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It’s hard to view Stalin as any sort of Russian national hero considering the demonstrable idiocy of his apologists’ arguments.
Trying to portray him as such involves descending into a fantasy world in which no country had ever managed to industrialize itself without killing off millions of its most intelligent and productive people or have won a war against a European Great Power without the indispensable strategic wisdom that you could only get from a Georgian dropout who spent his youth robbing banks and sitting in jail with his fellow Bolshevik comrades and sundry ethnic minority activists. A more rabidly Russophobic outlook could scarcely be imagined.
So its pretty sad to see that Russian sentiments towards Stalin generally are (and have been) positive, despite the Kremlin’s half-hearted attempts to disassociate him from the Great Victory cult that is now the primary spiritual glue used to keep Russia together.
That said, it is very valid to ask why said apologetics industry for Stalin developed in Russia from the 2000s in the first place. Was it Kremlin propaganda? Nope. Only people whose only exposure to Russia is through the dregs of Western journalism can seriously believe that. Putin’s own statements on Stalin have been consistently ambivalent, and even the infamous “Stalinist” textbook episode of 2009 – just one minor textbook of many dozens, which the Western media portrayed as a state-backed “rehabilitation” of Stalin – contained sentences such as “ruthless exploitation of the population.”
So if this wasn’t due to a Kremlin propaganda campaign, then why the enduring Stalinophilia? My view is that it was Russian society’s response to the wholesale “blackwashing” of Stalin that took place in the 1990s with rhetoric about “muh 72 million victims of Communism” lifted from Cold War scholars in the West who had to speculate in the absence of archival access.
Such extreme positions were uncritically pushed by the Westernizing ideologues who constitute Russian liberalism once society opened up in the late 1980s and 1990s, to the extent that the phenomenon even got its own ironic meme (“billions shot dead personally by Stalin”). Considering some of the truly crazy stuff that was floating about – there were entirely serious articles in the liberal press arguing that Nazi conquest could have been better for Russia than Stalin – this was not too surprising in hindsight.
One would think that given Stalin’s actual record, which was sordid enough, you would not need to “blackwash” him any further, but ideologues will be ideologues, so what happened happened, and next thing you know many people started suspecting that given the false facts and figures being pushed about Stalin – demonstrated so by the newly accessible archival evidence itself – then maybe they were lying about everything else as well, and well maybe Stalin was actually the good guy after all, maligned by his bitter and limp-wristed successors who “sold out” the Glorious Leader.
And thus a huge strand of the Russian “patriotic” opposition to the liberal neocon hegemony of the 1990s, which had decidedly triumphed by the end of Putin’s first term, had in the process also become infested with Stalinophilia – even though it is not really compatible with Russian patriotism, let alone Russian nationalism (which the Communists, including Stalin, ruthlessly persecuted). The tendency of Stalin’s popularity to wax and wane in sync with the state of Russia’s relations with the West – lower when they are good, and higher when they are bad – strongly suggests that the debate over Stalin in Russia has nothing to do with real history. Instead, it is merely one of several tribal identifiers in politics, much like denial of global warming is a tenet of the Red Tribe and blank slatism is a tenet of the Blue Tribe, both of which have everything to do with American-specific politics and nothing to do with science. In Russia’s case, this Stalinist identifier – like the broader patriotic Great Patriotic War ideology onto which it has affixed itself – gets deflated and boosted whenever Russia veers between globalist integrationism and siege mentality, respectively.
This is not critical in the short term. To be sure, it generates negative headlines in the West, but that’s irrelevant because even if Russia were to uneqivocally start condemning Stalin, Western editors would just find something else to latch onto so long as Russia remains a sovereign country. In the longer term, however, these contradictions will have to be resolved.