Rehabilitating Joseph Stalin

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Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Russian Communists queue to lay flowers at Stalin's grave to mark the 130th anniversary of his birth in Red Square, Moscow.

It's hard to imagine any of Russia's current leaders getting a birthday party like the one thrown Monday at Moscow's Ismailovsky Hotel for the former despot, Josef Stalin. The grand hall was packed beyond capacity with more than 2,000 revelers — some of whom wept as patriotic poems were read. Famous actresses sang ballads with the backing of a full military orchestra. And towering over the stage was an enormous portrait of the birthday boy in his military regalia, adding an element of the surreal to the entire scene.

What may be more surreal, however, is the resurgent popularity that Stalin is enjoying at the moment in Russia. Just in time for the 130th anniversary of his birth on Dec. 21, the state-run polling agency VTsIOM released a survey showing that despite the millions of Soviet citizens who fell victim to purges, starvation and summary executions under Stalin's regime, 54% of Russians now have a high opinion of his leadership qualities. And when asked about his personal attributes, 50% of respondents said they viewed them as average or above average — up from 45% when the same survey was conducted in 2000.

This is no historical accident. The Russian government has been sending clear signals in recent years that Stalin's achievements must be revered — despite the "mistakes," as officials often put it, that were made during his time in power. During Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's annual call-in TV show earlier this month, which included several staged questions aimed at sending the public a message, Putin warned Russians against making any "overall judgment" against Stalin. To prove his point, he cited the forced collectivization of agriculture, a process that historians say caused millions of deaths from starvation in the 1920s and '30s, when Stalin was general secretary of the Communist party. "It's true, there was no peasantry left after that," Putin said. "Everything that happened in this sphere did not have any positive effect on the villages. But after all we did get industrialization."

Last year, a new history textbook was adopted for schools, which makes mention of the repressions of the Stalin era, but also describes the leader as a "competent manager." The characterization in the book — written with the help of a historian from Putin's United Russia party — drew fierce criticism from historians in Russia and abroad. But perhaps the most blatant example of rewriting history yet came in August, when the city of Moscow unveiled an inscription to Stalin in the marble entryway of the Kurskaya Metro station. In giant letters, it reads: "Stalin raised us to be loyal to the fatherland, inspired us to labor and great works." The praise caused an outcry from human rights groups and opposition politicians, but officials haven't taken any actions to remove it.

What's behind the move by the government to rehabilitate Stalin's image in the eyes of the public? Some opposition politicians believe it's tied to the United Russia party's efforts to solidify its power. "The state is hinting that Stalin's tactics are also part of its arsenal for controlling the country," says Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the opposition Yabloko party. The widespread sympathy toward Stalin, he adds, is also a result of the lingering impact of Soviet propaganda, which the Russian government never tried to erase from the public consciousness after communism fell. "All countries emerging from totalitarianism and evolving into a normal form of government carried out a long and difficult program of reforms and re-education, of coming to grips with the past," he says. "Germany is still carrying out de-Nazification, while we never even began this process."

Not everyone in the higher echelons of government has signed on to this official makeover of Stalin's image, though. On Oct. 30, the official day of mourning for the victims of Stalin's regime, President Dmitry Mevdedev said that Russia "must not allow those who destroyed their own people to be defended under the banner of restoring historical justice. ... There can be no justification for repressions." But his plea, issued in a video blog on the Kremlin website, largely fell on deaf ears. The blog posting reached nowhere near as many people as the Putin call-in show, which was broadcast on state-run TV channels across the country. Medvedev's video also got scant attention in the Russian media.

At the birthday celebration on Monday, which was organized by the Communist party, the majority of the attendees were World War II veterans bred on Stalinist propaganda. But hundreds of younger people also sat in the auditorium or milled around the vestibule as the musicians performed. One of them, Vadim Kasimov, a secretary of the Union of Communist Youth, said that Stalin's legacy is one of his group's best tools for recruiting new members. "Young people, when they think of him at all, think of him as a strong leader, a vibrant personality, and what he stood for they often want to emulate," he says.

Whether or not young people follow in Stalin's footsteps, the government looks to be succeeding in dispelling some of the outrage felt by Russians toward his terror-filled reign. He may very well be remembered one day as a strong, competent leader who made some mistakes — and whose birthday will always call for a celebration.