By Paul Goble
Young Russians increasingly deify Stalin not only because he represents a system radically different from that of Russia today but also because the contemporary Russian state has failed to offer a specific ideological alternative that is not mired in abstraction, accord to two Russian scholars.
In the course of a St. Petersburg conference last week on “Russian Self-Consciousness and the Space of Russia,” which concluded that this consciousness today is “under the power of destructive myths,” two participants addressed the increasing popularity of Stalin among Russian youth who never lived under the dictator (www.rosbalt.ru/piter/2011/05/28/853135.html).
Dmitry Astashkin, a professor of journalism at Novgorod State University, noted that “alongside attempts to borrow elements of foreign cultures, in contemporary Russian society there is a tendency to return to the Soviet model,” often among those and in places where few might expect it, especially in its extreme forms.
“Stalinist types and the personality of Stalin himself are viewed as the symbol of this model,” Astashkin said, in large measure because of their “radical difference from the present situation of the Russian Federation.” And this is expressed “among the most passionate part of society,” the young.
For Russian youth, he suggested, “Stalin and his activity are being mythologized, and [the dictator himself] is becoming a symbol of non-conformism, set in opposition [by younger Russians] to contemporary culture and the state arrangements” of the Russian Federation at the present time.
“A positive attitude toward Stalin is [thus] step by step ceasing to be found only among pensioners and veterans and is becoming part of the subculture of the youth.” The dictator is now referred to in popular songs, computer games, and in internet forums, a trend that was especially marked in the run-up to the May 9 Victory Day celebrations.
Astashkin suggested that it is “interesting” that “when talking about Stalin, young people are not in a position to operate on their own emotions and recollections,” since they were born after he died. “And that means that young Russians are borrowing ideas about Stalin from their own families.”
In short, “the real Stalin has been transformed into a myth about the Soviet empire, thus having ceased to be a dictator and having become a unique embodiment of a harsh style of administration and a symbol of order and social justice,” values that many young people are attracted to.
Consequently, Astashkin concluded, “until the state offers another path of development, Stalin will remain a resource for national identification” among Russians, something that may keep them in the sway of the past rather than allowing them to move forward into a different future.
A second speaker, Petr Smirnov, a professor at St. Petersburg State University, explored efforts by post-Soviet Russian governments to offer such an alternative basis for identity and pointed to the reasons why they have failed to take, especially among members of the younger generation.
The 1993 Constitution, Smirnov points out, represented “an attempt to offer another platform for national self-identification,” but it failed because it was too abstract. Instead of talking about specifically Russian values, it used language that could apply to any country on earth, thus limiting its utility and impact.
“The abstracted quality” and “all-human” nature of the provisions of the 1993 Constitution thus failed to find resonance among many Russians. According to Smirnov, it would have been better if the Russian Constitution had been formulated in a more distinctively Russian way.
For example, he suggests that instead of talking about human beings in general, the Constitution should have specified that “the highest value in the Russian Federation is recognized as the citizen of Russia, his life, dignity, rights and freedoms. The state is obligated to observe and defend conditions to allow each citizen to realize himself” fully.
Such a formulation, the St. Petersburg professor continues, “would have helped not only to limit the arbitrariness of all branches of state power and to serve as a reliable guide for conducting domestic and foreign policy but would have become the basis for the formation of a single Russian national identity of all ethnic groups within Russia.”