The past few months in Russia have been marked by yet another upsurge of discussions about Joseph Stalin and his role in the nation’s history.
Influential internet personalities are exchanging sharp polemical blows, presenting their anti-Stalin/pro-Stalin opponents as a bunch of naïve simpletons being manipulated by evil puppet masters. The discussion has heated up, and abusive language is thrown around with little second thought.
However, the general trend is clear: Joseph Stalin has been steadily regaining popularity in Russia. This is driving a rather small, if vocal, group of liberal-minded pro-Western Russians crazy, but they can do little about this change.
Public opinion polls confirm: never, since the gathering of such sensitive data became politically possible in the early 1990s, have so many Russians said that they “approve” or “largely approve” of the activities of Joseph Stalin.
In a 2019 study by the Levada Center, a major public opinion study institute in Russia, 41% of polled Russians said they “respect” Stalin, while 4% said they “admire” him, and 6% said they feel “some sympathy” towards the late dictator.
Stalin has been increasingly seen as a symbol of lost national greatness
This means that a total of 51% were supportive of Joseph Stalin, while various degrees of hostility/disapproval towards him were expressed by merely 14% (the rest said they had no opinion or did not care).
To put things in context, in 2001 the same positive attitude was expressed by 38% of the polled, while 43% (triple the 2019 figure) said they disapprove of Joseph Stalin.
When asked about their attitudes to Stalin’s policies, the public was even more positive: in 2019, an impressive 70% of the polled Russians said that role of Stalin in Russia’s history was “fully positive” or “largely positive,” while a mere 19% believed that his policies played a “negative role” in the nation’s history.
In 2006 only 42% of those polled had positive views of Stalin’s policy, while 37% (nearly double the 2019 figure) expressed negative views.
This is a remarkable comeback: in the late 1980s, when the tidal wave of stories about the horrors of prison camps and starving villages first hit the media, it seemed that the former Soviet dictator had been permanently denounced.
So why is Stalin making a comeback now – and what can this comeback teach us about North Korea’s future?
For those that take Western reports about Russia at face value, the reason for this comeback seems obvious: the government must encourage pro-Stalinist propaganda.
After all, Russia is run by Vladimir Putin, an autocrat who must have been a secret Stalinist, and who would ideally like to make today’s Russia into a copy of the Soviet Union.
However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated. Vladimir Putin has plenty of authoritarian tendencies, but in those rare cases when he mentions Stalin, he is actually quite hostile towards the late dictator.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the permanent target of Stalinists’ hateful hysterics, used to be Vladimir Putin’s favorite writer, and the deceased writer’s family (especially his widow) reputedly has privileged direct access to the Russian President.
On top of that, one gets the impression that the official government-sponsored Russian media thinks less positively about Joseph Stalin than the general public.
Many common people in Russia would be quite happy to see the new rich… being sent to the frozen Kolyma mines to die painful deaths
So, there must be a different reason for this revival of admiration for Joseph Stalin. There are, at first glance, two reasons behind this trend.
The first reason is that Stalin has been increasingly seen as a symbol of lost national greatness. Stalin is remembered, more than anything else, as the leader under whose reign Soviet Russia defeated Nazi Germany and then proceeded to become a superpower.
For better or worse, Russians tend to feel a great sense of attachment to their state. Therefore, one shouldn’t be very surprised that Russians remember well that under Joseph Stalin their country was propelled to the hitherto unprecedented heights of worldwide influence.
This achievement looks even more impressive when compared with the relative geopolitical decline Russia is currently undergoing.
Alexander Nemirovsky, a prominent Russian historian, political thinker, and poet, and himself a liberal, wrote about the Cold War a few years ago: he stated that “the West has won my war, but it was also a war against my country.”
This reflects a major contradiction that all supporters of the liberal democratic model in Russia have to wrestle with.
People in Eastern Europe, as well as in many former Soviet republics, can look back at communism, with all its inefficiencies and bloodshed, as an evil manipulation once imposed on them by malicious outsiders.
Russians (or for that matter, the Chinese, as well as the North Koreans and Vietnamese), have no such luxury.
Russians are dealing with a history in which their nation’s greatest triumph was achieved under an exceptionally brutal regime that killed millions. But in dealing with this, a significant and slowly growing number are willing to overlook the brutalities and emphasize the triumphs.
The second reason for Stalin’s revival is that he is perceived as the embodiment of social justice and equality.
His days were not those of an egalitarian paradise, but material inequality under Stalin was indeed much less visible than what became the norm after the collapse of Soviet socialism.
Back in the late 1940s, a high-level party official or an army general would live a far better life than the average farmer or skilled worker. However, the gap between a skilled worker and his company’s CEO nowadays is far, far greater.
On top of that, inequality was carefully hidden during the Stalin era. While there were rumors, the average Soviet citizen knew little about the life of the privileged ‘top 0.1%.’ The luxury of the Kremlin was not just modest but also unknown to outsiders.
This is not the case nowadays, when Russia’s new rich engage in conspicuous consumption on a scale one can probably only see in certain parts of Southern Asia and Africa. They don’t hide their wealth, they aggressively flaunt it as much as possible.
On top of that, there is a sense that their privileges are undeserved, that success is too often based on corruption, private connections, and blatant theft. Russians tend to believe that, in the days of Stalin, the brutal but efficient secret police were always ready to clamp down on cases of corruption and gross neglect.
Russians remember well that under Joseph Stalin their country was propelled to the hitherto unprecedented heights of worldwide influence
Stalin’s supporters claim – and sincerely believe — that the scale of Stalin’s terror has been grossly exaggerated by the evil anti-Russian forces and/or despiteful ‘liberals.’ But even they usually admit that a lot of people were killed or died in prison under his rule.
However, they argue that in a significant part, perhaps even the majority, of these cases the accused were actually guilty of subversive activity and espionage, while many others were just corrupt and inefficient officials. They also believe (incorrectly) that Stalin-era terror mostly or exclusively targeted the elite.
Frankly, many common people in Russia would be quite happy to see the new rich, especially corrupt officials, being sent to the frozen Kolyma mines to die painful deaths, so they feel little outrage about Stalin doing the same.
So, for many in modern Russia (as we have seen, close to 70%) Joseph Stalin represents national greatness, equality, and efficient anti-corruption policies. The public has forgotten the scale of his crimes to a surprising degree.
But what will such an attitude mean for the future of North Korea? There is little doubt that the Kim family will be pushed out of power sooner or later, and some new regime will emerge.
German-style revolutionary unification with the South, while by no means desirable, is possible as well. So, if this happens, how should one expect attitudes towards Kim Il Sung to change?
Initially, we might see toppled statues but, based on the case of the Soviet Union, one can strongly suspect that the cult of Kim Il Sung will eventually make a comeback, even in the case of a revolution or dramatic transformation.
All the components which resulted in the revival of Stalin’s reputation in Russia are likely to be present in a post-revolutionary and/or post-unification Korea.
Needless to say, the Kim Il Sung of this future cult to emerge in, say, 2055 will be as unrelated to the real North Korean dictator of 1946-1994 as the Joseph Stalin of present-day popular Russian imagination is unrelated to the real strongman who ran the Soviet Union in 1924-1953.
Kim Il Sung will be remembered as the person who made North Korea great
To start with, North Koreans are a patriotic people – like it or not, they tend to associate themselves with their state with much greater passion than the average Westerner, and, arguably, even more than the average Russian.
They will never forget that Kim Il Sung once created a North Korean state which was taken extremely seriously in international politics.
North Korean propaganda constantly highlights the major international conflict between the United States and North Korea. They grossly exaggerate, but most North Koreans believe it. They see their country as a key world player, and they are proud of this.
Therefore, for these people, as well as for their children and grandchildren, Kim Il Sung will be remembered as the person who made North Korea great and put the small country in the spotlight of the world political stage for the first and, perhaps, last time in its entire history.
This greatness, of which the price in human deprivation is likely to be forgotten, will be a great contrast with a rather mundane, if secure, life under a more normal regime. Vietnam is doing great, but how often is it mentioned by world media nowadays?
The issue of equality is just as important. Nowadays, North Korea has a large level of inequality, which seems to be increasing every year.
What makes things worse is that, no matter which way the future unfolds, this inequality is likely to increase even more.
However, the North Korea of Kim Il Sung’s era was a remarkably equal society where the state provided everybody with basic rations for a token price.
Needless to say, even then the North Korean elite enjoyed a life that was quite agreeable by the meager standards of the common population.
However, as it was in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, these privileges were not only relatively modest but also carefully hidden from outside eyes. For most people, the Kim Il Sung era was the age of equality.
What about efficiency? Well, the economy of post-transformation North Korea might be very efficient and produce significant improvements in living standards, but it seems likely that the new elite will largely consist of outsiders.
These outsiders who will be ruling and ordering them around may even be South Koreans. North Koreans are not going to like this.
Therefore they will probably be happy to remember the days when Kim Il Sung was keeping those “greedy and cowardly Southerners” at bay while providing the common, hard-working North Korean with the respect they deserved.
Will the discovery of the horrors of concentration camps and massive executions make a difference? Yes – but, arguably, to a much smaller degree then most Westerners tend to assume.
The people who suffered and perished, as well as their families, will sadly have little impact on historical memory. Their suffering, to a large extent, will remain shrouded in silence.
Most of these people died long ago while their immediate family members and descendants have been pushed away from public life, deprived of any chance to achieve social prominence and receive a good education, which is necessary for participating in the writing of history.
So, one can guess that even though a North Korean revolution or other types of radical transformation will probably result in Kim Il Sung’s statues being removed from the squares of North Korean cities, quite soon after this much heralded ‘triumph of democracy’ the portraits of Kim Il Sung, perhaps sometimes handmade, will start popping up on the walls of private houses.
The current resurgence of admiration for Stalin in Russia serves as a good indicator for the high probability of such a scenario.
And if that’s not enough, one can easily check available reports about, say, nostalgia for Nicolae Ceaușescu in present-day Romania, as well as the highly ambivalent attitude to Mao Zedong in present-day China.
Modern and post-modern intellectuals tend to hate dictators, but their feelings are not always shared by their working-class compatriots.
Edited by Oliver Hotham and James Fretwell
Featured image: DPRK Today
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