Russia gets misty-eyed about Stalin | Adam LeBor

Medvedev's condemnation of the gulags was bold – many Russians view Stalin as an icon of communism's old certainties

When Russian president Dmitry Medvedev recently condemned the horrors of Joseph Stalin's gulags it sounded like a statement of the obvious. "I am convinced that the memory of national tragedies is as sacred as those of victories," he posted on his video-blog. "Even now, you hear it said that the huge losses were justified by some kind of higher state aim. No development of a country, none of its successes or ambitions can be reached at the price of human losses and grief."

But what is obvious to us is ground-breaking in Russia. Medvedev spoke on 30 October, the national day of remembrance for political repression. Stalin's terror and the second world war both consumed the lives of millions. But unlike the state pageantry of the 9 May VE day parade, 30 October remains a very low key affair, which passes most Russians by. The enormous price Russians paid in "human losses and grief" is the great unmentionable, even if almost every family in the land lost someone to the gulags and purges. In fact, rather than condemn the crimes of the Stalinist era, a growing number of Russians are lauding their former leader.

Perhaps this is a way of rationalising the victims' deaths, like the Old Bolsheviks at their show trials, desperately clutching for meaning where there was none, except the cult of Stalin. Last year Stalin came a close third in a television poll for the greatest Russian ever. For many, he is still revered as the leader who stopped the Nazis. The Red Army did ensure victory for the Allies, but that was because of the incredible bravery of Soviet soldiers, not their political commissars. Victory against Hitler may well have come faster had Stalin not wiped out most of the Red Army's officer class in the purges.

But there is little room for nuance in public discourse in today's Russia about the horrors perpetrated under the old system. Indeed Vladimir Putin, now Russian prime minister, spoke for many when he said in 2004 that the break-up of the Soviet Union was "a national tragedy on an enormous scale". An increasing number of Russians agree with him. From our cosy western, liberal perspective this seems incredible. We are amazed. How can they think like that? But a better question is "Why wouldn't they?"

We have just celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have spent most of the past 20 years living in or reporting on the former communist countries. I still remember the electric excitement when the first East Germans made through to the west and we all dreamed of a happy, united Europe that had finally exorcised its ghosts. How naive we were in our optimism, believing that the newly free countries would adopt our liberal, tolerant mores and enthusiasm for taking personal responsibility for making our own way in the world. That was the dream, but it was our comfy fantasy, not theirs. And as we imposed it on societies with very different histories and cultures it soon became a nightmare: of ultra-liberal economic shock therapy, mass unemployment, the plundering of state resources by former communist elites turned capitalist, and endemic poverty and corruption.

The recent financial crisis has only highlighted the growing regional nostalgia for communism's certainties, increasingly tinged with an angry patriotism. Russians don't pine for Stalin because they miss the dawn knock on the door, the ride to Lubyanka in a sweat-stained sedan with no door handles and a bullet in the back of the neck. They miss guaranteed state provision of work, food, housing and holidays and a sense of national greatness, that their motherland, whatever it is called, remains a power to be reckoned with. Tragically, many have convinced themselves that the terrible human cost of communism's economic never-never land was a price worth paying.


Adam LeBor

The GuardianTramp

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