Staunton, December 18 – Compared to other countries, Gennady Bordyugov says, Russia has long suffered from “a cult of anniversaries,” events in which certain individuals and events are lost to history and become the basis for the government to promote its own needs for the present and the future by restructuring the past.
In an interview in Rossiiskaya gazeta, the head of the Association of Researchers on Russian Society argues that “the jubilee sphere is always controlled by the state and only those who fit into the correct ideology are judged worthy of honor” (rg.ru/2019/12/17/istorik-bordiugov-rasskazal-kogda-budet-preodolen-kult-lichnosti-stalina.html).
The historian describes how the Stalin cult has evolved by considering how it was marked every ten years beginning in 1939 when Stalin first allowed his person to be celebrated on the anniversary of his birth. (In 1919, Soviet Russia was in the midst of a civil war; and in 1929, Stalin was not completely without challenge.)
Bordyugov notes that the idea that Stalin opposed these later commemorations is a myth. The Soviet dictator only opposed those elements of the celebration which he considered “harmful” because they sent messages about him and his system that he did not want to have disseminated.
The major “round” anniversary for Stalin was his 70th birthday in 1949. The jubilee dominated the Soviet media, attracted visitors and presents from around the country, and culminated in a banquet at the Bolshoy which lasted for many hours and ended when Stalin simply walked away.
The anniversaries after Stalin’s death have served as a barometer of the changes in Soviet and Russian society. In 1959, the regime ignored the date but the KGB registered what it called “unhealthy views” about Stalin, the result of Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaign and discussions of the repressions in Stalin’s time.
Before the 90th anniversary of Stalin’s birth, the Brezhnev regime prepared for a long time and carefully. Articles and even novels, like Vsevolod Kochetov’s What Do You Want? were published. But there were protests and controversy and so a single and consistent message did not come through despite the hopes of the regime.
Instead, the image of Stalin increasingly was linked to the victory in World War II, with his domestic actions being given short shrift in the commemorations. As Bordyugov puts it, “victory in the war was seen as the key moment which showed the lack of any alternative to Soviet power.”
In 1979, on the centenary of Stalin’s birth, many Soviet citizens were disappointed with the Pravda article about that event. That date corresponded to “the time of the apogee of well-being – world oil prices had not collapse and there were still a few days before the Afghanistan adventure.” The regime showed that it “needed Stalin” but only as the organizer of victory.
In 1989, the 110th birthday of Stalin, Gorbachev’s glasnost allowed multiple points of view to emerge, to show that “in Russia as before there was not one truth but rather as many as there were people.” But “nevertheless scholars began to formulate questions about the doctrinal roots of Stalinism and the social forces on which Stalin relied.”
In 1999 and 2009, the next “round” anniversaries, Bordyugov says, those controversies continued. But today on the 140th anniversary of Stalin’s birth, the late dictator has become more popular as a result of the regime’s celebration of the war and of Stalin’s role in that and in making the Soviet Union a world power.
“The 11 Stalin jubilees,” the historian continues, “are a sufficient basis to see both how Stalin organized these holidays and how the authorities, having lost him haven’t been able to ignore him on these round dates.” But what the regime and the people are talking about now is not Stalin but the image of Stalin, something very different and something easier to change.
Ten years from now, Russia will have to decide how to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Stalin’s birth. Bordyugov says he isn’t confident that there won’t be imposed on society yet another Stalin. At the same time, however, he says that it isn’t necessary to seek to overcome the cult of Stalin. Instead, Russians must face up to the problems of today.
“The cult will be overcome when Stalin and his image from politicized memory return to history in which he like Ivan the Terrible will occupy a really proper place without embellishments or derogations,” the historian says, adding that this return to history may be far more simple or easy.