At a scaled-down and muted World War II Victory Day Parade, Vladimir Putin again compared the war in Ukraine to the epic struggle of the USSR against Nazism. The ideological justification of Putin’s invasion—the “denazification of Ukraine”—is linked to the reanimated veneration of Stalin. Resurrecting the Soviet dictator, however, is much more than a wartime propaganda tool: it serves to legitimize the strategic culture of Putin’s Russia. If Stalin’s legacy becomes morally acceptable and legitimate, then Putin’s revisionist foreign policy goals—and all the means to accomplish them—will become similarly virtuous. To achieve lasting peace in Europe, the West must understand the present-day implications of Putin’s historic revisionism.
In February of this year, a new larger-than-life Stalin bust was unveiled in Volgograd to honor one of the deadliest battles of the Second World War: the battle of Stalingrad. A watershed moment of what Russia calls the “Great Patriotic War,” the Nazi expansion into the Soviet Union was halted at Stalingrad. The battle marked the turning of the tide, as the Red Army began to march victoriously all the way to Berlin. In the weeks preceding the unveiling of the new bust, officials floated the idea of changing the city’s name back to its Soviet-era name: Stalingrad.
However, the reanimated cult of Stalin is a more serious project than putting up a bunch of busts to boost wartime morale. The rehabilitation of the man of steel had already been going full steam when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022. In December 1999, when Putin was named acting president following Boris Yeltsin’s resignation, he pledged to reestablish order domestically and restore the strength of Russia abroad. The new president turned to the image of Stalin to build on Russian nostalgia for the lost gilded age of the Soviet empire. Barely a year in office, Putin replaced the Russian national anthem in 2000 with the National Anthem of the Soviet Union—a hymn personally selected by Stalin in 1943. The updated lyrics were written by the same Sergey Mikhalkov who penned the original version—mentioning Stalin—during the Great Patriotic War.
The rehabilitation of Stalin gradually gained momentum over the following years. In 2007, Putin called Stalin an “effective manager” and stated in Oliver Stone’s documentary, The Putin Interviews, that Stalin was “excessively demonized.” One of the last independent TV channels, Rain, was shut off in 2014 after it polled its viewers on whether Stalin should have surrendered Leningrad rather than killing more than a million citizens—including Putin’s brother—in the Nazi siege. The Kremlin has also been covering up Stalin’s genocidal act, the Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933, known as the Holodomor—going as far as getting rid of a monument dedicated to the victims in Russian-occupied Mariupol. To nurture the legacy of Stalin, Putin must erase the ostentatious inhumanity of the most murderous communist dictator in Russian history.
In 2020, Putin delivered an online history lesson for high school students and pre-university cadets where he praised the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which the Third Reich and the Soviet Union carved up Eastern Europe between them. In an essay published the same year in this very publication, Putin claimed that in September 1939 the Red Army only marched into Poland because “there was no alternative.” According to him, Stalin decided to carve up its neighbor to protect millions from “anti-Semites and radical nationalists.” Soviet-style “protection” included the massacre of around 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia prisoners of war in Katyn in 1940—a fact that Putin conveniently ignores. What is more, recently released FSB documents attribute this war crime to the Third Reich. Never mind the fact that the Russian Duma condemned Stalin for the massacre back in 2010. In his essay, Putin also paints the occupation and subsequent annexation of the Baltic countries during the fall of 1940 as “implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities.” These rigged elections served the same goal as the phony referendums in Russian-occupied Eastern Ukraine organized last year: to discipline the population and teach them how to behave under Soviet/Russian rule.
Make no mistake: the Russian population is more than susceptible to Putin’s Stalin worship. According to Levada, a polling agency, 56 percent of polled Russians in May 2021 agreed that Stalin was a “great leader.” Astonishingly, in Russia, Putin is sometimes even reproached for not being “Stalin enough.” Already in 2016, a bizarre, Stalin-mask selfie app became wildly popular on Russian Instagram. Just before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this was written into Russian law: “any public attempt to equate the aims and actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II, as well as to deny the decisive role of the Soviet people in the victory over fascism” is a criminal offense. It seems that Putin successfully seized on the unifying and catalyzing potential of the Soviet victory in World War II and the trauma of the dissolution of the USSR to vindicate Stalinism.
Like all people, Russians have the right to honor their leaders and write their own history. But the intensifying rehabilitation of Stalin only serves to legitimize Putin’s authoritarian regime and to support his revisionist foreign policy aspirations. When U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met in Yalta in February 1945 to decide on the post-war order in Europe, Stalin promised to allow free elections in Poland. He lied. Yalta didn’t stop Stalin from pursuing his imperial goals in Eastern Europe. In the same vein, the 1993 Budapest Memorandum didn’t stop Putin from invading Ukraine.
Putin is not Stalin, but Stalin’s heritage is omnipresent and deeply embedded in the Russian psyche. To understand Putin’s strategic culture, it must be perceived through a “Stalin lens.” The United States and its Western allies must look at history as a guide if they want to devise sustainable peace in the region.
Mónika Palotai is a Visiting Research Fellow at Hudson Institute specializing in the European Union, International Law, and Energy Security
Kristóf György Veres is a Senior Researcher at the Migration Research Institute (within the Mathias Corvinus Collegium) in Budapest.