Remembering Stalin in Russia and the South Caucasus

In the spring of 2013, major news outlets in Russia, the Caucasus, and the U.S. were abuzz with the news about “Stalin’s long shadow” (NYT), alarmed that “Stalin lives on” (Tert), and that he is “more popular in Russia now than at the end of the Soviet Union” (HuffPost). These articles referred to a survey, conducted in October and November 2012 in Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which found public opinions of the former Soviet leader to be surprisingly…lively. Taking factors like age, gender, education, and place of residence into account, the survey posed eight questions to 8,315 individuals (1,600 in Russia, 2,384 in Armenia, 2,502 in Georgia, 1,829 in Azerbaijan) with the aim of “deciphering post-Soviet public opinion.”

The questions ranged from the standard “Which of these words best describes your attitude toward Stalin?” to the challenging “In your opinion, can the sacrifices which the Soviet Union people endured under Stalin be justified by the results achieved in a short period?” The answers, as Carnegie revealed in its full report in March 2013, were a little surprising. What shocked most readers, and what the aforementioned headlines pinpointed, was the high level of positive consideration for Stalin in all four countries. However, as Thomas de Waal explains in his introduction to the report, the survey has much more complex implications. It shows, first of all, a very confused public opinion—one that considers Stalin “a wise leader” but does not wish to be ruled by anyone like him. De Waal says, “The poll results are more an illustration of feelings of dependency and confusion than genuine support for a dictatorial government. Russians in particular lack alternative historical models.” To explain the confusing case of Russia, where support for Stalin is higher now than at the end of the Soviet era, the report includes two essays–one by Maria Lipman, exploring the effects of half-hearted de-Stalinization on the leader’s legacy, and one by Lev Gudkov, exploring the enduring utility of Stalin as a symbol in modern politics. A fascinating insight in Gudkov’s essay, which illustrates how the Russian government has rehabilitated Stalin as a political tool, is that “the majority of Russians no longer accept the Stalinist model of a national ruler, but they lack the individual resources to oppose the state’s point of view.”

Though this theory is not as strong for the Caucasus, the overall complexity of Stalin’s legacy is nevertheless evident. The case of Georgia is especially fascinating, as this legacy is not of just a ruler but of a native son. To tackle this relationship, Lasha Bakradze penned “Georgia and Stalin: Still Living with the Great Son of the Nation.”


A portrait of the leader in the Stalin Musem in his hometown of Gori, Georgia. Photo by Eana Korbezashvili/

Bakradze, a professor of Soviet history and director of the Giorgi Leonidze Museum of Literature, notes a “dogged admiration” for Iosif Vissarionovich in Soviet Georgian minds:

“Even those Georgians who were not brainwashed by Stalinist propaganda and who believed Georgia was a victim of Communist rule thought of Stalin as being more than just the Soviet leader and the architect of the totalitarian regime. For them too, he was also a Georgian, who remained the sole leader of a huge empire for three decades. Georgians made a crude trade-off: the Russians ‘have us where they want us,’ but ‘our boy has them.’ Accordingly, Georgians’ attitudes toward Stalin were not directly associated with sympathy for the Soviet empire or Communist ideology—and today it would be incorrect to assume that approval of Stalin also means approval of authoritarian rule.”

Stalin’s distinctive presence in both the mnemonic and physical environment of Georgia sets it apart from its post-Soviet neighbors. And as Bakradze’s essay makes it clear, we should take the Georgian case with a grain of (Svanetian) salt. What makes Stalin’s legacy particularly fascinating here is the simultaneity of criticism (of Stalin as a leadership model) and respect (of Stalin as a national symbol). This, combined with Mikeil Saakashvili’s weak de-Stalinization campaign, may explain why 68% of Georgian respondents agreed that Stalin was a “wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity,” while 63% responded negatively when asked if they would live in a country ruled by someone like him.

In Russia and the Caucasus at large, the survey had another interesting result. Among the younger generation, it seems, Stalin has a rather weak appeal to interest. Even in Georgia, 22% of respondents aged 18-30 described their attitude toward Stalin as “indifferent.” In Russia, 40% of respondents aged 18-30 described their attitude toward Stalin as “indifferent.” The same was true of 22% in Georgia, 25% in Armenia, and 18% in Azerbaijan. While we may hold this—combined with the low percentage of youth registering a positive attitude—as a hopeful sign for new post-Soviet generation, indifference is a slightly dangerous condition when it comes to history. Indifference to one’s past is not too far or too distinct from historical amnesia. In this respect, the most shocking result came from Azerbaijan, where 39% of respondents aged 18-30 did not know who Stalin is. For all age groups, this number was 22%. Gudkov proposes that “this may indicate the growing distance of Azerbaijanis from their Soviet ideological legacy as well as a culture and religion that is markedly different from the other countries surveyed.” Considering that less than 10% of respondents in the other three countries registered ignorance, this result merits further study.

This fascinating survey, in short, is more than a simple matter of Stalin “living on.” It speaks volumes about the successes and failures of de-Stalinization, historical and collective memory, the relationship between the state and its people, and conceptions of nation, rule, and rulers—questions, in short, that delve into the political core of the Soviet era and its contemporary legacy. To read or download the full report, you can visit the Carnegie page devoted to “The Stalin Puzzle.” The text is available in English, Russian, and Georgian. (Armenian and Azeri translators out there, spread the word!) For those interesting in the topic, I also recommend Maria Lipman’s Op-Eds in Foreign Policy and (one related directly to the survey and one written earlier about the third wave of de-Stalinization in Russia) a collection of photographs by entitled “Stalin in His Hometown and Beyond.”

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