20 years under Putin: a timeline

Philologist, cultural historian, professor of the University of Sheffield Evgeny Dobrenko spoke with IMR’s Olga Khvostunova about the era of late Stalinism, the becoming of the Soviet nation, and its key traits that are still preserved in Russia today. The interview is published in two parts. The first installment discusses how Stalin became the “father” of the new nation, why 70 percent of Russians favorably view his role in history, and how Putin invokes Stalin’s narratives.



Part II: Evgeny Dobrenko: “The WWII victory cult is meant to legitimize the regime” 


Olga Khvostunova: In your recent book Late Stalinism you write about the making of the so-called “Soviet nation.” What kind of nation that is it, and how did it emerge?

Evgeny Dobrenko: Stalin formed the Soviet nation in the same fashion as, prior to him, Peter the Great had created the Petrine state. The country developed within the Petrine paradigm for at least two centuries, but then the process broke down in the Russian Revolution, which spanned the first half of the 20th century—from the 1905 Revolution up to the 1956 Khrushchev Thaw. In this reforging, a new nation was made. These were people who had experienced a profound psychological, political, and social trauma, which, of course, never healed. The mechanisms of fear conditioning continue to reproduce from generation to generation. We see the same traumas, wounds, and phobias in the present-day post-Soviet, or Russian, nation that continues to exist within the same Soviet paradigm created by Stalin. This trauma resulted in paranoia, ressentiment, a mixture of inferiority and superiority complexes, jealous anti-Westernism, and constant bravado. There is also discrepancy between the image of self-grandeur constantly produced by the Russian authorities and the daily reality that the average Russian deals with, resulting in many people experiencing cognitive dissonance. 

OK: How important is that period of the Soviet nation’s formation to present-day Russia?

ED: It is crucially important to understand that this nation—and everything that has to do with it—is what politics is today. Politics is the fight for defining the nation in terms of its key characteristics, its limits, and narratives. Why is the question about nation important? The political sphere deals with issues of power, and power relates to the notion of legitimacy. And nation is the only subject of legitimization in the present-day world. If you look at Russian politics today, all of it is about this fight for defining the nation. In the 20th and especially 21st century, any authorities understand that their legitimacy entirely depends on the nation, so they cannot leave it without control. Authorities try to take matters into their own hands and shape the subject of their legitimacy—the nation—so that, consequently, it would legitimize their power. This fight is the backdrop for such recent events as the amendments to the [Russian] Constitution and Putin’s article on history [of World War II].

OK: Do you mean “political nation”?

ED: Yes, in Russia the understanding of the term “nation” differs from what is known in the West as the “nation state”—a phenomenon of the Modern Age and, particularly, the French Revolution. In Russia, “nation” has always been confused with “ethnos.” In the context of Big History, ethnoses are phenomena that exist over the span of thousands of years, in which course they transform many times. Meanwhile, nation is, in fact, a political term. In that sense, Charles de Gaulle was the “father” of the French nation and Atatürk of the Turkish nation, if we look at the 20th century only.

On the ruins of the country’s national consciousness, Stalin managed to write a new narrative, a new history, and create a new frame in which, by his death, a new Soviet nation had been cast, like a foot in the Spanish boot torture device—and it was very painful! 

OK: Why was it Stalin who became the “father” of the Soviet nation, and not, say, Lenin?

ED: Because it was Stalin, and not Lenin, who established the institutional, political, economic, ideological, cultural, military, and other foundations of the Soviet nation. Later on, these institutions were merely redressed and enhanced—sometimes radically—but still, those were façade changes. At its core, the nature of the regime created by Stalin persevered. And Putin, no doubt, is the successor to this regime and this nation—not the founder of anything new.

Let me offer an unexpected comparison. If Peter the Great was the “father” of the Petrine nation and Stalin of the Soviet nation, then Putin is to Stalin what Catherine the Great was to Peter. Peter is said to have “opened the window on Europe,” but I would suggest that he merely cut a hole, while it was Catherine who made it into a framed window, i.e. modernized the country. Within the same vein, Putin tries to modernize the Soviet nation and its institutions, which is why there is so much déjà vu in his actions. 

OK: In other words, Stalin was a political genius who managed to carry out a nation-forming project?

ED: On Stalin’s genius… Remember [this line by Boris] Pasternak? “The poet’s post has been set up in vain: It’s dangerous—unless it’s left unfilled.” Such “posts” exist in history, too. Here’s the post for a man who should come and lead the country after the storm. It’s a prescribed function, a predestined position in history. The only question is who will occupy it. Stalin managed to take over this post. He was not the only one who fought for it, but he turned out slier, quicker, luckier. 

OK: Was it historically inevitable?

ED: You know, revolution inevitably gives way to restoration, and restoration is inevitably followed by revolution. It’s the way of life: every seed bears both potentialities—its own death and the birth of a new seed.

OK: So Stalin was no genius?

ED: There are words often attributed to Churchill, but other people observed it as well, that Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons. But Stalin inherited not just a country with a wooden plough, but one where people’s national consciousness had been completely destroyed. Patriotism was a dirty word at the time. Pre-revolutionary history was either denied or taught in a negative way. For several years, history was not even taught in schools—there was no such subject! Stalin came to power in Russia about ten years after the [1917] Revolution and participated in this process of [rewriting history]. Still, when in 1933 Hitler became Germany’s leader, Stalin realized that a standoff would be inevitable, and he had to prepare for war. To do so, he needed [to boost] nationalism because without national unification the country wouldn’t be able to survive. On the ruins of the country’s national consciousness, Stalin managed to write a new narrative, a new history, and create a new frame in which, by his death [in 1953], a new Soviet nation had been cast, like a foot in the Spanish boot torture device—and it was very painful! 

OK: How do you define Stalinism? 

ED: Stalinism became a logical continuation of the Russian Revolution. And the Russian Revolution, whether we want [to acknowledge] it or not, is a civil war. But Stalinism is a civil war cast in the state institutions. For half a century—from 1905 to 1956—Russia lived in a state of civil war. Look at the course of events: the 1905 Russian Revolution, the reaction, Stolypin’s reforms, World War I, the Russian Civil War, the respite of the New Economic Policy, collectivization, industrialization, the cultural revolution, the Great Terror, the Great Patriotic War, the postwar campaigns against cosmopolitism, the Cold War… The country lived in a permanent state of war that just took different forms at different times. The Gulag is also a phenomenon of the state’s war against its own people.

OK: Last year, a Levada Center poll showed that a record 70 percent of Russians have favorable views of Stalin’s role in history. How do you interpret these data?

ED: This poll showed nothing new. [Back in 2008,] a national survey named [13th century Russian Grand Prince] Alexander Nevsky as Russia’s main symbol, even though everyone knew that Stalin had polled first by a wide margin. But back then, the Russian authorities felt embarrassed to acknowledge this fact, manipulated the result, and declared Nevsky the winner. Levada’s poll is absolutely true-to-life—it confirms the evolution that the country has inevitably gone through and is still undergoing today. The problem is not that Putin wants Stalinism to return or that people desire Stalinism. Putin would like to rule like Stalin, but to live like [Russian oligarch Roman] Abramovich. And not just Putin—any politician would want it, but it doesn’t work that way.

The problem with the Russian people is that it is not always clear what specifically they value about Stalin, which period of Stalin’s rule they would like to go back to. When you ask why [they are nostalgic about] Stalin, what do they usually say? Because everyone respected us, everyone was afraid of us, there was order. And then another question comes up: when was that? In 1929? No, they say, that was the collectivization period—it was a horrible nightmare, millions died of hunger. We don’t like that. So do you like 1933, the era of the first five-year plans? No, those were horrible years too. Then 1937? No way! It turns out that in reality people only like the period of late Stalinism—the first post-WWII decade.

OK: Why this period?

ED: It was when the Russian people lived in a country that had just won a world war. It was then that the sense of self-grandeur emerged along with the idealized Stalinism. It was a crucial period, albeit often overlooked. On one side, it is overshadowed by the war, on the other by the Thaw. It seems like nothing was happening during this decade. But I always emphasize in my talks and writings that the most important things in history take place during outwardly uneventful times, because the key changes take place in people’s minds. Without external turbulence, everything settles down, routinizes. A sediment is formed, which is very difficult to change later on. Some believe that Russia can’t overcome its mental matrix or move beyond its path. But it was during this decade, at the peak of the Cold War, that the mental matrix of the Soviet nation, which is still seen today, took shape. It includes images of the evil West and America—a country both hated and envied. A whole propaganda apparatus that encompassed literature and art was set up to create this matrix. It was a full orchestra.

The most important things in history take place during outwardly uneventful times, because the key changes take place in people’s minds.

OK: What discursive practices or, say, propaganda tropes of the Stalinist era are successfully reproduced by the Putin regime?

ED: I’ll give you what is likely the most evident example related to foreign policy actions that Russia implements to assert itself. Starting from Putin’s 2007 Munich speech—although this process had long been present—we clearly observe the shaping of the foreign enemy image and the steering towards autarky. Following the 2014 events in Ukraine, this trajectory has become evident. When I was working on Late Stalinism, I read Stalin’s writing, articles from the official [Soviet] media; I studied this era’s rhetoric, which is reflected in numerous poems, novels, plays, and is visualized in films. All this time, I would have parallel rows of Stalin’s and Putin’s texts in my head. This [interplay] is especially visible in Putin’s latest article [about WWII]. The argument about whose narrative [Russian or Western] on WWII is genuine that Putin sets forth did not come up yesterday. It actually emerged immediately after the war, and Stalin was an active participant in it. If you compare Putin’s article with Stalin’s texts, you will see not only support for the same ideas, but also the same rhetoric, omissions, manipulations, tropes, metaphors, even the same sarcasms towards the adversary. Stalin’s narratives are resurrected in Putin’s texts.

OK: Why do you think Putin does that?

ED: Putin understands his political and historic function as the mission of one who came to power to tame the revolution, which—as he sees it—threatens the Russian statehood. The same thing happened to Stalin. He came to power in a country that had fully collapsed, whose economy had to be modernized; a country that faced an inevitable war and had to be unified by something. Putin had similar objectives with one exception—Stalin modernized the country by forcefully breaking it down. Putin doesn’t do that—he simply imitates modernization. Or imitates Stalinism. Today, some people say that “we are back to 1937.” We are not. Putin imitates 1937. A politician with good KGB schooling, he is adept at creating illusions. In that sense, the assemblage of state symbols established under his rule is very telling: the Soviet anthem with new lyrics, the Russian tricolor flag, tsarist eagles on the Kremlin’s towers, and Lenin’s Mausoleum underneath them. A postmodernist installation.

OK: Everyone can find in it what they like.

ED: Exactly. In reality, Putin doesn’t give a damn about this ideological trash that dangles about. He is a great imitator and political opportunist. Lenin? Let him lie in the Mausoleum. Let the eagles stay on the Kremlin’s towers. Besides, Putin is a good psychologist who understands well that he came to rule a country where people were tired from the turbulence of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras. After 15 years of turbulence, on what promise does he come to power?

OK: Stability.

ED: And he begins to pump this stability into the country in huge doses. And what is “stability” for a Soviet person? It’s the Soviet era. It is when a kilo of butter cost the same in 1959 as it did in 1979. Stabilization turned the country back to the Soviet paradigm. And Putin is bound to use the Soviet paradigm to carry out the political process. What does “Soviet” mean? There is an old quip by Marquis de Custine: “Scratch the Russian, and you will find a Tatar.” Scratch the Soviet, and you will find Stalin. The Soviet is Stalinism. Under Stalin, the Soviet was soaking in blood, but after 1956, the wounds closed, Stalinism became covered in patina. The return to the Soviet paradigm brought Stalinism back, and it is reproduced at the level of mental clichés and engines of thinking. Putin doesn’t even need to do anything—suffice it to appeal to this paradigm, and it hauls out a netful of archetypes that recreate a familiar view of the world.


Part II: Evgeny Dobrenko: “The WWII victory cult is meant to legitimize the regime”