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Glossy View of the Soviet Era Takes Hold in Russia

Members of the Memorial organization lay flowers and light candles at a monument commemorating the victims of Soviet repression.
Alexander Nemenov
/
AFP/Getty Images
Members of the Memorial organization lay flowers and light candles at a monument commemorating the victims of Soviet repression.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a recent press conference. Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.
Juan Carlos Munoz / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a recent press conference. Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.

Ninety years ago on Wednesday, Bolshevik revolutionaries seized power in Russia. The communist revolution ushered in a totalitarian dictatorship that killed and imprisoned tens of millions of people.

But 16 years after the end of communism, Russians increasingly support their government's efforts to resurrect many Soviet-era practices.

Lev Mishchenko has lived the Soviet nightmare. Born in 1917, the year of the revolution, he says the Bolsheviks killed both his parents by the time he was four.

"It was a period of criminal rule by a group of thugs," Mishchenko says. "Our history is notable for its cruelty and the baseness of its ideas, such as class warfare ... which the regime cultivated to justify violence against its opponents."

Life Under Soviet Rule

Speaking in the kitchen of his small apartment in a concrete-slab Moscow suburb, Mishchenko says he went on to serve as an officer in World War II.

He was captured by the Nazis and imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp. But he survived the camp and returned home before the Soviets accused him of spying for Germany and sent him to a Siberian gulag.

"After I was released 10 years later, I ran into an old childhood friend on the street. When I told him I'd been in a labor camp, he began to shake with fear for being seen with me," Mishchenko says. "I've never seen anything like it. He turned and quickly left. That's how much people were enslaved to the system."

In the mid 1930s, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin launched his Great Purge.

Russian historians conservatively estimate that at least 12.5 million people died from execution, famine and imprisonment during 70 years of Soviet rule. Tens of millions were sent to labor camps.

But despite communism's terrible legacy, a growing number of Russians now praise Stalin for overseeing the country's massive industrialization before leading the Soviet Union to victory against Nazi Germany in World War II.

Soviet-Era Nostalgia Grows

Syleia Daripova, 34, says she believes Stalin was a great man.

"Not every person can accumulate power in his hands like that," Daripova says. People say he murdered half of Russia ... but, still, he was a unique personality. There are very few like him in history."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.

Since taking office eight years ago, the former KGB officer has abolished elections of regional governors, silenced independent media, and put control of politics and the economy firmly back in the Kremlin's hands.

The public has rewarded Putin with approval ratings of over 80 percent. But not everyone shares Putin's sense of loss about the Soviet era.

No Apologies for Soviet Crimes

Outside the KGB's austere old headquarters in central Moscow, members of the Memorial organization read the names of people shot by the Communist authorities.

The organization has spent decades compiling information about the victims of Soviet repression. Post-war Germany had the Nuremburg trials, and Germans later learned to acknowledge and apologize for Nazi crimes.

But Memorial chairman Arsenii Roginskii says the Russian government failed to admit to Soviet crimes because many former Communist Party officials remain in power.

"We weren't occupied by enemy forces. And unlike other former Soviet republics, we couldn't blame outsiders and collaborators," Roginskii says. "We cooked up the Soviet system ourselves and we have to judge ourselves. That's very difficult and our leaders just didn't have the political will."

Glorifying the Past

Roginskii says the upheavals of the 1990s fostered nostalgia for a stable past in which the country was ruled by a strong hand, something Putin exploited.

Roginskii says there's not a single memorial in Moscow for victims of the Soviet regime, because reminders of the country's bloody past would help undermine the authority of Russia's new leadership.

That pains former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms helped bring communism crashing down in 1991 and who says his role in Soviet history is being written out of school textbooks.

"A new history is being created: Stalin's rule was a golden age. Khrushchev was utopia. Brezhnev was a continuation of the golden age. None of this today is happening by chance," Gorbachev says.

Gorbachev refuses to criticize Putin's administration directly, but he says the current trend toward historical revisionism is putting Russia at risk of a rebirth of Stalinism.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.

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