According to a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center, a Russian independent, non-governmental polling and sociological research organization that is one of the largest Russian research companies, Russia’s views on former leader, Josef Stalin, have changed dramatically in just a few short years. According to the poll, while in 2007 a hefty 72% of Russians considered Stalin’s repressions a “crime that has no justification,” over the years that number has tumbled down to a mere 39% of the country.
Russians' opinions on Stalin's crimes has changed significantly in the last 10 years. pic.twitter.com/hqTCdOs6PJ— RFE/RL (@RFERL) September 11, 2017
The former Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin is a figure of much historical controversy, but one indisputable fact is that his actions were responsible for the death of millions of people. After consolidating power and developing a “cult of personality” around himself, between 1934 and 1939 alone, Stalin organized the “Great Purge,” during which millions of the so called “enemies of the working class,” were interned in prison camps, exiled or executed.
According to Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Stalin was responsible for the deliberate slaughter of around 6 million non-combatants, a figure that rises to 9 million if you include foreseeable deaths from deportation, hunger, and sentences in prison camps.
The tectonic shift in Russian public opinion on Stalin appears to have happened in dramatic bursts, primarily during 2012 and 2017, tracking in slight lagging correspondence to Putin’s approval ratings. Unsurprisingly, the Levada Center’s poll results seem just the latest embodiment of the fruits of the sort of “managed democracy” Putin that has employed. The origin of the term itself, “managed democracy,” is credited to a closer political adviser of Putin, Vladislav Surkov, who first utilized the term in a short story that he published under a pseudonym. A managed democracy “controls society while providing the appearance of democracy,” in short, a democracy that is but a mere illusion.
To achieve such control, political leaders employ what Surkov dubbed, “non-linear warfare,” a strategy that involves a war on all fronts: political, economic, and most important of all informational. By launching a full-on assault against history, and even the very notion of truth itself, non-linear warfare seeks to create a docile and apathetic citizenry, one that is all the easier to control. When we are no longer able to “sort fact from fiction, or moral right from moral wrong,” we are left with few options how to move forward and, as a result, we become paralyzed with a form of apathy that renders us able to be more effectively manipulated to make decisions against our own interests.
The Kremlin takes full advantage of their entire range of options in this pursuit, including so-called “active measures,” that seek to assert “reflexive, unconscious responses from a target group” by bombarding targets with “(dis)information designed to provoke reactions that are predictable and, to Russia, politically and strategically desirable.” This sometimes includes “op-eds, official policy and national strategy documents, journal articles, interviews, and, in some cases, fiction writing of Russian officials and ideologues” that work on behalf of the underlying propagandist intentions.
This has been made evident in a recent batch of new book releases with revisionist histories that offer a “renewed interest in the heroes of Russia’s past, Joseph Stalin foremost among them.” The result of this information war taking place across cultural landscapes, seems to have been successful in recasting Stalin in a more favorable light, as indicated by the Levada Center poll above.
In particular, the Russian “active measures” appear to have been quite successful in two specific sections of the poll, the percentage of the country perceived to be targeted by Stalin, dropping 17% from 58% to 41%, and the response rate of “difficult to answer” leaping from 11% up to 20%. It seems no coincidence that Russia’s historical revisionism and apathy generating war on truth would produce those changes, respectively.
While the Kremlin tends to utilize secondary sources to originate and amplify their message, keeping their hands at least “officially” clean, Russia has recently even resorted to bring their historical revisionism into official government communication channels.
In response to recent publicity surrounding the Christopher Nolan film, “Dunkirk,” the Russian Embassy tweeted, that “Dunkirk was caused by the appeasement, opposed by (Winston) Churchill.” In response, many Twitter pointed out that after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the U.S.S.R. made a pact with Berlin agreeing not to prevent Nazi troops from advancing towards their own boarders, occupying their neighbor country, Poland. Itself a formal act of appeasement, and argued by some an “alliance” of sorts, that emboldened the aggressive and expansionist German nation-state.
The Russian embassy tweeted back defensively, “Non-aggression pact wasn’t an alliance. Why should USSR fight (Adolf) Hitler if nothing was happening on the Western front for 8 months?”
The non-aggression pact, between Stalin and Hitler, agreed to a ten year period in which the two countries agreed not to take military action against each other. However, besides direct appeasement, the pact also contained a secret agreement in which the Soviets and Germans agreed how they would later divide up Eastern Europe, organizing “for the Soviet Union and the Nazi army to launch tandem offensives on Poland from both sides, amicably splitting their neighbor’s territory between them.” The German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact did not last long, however, falling apart in June 1941 when Nazi forces formally invaded the Soviet Union.
In yet another official recasting of history, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has served to aid this a historic narrative claiming in his address to parliament last year, “Our country, the Soviet Union, made direct proposals for joint action and collective defense, but these proposals were simply left hanging.”
But why is Russia stuck rehashing the past? For one simply reason, “controlling the past makes it easier to control the present.” Putin’s ambitions are far broader than merely altering public perception of his predecessors, but by doing so, he is serving his more far more ambitious agenda: total control of his managed democracy. With many young Russians “who do not remember the Soviet Union and have come of age entirely in the Putin era,” Putin may be able to build a world of his own creation, all the while convincing his people it was their own idea in the first place.
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