Between Putin and Stalin

In a dream, Vladimir Putin sees the ghost of Joseph Stalin and asks for his advice on running the country. “Round up and shoot the opposition, and then repaint the Kremlin walls blue,” Stalin says. “Why blue?” Putin asks. “Very good,” Stalin replies, “I knew you wouldn’t ask about the first part.”

— Russian joke from 2000

As Russia’s December 4th parliamentary “elections” approach, opposition supporters are looking for a way to weaken the dominance of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian kleptocracy—no easy task, with campaigning and voting strictly controlled, and several anti-Kremlin groups barred from the ballot altogether. In such context, some well-meaning Russians are considering a vote for the Communist Party as the “largest opposition group.” The argument is that, with strengthened Communists in the Duma, Putin’s supporters will have to “make deals and compromise,” which will change the political atmosphere.

This begs just two questions: compromise on what, and make deals with whom?

According to Russia’s Memorial Society, more than 12 million people fell victim to political persecution during the 1917–1991 Communist rule, with 4 million arrested and convicted, and the rest purged without even a veneer of formality (such as “collectivized” peasants and deported nations). During the 1937–38 “Great Terror” alone, some 1.7 million people were arrested. 725,000 of them were executed—a killing rate of more than 1,000 people a day. Peasants and priests, philosophers and writers, entrepreneurs and military officers were engulfed (to use Solzhenitsyn’s words) in a “Volga River of popular grief.”

Today, the Russian Communist Party not only refrains from condemning these crimes, but seems to take pride in them. Unlike their counterparts in Central Europe, Russia’s Communists have not even modified their name, let alone their worldview. If anything, today’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation is more hard-line than the post-1956 Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, openly praises the “great Stalinist era,” maintains that forced collectivization of the 1930s “saved” the country, and credits Stalin with “freeing labor from exploitation” (and that in a system of Gulag and kolkhozy). On a recent radio show, Valery Rashkin, the Communist chief in Moscow, called the unspeakable human price of Stalin’s industrialization “normal.” In a televised debate against the liberal Yabloko party, film director and Communist candidate Vladimir Bortko referred to Stalin as “unequivocally a great builder of our state.” On the campaign trail in the last few weeks, the Communists decorated their banners with portraits of Stalin, proposed changing the name of the city of Novomoskovsk to Stalinogorsk, and promised to fight bribery through a new “Joseph Stalin anticorruption committee.”

Indeed, the only Russian politician who can claim to outcompete the Communists in reverence to Stalin is Vladimir Putin, whose regime reinstated Stalin’s national anthem, approved a teaching manual that justifies the Stalinist era, and restored a naval memorial to the late dictator.

The arguments for backing the Communists as an “alternative” to the current regime are bogus and immoral. No “tactical” considerations can justify a vote for the apologists of state-sponsored mass murder. There is no “better choice” between the supporters of Putin and the followers of Stalin. Russia’s future belongs to neither.

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