Towards the 60th anniversary of Victory: Stalin’s revival and the specter of another revolution in Russia

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Surprisingly enough, Stalin could turn out to be among the historical figures in greatest demand as the 60th anniversary of Victory in the Second World War approaches. A kind of nostalgia for “the Father of the Peoples” is sweeping one region of Russia after another, drawing relentlessly closer to Moscow.

Following moves to restore statues of Stalin in Yakutia and Volgograd, the city of Orel has attempted to do the same. As the Izvestia newspaper reports, the Orel city council has gone even further – releasing an appeal to “restore justice in the assessement of the historical role of Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the USSR.” Besides restoring statues of Stalin, this would include reversing decisions to rename streets that were formerly named after Stalin.

The appeal, published in an Orel newspaper, is addressed to President Putin, both houses of the federal parliament, and the legislatures of all regions and municipalities. The appeal’s pathos reaches a high point with the call to “raise a barrier against slander and falsification of history.”

Yuri Kretov, deputy chairman of the Orel city council, maintains that this process should involve “some commissions or historians,” in order to “refute the information that distorts history, and replace it in the textbooks with accurate information.” Moreover, according to the Orel city council, “the impetus for this ought to come from the president.”

Nina Nesterova, secretary of the regional commission for restoring the rights of repression victims, provided an even more curious answer when asked what the repression victims would think of reviving Stalin’s memory. Nesterova said: “Stalin probably wasn’t responsible for these repressions. All the documents attribute decisions primarily to the NKVD, or special meetings, or military tribunals. There was a mechanism of repression, and it functioned.”

Izvestia includes some excerpts from the Orel city council’s appeal: “For several decades, Stalin’s role has been distorted by those who speculate on history, at the behest of those who seek revenge on us for our victories. Their aim is to revise the outcomes of World War II… We, the children and grandchildren of Vitory, must rehabilitate Stalin’s honor and restore the truth about Stalin and what he achieved for our people and for all of humanity… It is a matter of honor for us to raise Stalin’s name upon the pedestal of memory, as a symbol of Russia’s endurance as a state.”

So there’s an easy method for restoring the nation’s self-respect. It’s an excellent example of the postulate that extreme humiliation generates extreme forms of aggression. And aggression from below is bound to elicit a response from above. As psychiatrists say, anxiety is growing. In any case, the press is full of opinions from public figures of all varieties about the question of the moment: will there be a revolution in Russia?

Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the International Institute of Humanities and Political Studies, says in Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “A revolution will happen, and fairly soon. If we look at the people’s attitude to the authorities, we see a terrible picture. Ordinary citizens are openly contemptuous of the parliament. They distrust the courts and loathe the police. No one in authority is respected, save for President Putin himself. But what if (God forbid) something happens to Putin? What if his approval rating collapses?”

In another article, Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that Putin’s trust rating is having problems already. According to the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), April polls show the trust rating back to where it was in mid-January: 27%. This is slightly higher than the record low of mid-February, straight after the anti-monetization protests. However, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, this figure is a substantial decrease compared to the 43% of respondents who trusted Putin in 2002.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says there is a “plateau of stagnation” in support for Putin: “The peak of the protest rallies has long since passed; but Putin’s voter support rating isn’t recovering,” apart from minor fluctuations within the margin of error.

Thus, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, if the situation becomes tense again – over reforms to housing and utilities, for example – this percentage will sink even lower as citizens express dissatisfaction with the state’s policies. And this is sure to make it more difficult for the authorities to find a way out of the crisis.

Another important point noted by Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Putin will have to start preparations for the 2008 election campaign with his supporters in the minority, unlike the situation before the last election.”

Meanwhile, the question of what might actually happen in 2008 is now being considered even by publications which usually don’t waste valuable column space on analytical speculation. As Moskovskii Komsomolets notes, any political event, “even the tiniest,” is being viewed through the “Election” prism.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper reports that at the Hanover Trade Fair on April 11, President Vladimir Putin used the phrase “third term” for the first time in relation to himself. Vremya Novostei quotes him as saying: “I shall not amend the Constitution. And according to the Constitution, a president cannot serve three consecutive terms.” But Putin also specified that the Russian Constitution does not prohibit three non-consecutive terms. “Then again, I’m not sure I would want to do that,” he added.

The only person who fully believes that Putin’s statement was sincere seems to be Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute; he has said as much to a variety of publications.

In an interview with Moskovskii Komsomolets, Belkovsky said: “I’m convinced that the burden of power and responsibility has already become almost unendurable for Putin. He really does want to rid himself of the colossal responsibility for this foolish country, and that means stepping down in 2008.”

All the same, Belkovsky added, “Putin needs a controlled and controllable successor who wouldn’t even consider trying to confiscate anything from the second democratically elected president. And Putin will not run for president in 2012.”

Belkovsky spoke to Vremya Novostei in a somewhat more academic manner: “Putin has realized that the battle over who will succeed him has become too intense – so he needs to show that he will remain in control of the situation after 2008. In other words, he won’t be entirely gone. But this is a typical Putin bluff.”

According to Belkovsky, Putin is “seeking to prepare the country for the possibility that he might run for a third term. And then, when he eventually rejects that idea, that will be a huge relief for everyone. And everyone will say – with full justification – that Putin is a true democrat.”

In Belkovsky’s view, Putin has only one aim in this fairly complicated pre-election intrigue: to hand over “responsibility for the country” to a worthy successor, “and go down in history as the president who prevented Russia from disintegrating.”

Another leading political analyst – Alexander Konovalov, president of the Strategic Evaluations Institute – says that a third term for Putin is entirely possible, since this would not be unconstitutional: “In order to do that, however, he’d have to try to implement the idea proposed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov.”

As everyone knows, Mironov proposed some time ago that Putin should become prime minister, temporarily, while someone who is totally loyal to Putin – Mironov himself, for example – becomes president for the same interval.

On the other hand, says Konovalov, this is a fairly dangerous idea for Putin: “Once a different person – even Mironov – gets a feel for being the elected president, with four years ahead of him and control of the security and law enforcement system, he would immediately abandon that prime minister.”

Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, takes an extremely negative view of the idea of Putin becoming prime minister.

Pavlovsky told Moskovskii Komsomolets: “With the kind of government system we have now, Putin the prime minister would be like Prime Minister Fradkov. It would be a slap in the face for almost half the population – those who look to Putin as their leader.”

In an extensive interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Pavlovsky expanded on this theme: “Putin remaining in government with his successor as president – that’s impossible. I can propose this formula: having a successor as president is only possible if Putin leaves completely – a retreat to private citizen. If he quits politics permanently.”

But this, in Pavlovsky’s view, is a “bad option,” since Putin is Russia’s only politician with a “real reserve of populism” – which Pavlovsky describes as “indisputable revolutionary potential.” If Putin wished, he could use this potential “to overturn Russia with a hundred words, abolishing politics and parties.” What’s more, says Pavlovsky, Putin “would only need one statement to form a nationwide force that is loyal to him personally.”

But Putin isn’t Stalin: “The fact that he doesn’t take advantage of all that – but runs for election and reinforces the party system instead – is one of the most reliable confirmations of his loyalty to democracy.”

Still, “reinforcing the party system,” in Pavlovsky’s interpretation of the term, should be understood as meaning only one thing: strengthening the Kremlin-backed party, in its present form or whatever form it may take in future.

That’s because the right-wing parties have no real force now. To quote Pavlovsky’s marvelous expression, “the right wing is now like the Vykhino district at night – no place for a modest young lady.” (This statement gives an odd impression that Pavlovsky himself has had some bad personal experiences in the Vykhino district.)

As for the left-wing parties, their chief goal now is to attract the elusive attention of voters, according to the Vedomosti newspaper.

All attempts by the Communist Party (CPRF) and Dmitri Rogozin’s Motherland (Rodina) party to find out what Russian voters think of their policy platform by means of holding a referendum on 17 burning issues (retaining conscription deferments, repealing the law on monetizing benefits, and raising the minimum wage, and so on) may run aground not only on the Central Electoral Commission’s resistance, but also simply due to lack of money.

Alexander Ivanchenko, director of the Independent Elections Institute, reminded Vedomosti that the cost of holding a referendum is comparable to the cost of parliamentary elections – officially, 2.2 billion rubles in 2003.

Moreover, the irrepressible Vladimir Zhirinovsky has intervened in the situation, claiming that by attempting to organize a nationwide referendum, the Communist Party and Motherland are actually aiming to destabilize Russia.

Zhirinovsky’s teammate Alexei Mitrofanov stated: “The leftists are initiating this referendum proposal with the full knowledge that they will be denied permission for the referendum. Then, when permission is denied, they will use that to stir up the mob and lead street protests.”

Moreover, according to Mitrofanov, the right-wing liberals are helping the CPRF by “bothering the regime” with their Free Choice 2008 Committee.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper noted this moment either by saying that “the rightists have to move leftwards,” since “the leftist moods are expanding in Russia.”

Mitrofanov assured Vedomosti that the LDPR holds the following position: “We maintain that Russia doesn’t need a revolution. We shall foil their plans.”

As reported by Vedomosti, the initiators of the referendum have attempted to vindicate their actions. Motherland leader Dmitri Rogozin told Vedomosti: “We are not trying to organize riots in the streets or anything of the kind. Too much blood has already been shed. Yes, we do want a change of policy course. It might be called a social revolution, but it will be lawful.”

This didn’t sound very convincing, though.

Oleg Kulikov, secretary of the CPRF Central Committee, said: “As for Zhirinovsky, in this case he is an indicator of the regime’s fears, because the regime fears referendums.”

Moreover, Vedomosti notes, Zhirinovsky is known as a bitter opponent of the velvet revolutions that have taken place in the CIS during 2003-05. In January, he was extremely critical of the leftists who organized anti-monetization protest rallies all over the country.

Alexei Makarkin of the Political Techniques Center offers his own explanation for Zhirinovsky’s demarche: “If the pro-presidential United Russia party had criticized the referendum proposal, everyone would have decided that the Kremlin is scared. But Zhirinovsky is never taken seriously. Still, he is adept at discrediting his opponents’ ideas.”

Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center says it is in the Kremlin’s interests to use Zhirinovsky to associate the notion of revolutions with Rogozin, “who is not regarded as a leader of real changes.”

Nevertheless, says the Vremya Novostei newspaper, chess master Garry Kasparov, a co-founder of the Free Choice 2008 Committee, has announced that he and Vladimir Ryzhkov are founding their own party, noting that he regards Rogozin as their foremost rival for voter support.

“Dmitri Rogozin is moving in the same direction. He is considering the use of anti-Putin slogans,” said Kasparov, addressing the democrats of St. Petersburg, where he decided to launch his party-building effort.

According to Vremya Novostei, the first congress of the future party is supposed to take place this summer. For the time being, Kasparov and Ryzhkov are focusing on establishing regional branches.

The “old democratic parties” are extremely skeptical about this news. Alexei Kara-Murza of the Union of Right Forces (URF) Political Council said he doubts that “there are many ‘unattached’ democrats in the provinces waiting for Kasparov to call them.”

Still, Tatiana Stanovaya, chief analyst at the Political Techniques Center, views the new democrats as the “most attractive investment project at the moment: Leonid Nevzlin recently said he was ready to sponsor them.” And yet, Ryzhkov and Kasparov are trying to disassociate themselves from the oligarchs, because all of Russia is definitely drifting to the left. The matter concerns anger over the social reforms.

However, others besides the new democrats believe it is necessary to emphasize their independence of the oligarchs. Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Ivanenko explained in his interview with Kommersant-Vlast magazine why his party refuses to accept funding from oligarchs, though it hopes to attract donations from other business owners.

Ivanenko said: “Oligarchs are different from corporations in that they regard themselves as politicians. They are incapable of financing the political process – all they know how to do is buy it. This sort of funding is not acceptable. As for private donations, they are welcome – from large, medium-sized, or small companies.”

On the other hand, Oleg Sysuyev, a member of the Free Choice 2008 Committee, senior deputy chairman of Alfa-Bank’s board of directors, said in an interview with Novoye Vremya magazine that “involvement in politics means being prepared to make some sacrifices,” whereas “big business is not prepared to sacrifice anything at all.”

In general, Sysuyev says he has a “pessimistic view with regard to the opposition,” because “no new people are discernable on the democratic horizon,” and neither is any “demand for the democratic European idea in society.”

All we can see is just a kind of “protest mood, which is linked to long-lasting, difficult liberal reforms,” which “the democrats are trying to harness and ride.” Sysuyev is “not confident this should be done.”

He stressed at the same time that if the liberals dare to claim the power they must master the skills of winning over the voter – virtually at any cost.

“Everybody has realized the necessity for contriving something, which the potential voters would like,” Sysuyev told Novoye Vremya. We need slogans attractive for the people: “In case you want to be liked. No other way exists to win over the votes in the election.”

Perhaps on the example of the authorities the rightists have arrived at a conclusion that “politicians who always say what they think have no prospects. The electorate must hear something which matches the expectations.”

The media have repeatedly noted that this is the secret of Putin’s “Teflon” approval rating and his steady popularity – not among the electorate, but among leaders of many Western powers either.

Meanwhile, the results of a poll done by VTsIOM (published in Novye Izvestia) may provide some insight into the intentions and expectations of voters.

According to these reports, 39% of respondents now feel ashamed because Russia (as indicated in Forbes magazine) has the world’s second-largest number of billionaires.

Only 7% of respondents regard the growing billionaire rate as a reason for being proud of their country.

However, mainly people of the older generations feel ashamed of the billion-dollar fortunes of their compatriots: 16% of young respondents are proud of having billionaires in Russia, and 28% would like to get rich themselves; only 13% of young respondents are ashamed of the billionaires.

Respondents named Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky and Anatoly Chubais as Russia’s wealthiest citizens. Despite the YUKOS affair, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was also included in this ranking. He is followed by Viktor Chernomyrdin, Boris Yeltsin, Yuri Luzhkov and Alla Pugacheva. Luzhkov’s wife Yelena Baturina entered the rich list as well.

Meanwhile, the second man on this list – London resident Boris Berezovsky – provided a pessimistic answer when asked who would be capable of leading the protest movement in Russia nowadays, in an interview with the Versiya weekly.

Berezovsky isn’t even enthusiastic about Mikhail Kasianov, whose candidacy the press is ardently proposing for the role of a unifier of the rightist opposition. “Kasianov has a problem as a politician. He isn’t nearly resolute enough.” Meanwhile, Berezovsky stressed that “big politics always implies action, whereas an action is a consequence of determination.” In Berezovsky’s opinion, Kasianov lacks the determination needed to become a leader of the protest movement.

Berezovsky also regards the ambitions of the right wing as unfounded: in his opinion, the entire right wing “is laughable, just like that sideshow attempt on Anatoly Chubais’s life. I wouldn’t count on these people as leaders of the revolution.”

According to Berezovsky, people like Dmitri Rogozin aren’t even worth mentioning, since Rogozin is “a Kremlin project, no more, no less.”

The youth organizations are in no better situation. “As things stand, however, I don’t see anyone more significant in Russia than the National Bolshevik Party. That’s not to say I agree with that party’s ideology, of course. Still, these days the National Bolsheviks are the most dangerous force confronting the regime – and, as such, the most helpful element of confrontation with the regime.”

Berezovsky has no doubts that the confrontation develops into extreme forms: “A velvet revolution in Russia is out of the question. The only question is whether there will be a great deal of bloodshed. Judging by the stupidity and clumsiness of the Russian authorities, I don’t think there will be a lot of bloodshed. Still, some blood will be spilled. It’s inevitable.”

Vyacheslav Igrunov took the same tone in his statement for Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “The liberals aren’t above playing with street protests nowadays. During a social disaster, however, society is bound to plunge headlong in directions where it only moves slowly during periods of social tranquility. And we are moving towards aggravation of social tension, xenophobia and isolationism, the craving for an iron hand and decisive action.”

Igrunov maintains that if a revolution does take place in Russia, it is likely to be “brown-tinged.”

In Literaturnaya Gazeta, Sergei Kurginian paints an even more vivid image: “We see before us a country howling with horror – tormented, torn apart, terribly impoverished, and ill. Why is it howling? Because it is being pushed towards an abyss, with whispered curses of bloodshed to come. And the country both desires that prospect and fears it, remembering what the costs have been in the past.”

However, it is possible to refresh the memories of the forgetful, as Pavlovsky did in his interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Winter Palaces and White Houses must not be stormed or blockaded. The authorities need to have special, lawful means of preventing that. Everyone understands that some forms of mass action – those which are destructive for the country and dangerous for its neighbors – will be met with the use of force. This is standard practice for any political class, in England and Russia alike.”

All the same, England – despite Berezovsky – probably has nothing to do with this. There must be a reason why the specter of Stalin is stalking Russia…

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