Mon, 27 May 2019

Editor's Note: Due to the Good Friday holiday, The Week In Russia is being issued on Thursday this week. To receive Steve Gutterman's Week In Russia each week via e-mail, subscribe by clicking here.

'Gone Mad'

In big black letters against a bright red background, a magazine cover in the former Soviet Union this week made a simple declaration: 'Everyone's gone mad.'

It was a Ukrainian magazine, Novoye Vremya, and the faces framing the words made clear that the subject of the cover story was the Ukrainian presidential election.

But the headline could have worked pretty well for a story across the border in Russia, where 70 percent of people surveyed by Levada Center in late March said that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin played a positive role -- either completely positive or mainly positive -- in what the independent pollster called 'the life of our country.'

Only 19 percent said Stalin played a mainly negative role, while 11 percent couldn't say. Answering a separate question, a total of 51 percent said they had a positive personal opinion of Stalin -- including 4 percent who felt admiration, 41 percent who had respect, and 6 percent who voiced a 'liking' for the late autocrat.

The pro-Stalin numbers were up sharply from the past few years and were higher than at any time since Levada started asking these questions in the early 2000s, during President Vladimir Putin's first presidential term.

Some of the historians and activists who have sought to detail Stalin's crimes against his own people have accused Putin's government of whitewashing the dictator's Great Terror -- or as the late former chairman of the rights group Memorial put it, to push the memory of his abuses 'to the distant periphery of the consciousness' of the Russian people.

A woman holds a picture of a Soviet leader Josef Stalin during a ceremony marking the 66th anniversary of his death in Moscow's Red Square on March 5.

'Purely Mythological'

So, in some ways the upshot of the Levada poll looks like a no-brainer: Putin has succeeded, the thinking might go, and Russians -- seeking a strong hand like the one they may believe Stalin employed to industrialize the country and set it up for a nuclear-tipped Cold War with the United States -- will go along with whatever eggs Putin must break to make that kind of an omelet.

But it's not that simple, and an alternative interpretation is that the poll results spell bad news for Putin regardless of his public statements -- and private thoughts, for that matter -- about Stalin.

After all, one factor that seems to draw people to Stalin -- or to what Russian socialist Leonty Byzov said was the 'purely mythological image of Stalin' -- is disaffection with their current government at any and all levels, from the local bureaucrats and police on up to the president and his cabinet.

That was true in the 1990s, when millions of Russians were struggling to stay afloat and get their bearings following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its communist system, and an entire way of life.

Income Inequality

Memories of the actual Stalin era were far fresher then, and a sickeningly gaudy wealth of details about his abuses had been pouring out into the light since the glasnost era of Mikhail Gorbachev -- but despite that, there were those who yearned for a leader they believed would bring order and restore justice, punishing those perceived to be profiting from the misfortunes of others.

It is true now, too, according to Byzov, a researcher at the Sociology Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. And now, the truth about Stalin's crimes may be established but it is easier to avoid or just not notice, relegated to some degree to history and to monuments -- like the Wall of Sorrow in Moscow, which Putin helped unveil in October 2017 but did not visit on the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions a year later.

Russians now feel 'increasingly abandoned' and 'Stalin is seen in society as a defender of the oppressed,' Byzov said, according to the news outlet RBK. 'The figure of Stalin is starting to be perceived as a symbol of justice and an alternative to the current authorities, who are judged to be unfair, cruel, and uncaring about the people.'

Of course, Putin's official result in the March 2018 presidential election -- nearly 77 percent of the vote -- hardly points to disaffection, even if factors like cheating, the sidelining of opponents, and the state's dominance over TV content are taken into account.

Melting Middle Class?

But his poll numbers have slipped substantially since the vote, in part because of an unpopular pension reform that is raising the retirement age and compounded concerns among Russians about their economic prospects.

With oil exports fueling strong economic growth during his first two terms, in 2000-08, Putin is credited with helping to build a bigger middle class in a country that was supposed to have been classless just a decade or two earlier. But according to Russians themselves, the size of the middle class has shrunk substantially since 2014, the year global oil prices tanked and countries in the West imposed sanctions on Russia over its interference in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a car hood during the opening ceremony of a Mercedes Benz automobile assembly plant outside Moscow on April 3.

A poll called the Ivanov Consumer Index -- after the Russian equivalent of the common name Johnson -- found that 47 percent of those surveyed in 2018 considered themselves members of the middle class, down from 60 percent in 2014, the daily Vedomosti reported. The proportion of respondents who said their income was below average, meanwhile, rose from 35 percent in 2014 to 48 percent in 2018.

A poll conducted by Levada a few weeks after Putin's reelection last year found that 45 percent of Russians felt that over his years in power Putin had failed to provide for the 'just distribution of income' -- a complaint cited by more respondents than any other in the survey.

Mercedes vs. Ford

And a study by the Higher School of Economics and state-run bank VEB put a number on that distribution, according to the Moscow Times and Kommersant: It said that that the richest 3 percent of Russians hold more than 89 percent of all financial assets.

By coincidence or not, the U.S. giant Ford announced in late March that it will close three plants in Russia this year, ending production of cars in the country, though it will continue to make vans -- and about a week later, Putin opened a Mercedes-Benz factory.

Calling himself 'your humble servant,' as he often does, Putin said that he and many of his colleagues drove Mercedes and added, 'It is absolutely certain that Mercedes will be popular with Russian consumers.

'Popular, surely. But affordable? Not likely,' a Financial Times article said of the luxury sedans that the plant, the first to be opened in years in Russia by a foreign carmaker, is to produce.

Celebrating Alla

Ford, of course, is an icon of the middle class, and once manufactured the most popular foreign car in Russia. Mercedes cars have been icons of a different sort, unmistakable status symbols in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Alla Pugacheva in 2016

Speaking of icons: Alla Pugacheva.

The singer, who turned 70 on April 15, is perhaps the most recognizable performer with a career spanning two eras, Soviet and post-Soviet.

Her best-known song, perhaps, is one whose title translates as A Million Scarlet Roses, a tale of great love and extravagant financial sacrifice that one Twitter user said 'any Russian will recognize...after the first two notes.'

That statement applies to many people in other former Soviet republics as well -- and to many foreigners whose lives are tied up with Russia or the region.

Birthday tributes to the Pugacheva ranged from a telegram from Putin -- who wrote that her talent, voice, 'colorful artistic temperament, and capacity for work' had earned her 'truly national glory,' according to the Kremlin -- to a stunt in which employees of independent media outlet Dozhd wore big red wigs and sang one of her songs, This World.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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