Stalin is back. Not in life, but in a list of 12 greatest Russians compiled by TV station Rossiya after an estimated five million people polled and billed him for the No. 3 slot. It’s unsurprising that he continues to be a high-octane name in a Russia in the grip of resource nationalism. This is a phenomenon whereby states use their natural resources such as oil and natural gas to shape domestic and foreign policies to further a nationalist agenda.
The list includes iconic figures such as the founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, the poet Alexander Pushkin, the first modernizer of Russia, Peter I or Peter the Great, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and the creator of the Periodic Table of elements, Dmitri Mendeleev. They’re all behind Stalin.
If the inclusions are surprising, the omissions give a clue to what powers the Russian imagination: Andrei Sakharov, Boris Pasternak, Leo Tolstoy, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and even Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the modern incarnation of Russian nationalism. What caused their deletion? These two results should be seen in the light of the world view of the two polar levers of the Russian polity: the ordinary citizens who have gained in the last decade or so and the super-rich, whose wealth comes from rents that came their way in the years of “gangster capitalism”.
In recent years, the galloping price of natural resources such as natural gas, oil and metals have fuelled a boom in the Russian economy. These resources now account for almost 80% of Russia’s exports. This has led to paradoxical political and economic results. Per capita gross domestic product (in purchasing power parity terms) is now $14,800, at least double that a decade ago. The country has witnessed 7% economic growth every year for the past five years. An economic boom was the result. A large number of Russian citizens attribute this to the “cleaning up” of the Russian economy, with the notorious oligarchs of the early 1990s being brought to book. Politically, this gave Vladimir Putin a certain legitimacy that his predecessor Boris Yeltsin could only dream of.
At the same time, however, glaring disparities in wealth have emerged. Surveys by Russiavotes.org show that in 2008, fewer than 20% Russians felt their condition to be good. In the meantime, the Kremlin has created its own set of “entrepreneurs”, ones who receive favoured treatment from the government, get privileged access to credit and, of course, state assets that are privatized. As the global economy is freezing, Russian firms have their own problems of overleveraging from the boom years. In the Russia of today, the life and death of a firm is dictated less by the market and more by the money the government is willing to bestow on it.
As a result, the rich, the not-so-rich and the poor all want a strong state. The state, of course, wants a symbol of might. Out of this strange amalgam emerges Stalin. He represents the imaginings of this motley group of voters: a strong Russia, money and privilege (for the elite), secure jobs (for the ordinary folks) and, of course, might on a global scale. Freedom and liberty, well, those are alien concepts. Putin’s Russia has a strong resemblance with that past. It has “stood up” to the US. Georgia has been taught a lesson and old friendships are being renewed (Cuba) and new ones forged (with Venezuela, to give one example). It’s not surprising that there’s no place for humanists such as Sakharov and Pasternak in the list of great Russians.
There’s more than mere imagination here: There is a historical resonance as well, even if the events are different. Moshe Lewin, a former Red Army soldier and later a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, recounted one such episode of Russian history in his book, Lenin’s Last Struggle. The date is 1923, two years after the launch of the New Economic Policy which gave the Soviet Union economic strength but laid the foundations of later disasters. Lenin is paralysed and on his deathbed, resisting Stalin’s efforts to liquidate the residue of Georgian independence. The tyrant wins: A political class that is insecure and privileged at the same time aids him. This pattern, if not the story, is being repeated in the Russia of today.
Siddharth Singh is assistant editor, Views, Mint. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org