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Putin, Stalin, Orthodoxy, and Russian Traditionalism

by Gordon M. Hahn

Much Western media and many observers of Russian politics are fond of playing up an ostensible revival of Stalin – his ‘rehabilitation’ as it were – under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule. This is not just inaccurate — as I have written in the past, the Putin era has seen numerous anti-Stalinist and non-Stalinist state-funded projects including mass audience films, television serials, museums and monuments — but it dangerously distorts our understanding of contemporary Russia. Moreover, many of the same observers are also fond of emphasizing the powerful role of the more traditional – some would say retrograde or reactionary – Russian Orthodox Church. This is often exaggerated, but this is not the most interesting aspect of such a focus. The latter focus is often made by the very same observers who decry Putin’s alleged rehabilitation of Stalin. The more revealing phenomenon is the political tension between these two positions; something that might suggest Putin’s less than dictatorial powers and the syncretic and more inclusive nature of his somewhat moderate Russian traditionalism. Thus, anti-Stalinist, anti-communist, Tsarist, and projects of other ideological, cultural, religious, and ethnic orientations often coexist in Putin’s Russia, with the state giving space, albeit often strictly limited, for their expression. This is a function of a supra-national identity still being in development, Russia’s multi-communal character, and the interplay of various orientations and of those orientations within the state.

The ROC’s Anti-Stalinism

The Russian Orthodox Church, which the same sources who charge the Puitn administration with supporting and privileging in relation to other of Russia’s religions, carries out a permanent campaign against Stalin. For example, metropolitan Illarion Alfeyev has called Stalin, among much else, a “monster and spiritual freak, who created terrible, anti-human system of governance built on lies, violence and terror” and “did everythong to destroy the country” before the war (www.pravmir.ru/mitropolit-ilarion-alfeev-stalin-byil-chudovishhem-duhovnyim-urodom/). Archpriest Kirilla Kaledu , rector of the Church of the New Martyrs and Confessors Russian in Butovo, the grandson of the Holy Martyr Vladimir Ambartsumova has revealed documents exposing Stalin’s murder of over 20,000 “martyrs” in the district of his parish in Butov alone (www.pravmir.ru/velichie-stalina-skvoz-prizmu-podviga-novomuchenikov/). In a similar vein, Father Serafim Gan of the ROC Abroad has noted: “Taking into account the extremely cruel XVI century with St. Bartholomew’s night, and the methods of the Inquisition, the actions of Ivan Grozny should not be compared with the other leaders of his time, not to mention Lenin and Stalin, on whose hands is the blood of tens of millions of victims of the atheist regime, collectivization, dispossession and the terrible persecution of the Church. The first and second waves of Russian emigration, sustained by the Russian Church Abroad, testifies to this truth (www.pravmir.ru/protoierey-serafim-gan-pochitat-nuzhno-muchenikov-a-ne-ih-palachey/). This article was carried on the website, Pravmir.ru, which has its chairman of its honorary board, Russian Minister of Culture and which ROC Patriarch Kirrill has endorsed (www.pravmir.ru/redakciya/). The same site serves as a venue for historians of all stripes who carry out polemics opposing those who seek to rehabilitate Stalin and the communists (see, for example, www.pravmir.ru/istorik-vladimir-lavrov-proishodit-retsidiv-krasnogo-obnovlenchestva-video/). In 2015, Crimea Prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya unveiled a monument in Crimea to Tsar Nikolai II, killed by the Bolsheviks along with his family. A year later she was promoted to a seat in the State Duma, replacing a deputy of Putin’s party Yedinaya Rossiya (http://russia-insider.com/en/society/russias-prosecutie-unveils-monument-emperor-nicholas-ii/ri7335). Thus, it appears Putin has a strange method for re-Stalinizing and re-sovietizing Russia.

The above demonstrates that a political battle between various forces is ongoing in Russia, as in other countries, over the country’s past and present. This is not just a battle that the soft authoritarian Putin allows to rage, it is a reflection of political pluralism and free, limited albeit, speech. Just as the Putin administration lets communists rehabilitate Stalin, so too he allows both the Church as well as liberals to criticize the dictator and engage in the country’s politics within limits that protect his own rule. At the same time, the Putin regime has undertaken a campaign of de-Stalinization itself, while avoiding the extremes of historical revisionism and political whitewashing. Part of the policy is informed by foreign states, including Western states, use of Stalinism to demean Russia and Russians.

Putinism’s Russian Neo-Traditionalism

Putin and other Russian officials have stoked a national pride that glorifies Soviet triumphs, but Putin himself has acknowledged Stalin’s crimes under Stalin. He seeks to counter other states’ – including formerly communist, now often hybrid democratic-nationalist states’ – efforts to blame Russia and Russians for those crimes and make the latter feel ashamed of them.

At the same time, Russia both before and during Putin’s rule has faced up to the horrid truths about Soviet history. First of all, the Russian people were inundated with the revelations of the horrors of communism during perestroika and during the Yeltsin years, and they are both cognizant or, and exhausted by them. This is true of Russians and other former Soviet citizens in and outside the former Soviet space, with the possible exception of the Ukrainian, Georgian and Baltic republics, the leaders of which emphasize and often distort the communist repression in an attempt to darken Russia and Russians rather than communism. Second, there is no reason why Russians should not be proud of Soviet achievements, where they occurred. Should Russians only be subjected to repeated stories of gore and horror from the Gulag and reject Gagarin’s first space flight around the world or Moscow’s victory over Nazism?

Third, there are numerous ways in which the Russian state under Putin has fostered discussion of the Soviet regime’s crimes.  State or state-tied television channels have produced serial television films – some of them very excellent productions – on the Soviet regime’s atrocities, including Yesenin (a film about the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances and pressure from the communist regime), Moskovskaya saga (the story of a Moscow family’s destruction under Stalinism), Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize-winning novel Doctor Zhivago, and the great Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, among many others.  As Russia’s president, Dmitrii Medvedev made a trip to the Russian Far East to commemorate a memorial in Magadan to the victims of Stalin’s Gulag.  There is also the recent state-backed initiative to build a major monument and museum in Moscow to commemorate the victims of communism. Just this week Putin opened a memorial on the Kremlin’s grounds to Tsarist-era Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich, who was killed by an anarchist terrorists’ bomb in 1904 (www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/54447). Clearly, Stalin and communism are largely on the outs in the Kremlin under Putin.

Focusing repeatedly only on the communists’ efforts to rehabilitate Stalin as the Kremlin’s policy is a gross distortion of Russia’s reality and political complexity. It also deprives Western publics of the full complexity of the Stalin issue, for Russia in particular, and rich panoply of historical interpretation and politics in post-Soviet Russia. This is a much more interesting and accurate story, but it requires more work by journalists and is a less effective propaganda tool for their editors and the distorted Washington consensus.



  1. Putin is not only a traditionalist, he is a supporter of truth and free speech. A preserver of true Democracy. Not the fabricated democracy the US wants the world to be to satisfy its agendas.

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