The policy of the hard hand

Conversation with Stalin biographer Heinz-Dietrich Lowe on the political culture of leadership in Russia

"Comrade Stalin, after becoming General Secretary, concentrated immense power in his hands, and I am not convinced that he will always know how to make careful use of this power."

Whatever one thinks of Russia’s great revolutionary leader Vladimir I. Lenin may think, no one will accuse him of lack of knowledge of human nature. Comrade Stalin was not careful with his power, but mutated into one of the worst tyrannies and mass murderers that the 20th century has ever seen. The people who had to experience the twentieth century. This did only limited harm to his popularity, and today, more than 50 years after his death, it is still "Father Stalin" still high on the agenda of many Russians. Your President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, does not suspect that a new era of human rights and democratic reforms could dawn under his aegis.

After the hostage drama in Beslan, many observers expect instead a further curtailment of civil rights and the rigorous suppression of all autonomy efforts. Chief of General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky even liked to hint that the whole globe could become the scene of the Russian anti-terrorist struggle:

As for preventive strikes against terrorist bases, we will take all measures to liquidate them in every region of the world.

Telepolis spoke with Prof. Heinz-Dietrich Lowe on the political leadership culture in Russia. Lowe is the director of the Seminar for Eastern European History at the University of Heidelberg and, in addition to numerous other publications on historical events in Russia, has written a much-acclaimed biography entitled "Stalin – The Unleashed Revolutionary" submitted.

Stalin is regarded in the West as an epitome of the conscienceless and criminal politician. Why he was judged differently by many Russians?

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: This is an interesting phenomenon, because the crimes that were committed at that time were of course known in Russia as well. Nevertheless, many people saw Stalin as a father figure in the sense of former Russian rulers, and he himself very consciously placed himself in this line of tradition and, to a certain extent, cultivated a symbolic communication with the people. Stalins Leitfigur, die ihm immer wieder zur eigenen Stilisierung diente, war Iwan der Schreckliche, und wenn wir bedenken, dass "the terrible" is a false translation, because in Russian it means a punishing, but also loving and just Father-God, we are already very close to the matter. Moreover, Stalin succeeded in giving the public the impression that he had not ordered the cruel purges but, on the contrary, had stopped them and prevented worse outgrowths. Of course, today we know that the truth is quite different, but at that time it worked.

A ruler must punish, but he also loves and forgives

According to the motto also known elsewhere: "If Stalin knew that …"

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: Yes, exactly. In Russia there was a very clear idea: a ruler must punish, but he also loves and forgives. This world of thought explains, for example, the scenes of mourning after Stalin’s death, which are completely incomprehensible to us. Die Bevolkerung war auber sich, es kam zu schweren Unglucksfallen und zahlreichen Toten, und sogar in den Lagern wurde geweint, obwohl diese Menschen wegen Stalin dort einsaben. One simply felt orphaned. When did the veneration of Stalin begin??

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: We can speak of a real cult from 1929 onwards. As part of the celebrations for Stalin’s 50th birthday. On his 50th birthday, the veneration took on almost religious proportions. He presented himself as a savior, but also displayed the humility that befits one so revered. In a thank-you note, Stalin referred to himself to the CC at the time as "The Party’s Creature" and in general used a whole series of biblical expressions. How many "Anhanger" has it today, and from which strata do they come??

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: It is necessary to look at it in a differentiated way. There are surveys according to which about 60% of the population still consider Stalin to be a great man in Russian history. He reminds them of winning the war and the central role their country once played in world history. They are not all Stalinists, of course. Their group is much smaller and consists first of all of old people, war veterans, pensioners and perestroika losers. In addition, there is another group that is extremely difficult to assess, but I ame that Josef Stalin still has many admirers even in the ranks of the Russian security organs. How do these people become politically active and what concrete goals do they pursue?? In other words, is Stalin today just a myth or is he really still a role model for real politics??

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: No, I would not say that, because his followers have no program and no idea of how the world should be organized. There is a lot of nostalgia involved, a longing for peace and order, an outstanding leader and father figure, and of course the firm conviction that democracy is not good for Russia. They do not seem to pose a concrete danger at present.

Gladly in fighter jets

In what tradition of rule does the current president Vladimir Putin see himself??

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: The president has no recognizable role model, he is intelligent enough to know that he must present his own character. Putin naturally presents himself as a strong man – a basic requirement for all top Russian politicians – and as a military leader. He likes to get on fighter jets and fly to the Caucasus … Apart from that, there are hardly any historical reference points, but perhaps some reference to Orthodox traditions and the role filled long ago by the tsars. When Putin says after the hostage-taking in the Moscow Musical Theater: "We could not save all of them", then pauses for a long time and finally adds "Forgive", it reminds very much of the self-understanding of former Kremlin rulers. Nevertheless, he knows very well that he cannot turn back the clock, and this is also true for his entire leadership. It now focuses on the cohesion of the Russian foderation, but it is realistic enough not to pursue, for example, an expansive aubenpolitik. The main aim is to control the social forces from above, and the main goal is a controlled democracy or, to put it more maliciously, a faked democracy. It’s a rather complex undertaking.

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: The Russian leadership on the one hand wants to keep up with the times, and on the other hand wants a strong state and a powerful leader. That is why it has tried to combine the concept of a market economy with an authoritarian understanding of democracy. But she is not happy with it, because the elites around Putin pursue the market economy, in which free opinions can develop and which is above all difficult to control, with ever more coarse distrust. And not only with that.

No solution to the Chechen conflict

What do the majority of the Russian people expect from their president – after the Beslan bloodbath??

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: The range is very wide. In the first rage, many cry out for the physical destruction of opponents, and this has something to do with how so-called enemies were treated in the Stalin era. On the other hand, a large part of the population is already in favor of peace, most of them just don’t know how to achieve it and therefore, to be on the safe side, rely first on military strength. However, dissenting voices are also being heard, mainly in intellectual circles. Here people formulate that Russia must change itself in one way or another and become a real civil society. They believe that the lack of a civil society makes their country vulnerable to terrorism. Is there a solution to the Chechen conflict that all sides could live with??

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe: Not at the moment, I fear. Already under Yeltsin there were attempts to reach an agreement with the Chechens, but in the collapsing state Islamic terrorists were able to establish themselves, and now an autonomous or semi-autonomous solution is out of the question. The Russian government can only try to start an honest dialogue with the part of the population that does not wage war and does not support the terrorists, and it should not involve only the elites who have any relations in Moscow and are, from the Russian point of view, not suspicious anyway. There is, however, one important prerequisite: Russia must finally openly acknowledge its guilt, the abominable corruption and the terrible brutality with which the soldiers proceeded in Chechnya. Without such a concession, the de-escalation of the conflict, which will take a very long time anyway, is hardly conceivable.

Heinz-Dietrich Lowe’s study "Stalin – The Unleashed Revolutionary. Personality and History" is published in two volumes by Muster-Schmidt Verlag (28.50 euros).

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