In the Western World, former Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin is largely remembered for leading an oppressive regime under which millions of Soviets died. However, according to a survey released by Russia’s Levada Center last month, 38 percent of Russians consider Stalin to be the “most outstanding” person in history.
The Levada Center, a Russian non-governmental research program, sent the survey to 1,600 Russians and asked who they considered to be the “top 10 most outstanding people of all time and all nations.” According to The Washington Post, 38 percent of those surveyed listed Stalin as their top choice, with President Vladimir Putin and 19th-century poet Alexander Pushkin coming in second at 34 percent.
This survey demonstrates an increase in the number of Russians who hold a positive view of Stalin, with only 12 percent choosing Stalin in a similar poll conducted in 1989, according to Voice of America.
During his rule, Stalin initiated the Great Purge (also known as the Great Terror), used forced labor camps and caused mass starvation, which led to the deaths of millions of citizens.
According to a Levada Center poll conducted in May, the number of Russians who have no knowledge of Stalin’s repressions has doubled since 2012.
Putin, despite the recent controversy surrounding suspected Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, maintains a high approval rating among Russians at 81 percent, according to a different Levada Center poll conducted in May.
The relatively positive perception of Stalin and Putin among Russians, as well as the diminishing knowledge of Stalin’s Great Purge, leads to the question of how Russia’s leaders are portrayed in Russian media and education.
According to Freedom House, Russia’s press is labeled as “not free” and much of the reporting by Russian news outlets shows a bias towards the ruling United Party, especially in the coverage of the September 2016 parliamentary elections. In July of 2016, new amendments were signed into law giving state security services more access to communication data and increased penalties for journalists promoting “extremism.”
Television is the main source of news for Russians, and the main television networks are either owned by or have close ties with the state, according to BBC. Since the Ukraine crisis began in 2013, Russian state media has taken on a more nationalistic tone in their reporting on Russia’s involvement with the Ukraine, praising President Putin and rejecting Western influence.
During Stalin’s rule, he maintained the Communist notions that the well-being of the overall population was more important than that of the individual and that national order is to be valued more than individual rights. In an interview with the New York Times, Led Gudkov, a pollster at the Levada Center, said that Putin has attempted to build on Stalin’s legacy.
“By raising the figure of Stalin, the Putin regime is trying to raise the idea that collective interests are more important than individual lives, and that means the regime has less responsibility to society,” Gudkov said.
Attempts to rally support for the Russian government are evident in annual celebrations commemorating military victories. Victory Day is celebrated every May 9 with a parade on Moscow’s Red Square, commemorating the Soviet defeat of Nazi forces in World War II, according to The Moscow Times.
Efforts to commemorate Stalin’s legacy and build national pride are also evident in Russia’s education system.
According to The Moscow Times, Olga Vasilyeva, who has largely been known for supporting Soviet policies, took office as the new Education Minister in August 2016. Since then, a new set of history textbooks has been released that focuses less on Stalin’s repressions and his initial alliance with Nazi Germany and more on his military victories.
The change in textbooks has sparked criticism from some in Russia, especially history teachers. Historian and teacher Leonid Katsva said that the textbooks do not paint an accurate picture of Stalin’s regime.
“My main issue with the textbooks is that they do not reveal the whole truth,” Katsva said in the Moscow Times.
In order to instill national pride among their citizens, Russian officials have influenced Russian media and education to portray positive images of figures like Stalin. The high regard in which Stalin is held and the diminishing knowledge of Stalin’s repressions reveal the effects of state-controlled media and communication systems.