Stalin’s Ghost Returns

On June 26, 2017, the independent Yuri Levada Analytical Center (Moscow) published results of a new poll. The respondents were asked to name 10 most outstanding personalities. Participants themselves provided the names and could indicate more than one answer. The survey was conducted among 1,600 people aged 18 and over in 137 settlements in 48 regions of the country. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was named by 38% of respondents, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the 19th Century Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, — 34%, the creator of the Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin was in fourth place with 32%, and in fifth, Tsar Peter I (29%).

Five years ago, according to the results of a similar poll, the votes in the first five were as follows: Stalin (42%), Lenin and Peter I (37% each), Pushkin (29%), Putin (22%). These numbers demonstrate that the opinion of the Russian population towards the Soviet dictator becomes more and more positive, perhaps from the favorable propaganda on state-controlled TV. Putin also gains. Additionally, the number of Russians who attribute the enormously high losses in World War II to Stalin and his military leaders’ irresponsible attitude towards human lives, in May 2017 had fallen to 12% percent. In June 1997, this figure was 34%, in May 2011, it was 18%. In February 2017, new official data on the Soviet losses during WWII was announced in the State Duma:

According to the declassified data of the State Planning Committee of the USSR, the losses of the Soviet Union in WWII amounted to 41 million 979 thousand, and not 27 million, as was previously thought . . . The general decrease in the population of the USSR in 1941-45 was more than 52 million 812 thousand people. Of these, irretrievable losses were more than 19 million military personnel and 23 million civilians.

Apparently, a new Stalin monument will appear soon in Moscow. In May 2017, a sculpture park, the “Alley of Rulers” with busts of 33 rulers, from Middle Age princes to Romanov tsars and two heads of the 1917 Provisional Government was opened in the Central Moscow. The busts were created by Zurab Tsereteli, President of the Russian Academy of Arts, and the “Alley” was unveiled by Vladimir Medinsky, Minister of Culture, and Olga Vasilieva, Minister of Education and Science. During the ceremony, Tsereteli declared that he is working on additional 8 busts of Soviet leaders, including Stalin.

In the meantime, an old plaque about Stalin was just restored in the former Highest [Communist] Party School in Moscow, currently the by O.Ye. Kutafin Moscow State Law Academy (MGYuA). Originally installed in 1949 and stated: “On July 17, 1924, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin delivered a speech here about the results of the Thirteenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party.” In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party and the second anti-Stalin speech by Nikita Khrushchev, it was dismantled and kept in a storage. In June 2017, Viktor Blazheev, MGYuA Rector ordered the plaque to be once again put on display.

On June 27, 2017 Henry Reznik, a prominent lawyer, Vice President of the Federal Bar and a MGYU professor, resigned when found out about the plaque, writing in his blog:

The first thing the Bolshevik leader [Stalin] did was, — he buried the law. Stalin was mass extrajudicial courts and repressions: special boards, “troika” [three-member-courts] and “dvoiki” [two-member-courts], legalized torture, the liquidation of an independent court, the presumption of innocence and the principle of competition [in the court], deportations of entire nations. The traditions of Stalin’s “socialist legality” cannot be still overcome. Stalin is an anti-law, and a plaque has been installed in the temple of legal science, which is the main value of modern civilization, in honor of the gravedigger of law. This is too much. I’m cancelling my professorship in the MGYuA.

In support of Reznik’s decision, on the next day teachers of the Department of Constitutional and Administrative Law of the Higher School of Economics (VShE) refused to participate in any events of the MGYuA. An open letter addressed to Blazheev, MGYuA Rector, was published in Facebook by Ilya Shablinsky , VShE Professor. It  stated:

The other day we were struck by the news that in the MGYuA building a memorial plaque dedicated to Stalin’s speech was installed. We, the staff of the Department of Constitutional and Administrative Law of the Higher School of Economics, are not going to give an assessment to this and just want to state that while this plaque is hanging in the MGYuA building, no member of the department will participate in scientific and other events held by the Academy.

Shablinsky commented: “A plaque was installed in a law school in honor of the one who had liquidated law. And at the same time he liquidated several million people.” Later the MGYuA press service said that the Academy respects Reznik’s position, but does not want to enter into polemics with him. It added: “[His] resignation won’t affect the educational process in any way, since he received [only] 0.1 of the professor’s salary.”

Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov made a comment on Reznik’s action: “There cannot be an official position here.” He continued: “As for Stalin’s memorial plaques, there cannot be any official position here again, this is a part, and the President has repeatedly said that this is part of our history through which our country passed, and, of course, the history should be perceived as adequately as possible.”

On July 4, 2017, Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights under Russian President Vladimir Putin recommended the MGYuA administration to remove the plaque. Eight days later MGYuA Rector Blazheev responded that he took into consideration the Council’s recommendation, leaving unclear if the plaque would be removed.

Police Major General Tatyana Moskalkova, Russian Ombudsman for Human Rights, supported the restoration of the plaque since it supposedly is a reminder of the repressions and importance of following the law: “We have the same plaque in the Foreign Ministry lobby, and it is appropriate [and in the MGUA], because it reminds the future lawyers how important it is to respect the law and not to slip down to repression.” It’s unclear how plaques perpetuating Stalin’s speeches can warn one of the persecutions conducted on his order.

Strictly speaking, it’s not surprising that the MGYuA leadership appeals to Stalin’s past. In the 1940s, many state security (MGB) officers graduated from the All-Union Legal Correspondence Institute (VYuZI), as the MGYuA was called then. Among them there was Pavel Grishaev, who tortured prisoners, men and women, during interrogations. He was involved in the investigation of such infamous cases as “The Allilievs Case,” “The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Case,” and the case of “Abakumov-Shvartsman Zionist Plot in the MGB.” Later Grishaev became Law Professor at this institution. Moskalkova, the current Ombudsman for Human Rights, graduated from the VYuZI in 1978, when Professor Grishaev was teaching students.

Ivan Pavlov, head of the “Team29” group of St. Petersburg’s lawyers, sees the current return of Stalin’s ghost in Russian legal system as a wider problem. Already on July 6, 2016 he posted the following text on his Facebook:

Judging by the offices of investigators and other law enforcers, Stalin did not go into the past, but dissolved into the present. I regularly have to go to places like this, and [portraits of] the Leader of the People hang in every second office.

Here is an idea: to arrange a photo-hunting and to compile a list of mustachioed [i.e., Stalin’s – V.B.] portraits in order to assess the scale of the catastrophe. Then it will be possible to send inquiries and find, for example, how much the state manages to preserve the Chekist traditions. I invite colleagues and not only them to participate. Publish a photo with an address and a hashtag # caught on and indicating the name of the agency and address, up to the floor.

For example, these mustaches hang in the corridor of the second floor of the building of the Main Investigation Directorate of the Russian Federation Investigation Committee for Moscow (address: Moscow, 26/8 Novokuznetsk Street).

In the meantime, on July 5, 2017, data on the polls about Stalin’s political purges were published. The survey was conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), GULAG History Museum (Moscow) and connected with it the Memorial Fund; 1800 of people were interviewed. VTsIOM is the state-owned and government-run institution that reports to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. A significant number, 43% of respondents who had heard about the repression agreed that without conducting repression it would have been impossible to maintain order within the Soviet Union. Only 49% of the respondents categorically condemned the purges (57% of these had a family member who had been repressed).

10% of those polled by VTsIOM, or about 11.2 million of the Russian population, had never heard of Stalin’s repression. Among young people aged 18-24-years old, this number was 24%. According to the respondents, victims of repression were those people who disagreed with the policy of the authorities (37%) and some officials (22%), as well as real traitors and conspirators (24%) and criminals (23%). More encouragingly, 72% of respondents said that it is necessary to talk about the victims of Stalin’s punitive machine as much as possible, so that persecutions will never happen again, while 22% suggested discussing the topic at a minimum so that “it does not adversely affect the image of the country.” In the early 2000s, Stalin’s activity was generally considered mostly negative. In October 2008, according to the polls, the number of Stalin’s supporters for the first time prevailed over the number of those who hated him. Yet in 2017, a record number, 46% of respondents, were Stalin’s supporters.