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Stalin's Revival in Russia

Russia wrestles with rehabilitating its great Soviet-era wartime leader and homicidal maniac.

The theme of this blog since the New Year has been Holocaust denial, which always seems to flush far-right deniers out of the bushes. But denial itself is a nonpartisan affair. Russian Communists have a lot on their conscience, too — along with a steep fall from power and grace, like the Nazis — so a movement in the new Russia to revise the nation's history of the gulag and the purge are perhaps not surprising.

Yevgeny Dzhugashvili became the poster boy for this movement last fall when he sued a Russian paper for claiming that his grandfather, Josef Stalin, had personally ordered the murder of Soviet citizens. A court threw out the case, but in December he sued a Moscow radio station for making a similar claim.

"Stalin signed an order that children can be shot from the age of 12 as enemies of the nation," a presenter on the Ekho Moskvy station said on the air in October. "Which of the bastards dares say a single word in his defense?"

Dzhugashvili does! He wants everyone to think his grandfather has had a bum rap. Almost a third of Russians — 29 percent, according to a recent poll — want to see a leader like Stalin come to power again. For many Russians he represents national strength, particularly because he led the Soviet Union in "The Great Patriotic War," as Russians refer to World War II.

Russia's losses reached around 9 million soldiers and an even greater number of civilians in the struggle against Hitler, which explains some Russian reluctance to speak ill of Stalin. The society has also never tried to heal itself of Soviet rule.

"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," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a leader of the opposition Yobloko party, to Time last month. "Germany is still carrying out de-Nazification, while we never even began this process."

Mitrokhin, like a lot of Russian liberals, thinks the recent public revival of Stalin's image has a political purpose. Stalin murdered more than a million dissidents and threw the rest in gulags; he killed every rival from the days of the Russian Revolution; he let millions of Soviet citizens, particuarly Ukrainian peasants, starve in an attempt to collectivize Russian farms. But this reputation is inconvenient both to Russian Communists and to the ruling United Russia party, which Vladimir Putin leads. By soft-pedaling Stalin's crimes, and tolerating Dzhugashvili's publicity circus in the courts, Mitrokhin argues, "The state is hinting that Stalin's tactics are also part of its arsenal for controlling the country."

Last month, the Russian Communist Party asked for a day of leaving Stalin alone to observe his 130th birthday (he died in 1953), and Vladimir Putin warned a televised call-in show that an "overall judgment" against Stalin was inadvisable. True, he said, peasants died when Stalin collectivized their farms. "But after all," he hedged, "we did get industrialization."

Statues of Stalin have gone up around Russia. He now has museum in Volgograd, and a revision in school textbooks calls the old dictator a "competent manager" (though it does list his repressions). When the city of Moscow refurbished its grand, '50s-era Kurskaya Metro Station last summer, a gilt-edged slogan removed under Kruschchev was also, surprisingly, restored: "Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people," it reads. "He inspired us to labor and heroism."

Oct. 30 is still Russia's official day of mourning for Stalin's victims, and to commemorate it last year President Dmitry Medvedev said 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."

That was bold and clear. But Putin is angling for Medvedev's job. He demoted himself to prime minister in 2008 because of a term-limit law, letting Medvedev take the presidency, but both men have said in the meantime that Putin may run again in 2012 — conveniently in the wake of a brand-new law that extends presidential terms to six years each. So as of 2012, Putin could legally be president for two more consecutive terms, until 2024.

Denial isn't just a psychological force — it's also, obviously, a political tool in Russia as well as the West. The difference is that in Russia, the forces of reaction may soon get what they want.

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