How is Stalin Taught in Russia?

Joseph Stalin was born in December 1878 to a Georgian family and served as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1952. After the death of Lenin, he initially shared power over the Soviet Union with other officials, but he managed to gradually consolidate his position and by the 1930s became the country’s de facto dictator. As a sign of his absolute rule he bore the title of premier of the Soviet Union from 1941 until his death in 1953. During his time in power, he was faced with the challenge of stabilising the new regime in the turbulent 1920s and then, famously, dealing with the Nazi invasion during the Second World War.

After the victory, he found himself leading a global empire with vast influence, arguably equalled and balanced only by the Americans.

The Soviet Union was shaped under his leadership, which was not exactly democratic. First, he turned towards closer allies, removing them or causing their deaths, as in the case of Trotsky. Broadening the scope, he ensured to clear the party as well as most positions of importance in society from any voice that was less than extremely enthusiastic towards his own opinions.

The culmination of this effort was the Great Purge, also known as the Great Terror, which was a period of two to three years in the late 30s, where this prosecution reached its peak. This campaign did not just focus on the cleansing of suspected political rivals from the Communist Party, positions within the government, and the Red Army leadership, but it was included to repress of people on account of them being wealthy (kulaks), or belonging to certain non-regime-friendly ethnic groups. These persecutions included imprisonment, mass deportations, exile in remote areas or even slave labour in work camps *(Gulags), widespread police surveillance and, of course, executions. From this small period alone, the deaths possibly reached more than a million. As one can imagine, after this period any opposition towards his power was deemed as very unhealthy.

Summing up this side of his career, in the few decades he was in power, the deaths from executions or death in captivity alone are estimated to more than three million officially recorded victims. This does not include the victims of the Ukrainian famine or deaths during the deportation processes, nor does it consider random executions that were not officially counted.

However, despite this bloody history, due to official propaganda, as well as lack of opposition and freedom of speech, the following administrations kept and keep the main focus on the fact that under Stalin’s rule, his country became a world power. This fact, but most importantly stressing his role in the war effort, made him a wildly popular figure.

After the war, Russia experienced a kind of personality cult, with Stalin being heralded as father of the people. He encouraged this development, which was not unlike the cult of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible, both of whom he admired. The title he was known with, however, was vozhd, the “leader”, which actually bears resemblance to the equivalent titles of Mussolini and Hitler, duce and führer respectively.

After his death in 1953, his body was embalmed and then placed on display in Moscow’s House of Unions for three days. Indicative of the grief of the Russian public to this news is that around 100 people were trampled to death during the massive crowd attendance to pay their respects. *(Thus very slightly raising Stalin’s death toll post-mortem.)

After his death however, Stalin was criticised in particular in references to his purges. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech” (known as “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”) which ushered in an era of de-Stalinisation within the Soviet state. This can be seen within the general reforms of the Soviet state that made Stalinism gradually obsolete.

Of course this does not mean that in the course of this process or even after, Stalin was portrayed as evil in schools and the media. Far from it. Views of his early comrades, such as that of Trotsky that promoted the idea that Stalin was a mediocrity were still being suppressed in the Soviet Union. The main effort lay in ending the personality cult; his status approaching that of a living messiah was no longer the case, rather, the focus was put on his reforms and military achievements.

A prominent example is that of reforms undertaken by Stalin that enforced the education system in accordance with Article 121 of the Soviet Constitution, providing the right to education. This was of vital importance, as at the time when Stalin rose to power, illiteracy was prevalent amongst the people. Even before the war, educational programs were initiated thanks to which allegedly 40 million people learned to read. These reforms also influenced the ability to attend higher education and were accompanied by university reorganisation. Similar efforts in agriculture or industry are attributed to Stalin’s leadership, recognising the Marxist principles which Lenin was planning on initiating, but ultimately did not have the time to institute.

This brings us to how Stalin is taught in schools.

In modern-day Russia, unlike, say, the U.S. where the different states have varying requirements for the information students are taught in school, Russian students receive the same instruction about history nationwide, whether they live near the borders of the EU or at the Pacific ocean.

Generally, Stalin “the Military Leader” is emphasized more than Stalin “the Communist”. After all, today’s Russia is a capitalist country. His authoritarianism and strong will are seen as necessary traits in times of crisis. The massacres and gulag sendoffs during his time are not omitted but they are not front page material. Like, say, the war crimes in the Japanese school system, they are inferred to but not explicitly dealt with. In some cases, even genuine atrocities are considered to be harsh but necessary actions during times of war.

The overall portrayal of Stalin is seen as positive in the Russian schools . Of course, there are many varieties of books, historical, literature and others, in which different aspects of his life and sometimes his flaws are put on the frontline. In Russian schools, the books available for studies are categorised into three lists, the third one being books that are recommended but not mandatory. One of the books that has been on this list since 1994 (shortly after the Soviet Collapse) is ‘The Book for Future Admirals’ (aimed at 10- to 14-year-old kids) in which Stalin is portrayed as a good leader who brought stability and order to the army and to his country, during very harsh conditions, and in doing so saved it from the brink of collapse.

A very interesting source for understanding how the subject of Stalin is treated in schools in the post-communist era is a teachers’ manual for educating Russian high school students in history. The book is called ‘A Modern History of Russia, 1945-2006: Manual For Teachers’ and it instructs Russian educators on how to approach Stalin in the classroom: “It is important to show that Stalin acted in a concrete historical situation…entirely rationally—as the guardian of a system, as a consistent supporter of reshaping the country into an industrialized state”. Within this context, the political purges of the 30s and other atrocities such as the infamous gulag work camps are not omitted or excused but are in fact addressed. The attitude to be instilled in students, however, is rather that of justification. Stalin’s choices are portrayed as necessary actions for bringing stability, without which the war effort would have had a different outcome.

The tone of modern teaching can be summed up in a quote from this teachers’ manual: “We must make every school-child aware of the grandeur of our struggle and our victories; we must show him the cost of these great successes in labor and blood; we must tell him how great the people of our epoch—Lenin, Stalin, and their companions in arms—organized the workers in the struggle for a new and happy life.”

All in all the tendency of actually addressing the negative aspects in contrast to the post-war tendency of glossing over the dark side of Stalin is a positive step. For example, in Moscow one can visit the Gulag Museum. However, at the school level, there are still problematic points. What is taught of the Stalin era prosecutions is focused solely on those receiving the death penalty, thus conveniently omitting the many more who lost their jobs, were deported or died in labor camps because of political reasons. Furthermore, within Russia’s turn to patriotic driven narratives, open criticism towards Stalin especially in school textbooks is being discouraged. Recently, such a book published in 2015 was blacklisted on accounts of it being “dangerous to the health of children”, suggesting an age restriction of 18+, because we guess students cannot handle learning about acts of violence?

Regarding less…provocative aspects, students do learn details that can be characterised as negative regarding Stalin’s personality – here in direct contrast to the former cultish adoration. Bad character traits and attitudes are pointed out, such as his obstinacy and the disregard he showed towards his generals’ opinions. Stories and characteristic anecdotes are told, for example of how the war commanders like Zhukov had to fight Stalin to get what they wanted. By accounts of many generals in the war, he often demanded the impossible from his people, but was not completely unreasonable when given mass rebuttal.

As a further example of the negative aspects being approached: In the epic novel ‘Life and Fate’ by Vasily Grossman, the Stalinist repression of the time is referenced – a book that does have a place in the Russian curriculum.

These character flaws, however, can be perceived as humanising and don’t necessarily portray a harsh dictator, as is opinio communis in many western countries. To illustrate different perceptions: Stalin ordered to shoot retreating soldiers in the back, an order that was short-lived after suggestions of his generals that this would send the wrong message. This action can be received either as resolve or harshness, depending on which side of the debate one stands.

Stalin’s persona as well as communist symbolism is therefore far from removed from everyday life *(unlike Nazi imagery in western Europe which is heavily frowned upon if not forbidden entirely) and one can see portrayals of Stalin in protests or other political activities .

In contrast, in the West, Stalin, as well as the Soviet Union in general, is not seen favourably. His era or rule is treated as a dictatorship, focusing on the lack of freedom and human rights violations. Stalin himself is viewed as one of the most notorious figures in history, whose crimes were left unanswered as he was on the winning side of the war and within his lifetime, continued to stand victorious, shaping his own legacy.

Differing from the Russian perspective, his harsh actions are not downplayed at all, and in the case of former Warsaw pact countries, the Soviet victory is often seen less as liberation and more as another type of occupation.

This is highlighted when one looks at how the same historical event is treated differently in Russia and in other former communist countries. Regarding the 1932–33 Ukrainian famine, teachers in Russia are encouraged to say that the number of deaths was not close to 10 million, as Ukrainian historians write today, but no more than 1 or 2 million. It is further handled as a physical disaster, with no mention of possible political motivation, which according to many modern and particularly Ukrainian historians was a vital part of it. Specifically, a popular view in the Ukraine is that Stalin consciously did little to help in the famine crisis as a means to suppress national desires among the Ukrainian people.

This is maybe one of the best illustrations of the differences in understanding the approach that Russia is currently taking toward Stalin in the classroom, compared with how it is perceived in former Soviet republics.

In any case, it is interesting how well over a half century after his death, the references to Stalin are still politicized and relevant to modern politics, even if the political system he envisioned is no longer around.

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One comment

  • Just as all leftists do the image of the failure and evil of stalin and communism is glossed over.