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 one is available here). The second installment discusses the differences and similarities between Stalin and Putin, the WWII victory cult, and the possibility of a new Russian revolution.



Part I: Evgeny Dobrenko: “The Soviet nation’s mental matrix is still seen today” 

Olga Khvostunova: You often draw parallels between Stalin and Putin, but how do they differ? 

Evgeny Dobrenko: Putin’s drama is that he pumped stability into Russia for so many years that now, when the public is fed up with it and demands change, he cannot turn the machinery [that he created] around. And in this respect, he differs from Stalin, because Stalin could do it. Stalin threw the country in opposite directions, as he pleased. Following the era of military communism, Stalin turned Russia to the right by introducing the New Economic Policy, siding with [Nikolai] Bukharin against [Leon] Trotsky, [Grigory] Zinovyev, and [Lev] Kamenev. Next, he turned it to the left through collectivization, now standing against Bukharin and [Alexei] Rykov. And later, he pushed it in the opposite direction again—this time through the Great Retreat

What was Russia under Stalin? Take the Soviet cities as an example. The entire urban class was swept out during the civil war. Who came to occupy these huge abandoned apartments and turned them into communal flats? Peasants, who fled to the cities from collectivization and hunger, and tried to survive through factory rations. These peasants, who were no longer peasants but not yet urban residents, became the backbone of the Stalin regime. A person caught in such a transient state can be easily exploited. [Russian poet Osip] Mandelstam once said that people were “driven out of their biographies, like balls from billiard pockets.” It’s a crucial point. Stalin manipulated these semiliterate people who found themselves in a foreign environment, which they neither knew nor understood. Putin manipulates a very different people today, and he cannot do it as easily as Stalin.

OK: Could Stalin’s popularity be a problem for Putin? In the public mind, Stalin’s image is that of an ascetic, humble man, who only had one overcoat. Putin and his inner circle—and this can no longer be covered up—are superrich people. 

ED: There are two points here. One is, of course, the image. Yes, Stalin had only one overcoat. When he died, his safe and writing desk were found to be stuffed with wads of cash. He simply threw his salary there and never spent this money, because he didn’t need it. Stalin was not interested in new boots—he had the entire country at his disposal. He virtually owned one sixth of the Earth. Still, in his era, this fact could not be publicly articulated, as opposed to the tsarist period, for example. Stalin covered it up, because otherwise the legitimacy of his system would have been compromised. This is why he built the decorum of pseudo-democratic institutions—fake supreme councils, courts, public representative offices, etc. Putin is also engaged in creating fakes, but he has to make a bigger effort to cover it up, because the times have changed along with the nature of legitimacy.

The second point is that wealth and extreme wealth are relative notions. In Stalin’s time, a sign of unimaginable wealth was, for example, access to the restricted distribution system, where one could buy anything—from sugar to tickets to the Bolshoi Theater. It was impossible to be a millionaire back then, unless you were an “undercover millionaire,” like Koreiko [a character from the 1931 satirical novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov The Little Golden CalfEditor’s note], because it was a Soviet socialist society, and it was building communism. Today, many Russian people have their own apartments, dachas, cars. The shops are filled with groceries. People travel abroad. And this lifestyle is legitimate. Today, one can be a lawful millionaire, because the country lives under capitalism. 

OK: So you don’t think that Stalin’s popularity can play against Putin?

ED: Egalitarian moods are clearly being fueled: there is anti-elite discourse on the one hand, and anticommunist on the other. But Putin constantly balances these things, playing the moderator’s role. It’s as if he signals to the country what’s bad for whom, while presenting himself as someone who can do good for everyone, because under his rule everything is balanced and functional. If only there be no war. And there will be no war, because everyone is supposedly afraid of Russia again.

After the victory, the history of the war is entirely rewritten. Suffering, victims—this ugly picture quickly fades away. Instead, a heroic, festive narrative is created, with its pompous marches, clatter of hooves, and rattle of tanks [on Red Square].

OK: War is a crucial element of the Putin regime’s discourse. But why did he resurrect the WWII cult and drive it to the absurd level that it is today?

ED: It is worth pointing out that Russia’s victory in WWII also signified victory over the Russian Revolution. It was the WWII victory, and not the revolution, as had been previously viewed, that became the starting point of the Soviet nation. It was also this victory that became the key legitimization factor for Stalinism.

OK: Why? 

ED: Because before the war, the struggle for power had been ongoing, and Stalin didn’t feel like an entirely legitimate ruler. He was afraid, among other things, that he’d be accused of usurping power. The Great Terror was partially fueled by this insecurity. The WWII victory ultimately confirmed—and Stalin constantly repeated this thought—that his course for the country was the right one. After the war, the revolution was deemed the prehistory of the Soviet nation, while its history began in 1945. It was a “zeroing-out” of sorts.

OK: How did the victory cult start? 

ED: Almost the entire late Stalinist era was dedicated to rewriting the war narrative into a victory narrative. It was a crucial, major process that lasted for many years. As a result, in the mass consciousness, the war—the main trauma that all of society had experienced—merged with the victory. It redeemed all horrors of previous decades. But the cost was a major substitution of notions, because in history a point can never replace a process. The war brought about unmeasurable suffering, victimhood, humiliation, and generated great threats to the regime. Don’t forget that for almost half of the war, Stalinism demonstrated its utter inefficiency. The country was suffering unthinkable losses. In his article, Putin for the first time revealed that 1,154,698 people died in the famous Battles of Rzhev. Just think about this number! And it was not even a turnaround military operation. What kind of regime is it that heads for victory by literally paving the way with corpses… 

This is why after the victory, the history of the war is entirely rewritten. Suffering, victims—this ugly picture quickly fades away. Instead, a heroic, festive narrative is created, with its pompous marches, clatter of hooves, and rattle of tanks [on Red Square]. What is the upside of this narrative? All the suffering is automatically written off as the enemy’s fault. Who is to blame for the deaths of over a million people at Rzhev? 

OK: Nazi Germany. 

ED: Exactly! How can it be the talentless Soviet leaders who had repressed most of the military top brass in 1937 and essentially beheaded the army? This narrative is very convenient. Remember this line by [Alexander] Tvardovsky? “Cities are surrendered by soldiers, they are conquered by generals.” This entire heroic, patriotic narrative fueled the Stalin regime’s legitimacy. But there is one interesting nuance here. Stalin very much disliked reminiscing about the war itself, because it was a period when very little had depended on him—he had been almost entirely reliant on the military. While he disliked the war, he would talk about the victory all the time, which is why he began to form the victory cult. What happened later? Under Khrushchev, the victory narrative almost disappeared. In literature, the so-called “lieutenant prose” emerged, with its images of “trench truth” and “unvictorious,” real war. The victory cult was revived only under Brezhnev and then it reached hypertrophic proportions. 

OK: Why did it happen under Brezhnev?

ED: The Brezhnev generation went through the war and ended up in positions of power. The war was the main—if not the only—event in their lives, so when the victory cult expanded excessively, it was at least understandable. It was their golden era. What happens next? Under Gorbachev, no one talks about the victory—everyone discusses Stalin’s repressions. Under Yeltsin, there is no victory cult either. But under Putin, it was revived again. Still, if under Brezhnev, the cult could be explained [as a natural reaction], today it is absolutely artificial. This phrase “Thank you, Grandfather, for Victory” is pure rhetoric. It is a ritual imposed by the regime. It is not based on any real feelings or memory. It carries out a political function—to legitimize the regime. The victory cult is meant to assert Russia’s status as a great power. The authorities project all this greatness and self-praise onto the nation and expect it to mirror these notions back. 

OK: But doesn’t the majority of the population actively participate in the victory cult in all sincerity?

ED: The problem is that Stalin’s narratives are very persistent, because they were created along with the nation itself. When former illiterate peasants and settlers learned how to read, they consumed Stalin’s ideology together with the language. The mindset is inextricably connected to the language. As Mandelstam put it, “I’ve forgotten what I meant say, and disembodied thought returns to the palace of shadows.” This “disembodied thought” is unshaped by language. If there is no language, there is no thought. And if you give someone a language that is already charged with suggestive semantic constructs, this language and the ideas instilled in it will go straight to the unconscious. This frame will be impossible to break later on. The form is given to you along with the content.

Stalin’s narratives are very persistent, because they were created along with the nation itself. When former illiterate peasants and settlers learned how to read, they consumed Stalin’s ideology together with the language.

OK: Given the trajectory of the last one hundred years, what, in your opinion, will come after the current regime in Russia? Will it be another revolution or a peaceful transition?

ED: I am not a futurologist, so I will not take on the task of predicting the future. History evolves absolutely unpredictably. Sure, there are trends, but there are no “objective laws of history,” as Marx allegedly taught us. Thirty years ago, Fukuyama wrote about the “end of history,” but it turned out later that nothing of the sort had happened. Instead, a “clash of civilizations” took place, showing that globalization, once viewed as an objective and inevitable process, was very much reversible. A restoration began, a rollback to the past, and we don’t know how deep it will be. Globalization is a seemingly progressive, correct trend, but at the same time we see the inertia of social fatigue or simply chance. Still, who could have thought three months ago that all the trends of economic and political development would collapse because of a bat in China? Who could have predicted that it would be the murder of George Floyd that would trigger mass protests in Minneapolis, which would sweep over America and spread further around the world? These are classic examples that history doesn’t move by rail.

OK: Alright, predictions aside, what are the key trends that you observe in today’s Russia?

ED: I can say one thing for sure—but it’s a law of nature, not history. Rivers don’t flow back. In Big History, over the course of the last two hundred years or so, starting with the French Revolution, we have seen imminent democratization, expansion of rights, liberalization, dissolution of empires. It seems to me that this process is impossible to stop. It can roll back, take on new forms. The entire 20th century shows how frightening the reaction to this process can be: nazism in Germany, communism in Russia, fascism in Italy, Francoist dictatorship in Spain. All of these are patriarchic societies’ reaction to modernization. And yet, all of these countries overcame the reaction and moved on toward modernization. Yes, with delays, with horrible bloodshed, with the Gulag and the Holocaust, but they still managed to return to the same course of modernization and development—not traditionalism and archaism. Out of the 20th-century reactionism only a few relics remain: the regimes of North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and now we can add to this group Putin’s Russia, which has circled back to the old ways. None of them is developing or expanding—they are all trying to survive, which means they are doomed. The fall of these regimes may take several months or 20 years. But since rivers don’t flow back, the process of democratization will overcome this dam and move on forward.


Part I: Evgeny Dobrenko: “The Soviet nation’s mental matrix is still seen today”