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Is Stalinism Alive in Russia?

Vladimir Pachkov, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Oct 15th 2020

Is the Russian secret service the proud heir of the Cheka?

On February 25, 1956, in a closed door meeting of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, after much hesitation and argument with the head of the party, Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous speech “on Stalin’s personality cult and its consequences,” thereby initiating the process of de-stalinization in the Soviet Union. This represents one of the greatest political successes of the 20th century if one thinks of the extreme violence, the total lack of rights, and the uncertainty that reigned under Stalin. The speech was supposed to remain secret and be presented only to the members of the Communist Party. It only became public through side channels. 1

More than 60 years later, December 19, 2017, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), also gave a speech. It was not secret. On the contrary, the aim was to have it read by the greatest possible number of people. It was an interview that he gave to the editor-in-chief of the official newspaper of the Russian government, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the Security Service of the Russian Federation, founded with the name “Cheka” on December 20, 1917, less than two months after the rise to power of the Bolsheviks. Just as the speech of Khrushchev was a shock for the society of that time, so the speech of the FSB director has also been a shock today, at least for those in Russia who have heard about it or read it.

It was the first time since the 20th Congress of the Party that an important representative of the government has tried not only to justify the repression, but in a certain sense to present it as something positive. It has not happened since the time of Khrushchev’s speech.

Under Leonid Brezhnev (leader of the USSR from 1964 to 1982), those in power remained completely silent about the repression and generally with regard to the personality of Stalin himself; they erased the deeds of the dictator from all the history books in order to avoid having to criticize him. Now, however, in the new Russia – which in 1991 chose the road of democracy, as it seemed at the time, and after the coup attempt of August 1991 destroyed the monument to Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka – it has become possible that the killing of millions of innocent citizens of this country, perpetrated by the communist regime with the help of its Secret Services, be presented as something positive, or at least necessary “in the particular circumstances of the time.”

As Alexander Golz writes in his article “The heirs of the Cheka,” while Putin condemns every revolution, Bortnikov sings hymns to everything the organ of Bolshevik repression did in the defense of the “young Soviet Republic.” According to the FSB director, with regard to the repression and the murders directly caused by the Cheka in the first years of the Bolshevik regime, it could not have happened otherwise given the “circumstances of the beginning of the civil war and of the intervention, the collapse of the economy, the growth of criminality and terrorism … the strengthening of separatism.”

According to Bortnikov, even the repression in the epoch of Stalin was not without reason. And if at times there were excesses, these ended when Lavrentiy Beria assumed the direction of the Secret Services. Bortnikov, however, ignores the purges that eliminated a large number of the officers of the Red Army, purges that took place largely under Beria.

But the worst thing about this interview, according to Golz, is not the fact that Bortnikov repeats the same explanations used by criminals of the Soviet era, it is rather the fact that the director of the FSB, the organ that should have the responsibility for defending rights, tries to justify the perversions of justice and crimes as “historical necessities.” It is quite surprising that respect for rights and the law are not priorities in the organization born as the Cheka and now known as the FSB. Bortnikov eulogizes the provisions of the current FSB, not only those directed against terror and crime, but also those which have brought about the closing of more than 120 international and nongovernmental organizations on the grounds they might be instruments of foreign secret service agencies.

One cannot exclude the possibility that this interview was thought of as programmatic, and that what has happened in the past may repeat itself in the critical international situation today, for reasons of state. It is interesting, however, that foreign media gave emphasis only to what Bortnikov said about the fight against Islamic terrorism.[1]

The interview released by the FSB director demonstrated that it is still too early to leave to historians the question of state-sponsored terror against its own citizens. This organization now not only represents the center of the security apparatus in Russia, but also constitutes the nucleus of the political system – and today ever more of the economic system. This is the organization that considers itself heir to the Cheka, which was created 100 years ago to protect the Bolshevik regime.

The response to this interview did not take long. Unfortunately, however, it arrived almost exclusively from intellectual circles and not from the people. More than 80 members of the organization “The Free Word” and the members of the Russian Academy of Sciences[2] wrote an open letter, affirming that “this interview, in which terrorism against one’s own people is justified or praised, is not just one man’s private opinion, but is a significant step toward the rehabilitation of the activity of the Cheka and an attempt to approve even officially the re-stalinization that is already occurring in society.” The activities of state-sponsored terror, which caused the death of millions of innocent victims, are unacceptable. The consequences of such repression up until now have not been investigated; their judgment before the law is still awaited.

The declarations of the FSB director go hand in hand with the strong pressure exercised upon those who preserve the historical memory of the time of the repression and of its victims through organizations like Memorial or Perm–36. Alexander Dmitriev, the historian of Petrozavodsk (capital of the Republic of Karelia, on the border with Finland), has now been in protective custody for a year. A similar case is the attempt to find extremist contents in the book of Yuri Brodsky on the gulags of the Solovetsky Islands. “Bortnikov defines state-sponsored terror as excessive: this is an insult to the memory of all the victims of repression. We invite all those who do not want this to happen again to unite in protest. This must never happen again.”

Stalin and the ‘always’ authoritarian state

The process of re-stalinization began in the 1990s. At that time, it seemed a folkloric phenomenon with older ladies and gentlemen in t-shirts bearing images of Stalin at demonstrations of the Communist Party. In that period, however, Stalin was celebrated only as the leader of the Soviet Union who had won World War II, but never as the butcher of the 1930s. Honoring Stalin as the victor of the Great Patriotic War is a relatively new phenomenon, and contradicts the way in which World War II and the Great Patriotic War were considered during the period of de-stalinization, begun with Khrushchev. Up until the death of Stalin, there was no celebration of victory; only after his disappearance did this holiday acquire great importance: it became one of the principal holidays, which in the conscience and the sentiments of the people has even obscured the holiday of the October Revolution.

Moreover, the positive myth of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II – “we are all victors” – permitted, in the period of de-stalinization in the 1960s, the achievement of peace between the regime (the executioner) and the people, above all the peasants, the victims of the Great Terror at the time of the revolution, the civil war, and then again of the collectivization. However, this complicated the process of elaboration and clarification of what had happened in the years of terror. This process is made even more difficult in the Soviet Union – and now in Russia – by the fact that a precise borderline did not exist between victims and executioners: both were citizens – or better yet, inhabitants, because the peasants in the epoch of Stalin were not citizens – of the same state and often the executioners then became victims. In the interview cited above, Bortnikov speaks of about 22,000 agents of the Secret Service, the Chekists, killed in the period of the Great Terror, many of whom, however, had previously participated in the terror. On the other hand, one must also say that with the elimination of the members of the Secret Service “the masterminds of the terror” tried to clear themselves “at the expense of the executioners.”

The peace between the state and the people, stipulated after the death of the dictator, did signify that the state had renounced recourse to violence in its own interests. Only it no longer meant “revolutionary” violence, but a violence that had to be used for the preservation of the state and the status quo. In this sense, the current situation is not much different from that of those times, at least as regards the attitude of the institutions that protect the state.

What the FSB director describes as a necessity – something that justifies state-sponsored terror – is no longer class struggle or the needs of the political party, but the fight against the enemies of state, whoever they are. Everything that threatens the existence and interests of the state can and must be fought, even using extreme violence that is based on necessity and not on any law. This is very significant: what in fact counts is the openness to the use of violence. The causes that may justify it are various: class struggle, but also simply the necessity of preserving political stability.

As regards those who initiated the Red Terror, “the communist experiment gave them a justification for the assassination of class enemies and all those who wanted to impede the victory of communism, even if it was not dictated by the communist experiment. The Bolsheviks, at the time of the civil war, and later in the time of Stalin, acted voluntarily and used “necessity” as a justification for actions which should have only been necessary for them to preserve power. Stalin and his comrades no longer spoke of the most beautiful new world when they argued about what to do with presumed enemies of their regime: they spoke instead of techniques of violence. The dream of the communist redemption drowned in the blood of millions of people, because the violence was disassociated from its motivations, and the dictator associated it only with the objective of securing his power. In the end, everything was linked to the recognition of decision-making power, the power of Stalin to be master of life and death. Only in an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust was the despot able to impose his own will on others and to render his own world a world for everyone.”[3]

But one must also recognize that from the beginning of communist dominion – that is the epoch of Lenin and his followers – the situation was not much different: only that then the terror was supposed to consolidate the dictatorship of the entire party, and not of a single individual alone. With all of this, however, one does not wish to affirm that ideology did not also play a role. Violence may not only be justified retrospectively for the sake of an ideology, but also used beforehand as a motivation. The mobilization of the masses happened with the use of ideology, which made intolerance toward “enemies” a virtue.

Once again, it does not matter if one speaks of class enemies or enemies of the state; finally, only the incapacity to accept others with their ideas and interests matters. “People are able to live together in diversity if they agree to consider the vision of the world of one another as a world as viable as their own, although different. Where the possibility that the others are in the right is denied, there is no longer balance. The Bolsheviks did not recognize any possibility of seeing the world in a balanced way: for them there was only one interpretation, and this they themselves represented. This is what created the tyrannical idea of the criminalization and stigmatization of all that did not match up with their project.”[4]

While under the czar there already was in Russia an authoritarian and repressive state, the Bolsheviks arrived at a level of violence without precedent. The tradition of the state’s repression against its citizens was taken to absurd lengths. Unlike the old czarist police, the newly founded organs of repression did not content themselves with maintaining the status quo and reducing violence to the minimum: on the contrary, violence itself became the principal instrument of politics.

“They [the Bolsheviks] had no idea of the destructiveness of their cult of violence, because they did not keep it under control. Rather, they fomented it in their subjects. In the Red Army, the recruits learned above all their principal duty: to kill. The soldier was courageous, with solid and brutal nerves. He knew only two worlds: that of friends and that of enemies. And the training in the army had to help him to recognize enemies and destroy them in a fight to the death. The Bolsheviks did not have the least idea of the traditional role of the armed forces and the secret police in repressing internal and external threats and in containing violence. The Bolshevik cult of killing created a systematic disinhibition of the soldiers. Thus the Bolsheviks became, in the memory of their subjects, the armed men who, when they appeared, brought death and destruction.”[5]

When therefore the FSB director speaks of the positive role of the Bolshevik secret police in suffocating the “excesses” of the violence of the extreme left, which was on the border of chaos and represented a threat to the Bolshevik state, he forgets that this type of violence was generated and encouraged by the founders of that state. In reality, it would be necessary to distinguish between the many attempts of the state to give a sense to much – if not all – of what happened in the past history of Russia (even when it was part of the Soviet Union) and the attempt of the state to purify and re-evaluate some of the occurrences (including terror in the name of the state) with the aim of justifying today’s repressive measures.

The interview with the FSB director constitutes a step in this second direction, but it is not the first attempt. We may remind ourselves of a history textbook published 10 years ago. It states that everything that is necessary for the interests of the state must also be supported by society; that the fact that in the 1930s millions of people were arrested and sent to the gulag was also out of necessity, because without the work of these slaves they would not be able to exploit the resources of Northern Russia, something industrialization required. At that time, the attempt to present the needs of state as a justification for the crimes of state met with failure: it was more than the Russian people were able to accept. This history book was immediately taken out of circulation. But, as we can see, some representatives of today’s regime do not want to renounce the ideology of “what is good for the state is also right,” because it gives them the pretext for using the power of the state, even against the current opposition, when it is deemed necessary.

Stalin as a symbol of order and justice

This pretense of those in government of having the right to use violence against the population whenever they consider it necessary would be difficult to imagine if signs of re-stalinization and justification of the repression had not also risen from the population and if there were not a certain basic openness to the acceptance of an omnipotent state which, if it is necessary, must pursue order and development with violence and repression.

The last wave of clashes between those opposed to Stalinism and its defenders took place in 2013, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the siege of Stalingrad. At that moment, the name of Stalin was associated and almost identified with the victories of the people, and the dictator himself was presented as a representative of the people.

One ought not to dismiss nostalgia for Stalin and his time as something unnatural and masochistic. During the era of Brezhnev, the entire government elite came to power following the annihilation of the old framework. They were the ones who profited from the terror and maintained the nostalgia for Stalin and his time up until the 1990s.

The attempt to re-stalinize, so to speak, “from the bottom up” has a story of its own. The persons who in Russia – and above all in the Republics of the ex-Soviet Union – are more than 40 years old, can still remember what was said of Stalin in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, one did not think of him at all. One knew his name and that he was the head of the Soviet Union after Lenin, and that in his times collectivization and industrialization took place. Nothing else. Stalin was neither venerated nor hated, perhaps with the exception of the families of those who suffered during the repression.

This was the result of the official policy of those times. After the period of de-stalinization following the 20th Congress of the Party, the political leadership at the time of Brezhnev thought it would be better, in a certain sense, to ignore Stalin. They did not want to criticize him, not only to avoid putting in question the entire system, but also because they themselves were those who truly profited from the terror, for whom Stalin had smoothed out the path to the top. At the same time, they did not want to glorify Stalin, at least not publicly. Stalin was not completely erased from history. His name was cited in an entirely neutral way: there had been a politician with that name, and that is all. This policy produced its fruits. The memories of Stalin, at least in the generations that grew up after the war, bit by bit disappeared: he became merely one of many historical figures.

Things changed with Gorbachev and Perestroika. Information on the repression, the gulags, and all the rest was widely disseminated; it seemed that this second wave of de-stalinization would have been decisive. The crimes were unveiled, the criminals called by name, without any justification for what had been done. At the same time, however, as a consequence everyone learned the name of Stalin. The problem arose later when in 1992 the people who criticized Stalin rose to power and began to introduce reforms which, to use a euphemism, were “not very popular” and only brought misery to the majority of the population.

As a result, the architects of these reforms, who were at the same time the critics of Stalin, did not enjoy the favor of many Russians. For those for whom such reforms brought only difficulties, Stalin became an ever more popular rallying point for opposition. Their argument was: “In the old times, there was order. Now there is chaos; under Stalin this would never have been possible. Before there was social justice, and now the majority of the population lives in conditions of extreme poverty while some steal billions.”

People who had not lived under Stalin and who knew him only through books and films began to respect him. Stalin was no longer a person who had really existed. No. He had become a symbol of order and state power, in a period of chaos and humiliation. He was loved as a symbol, for what was projected upon him, and not for what he had really done. Legends about him and his times began to be recounted: under Stalin you lived as if in paradise.

These myths are widespread even today. The problem is that the reformers do not want to admit that even they, if only partially, are responsible for this rebirth of Stalinism, because they have left to the Stalinists and to state power terms like “order,” “stability,” “justice.” As long as this happens, the repressive state will find support in a part of the population for the vindication of its right to exercise an excessive violence precisely in the “interests” of the state.

In a poll conducted in Russia at the beginning of June 2017 by the Russian Center for Research in Public Opinion together with the Museum of the History of the Gulag and the Foundation Pamjat (which means “memory”), 72 percent of those interviewed declared that one ought to conserve the memory of the gulags and their victims. The opinion of 49 percent was that nothing can justify repression, but in the view of 42 percent Stalin was forced to bring about the repression. While 90 percent of those interviewed knew that at the time of Stalin many innocent people were arrested and executed, 24 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 had never heard of this, a clear sign of how history is taught in the schools and universities.

The majority of those interviewed were informed through TV documentaries or newspaper articles; some 48 percent spoke about it in their families and 24 percent declared that their own relatives underwent repression. Very disturbing is the fact that 16 percent of those interviewed think that the decisions taken by the courts in the times of Stalin were just (68 percent were not in agreement); among young people, 22 percent thought so. While 72 percent believe that it is right to speak about this terrible page of history, 22 percent – above all old people and once again, surprisingly, the younger generations – maintain that one ought not to speak about it, because it might damage the reputation of the country.[6]

The fact that in the consciousness of Russian society Stalin and his epoch are indisputably connected with violence and mass murder demonstrates the acceptance of his personality and actions, and even the acceptance of state violence, which goes hand in hand with disdain for the law. The many who, as we have seen, feel nostalgia for the stability and justice of Stalin’s time are only one part of the larger number of those who try for various reasons to justify and rationalize Stalinism.

As Alexander Morozov writes on the site Echo Moskvy,[7] again in the 1990s some authors appeared who inserted Stalin within the historical process: violence is simply inevitable. Stalinism would not be an unacceptable historical phenomenon. From this perspective, mass murder is not justified but rationalized: the authors of such arguments try to explain it with historical reasons. For the communists, the motivation was class struggle; after the disintegration of communism, this motivation was substituted by “reasons of state.” Such a discourse cannot be “patriotic”: violence represents only one function of any state, not just the Russian state.

Other representatives of neo-Stalinism base themselves upon an absurd synthesis of orthodoxy and communism, which John Snycev and his followers expressed in the book Holy Russia and the Reign of the Dragon. It is an historical-civic approach to history: civilizations are born, flourish and die. The book holds that the Russian civilization had its period of flourishing with Stalin. The millions of victims are completely forgotten, while one speaks willingly of industrialization, victory in World War II and the role of Russia as one of the two world powers of that time, something that had never happened before.

These arguments, even without explicitly citing Stalin, can be sustained by state propaganda, in the sense that a momentary position of strength on the world scene and the greatness of the state may be established at the cost of sacrifices within the country, even if such a price does not necessarily have to be blood.

The more classical neo-Stalinism has already been mentioned: Stalin is brought up as a symbol of justice, order and everything positive that is expected from the state. This neo-Stalinism has its followers, above all among the elderly, who have canceled the memory of the horror they and their parents lived through: they stubbornly affirm that with Stalin everything was better, above all the “order” they feel is lacking, at least beginning from the time of Perestroika (“the savage 1990s”).

Lately a new perspective has been affirmed. It presents the history of Russia as the history of tragedy and violence that the people have had to undergo because this was their destiny. To accept Russia would mean therefore to accept the inevitability of the suffering of the Russian people: the victims of the regime become (implicitly) martyrs.

One might remember also the so-called “neo-Stalinist polemic.” This is utilized only to defeat adversaries in the public debate. This variant of neo-Stalinism does not have its own ideology, but only empty words: “Stalin created Ukraine within its current borders”; “Others were still worse (for example, Truman, who ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan)”. Although not having as its objective the rehabilitation of Stalin and of his policies, this rhetoric contributes undeniably to the acceptance of the dictator among the people.

Although the vast majority of Russians are opposed to these attempts to rehabilitate Stalin and his regime, creeping re-stalinization should not be overlooked, a process which began from below and is now used by the state for its own purposes. The danger of this phenomenon should not be underestimated, because the justification of the crimes of the regime committed in the name of reasons of state or in the name of order and social justice makes possible that what happened once may repeat itself.

The best thing for combating neo-Stalinism and every other form of nostalgia for totalitarianism is to demonstrate that order, stability and justice may exist even in a liberal state that respects the rights of its citizens and is at their service.[8]

[1].Cf. “4,500 Russians joined ‘terrorists’ abroad; security service chief,” in Japan Times, December 20, 2017, in


[3].J. Baberowski, Verbrannte Erde. Stalins Herrschaft der Gewalt, München, C. H. Beck, 2012.

[4].Ibid., Der rote Terror. Die Geschichte des Stalinismus, München, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2003.

[5].Ibid., Verbrannte Erde…, cit.



[8].On October 30, 2017, speaking at the ceremony for the inauguration of the “Wall of Sorrow,” a new monument in Moscow dedicated to the victims of Soviet repression, President Putin defined the repression of the Soviet epoch “a tragedy for the Russian people” that “cannot in any way be justified, by any so-called ‘good of the people.’” Cf.

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