The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Contesting Popular Memory in Contemporary Russia


In Russia today, Josef Stalin’s historical legacy remains a controversial topic  – should Stalin be remembered primarily as a strong, heroic leader, responsible for leading the USSR to victory over Nazi Germany or as a cruel dictator, responsible for the death and suffering of millions of his own people? This article, by guest author John Harman, analyses some of the problems faced by those who attempt to memorialise and publicly mourn victims of Stalin-era repression in contemporary Russia; exploring the uncomfortable juxtaposition between the dominant heroic myth of WWII and the darker aspects of Stalinism in the contemporary Russian psyche.


Contesting Popular Memory in Contemporary Russia.

By John Harman.


‘If the problem in Western Europe has been a shortage of memory, in the continents other half the problem is reversed. Here there is too much memory, too many pasts on which people can draw, usually as a weapon against the past of someone else ~ Tony Judt.

Arseny Roginsky  labels the memory of Stalinism as primarily the ‘memory of state terror’, a system of state rule that used terror as a universal instrument for solving any political and social task. For many people today, the word ‘Stalinism’ remains most synonymous with the execution, exile and traumatisation of millions of Soviet citizens. Revelations shedding light on the many crimes of Stalinism have been a feature of Soviet historiography ever since Khrushchev delivered his famous ‘Secret Speech’ denouncing Stalinist terror in 1956. The trickle of information that first began during Khrushchev’s ‘Destalinisation’ later became a flood: gathering pace during Gorbachev’s glasnost in the dying days of the USSR and further increasing due to the release of previously-classified information following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, while many aspects of the Stalinist era still spark contestation and controversy, the crimes of Stalinism can be documented more clearly than ever before.


Despite this, nostalgia for the despotic leader appears to be ever more apparent. Research undertaken by the Levada Centre in Moscow indicates that, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, attitudes towards Stalin are becoming increasingly positive. In a poll taken in 2005, nearly 19% of respondents said they would either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote for Stalin in Russian elections if he were alive today, an increase from the findings of 2003 and 2004 when only 13% answered in the same way. In 2008, Stalin was voted the third-greatest Russian  in history, during a public poll held by Rossiya, one of Russia’s largest TV stations. More recently a poll commissioned by VTsIOM (All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre) in April 2011 showed that more than a quarter of those surveyed felt that Stalin’s wartime leadership means that he did ‘more good’ for the country than bad, a rise of 11% from a similar poll in 2007.


The contested nature of historical memory about Stalinism runs more deeply than the publication of controversial popular opinion polls, however.  On October 30 2009 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev published a post on his official web portal to coincide with the annual Russian ‘Remembrance Day of Victims of Political Repression’. His blog post condemned continued public ambivalence towards Stalin’s legacy of mass repression, and was written in response to growing concerns about nostalgia for and glorification of the Stalin era in contemporary Russia. However, the State’s official policy towards Stalin has also frequently been called into question,  particularly following the publication of Alexander Fillipov’s history textbook  in 2007, which formed part of the official government-approved curriculum in Russian schools. The textbook portrayed the mass terror of the Stalin years as essential to ensure rapid modernisation in the face of military threats from Germany and Japan; avoided any attempt at a moral assessment of Stalinism and strongly implied that the (victorious) ends of World War II justified the repressive means of the pre-war years.  The memorialisation of Stalin-era victims is also the subject of a contentious ongoing dialogue between the state and those who seek to commemorate the darker aspects of the Soviet past. In 2008 Vladimir Putin ordered the confiscation of digitally archived material from Memorial, a non-governmental organisation which aims to aid the process of memorialisation of state terror in Russia. Memorial representatives believed that the raid was not justified in any juridical sense, but constituted a state-sanctioned act of sabotage against their attempts to document and disseminate knowledge about the crimes of the Stalinist era (for more information about Memorial see their website HERE).


Negative Memorialisation: Terror and Repression


In Adam Hochschild’s The Unquiet Ghost (London: Penguin Books, 1994) Hochschild records a conversation he had with a clinical psychologist from Moscow. The psychologist described a former patient who had recently returned to him seeking treatment – she was in deep distress, because newly published accounts had described how her father, a former diplomat, had been responsible for the denunciations (and subsequent imprisonment and deaths) of many people during the Stalinist era. As a result of his actions, her father had not only remained alive but had even been promoted whilst most of his colleagues had perished. Her father was already dead, but now the woman had to confront and come to terms with his memory all over again.


This case illustrates an important point. During the Soviet terror, the line between victim and perpetrator was often blurred: the persecutors often became the persecuted. For example, the CPSU regional committee secretaries of 1937 were responsible for sanctioning many death sentences, but by November 1938 half of them had fallen victim to the terror themselves. Even Stalin’s feared secret police were purged, with Nikolai Ezhov, feared NKVD chief and leading orchestrator of the terror arrested and executed in 1940. During the Stalinist era, life for many people was never black or white, but instead comprised of shades of grey. Many people engaged with Stalinism, passively if not actively. Today, widespread public reluctance to confront the past can therefore be attributed to more than just general ignorance: in some cases outward ambivalence stems from a deep-rooted fear of uncovering atrocities committed by close friends and family members, or even confronting ones own past culpability, therefore leading to a greater sense of guilt about the past.


These ambiguities are also reflected in attempts at public commemoration. Memorial  have compiled a database of all known monuments which are archived in its online ‘virtual gulag’. At first glance, the number of monuments and exhibits appear impressive: listing 109 museum exhibits and 337 monuments relating to Soviet-era mass repression. However, none of these monuments have been overseen by the central government, but were developed through the efforts of local communities and independent organisations such as Memorial. The location of the monuments are also telling: within cities, these monuments and commemorative signs are not located in central areas, but are overwhelmingly found in more remote locations. The choice of location may at times serve a function; for example, the Mendurskoe Memorial, located 13 Kilometres from the city of Yoshkar-Ola within the Mari El Republic, marks the mass grave of 164 prisoners who were executed by the NKVD in August 1937. However, one should question the lack of memorialisation in more central areas, which may also hint at a low level of state enthusiasm for such memorials,  especially since Soviet era street names directly linked with state-sanctioned repression  – such as Checkist Street (honouring the forerunners to the NKVD) in St Petersburg – still exist.


The Mendurskoe Memorial marks the mass grave of 164 Soviet prisoners who were executed by the NKVD in August 1937.


The contentious dialogue surrounding negative memorialisation is also reflected in the design of such monuments, which are largely depoliticised. Alexander Etkind has used the term ‘aesthetic minimalism’ to describe such monuments which regularly consist of plain granite stones and raw crosses. This aesthetic, created somewhere between the need for memory and political confrontation may hinder popular memory as a certain amount of accountability or even historical truth is lost in transmission. This confused representation also extends beyond ‘hard’ physical monuments, as illustrated by Etkind’s study of the Russian 500-ruble banknote, issued in the late 1990s and remaining in circulation today. The artwork on the bill depicts the Solovki monastery, a historical complex on an island in the extreme north of Russia. The architecture of the monastery dates to the 1920’s, a time of peak development of the Solovki camp, one of the earliest and most significant camps in the Soviet gulag.


The 500 ruble note depicts the Solovki Monastary, site of one of Stalin's notorious Gulag camps.


Despite the existence of 337 Russian museum exhibits relating to mass repression, in reality only a few of these are specifically dedicated to the history of the terror. Roginsky argues that the exhibitions relating to the Gulag camps and labour settlements are usually embedded within wider displays relating to Soviet-era industrialisation, modernisation and economic development. The repressions themselves (i.e. the arrests and executions) are generally consigned to biographical stands and window displays. This, he argues, serves to represent the terror in a fragmented manner, creating the image of a succession of ‘localised disasters’ rather than the unified image of a national catastrophe. Today, there is still no national museum of state terror, which could play an important role in crystallising the image of the terror in popular consciousness.


Positive Memorialisation: Russia’s ‘Great Patriotic War’


Monuments are often used as a positive political tool, to demonstrate the continuity of the political tradition of a nation state and to represent its (perceived or desired) identity. Etkind describes monuments as ‘materialised forms of patriotic sentiment’, which create the future by ‘distorting the past’. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that attempts at negative memorialisation have been limited in post-Soviet Russia. In the search for a ‘usable’ or ‘promotable’ past, recent Russian administrations have thus relied heavily on the myth of the Second World War – Russia’s  ‘Great Patriotic War’ – above the memory of the terror, for obvious reasons.


The memorialisation drive over the Great Patriotic War began during the Brezhnev era (1964-1982), and has evolved to become the greatest legitimising myth of Soviet history: mythologizing Soviet victory over Germany, presenting the USSR as the saviour of the world from fascist enslavement and the Red Army as the liberators of Europe, a hard-fought feat that was achieved through the spilling of large amounts of Russian blood, with limited outside help.


The memory of the Second World War therefore, serves important functions for the Russian state in a way that the memory of the terror could never do.  Nina Tumarkin argues that the key functions of the narrative that has emerged around World War Two in Russia are as follows:

Respect for the Armed Forces and Russia’s Militaristic Past – the USSR defeated fascism because of their strong army, while the sheer number of Soviet casualties in World War Two (est. 20-25 million) promotes Russia as a country who understands the price of war.

A Rise in National Self-Esteem and Hard Work – war time victory, bolstered by the notion that Russia had to overcome all the odds in order to fight back after the surprise German invasion of June 22 1941.

Moral Courage – generated by nostalgia for a time before the uncertainties of post-communism, when it was made clear what (and who) was good and bad.


The absence of memorials dedicated to the victims of mass repression is further highlighted by the grandiose and hyperbolic nature of memorialisation dedicated the heroic triumph of the Red Army, although since the fall of the USSR the status of many Soviet war monuments has been challenged across Eastern Europe and the FSU (for more on the contested status of Soviet war memorials, see the previous blog post HERE). Such monuments rarely attempt subtlety: the famous ‘Motherland Calls’ statue in Volgograd was the largest statue in the world at the time of its public dedication on October 15, 1967 and the central monument in Moscow’s Victory Park conveys a huge dragon covered with swastikas, curled beneath a towering obelisk adorned with Nike, the goddess of victory engaging in battle with St. George on horseback – and this is but one part of the park complex whose museum also boasts the ‘Hall of Glory’, listing all names of the wartime ‘heroes of the Soviet Union’.


Monument to commemorate Soviet Victory in the Second World War, Victory Park, Moscow.


The scale of these monuments is nothing short of breathtaking. In contrast to the ‘collective amnesia’ often displayed when confronted with memories of terror and repression, the memory of the Great Patriotic War is actively commemorated with pomp and circumstance, in the form of the annual Victory Parade in Moscow each May 9th, illustrated in this recent VIDEO.


The immense pride in Soviet victory during the Second World War thus provides one of the most important bases for contemporary support for Stalin, particulalry amongst the older generations, effectively marginalising the darker aspects of Stalinist rule. The drive for truth and reconciliation, which constitutes a key part of the memory of Stalinist-era repression and terror, comes into direct conflict with this heroic ‘war narrative’. Some steps have been taken to revise elements of the Russian ‘war myth’ in light of new evidence available in the post-Soviet period, such as the 2009 publication of formerly secret documents relating to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned as ‘immoral’. In April 2010 the Russian Federation also published documents relating to the true nature of the Soviet role in the massacre of 20,000 Polish Army officers in the Katyn forest. When the mass graves were uncovered in 1943 the Soviet Union blamed the murders on the Nazis, and it was only in 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet guilt. The recent publication of these documents confirmed that the massacre was designed by Beria (head of the NKVD) and directly approved by Stalin. This was followed in November 2010 by the Russian Parliament’s adoption of a statement recognising Soviet responsibility for the massacre and condemning Katyn as ‘an act of lawlessness of a totalitarian regime’. Public acknowledgment of this crime may serve as indication of a renewed policy towards popular national memory, however it may be seen as an act of appeasement towards the west – and more specifically the Poles, especially in light of the recent death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski (for more on Katyn see the previous blog  post HERE).


However, the Russian leadership have indicated that they will only allow historical revisionism to go so far. In response to mounting criticism from neighbouring states regarding elements of Russia’s ‘war myth’, in 2009 President Medvedev declared the creation of a special commission ‘to counteract attempts to falsify history that undermines the interest of Russia’.  Any deviation from the dominant state-sanctioned war narrative in Russia was thus deemed hostile and against the national interest. This stance also makes it difficult for many people to combine the popular image of Stalin as a heroic wartime leader with their memories of Stalin as a murderous autocrat.


Concluding Remarks


Unsurprisingly, since 1991 successive Russian administrations have chosen to emphasise aspects of the Soviet past that they view as ‘worth remembering’, in order to convey particular values and ideals, which sustain a positive identity. The dark chapter in their recent history involving terror, mass repression, denunciation and death does not fit with the heroism promoted by the dominant narrative of war memorialisation. Despite some indications that the current leadership are refining certain elements of Stalinist-era history, any revisionism must be state-sanctioned and thus transparency remains limited.


As Stalin’s popularity continues to rise in opinion polls it is difficult to predict how future Russian generations will approach the darker aspects of their Soviet past. Any true condemnation of Stalinism also requires closer scrutiny and possibly further reappraisal of the Soviet role in the Second World War, which may undermine its place in popular memory. The dichotomy of the Stalinist era is not one that can coexist peacefully, particularly while a significant proportion of the population hold some kind of personal attachment to the horrors of Stalinism. At the current time, the Stalinism that represents an era of glorious victory and great achievement outweighs the Stalinism of a criminal regime responsible for decades of terror.


About the Author:


John Harman is currently completing a Masters degree in History at Swansea University, UK. His MA dissertation considers changing perspectives on the commemoration and memorialisation of Stalinist-era repression from the post-Stalinist USSR to post-Soviet Russia.




September 13, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. It is important to concentrate on the positives, don’t be a glass half empty kind of person.

    Comment by mymatejoechip | September 17, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] of modern history including Katyn; the construction of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, Stalin’s legacy and the continuing controversy over Soviet-era war memorials. This summer also saw the first […]

    Pingback by 2011: A Quick Review « The View East | January 1, 2012 | Reply

  3. […] 5th March 1953 – Soviet leader Josef Stalin died, aged 74, after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Stalin’s body had been discovered several days earlier, collapsed in his private chambers. It has subsequently been alleged that Stalin may have been poisoned by Lavrenti Beria, his chief of secret police, Stalin’s death marked the end to his 29 years in power, a period which had seen the Soviet Union transformed politically, economically, socially and culturally through a series of sweeping reforms which had enabled the USSR to emerge from World War II as a victorious superpower, but had led to almost unimaginable hardship and suffering for millions of Soviet citizens. So while many Soviet people openly wept upon receiving news of Stalin’s death, many more exchanged secret smiles and secretly toasted his demise. Today, Stalin’s legacy remains highly contested, both within the USSR and internationally, as discussed in a previous blog post HERE. […]

    Pingback by Today in (East European) History – 5 March « The View East | March 5, 2012 | Reply

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