And the boss drunkenly babbles of Stalin,(More substantively, see this Nezavisimaia Gazeta roundtable on the current issues.) (Google Translate)
And grabs the wheel with his hands..
And then, of course, the paramedics
Took us into the triage room.
They took my pants off and my leather jacket,
Threw all my stuff in a bag,
And sent round Marusia the nurse
To give me the powder of life.
And I kept saying that I'm healthy,
And if...whatever else..
Then in this best of all possible worlds,
I still don't give a damn.
It's all the same, it's long been all
The same damn thing to me!
- Aleksandr Galich, "Больничная цыганочка" ("The hospital gypsy-girl")
There is a widely-held opinion that the current regime in Russia is obsessed with rehabilitating Stalin and Stalinism. The reasoning--which generally proceeds by innuendo rather than argument--goes something like this: Stalinist Russia is just like Putinist Russia because they are both illiberal, and all illiberal regimes are alike; if you get the people used to accepting the legitimacy of one illiberal regime they'll be more likely to accept another; therefore it is in the interests of Putin to deny the Great Terror, squelch the complaints of Stalin's victims, and bring back the cult of personality. A lot of things are wrong with this picture. First, of course, Stalinism and Putinism are very different forms of governance, though it may well be true that both are illiberal (for one thing, Stalin's authority rested on his ability to mobilize the population, whereas Putin's depends on the population remaining as quiescent as possible). Second, far from being a vital ideological prop for a similar regime, the memory of the Stalin period is in fact a volatile and potentially toxic phenomenon: the perception of Stalin as someone who was victorious over petty bosses at home and enemies abroad is likely to invite--and does in fact already invite--invidious comparisons to the pervasive corruption and impotence that characterize the current situation. Third, as a result of all this, official gestures in the direction of re-Stalinization have been at best lukewarm even in the more confident and increasingly distant era of High Putinism.
Now we're faced with an even stranger situation. The Medvedev government's civil-society advisory body has overwhelmingly approved a proposal that would push Russia in the direction of explicit and legislatively-backed de-Stalinization. The public's response has been, to say the least, unenthusiastic, although the polling is controversial. The traditional outcry among the Communists and nationalists--the rather ill-considered view that de-Stalinization means capitulating to the Western narrative of the Cold War--has been joined by a mass wave of boredom and frustration among ordinary people, who'd rather the authorities solve some real problems and leave them to their nostalgia. If the government persists, it will end up in the paradoxical position of having to impose de-Stalinization from above.
Paradoxical though it may be, this position is by now a familiar one. Neither the Khrushchev-era Soviet public nor the Gorbachev-era public of perestroika proved appreciative of the authorities' attempts to drag them kicking and screaming into the post-totalitarian enlightenment. (After the gulags were closed, the wave of freed prisoners caused such a jump in the crime rate that before long massive numbers of people were demanding they be reopened.) It's doubtful that Medvedev and his liberals have the clout or political will to push through a single-minded program of this kind, but stranger things have happened. There is, of course, calculation involved: not only will convincing people of the need for de-Stalinization (if they can manage it) be a major political victory, it would also be a boost for relations with liberals abroad, who are convinced that Stalinism is an immediate political concern in Russia.
But if we consider de-Stalinization outside of its narrow political context, the justifications become much murkier. Is it really true that some kind of explicit collective penance for the 1930s is a morally laudable goal from an abstract point of view? What is it meant to achieve? Facile arguments along the lines of "those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it" lose much of their appeal when confronted with the messiness of real history, which is increasingly unable to render an unambiguous verdict on the Stalin era. If forced into having a real and serious discussion, as opposed to a rigidly moralist "de-Stalinizing" one, Russians may well conclude (and in fact already have) that there was much to admire about Stalinism, even if this admiration is generally based on specious grounds like Stalin's supposed military genius and preservation of public order.
Within the parameters of the liberal interpretation of Russian politics such a conclusion would be immediately dismissed. (Witness the fiasco with the online poll that almost managed to declare Stalin the "Name of Russia." Insinuations that the Kremlin was rigging the vote in Koba's favor appeared almost right away and continue to be cited in support of the "Putinism-as-Stalinism" thesis.) The heavily policed nature of the spaces of public discussion in Russia has led to a tendency to dismiss any manifestation of views inconvenient to any particular ideology as the manipulation of the other side. Since the "homo sovieticus" position is now considered politically incorrect, the default assumption has reverted to the demonstrably false one that a liberal and anti-Stalinist society exists in Russia and needs only to be released from Putin's clutches. It seems to be impossible to refute this with any kind of evidence, since all the evidence is suspect by definition.
That may be putting it too strongly, but the point remains that there is no possibility for a de-Stalinization process that would be both "real" (i.e. society-wide and public rather than top-down) and satisfying to each of the sides involved. The stark moral categories of the totalitarian interpretation of 20th century dictatorship cannot be satisfied with anything except complete and enthusiastic self-purification as in postwar Germany, an outcome which is manifestly unlikely in the Russian case no matter how many would-be reformists take up the banner. In the end, Russians will have to be satisfied with the murky and ambiguous history that all other beneficiaries of history's great crimes have to live with. Unlike de-Stalinizationist utopianism, such an outcome at least leaves some room to think.