The Special Ideological Operation Going According
To Plan
August 31, 2023
  • Andrei Kolesnikov

    Senior Fellow, Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center
Andrei Kolesnikov writes about the ideological foundation of the Putin regime, the most important part of which is the destruction of the memory of the Soviet regime’s crimes and the transformation of Stalin into a positive figure.
According to a famous Soviet joke, Stalin left his will in three envelopes. That is how it was in the original version. The first envelope – “open immediately after death” – said “bury me in the mausoleum next to Lenin.” They did as requested. The second envelope – “open when things get bad” – was opened in 1954, when there were problems in agriculture: “blame it all on me.” They put it on him, and the fight against the cult of personality began. The third envelope – “open when things get really bad” – was opened during the 1956 crisis in Hungary: “act as I did.” The uprising was put down.

Since then, the Russian state and society have gone through these same stages several times. Stalin was taken out of the mausoleum in 1961, but Stalinization, albeit a softer version, returned. The problems of the Soviet Union were rightly “blamed” on Stalin in the perestroika years; today, the time has again come to “act as Stalin did.” Yes, perhaps now is not 1937 in terms of mass repression, but its quality – with no evidence and absurd accusations, an unconditional presumption of guilt and increasingly cruel sentences – in some cases is gradually approaching the standards of state persecution in the 1930s-1950s.
An eight-meter-tall monument to Stalin was opened in Velikiye Luki (Pskov Region) in August 2023. Source: Twitter
Dear Great Leader

The era of Stalin gradually became a model of harsh but fair government; the rigidity of Putin’s general line was wittingly and unwittingly compared with Stalinist standards of totalitarian rule, while the imperial ideology of the Stalinist era and even the propagandistic justifications for the annexation and occupation of lands were literally copied by Putin’s ideologists and propagandists.

In the rewritten history of the fatherland, Stalin has gradually gone from a negative to a positive figure. The scale of repression is hushed up, the regime’s crimes – for example, in the case of Katyn – are questioned. There are already more than a hundred “people’s” monuments to the tyrant across Russia, some of which are even consecrated by the Russian Orthodox Church: the destruction of places of memory to the victims of repression is accompanied by the erection of memorials to their initiator and organizer.

The “liquidation” of the custodian of memory – the organization Memorial – basically opened the way for the “special military operation.” All ideas about the moral and immoral in politics that predominated during the years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin are being overturned.

In the eyes of Russians, Putin is turning into “Stalin today” – the heir to a “great power,” a gigantic empire whose greatness (and size) in today’s circumstances must be restored in the Stalinist way, through external expansion and internal repression.

And here is the result. In July 2023, according to a study by the Levada Center, about half of the respondents viewed Stalin with respect, while about a quarter were indifferent toward him. More than half agreed with the assessment that he “was a great leader.”

Back in October 2012, respect for the tyrant was at 21% (now it is 47%), and hostility, irritation, fear, loathing, hatred for Stalin amounted to 31% (now 8%). The dynamic is important here: In 2015, shortly after the annexation of Crimea, respect for the tyrant went over the 30% mark.
By the beginning of the twenties, a clear idea of Stalin as a great leader had taken shape – this is what more than half of respondents think; before that, for many years the figure did not reach even 30%.
Thus, over the decade that included the annexation of Crimea, the finishing touches being put on Putin’s authoritarianism and then semi-totalitarian state, the amendments to the constitution that reset Putin’s term limit, war and political repressions, ideas about Stalin changed in the most radical way – they were simply turned upside-down, symbolically designating the return of the “totalitarian man.”

Neo-Stalinist model

In search of a definition of the essence of the regime Putin has built, many turn to Timothy Snyder’s term “rashism.” In the Putin model, both politically and ideologically, there is much from the classic ultra-right conservative dictatorship.

In the modern Russian regime, nationalism and messianic imperialism have been combined. Not all regimes have such combinations, though in our case they go together entirely naturally, as they are historically conditioned: Russia is a half-collapsed empire with phantom imperial pains, while Russian nationalism has always been built on an imperial basis and evidence of Russian spiritual and civilizational exceptionalism.

The people who came to power at the beginning of the 2000s are by no means intellectuals, just like the ideologues who serve the Kremlin; due to the lack of new ideas and accomplishments, they are looking to anchor the existing regime in history, and Putin himself acts as the main history teacher of the nation.

In Russian history, there is an example of an ideal past that can become an ideal future – it is the era of Stalin and his regime, which, as today’s masters of the Kremlin intuitively feel, was primarily imperial and only secondarily Marxist. So, one does not need to look for new definitions: the modern Russian regime is neo-Stalinist.

The essence of this syncretic model was expressed by one of the characters of Vladimir Nabokov, who ranted in an émigré salon in the post-war years: “The great Russian people have woken up and my country is again a great country. We had three great leaders. We had Ivan, whom his enemies called Terrible, then we had Peter the Great, and now we have Joseph Stalin. I am a White Russian and have served in the Imperial Guards, but also I am a Russian patriot and a Russian Christian. Today, in every word that comes out of Russia, I feel the power, I feel the splendor of old Mother Russia. She is again a country of soldiers, religion, and true Slavs” (Vladimir Nabokov, “Double Talk,” then renamed “Conversation Piece, 1945,” The New Yorker, June 23, 1945).

‘Special ideological operation’
We have witnessed not only a special military operation but also a special ideological operation, which is aimed at forcing unanimity in Russia.
At first, the very political circumstances of Russia in the era of “mature Putinism” pushed the already-obedient ordinary Russian, who did not have his own opinion, toward a self-imposed Stalinization of mind. But this was during the stage of authoritarian practices. Totalitarian practices presuppose unanimity, which is achieved by the unification of ideas about history and ideology.

The instrument for this unification is school history textbooks, in particular the textbook for the 11th grade by Vladimir Medinsky and Anatoly Torkunov, which plays the role of Stalin’s History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course, and university textbooks on the “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood,” designed to play the role of “Scientific Communism,” taught in the Soviet years.

The monstrous Stalinist dystopia that has become reality is presented in the Medinsky-Torkunov textbook as a blissful retro-utopia. It is a rewritten history of a sacralized state: there are heroes and events, but not the same as in real history – they are bureaucrats and generals and abstract human robots who care exclusively about their fatherland’s state.

This is applied history – adapted to the intellectual and moral occupation of society by official Putinism. The single textbook forces young people starting life, if not to think in a way that is convenient for the dictatorship, then at least to publicly follow the “correct” discourse formulated by it – otherwise they will not pass the history exam and will not be allowed to enter adulthood. The Medinsky-Torkunov textbook becomes a sort of ticket to adult life, a fee that must be paid for entry.

A sample assignment for high school students: “Read an excerpt from J. Stalin’s speech at the election meeting of voters from the Stalinist Electoral District in Moscow (February 9, 1946). Answer the questions and complete the assignments. 1. Which of the plans for the development of the national economy formulated by Stalin were short-term, and which were long-term? 2. How much time did he give for achieving the short-term development plans? 3. What are the minimum terms given for achieving the long-term plans for the development of the Soviet national economy?”

The conversation is being conducted as if it were Putin’s recent keynote speech on social and economic development.

The technology of re-Stalinization is the justification of repression, the simplification of historical realities, omissions and, of course, outright lies. Here is a sample: “Former accomplices of the invaders were systematically identified and imprisoned. Members of the peoples resettled in Kazakhstan, Central Asia and other eastern regions of the country during the war years continued to live there until the mid-1950s.”

“Members of the peoples resettled there during the war years” are the accomplices of the invaders? Who are these peoples? How many of their “members” were deported? How did the drama of resettlement unfold? These questions are not answered. It is also not explained that in a number of cases they were forced to live in exile not until the mid-1950s, but much longer.

The repressed of the past are the forerunners of those who today oppose the Putin regime. And to assert the correctness of today’s acts of state violence, the authorities need to repress the memory of political persecution in the Soviet era, both Stalinist and late-Soviet.

Links to the current day come up several times in the Medinsky-Torkunov textbook.
Today’s dissenters are, in their logic, the descendants of the antisovetchiki, dependent on the West – this follows from the textbook’s description of the activities of dissidents in the 1960s-1970s.
From the facades of buildings in Moscow in the spring and summer of 2023 more than a dozen commemorative plaques of Last Address with the names of victims of Stalinist repression disappeared. In the photo, a plaque of Last Address in St Petersburg. Source: Wiki Commons
Here is just one example of such an interpretation: “So-called dissidents (persons who declare their disagreement with the official ideology) appeared in intelligentsia circles. However, their number was small, and the dissident movement did not have any single organizational or ideological shape. The dissidents were heavily ‘incubated’ by the West, and therefore their activities were watched by the state security agencies. This was also important given the growing threat of terrorism, which became a serious problem abroad. Some manifestations, although very rare, appeared in the USSR.”

Anti-Stalinist literature, as interpreted by the textbook, is in reality directed against the state. Just as now: “Rather quickly it became clear that the numerous ‘anti-Stalinist’ publications that appeared were actually criticism not just of Stalin, but also of the Soviet system as a whole.”

The re-Stalinization of the regime itself, its discourse and the atmosphere in the country naturally leads to anonymous and therefore unpunished acts of destruction aimed at places of memory of repression.
About 45,000 victims of Stalinist repression of various nationalities are buried at Levashovo Memorial Cemetery in Leningrad Region. A memorial sign dedicated to repressed Poles (pictured) disappeared in July 2023. Source: Facebook
The ripped down plaques of Last Address, along with the liquidation of memorials to repressed Poles and Lithuanians in St Petersburg, Irkutsk Region, Perm Region, Yakutia and Sverdlovsk Region, are a war against memory as such being waged by the state in alliance with nameless “turbo-patriots.”

The historical politics that presents our dark past as our bright future is not only biased interpretations of facts, but also their conscious forgetting. The “special ideological operation” is going well, according to plan: with the mass glorification of the “special military operation” as the heir to the Victory in World War II, the transformation of violence into a social norm, the routinization of ideas about existential confrontation with the West, and the need to fight on the domestic front with its paid accomplices.
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