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Russians Ambivalent at Best About Stalin

Fifty years ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made history with his now famous secret speech" to the 20th Communist Party Congress in which he denounced his predecessor Joseph Stalin as a torturer and a murderer. Since then, the crimes committed under Stalin's regime have been well-documented and widely condemned.

With the horrors of Stalin's rule still fresh in the minds of survivors and their families and the documents of his crimes generally available, one might expect that the people of Russia today would despise the very sound of Stalin's name. But according to recent polls sponsored by the Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, or C.S.I.S., the communist dictator responsible for millions of deaths and enormous suffering enjoys growing support among Russians.

Young Russians Lack Education About Their Past

In a 2005 survey, 19 percent of Russians under the age of 30 said they would probably or definitely vote for Stalin if he were running for president today, up from 13 percent in 2003. The figures are higher for people older than 30.

Sarah Mendelson, a C.S.I.S. analyst for Russia and Eurasia, notes an alarming number of young Russians are ambivalent or ignorant about Stalin's rule. She says, "Our survey found that about 56 percent of young people think that Stalin did more good than bad. It's not accurate to say that there's rampant Stalinism [in Russia], but it is accurate to say that there's not tremendous amounts of anti-Stalinism and that most people are, sort of, ambivalent about him. And we think that given Russia's past, given the role that Stalin played in the death of millions, according to numerous accounts, that this is on some level an inappropriate response or a response that reflects a general lack of education and understanding of Russia's past."

Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from 1929 until his death in 1953. His regime was marked by crash industrialization and collectivization of agriculture, which forced farmers off their lands. Those who resisted or criticized the regime were sent to forced labor camps, or gulag.

Stalin's Reign of Terror

By the gulag's peak in the early 1950s, there were camps in every part of the country, and slave labor was used not only for mining and heavy industries but also for producing all kinds of consumer goods, including chairs, lamps, toys -- even the famous Russian fur hats. Some of the country's most important science and engineering projects began in the camps. For example, Sergei Korolev, the architect of the Soviet space program, began his work in a special prison laboratory.

Anne Applebaum, author of the book Gulag: A History, notes that between 1929 and 1953, about 18 million people passed through the camps. She says, "In addition to that, a further six or seven million were sent into exile, meaning they were not technically in camps, but in practice they were prisoners living in exile villages. What is interesting about it to me is that what it means is that it's a very high number and about 15 percent of the Soviet population would have had some experience with the camps."

Even though almost every family was affected by Stalin's terror, Anne Applebaum says most Soviets at the time believed that communism was the best system in the world. This belief and the Soviet Union's growing military power after World War Two convinced many Russians that the sacrifices were inevitable.

So it was a shock when new leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced his predecessor's crimes and his personality cult at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956.

Vladimir Tismaneanu, professor of politics at the University of Maryland, says Khrushchev's secret speech leaked almost immediately and caused a rift between Stalin's admirers and his detractors.

Many friendships broke up and many marriages [also]," says Professor Tismaneanu. "Even in the Western communist parties, the husband, let's say, or the wife would embrace the new line and would condemn Stalin, while another member of the family would remain loyal to the old faith. And this provoked enormous conflict and soul searching among the communists of the whole world or even the 'fellow travelers' who had bought into the communist mythology."

By the 1960s, Stalin's personality cult was debunked in the Soviet Union. In 1961, his body was removed from its place of honor in the Red Square mausoleum. The city of Stalingrad in southern Russia, the site of a decisive World War Two battle, was renamed Volgograd.

The Fall of the Communist Empire

But the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a blow for many Russians who began to look to their Soviet past with nostalgia. Professor Tismaneanu says the initial excitement about freedom and democracy soon waned.

"There was something that somebody once called 'dizziness with democracy,'" says Professor Tismaneanu. "But at the same time, social injustice and social contrasts got increasingly heightened and for many people democracy meant basically a loss of certainty, [a loss of] cares and [a rise of] opportunities for social climbers and oligarchs and people involved in all kinds of shoddy businesses -- Mafiosi types. So for many of them, Stalin meant stability, austerity and a lack of corruption. So I think it's not so much that they [i.e. the Russians] like Stalin, but it's a signal of their discontent with the post-communist condition in Russia."

Many analysts agree. Anatol Lieven, a research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, notes that many opinion polls in Russia also show strong support for the idea of an independent judiciary, free media and other democratic institutions.

"There's a lot of desire for Russia to play a stronger role on the international stage," says Mr. Lieven. "If, however, you ask Russians whether it would be worth fighting and going to war with Ukraine, for example, or with the West in order to achieve this new Russian greatness, a very large majority say 'no.' One aspect of this is that while in theory, the Russian army remains greatly respected by the population, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the population, which has any possibility of doing so, does their best to keep their children, their sons, out of the military because, in fact, the military is despised as a profession."

Most analysts agree that young Russians need better education about their country's past and new heroes to inspire them. If their admiration for a tyrant continues to grow, observers warn, it may drive them further away from their peers in the West.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.