tion’s bor­ders.

On May 9, the 70th an­niver­sary of the Al­lied war victory was marked and Stalin’s im­age was put on dis­play with glo­ri­fy­ing war films, T-shirts, bill­boards and posters. Framed por­traits of the mus­ta­chioed gen­er­alis­simo were car­ried by marchers in Red Square’s Victory Day pa­rade and in the mil­lion-strong civic pro­ces­sion that fol­lowed to honor all who fell in what Rus­sians call the Great Pa­tri­otic War.

Putin’s em­brace of Stalin’s power-play tac­tics is ap­plauded by many Rus­sians and other for­mer Soviet cit­i­zens as the sort of de­ci­sive lead­er­ship they longed for while watch­ing com­mu­nism col­lapse around them. To the pro­po­nents of a rein­vig­o­rated Rus­sia, re­formist Mikhail Gor­bachev and his suc­ces­sor, Boris Yeltsin, are seen as hav­ing sub­mit­ted Rus­sia to West­ern dom­i­na­tion.

Stalin “kept us all to­gether, there was a friend­ship of na­tions, and with­out him ev­ery­thing fell apart,” said Su­liko Me­gre­lidze, a 79year-old na­tive of Stalin’s Ge­or­gian birth­place who sells dried fruit and spices at a farm­ers mar­ket. “We need some­one like him if we want peace and free­dom from those fas­cists in Europe and Amer­ica.”

Such sen­ti­ments are no longer con­fined to those with ac­tual mem­o­ries of the Stalin era. A poll this spring by the in­de­pen­dent Le­vada Cen­ter found 39% of re­spon­dents had a pos­i­tive opin­ion of Stalin.

As to the mil­lions killed, 45% of those sur­veyed said that the deaths could be jus­ti­fied for the greater ac­com­plish­ments of win­ning the war, build­ing mod­ern in­dus­tries and grow­ing to even­tu­ally give their U.S. nemesis a battle for supremacy in the arms race and con­quer­ing outer space.

The share of Rus­sians who look back ap­prov­ingly has been in­creas­ing steadily in re­cent years, and the seg­ment of those who tell poll­sters they have no opin­ion on his place in their his­tory has shot up even more sharply, said De­nis Volkov, a so­ci­ol­o­gist with the Le­vada Cen­ter. He points to this year’s mas­sive Victory Day events as the Krem­lin’s mes­sage to un­grate­ful neigh­bors that they owe their peace and pros­per­ity to the wartime deaths of more than 20 mil­lion Soviet cit­i­zens.

“The fig­ure of Stalin is be­ing jus­ti­fied through the war,” Volkov said. “There is an at­ti­tude now that, yes, there were re­pres­sions and, yes, there were huge losses, but we won the war af­ter all.”

Victory ex­on­er­ated Stalin’s ex­cesses, just as it does Putin’s “strongman” pos­ture to­ward neigh­bors and for­mer Soviet sub­jects now out­side the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion’s bor­ders, Volkov said.

Stalin’s stand­ing among his coun­try­men has waxed and waned with the po­lit­i­cal up­heavals that have racked the Soviet Union and Rus­sia. He was so dom­i­nant a fig­ure in Soviet cit­i­zens’ lives by the time of his death on March 5, 1953, that hun­dreds of thou­sands poured into Moscow’s streets in a chaotic out­break of mourn­ing when word of his pass­ing reached a public taught to be­lieve that life was im­pos­si­ble with­out Stalin — the Bol­she­vik nom de guerre he adopted, sig­ni­fy­ing “man of steel.”

Nikita Khrushchev, who fi­nally pre­vailed in at­tain­ing the lead­er­ship af­ter five years of Krem­lin in­fight­ing, be­gan a cam­paign of de-Stal­in­iza­tion in 1961, mov­ing Stalin’s em­balmed re­mains from public dis­play next to Vladimir Lenin’s to a less prom­i­nent grave near the Krem­lin wall. Stal­in­grad, the hero city that sym­bol­ized the Sovi­ets’ wa­ter­shed battle to turn back the Nazis, was re­named Vol­gograd, and stat­ues and busts were re­moved, and streets, in­sti­tutes and schools were re­named.

But the era­sure of Stalin’s name and like­ness served also to stif le dis­cus­sion of his vast crimes: Siberian ex­ile or death sen­tences for po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, col­lec­tiviza­tion of agri­cul­ture dur­ing which mil­lions starved, de­por­ta­tion of mi­nori­ties and prop­erty seizures that im­pov­er­ished gen­er­a­tions. It wasn’t un­til Gor­bachev came to power in 1985 that a can­did re­count­ing of his era was at­tempted.

Even Putin, ear­lier in his pres­i­dency, fell in line with the col­lec­tive spirit of crit­i­cism of Stalin’s er­rors. Dur­ing the visit to Poland in 2009, a year af­ter he had sent troops to seize ter­ri­tory in sovereign Ge­or­gia, Putin ap­peared to re­as­sure Rus­sia’s ner­vous neigh­bors that the nonag­gres­sion pact that paved the way for war and di­vi­sion 70 years ear­lier was to be re­mem­bered as immoral.

The Aug. 23, 1939, Molo­tov-Ribben­trop pact’s se­cret pro­to­cols doomed Poland to Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion a week later and gave the Baltic states and parts of Fin­land and Ro­ma­nia to the Soviet Union. Mil­lions of cit­i­zens of those be­trayed ter­ri­to­ries died at Stalin’s hand, in po­lit­i­cal purges, sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions and slave la­bor camps.

The scope of Stalin’s bru­tal­ity re­mains a topic of heated de­bate. Late No­bel lau­re­ate Alexander Solzhen­it­syn once claimed in an in­ter­view that as many as 110 mil­lion died as a re­sult of the dic­ta­tor’s vast ar­ray of re­pres­sions be­tween 1921 and 1959, in­clud­ing pris­on­ers who suc­cumbed long af­ter Stalin’s reign. His­to­rian Vik­tor Zemkov, at the other ex­treme, puts the num­ber of deaths at­trib­ut­able to Stalin at 1.4 mil­lion.

“The es­ti­mates of 110 mil­lion to 1.4 mil­lion speak for them­selves — a hun­dred­fold dis­agree­ment,” said Dmitry Lyskov, a state tele­vi­sion talk-show host who mounted a failed 2011 cam­paign to put Stalin’s vis­age on city buses to com­mem­o­rate Victory Day.

The Rus­sian Mil­i­tary-His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, es­tab­lished by Putin in 2012, an­nounced this year that a new Stalin mu­seum was to open in May in the vil­lage of Khoro­shevo, 140 miles north­east of Moscow. Stalin spent the night of Aug. 4, 1943, in a small wooden home there, the clos­est he came to vis­it­ing front­line Soviet troops dur­ing the four-year fight to de­feat Ger­many.

The san­i­tized ex­hibits re­count­ing Stalin’s con­tri­bu­tions to the war ef­fort and post­war re­cov­ery were ready by the planned May 9 holi- day. But the open­ing was post­poned amid op­po­si­tion led by the Tver re­gional leader of Me­mo­rial, a group ded­i­cated to shed­ding light on Rus­sia’s to­tal­i­tar­ian era.

Yan Rachin­sky, a leader of Me­mo­rial’s Moscow chap­ter, calls the mu­seum “ridicu­lous,” and Stalin’s sin­gle night there ir­rel­e­vant to the war victory two years later.

The still­born mu­seum was one of sev­eral of­fi­cial ef­forts to honor Stalin this year: A statue was erected in the south­ern city of Lipetsk, and splashed with red paint the night it was un­veiled. A bronze like­ness of the dic­ta­tor was put up to mark the Fe­bru­ary an­niver­sary of his 1945 meet­ing with Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill and Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt at Yalta, a Black Sea re­sort now in­ac­ces­si­ble to most of the world as only Rus­sian avi­a­tion serves the con- tested Crimean penin­sula.

Stalin has weath­ered more than six decades of his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sions to main­tain his stand­ing as a ri­val to the West, “which is the con­text in which he in­ter­ests Putin,” said Niko­lai Svanidze, a writer and his­to­rian whose grand­fa­thers died in Stalin’s po­lit­i­cal purges.

“Just as Stalin de­feated the West 70 years ago by cap­tur­ing half of Europe,” Svanidze said, “we are de­feat­ing the West again to­day. Crimea is our Ber­lin, our Re­ich­stag, and there is no way it will be re­stored to Ukraine in the fore­see­able fu­ture.”

Svanidze also pre­dicts there will be no more cred­i­ble elec­tions as long as Putin chooses to stay in power. That, he said, is an­other par­al­lel with Stalin’s life­time sinecure as Soviet leader.

Max Vetrov AFP/Getty Images

MARCHERS CARRY a por­trait of Josef Stalin in Sev­astopol, Crimea, as they mark the 70th an­niver­sary of the end of World War II. Rus­sia’s lead­ers once sought to erase Stalin’s name and like­ness across the coun­try.

Alexander Ne­menov AFP/Getty Images

A RUS­SIAN FLAG with an im­age of Vladimir Putin ap­pears at a rally in Moscow in 2012 as his sup­port­ers cel­e­brate his victory in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

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