Stalin, the war hero, presents vexing problem

April 23, 1995|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- As the leaders of Russia, and much of the world, prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis in World War II, a victory that cost this country 27 million lives, a vexing problem has developed:

What about Josef V. Stalin, the central figure of post-revolutionary Soviet history, the transplanted Georgian who led Russia to victory in war, made it a great industrial power, defeated Adolf Hitler and is justly considered one of the most monstrous criminals of the century?

"You can't just ignore him," said Stephen F. Cohen, director of the Russian studies program at Princeton University. "Stalin is associated with victory in World War II in the mind of every Russian over the age of 45. Of course, it would be false to give him too much credit for that victory. But it would be just as false to pretend he didn't exist."

Until recently, that was basically the policy here. Stalin had been airbrushed out of history, neatly excised from the world he largely created.

But every soldier going into battle during the "Great Patriotic War," which is what all Russians call World War II, pledged his life "for the motherland and for Stalin."

As the celebration that will bring President Clinton and other heads of state to Moscow nears, the Kremlin has decided for the first time in decades that ignoring Stalin will no longer work.

There have, of course, long been little bands of Stalinists, dedicated to the past. It is easy -- and has been for a while -- to find volumes of his letters, his biographies, all sorts of memorabilia.

It is not as common as it once was, but plenty of apartments in Russia have a picture of the Orthodox Patriarch on one wall and a portrait of Stalin on the other.

But this month, the nostalgia took a scary turn.

First, Russia issued a World War II commemorative stamp featuring the head of the dictator (along with those of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.) It is the first time Stalin had been publicly portrayed by any Russian government in more than 40 years. To many it seemed like a small step toward rehabilitation, but it wasn't the only one.

Last week, in an eye-opening change of course that delighted elderly veterans and scared almost everyone else, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin provided a staunch defense of Stalin's war record.

"It would be unfair and dishonest to belittle Stalin's role in the victory," he said, adding that the Soviet leader played an important part in the Red Army's triumph -- although most Russian and Western historians say the damage he did before and during the war was far more consequential than his leadership.

The prime minister spent much of the speech denouncing the dictator for his excesses, but the praise was what really stirred the crowd. That's understandable because elderly Russians are those most likely to look with longing upon the crumbled Soviet empire that Stalin assembled.

Pensioners have suffered more than anyone in the new, inflation-ravaged, quasi-capitalistic Russia, and many have prayed for a return to the simple days when bread was cheap, the streets were safe, Russia mattered and Stalin was boss.

These days Russia is embracing nationalism with vigor.

Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev warned last week that Russia would consider using force to protect its many ethnic minorities left behind in foreign countries -- like Kazakhstan, Estonia, Ukraine.

So saber rattling is in vogue these days, and Stalin was the motherland's most famous nationalist. With parliamentary elections due later this year -- and a presidential election in June 1996 -- politicians simply cannot afford to ignore the power of nationalist feeling.

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