Why is Stalin popular again in Russia?

Joseph Stalin

March 5, 1953, was an unusually cold winter’s day, even for Russia. After sunset, the thermometers dropped to 18 degrees below zero. Also in Kuntsevo, a suburb of Moscow, it was freezing cold. There, in the so-called “nearby dacha”, Joseph Stalin, autocrat and dictator of the gigantic country called the Soviet Union, had his residence and spent his last days. 

Around 9:50 p.m. on that March 5, the doctors diagnosed Stalin’s death. A special commission was convened, national mourning was declared, and long queues formed outside the Hall of Columns, the old noble assembly, despite the cold. There, in the center of Moscow, the body of the “Father of Peoples” was laid to rest.

It took the Soviet leadership three years to distance itself from the “Stalin personality cult” in February 1956, and it was not until the 1960s that Stalin was first exposed publicly for what he really was: a mass murderer.

Born Iosif Dzhugashvili in Georgia, the born revolutionary whose pen name means “of steel” ruled the Soviet Union de facto from 1923. During the three decades of Stalinism, historians estimate that up to 40 million people were victims of terror: they were executed, they were starved to death, killed or maimed. There were massive deportations – the spearhead of Russian culture – and prominent writers, poets, actors, scientists, and directors, were denounced as “enemies of the people”, to be later tortured and assassinated.

Greetings from Putin’s Russia: Stalin’s return

And now? Is a Stalin cult revival imminent? For a long time, that seemed unthinkable. “The trend started around 2014, with the annexation of Crimea,” says Russian culture journalist and publicist Irina Rastorgueva, who currently lives in Berlin, in an interview with DW.

“The colleagues at the Russian Wikipedia keep a detailed record of all neo-Stalinist monuments,” Rastorgueva told DW. “Yes, there were already the first attempts to erect monuments or busts of Stalin in the 1990s and 2000s, mostly in the provinces or, for example, in Gori, Stalin’s hometown in Georgia. But you can’t compare it with everything that is happening now.

On the 70th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, on February 1, 2023, a bust of Stalin was unveiled in the Volgograd metropolis. The mayor spoke of “certain countries that today want to erase the memory of the great victory of the Soviet army.” But that would not be allowed.

As if that weren’t enough: To mark the anniversary of the battle, Volgograd has even been renamed Stalingrad for a day. “They could have renamed the city Putingrad right now,” says Rastorgueva. For her, the inauguration of the monument to Stalin is “proof of the new official way of interpreting history.”

The logic behind this is as follows, explains journalist Rstorgueva: “The victory in the Second World War is the last common denominator, the last trump card of Russian propaganda because right now everything looks pretty sad in Ukraine. And who won? the war? Stalin. And who is the Stalin of today? Well, Vladimir Vladimirovich! Putin is our Stalin, with him we will win!”

Will the neo-Stalinist cult ever end? Irina Scherbakova, co-founder of the human rights organization “Memorial” and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, doesn’t see it in the foreseeable future, at least not with Vladimir Putin at the helm.

Someday, historian Scherbakova assures in an interview with DW, there will also be chapters on “Stalinism” and also on “Putinism” in Russian textbooks. “But before that, we have to take responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine right now and pay the price. And that price will be very high.”