Russia’s Soviet Past Still Haunts Relations with West

Russia’s Soviet Past Still Haunts Relations with West

President Vladimir Putin continues to downplay atrocities by Stalin. Some see Russia’s refusal to come to grips with its Soviet past haunting relations with the West.

June 28, 2007 4:36 pm (EST)

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In a July 2006 speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russians “shouldn’t feel guilty” about Stalin’s purges, while accusing Western academics of downplaying Moscow’s role in ending World War II and exaggerating the atrocities committed by Stalin. A few years back, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” and reinstated the Soviet national anthem. The Kremlin, some experts say, is trying to polish up its Soviet past in an effort to reassert itself on the world stage and restore national pride among Russians. Unlike post-apartheid South Africa or post-Nazi Germany, Russia has never fully come to terms with its past or established a truth commission to investigate Soviet-era atrocities. Some Western experts say such neo-Stalinist attitudes have had a damaging effect on Russia’s current international relations, from its capricious energy policies to its strong language over the staging of a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Stalin’s Ghost and Russian-Western Relations

Putin’s glossing over of Soviet history comes at a time of rising anti-Western attitudes among Russians. “There is a steady drip, drip, drip coming from the Kremlin and on Russian television that is intensely anti-American,” says Sarah E. Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “[Russians] increasingly view the United States as more of a threat than China or Iran. Plus, there is this rejection of seeing Russia as part of the Euro-Atlantic community.” What triggered the latest round of anti-Western suspicions is the ongoing expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) influence in the region and the proposal to stage a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Russians appear increasingly concerned by what Stalin called “capitalist encirclement,” says Stephen F. Cohen, an expert on Russia at New York University. This concern has caused a spike in nationalism and sharpened Russia’s anti-Western rhetoric. “Every chance they have they attack us,” adds Richard E. Pipes of Harvard University, referring to the Kremlin. That has grown worse as Russia’s energy-driven economy expands, he says. “Given that once again Russia is a great power, it can poke its nose at America and [Putin] exploits that.”

“How can you come back from a camp and live next door to the person who sent you to the camp?” Goldman asks.

Others say Russia’s lashing out against the West reflects its weakness, not its strength. “It’s a lack of self-confidence,” says Marshall Goldman of Wellesley College, adding that this sentiment is fueled by false accusations of Russia’s objectives abroad. Some experts add that Putin’s efforts to rehabilitate Stalin may be an attempt to shore up his own legacy. “In some ways, the legitimacy of Putinism does seem to rest on saying [the Soviet era] wasn’t as bad as people say,” says Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Why it’s not more legitimate to say ‘Let’s find out how bad it was,’ that’s something you’d have to ask [the Russians].”

Early Attempts to Revisit Stalin’s Crimes

In the late 1980s, small but meaningful efforts were made to investigate Stalin-era atrocities. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, investigations of past purges were launched and monuments to gulag victims were erected. “The high point of official truth telling was under Gorbachev,” says Cohen. “He believed the [gulag] system needed dismantling and he had to discredit the era in which the system was created. Gorbachev and [Politburo member and Kremlin adviser] Alexander Yakovlev had a very profound moral allergy to Stalinism.” Both of Gorbachev’s grandparents were deported by Stalin to Siberian labor camps. His denunciation of the system echoed Nikita Khrushchev’s famous 1956 secret speech in which he spoke out against Stalinism, which ushered in an era of de-Stalinization. But Gorbachev’s attempt to denounce Stalin did not go far enough, experts say. Goldman is surprised a more serious effort to prosecute crimes from that era was not made. “How can you come back from a camp and live next door to the person who sent you to the camp?” he asks. “That mystifies me.”

“The reaction to the 1990s was coming, and his name was Putin,” says Cohen.

After Gorbachev exited the political stage, Boris Yeltsin picked up on his predecessor’s efforts to investigate past atrocities and rehabilitate victims. The KGB, Russia’s state security agency, was dismantled (or rather folded into the FSB). Archives were opened—albeit partially—and a series of trials were held. But as Pipes, who attended the trials and provided expert testimony, says, “Nothing happened. No one was arrested or tried.” There were sporadic, mostly bottom-up efforts to create a truth commission to investigate Soviet atrocities, in addition to the work of Russian human rights groups like Memorial, but nothing of substance materialized. “It‘s a very difficult thing to repudiate seventy years of Russian history,” says Pipes. “They did this in Germany and Japan but we were the occupying power then.” Some sites of former gulags have been preserved or made into museums and Russia has erected a few memorials to the victims of Stalin’s purges, including a statue erected in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, but Pipes says “it’s a pitiful thing” that pales in size to a similar statue in Washington, DC. Adds Sestanovich: “The whole idea of having a monument to victims of communism is something that makes people [in Russia] mad. They don’t see it as a principle of national reconciliation.”

Revulsion to Soviet Revisionism

Countries are often cautious about rewriting their histories, experts say, and Russia is no different. “Millions of Russians simply aren’t going to spit on the biographies of their grandfathers or fathers any more than we are going to condemn the Founding Fathers because they owned slaves,” says Cohen of New York University. “They are not going to throw out the entire Soviet experience nor should they, because tens of millions of decent human beings lived their lives, married, and died with nothing but virtue on their minds. It’s not their fault what their government did or didn’t do.” Yet Pipes says this unwillingness to revisit past crimes may reflect Russians’ “inferiority complex,” which was only exacerbated by the economic stagnation and political anarchy of the 1990s. Many Russians blamed these growing pains on the policies of Western advisers. “Russians felt very bad they were no longer a superpower,” Goldman says. “They’ve always been a bit defensive and want to protect their image. Any attempt to undermine it is almost viewed as a form of treachery or self-hate.” Or as Cohen puts it: “The reaction to the 1990s was coming, and his name was Putin.”

Revival of Stalinist Nostalgia

Under Putin’s watch, nostalgia for Stalin has grown, even among young Russians. Majorities of young Russians view Stalin as a “wise leader” and there appears to be no taboo surrounding the Soviet dictator, according to a forthcoming report by CSIS’s Mendelson and University of Wisconsin professor Ted Gerber. In 2005 and 2007, they found a majority of young Russian respondents believed Stalin did “more good than bad.” Other polls show younger generations view Stalin, falsely, as the mastermind behind the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. In fact, historians say, Stalin had purged his officer corps, signed a secret deal with Hitler, and was caught unprepared by the advancing German armies. About 40 percent of young Russians believe that Stalin’s role in the repressions, too, was exaggerated, which Mendelson says affects their attitudes toward the current regime. “As long as Russians remain uneducated or mildly supportive, or even just ambivalent about a dictator who institutionalized terror, disappearances, slavery, and had millions killed, they are simply unlikely to protest disappearances in parts of Russia today,” she says.

Large majorities of young Russians, says Mendelson, based on a recent survey, sympathize with Putin’s calling the collapse of the Soviet Union the twentieth century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe.”

Russians’ neo-Stalinism manifests itself in several ways. The opening last year of a museum devoted to Stalin in Volgograd, once known as Stalingrad, provoked only a minor outcry from victims’ relatives. There has been a boost in enrollment among nationalist youth movements like Nashi (Ours), whose mission statements are eerily reminiscent of the Soviet-era Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist party. And more than 60 percent of young Russians in a recent survey, says Mendelson, sympathize with Putin’s calling the collapse of the Soviet Union the twentieth century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe.” Neo-Stalinism also affects Russia’s policies toward its neighbors. Estonia’s recent removal of a Red Army war memorial from its capital, for instance, set off a storm of protest from Russians. “No doubt, when Russians react to the Baltic States and NATO their reaction is part traditional geopolitics, part national pride, and part neo-Stalinism,” says Sestanovich. In the survey by Mendelson and Gerber, just 10 percent of young Russians think Russia should apologize for the Baltic occupation.

Non-Russian Views of Stalin

There is also the notion that Stalin’s “Great Terror,” which killed at least twenty million Russians, Ukrainians, and other nationalities in the Soviet Union, never resonated broadly with the public outside of Russia quite like the Holocaust did. “To many people, the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler,” writes journalist Anne Applebaum in her book Gulag: A History. That is partly because of the comparative lack of archival research on Stalin’s purges—experts say access to archives has been tightened in recent yearsand restricted access to labor camps, says Applebaum. Plus, unlike the Nazis, the Soviets did not videotape their gulags or victims. “No images, in turn, meant less understanding,” she writes. Hence, icons from the Soviet era like Lenin busts or hammer-and-sickle banners are now kitsch for Western tourists and sold at duty-free shops.

Revisiting Russia’s Stalinist Past

It’s unclear what effect a reopening—whether or not in the form of a South Africa-style truth commission—of Russia’s Stalinist past would have on its national psyche. In some ways, experts say, many Russians are already aware of Stalin’s purges from authors like Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “Of course, many of them know it,” says Pipes. “But others don’t want to know it.” He says it would be very upsetting for Russians to know the true extent of Stalin’s crimes. “The thing that makes Russians feel great is the Soviet Union in space, or its defeat of Nazi Germany.” Anything that debunks that era’s legacy, he says, would “have a terrible effect on them.” Wellesley’s Goldman agrees. “It would set off a bunch of worldwide criticism and deepen Russians’ sense of inferiority and shame,” he says. But others say an investigation of Soviet-era crimes would provide Russians with a catharsis of sorts and energize them to engage more in political life. “How a country, any country, reconciles with its past, especially with episodes of gross human rights violations, shapes political and social development,” says Mendelson. Yet experts note that any investigation is a long shot and that the window of opportunity may have closed. “Many people who worked for Stalin and [Leonid] Brezhnev are still alive,” says Pipes. “They don’t want to have this discussion. Maybe in ten or twenty years they will.”

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