The story today from Reuters should give all Europe, especially the Eastern side, pause for reflection regarding Russia. On this, the 57th anniversary of the brutal Communist dictator’s death, we are seeing resurgence in Russian pride and desire for returning to what Russians believe was the glory days of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin has spoken in those terms on several occasions.

Another line will be crossed at the 9 May Victory Day, the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. For the first time since Khruschev’s denunciation of him at the 20th COMINTERN in 1956, Stalin’s image will appear in multiple official locations, and his contribution to victory in the Great Patriotic War will be given official recognition.

Lest we forget, much of Eastern Europe is only beginning its third decade of independence from either Imperial or Soviet Russia. Such news as Reuters brings us cannot make them feel any more secure, especially in light of the impotence of NATO in August of 2008 to stand up to the Russian colossus.


Stalin, as brutal as any dictator in the history of Europe, nonetheless represents a Soviet Russia whose armies and air forces made the whole world tremble. That Russia, a giant on the world stage, is an immense source of nostalgic pride for the older generation, and a rallying cry for the generation of Putin. Illogical and incomprehensible as it may be for Americans, such is indeed the case. Which is not to say Stalin is universally admired, nor Soviet Russia’s return around the corner. But many more people than one might think look longingly back at those times and at Stalin.

In the Spring of 1992, when Boris Yeltsin was facing his first great economic crisis following the dissolution of the Soviet state, an American news network played a TASS interview with a wrinkled little babushka in a shabby overcoat. Her words literally made me sit back in my chair, as if struck in the chest. They were very nearly, if not exactly, these:

“Stalin was a butcher. He killed my grandfather, he killed my uncles. But when we had Stalin, we had toilet paper. And I want toilet paper!”

Roll that around in your head for a while.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Foreign Policy, History

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  • GaryD

    I don’t think Eastern Europe has anything to worry about. The Soviet economy is severely constrained by the lack of investment and corruption, which is pervasive and infects the country from the bottom all the way to the top. The more Russia tries to emulate the old days the worse it will get.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I might point out that the same was said of the Soviet Union of the late 1930s, with an additional purge of the Officer Corps and a recent and catastrophic experience in Finland.

    Not sure your reasoning would resonate with the recently subjugated eastern European nations such as the Baltic States, Georgia, Poland, and Ukraine.

  • YNSN

    It is exactly that mindset that allows men like Stalin to come to power. However, your last quote and the sentiment prevalent today in Russia are very different. They have the goods they desire (mostly). But, they want power and they want to not feel humiliated by the west any more (this humiliation is more perceived on their part that us actually being guilty of anything).

    I read somewhere once, that humiliation is the most underestimated force in foreign affairs.

    Also, Sun Tzu said: The ability to secure ourselves from defeat rests with us. Our ability to defeat the enemy rests with him.
    If we take care of ourselves we don’t need to worry about this sentiment. They will tear themselves down with such thinking, again.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You may be right about their sentiment, at least temporarily. But the old woman’s comments are quite typical and telling about what the Russian people will endure in loss of freedom in order to have those goods they desire.

    The old saying applied to Russia rings true. Given a choice between order and freedom, they will chose order every time.

  • Mike H

    One of my favorite things about history is the irony that can almost always be found. Stalin wasn’t even a Russian – he was from Georgia (remember 2008?). That said, just like Germany in the 1930’s, it’s amazing what people will tolerate in order to feel “secure.” I wonder how much that applies here in the USA.

  • YNSN


    I cannot blame them or even hold them accountable for what they-themselves are willing to endure for order. As long as it is internal–the lesser degree of freedoms they are willing to have for freedom to increase their security–then I do not worry. It is their desire to retake their sphere of influence that worries me. However, I do not think that the Russians have learned not to be reckless in their acquisition of influence. As their place on the world’s stage in retaken I believe that history will ring louder in their neighbors ears. Just as they are nostalgic for their ‘glory days’ under Stalin. So too will the nostalgia for the ‘not so glorious days’ surface again in their neighbors.

    For the rest of my career, some 15+ years left in my Navy. We do not need to taunt the Bear. Nor do I think we need to expand NATO further east (IMHO, we need to head south of the Med). We need to solidify the treaties we have, grow the relationships we have developed. With a solid footing in AFG, a sound position in Eastern Europe, a mature relationship with Japan and South Korea, and our great friend Canada on the other side of the pole, we are positioned to hold firm on any clumsy advance that Russia may try to make. The only thing I struggle to find a way forward on is on the shores of the Black Sea. Where, and to sound harsh, we may have to let Russia do as she will; just as we did with the last war between Georgia and Russia.

    In short, I firmly believe that taking to active a role in ‘containing’ Russia will backfire on us. We are best to just let them shoot themselves in the foot, and to semi-actively support democratic and liberal practices in Russia. The best way we can do this is by example, not by force.

    Russia is right now, a friend to the US. We should keep the policy of positive cooperation with Russia, and not allow our Cold War history with them cloud our judgment. The policy of Trust, but verify is wise in all our dealing with Russia. It seems to suite their temperament the best.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You make some excellent, well-thought points. We have certainly kicked Russia when she was down, with the push for Poland in NATO that started under GHWB and was consummated in the Clinton Administration. I worked in the PFP program in the mid-late 90s, and remember Polish officers being less than thrilled with the prospect. But the US “made them an offer they couldn’t refuse”.

    The point regarding the Russian people’s willingness to do without to obtain that which is desired is not limited to simple material things, but can be also seen as willingness to risk in order to revive Russian/Soviet greatness. This in particular has been a consistent and powerful theme in the words and deeds of both Putin and Medvedev.

    Condi Rice wrote extensively in the mid-90s about the Former Soviet Union. (Some of these papers propelled her into the national foreign policy scene.) Her contention was that the FSU was NOT America’s friend. To the extent that there were temporal mutual interests, Russia would be friendly. But rarely over history did those interests parallel those of the West (for which the Russians have an understandable fear and suspicion), and were far more often in direct or indirect conflict.

    To me, she captures Russia post-1991 quite well. Russia is Russia, Imperial, Soviet, Federation. The burgeoning eastern democracies fear her because, having been newly freed of her yoke, they know her character and methods. Those viewpoints go back many centuries before the Cold War. We would do well to pay attention.

    Russia is not our friend or ally. Nor is she an implacable enemy. The rheostat that tells us where she sits at any particular time is driven by the issues, conditions, and relative strengths or weaknesses of the balance between us. Such is the way of statesmanship to be able to read the needle.

  • Paul

    Historically, however, Russia and Russians have always had an inferiority complex when compared to “civilized” nations (read France and England) and that has propelled them in directions not easily understood by us here in the states.

    The efforts by Putin to re-establish their influence on the world stage may be laughable to some people here, but to Russians, it’s all very real and moving in the right direction. We may chuckle at the staged shooting of a tiger by him, or the riding a horse shirtless, but when sold to the average Russian citizen, they bought it as examples of a strong leader, a father figure. Also they see the resumption of TU-95 Bear flights as the beginning of exerting influence outside.

    There are other ways to push people around– that gas shut off in Europe was intentional. They have that area under their thumb because of their movement into the energy markets. Something to bear watching.

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    A couple of observations:

    1. Russia lost 28M in WWII. Stalin was directly responsible for some of those losses, but even without those killed by Stalin, Russia still lost a great deal in that conflict.

    2. The Cold War is over and the good guys won.

    3. In my view, Russia will never go back to Communism due to what the small. but growing, Russian middle class see in the obvious prosperity of former members of the Warsaw Pact who are now in NATO. The average citizen in those countries have significantly better quality of life than does the average Russian. That is a reverse of the image in most Russians during the Cold War.

    4. Russia has enormous fossil fuel energy supplies. They have used that power for political purposes in the past and will likely do so in the future until those dependent on fossil fuel change their ways. Watch China in the dynamic.

    5. Interesting to note Russia’s reaction when they don’t get what they want. Poland, Hungary in the Cold War and Estoinia and Georgia (which was Stalin’s birth place, now asking to join NATO) more recently have suffered greatly in that regard. Most recently, consider the public reaction of Russian head of state (perhaps not on the diplomatic protocol list, but no doubt in practice) when Putin who came to power in the Cold War thru the KGB commented on losing the men’s Gold Medal in the Vancouver Olympics.

    6. We will soon be hearing a lot more about nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. Stay tuned.

  • Paul

    I’m not concerned about them going commie again, but their obsession/love affair with a “strongman” as a power center is what troubles me. Putin is setting himself up as a player on the world stage. His trump card, as you pointed out, is energy. Personally, I prefer the communists– they didn’t capitalize on their economic engine as a weapon in deference to more tanks, missiles and rifles than the west. I think Mr. Putin has learned from that mistake and isn’t afraid to deny his clients energy, and exert illegal influence through targeted killings and poisonings.

    What’s your take on the new treaty?

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf


    I have not seen new treaty. I expect Senate ratification may be problematic, but numbers of nuclear weapons will come down in any case. As we showed during ABM Treaty, just because we have signed and ratified a treaty does not mean we will always do what we agreed to do anyway, so I am not sure a new treaty is as important as some might think.

    You are right about Russian culture having an attachment to power and authority. Hundreds of years after the Magna Carta, US and French Revolutions, and decades after the democratization of Europe, Russia still had human slavery (serfs) well into the 20th Century. They replaced that with a very authoritarian (to put it mildly) Communist regime until very late in that Century. Pendulum seems to be swinging back a little toward more authoritarian rule, but that does not mean when Russia left Communism they ever achieved either a democracy or free market economy. While I was Defense Attache 2003-2005, 29 investigative reporters were assassinated including the Editor of Forbes magazine. When I was an international observer at a national Russian election, at a hospital for over 1000 mentally ill people, every patient voted and every patient voted for Putin. There has never been what we would call freedom of the press in Russian television. Nonetheless, progress is being made. Culture is a hard thing to change.

  • Paul

    You’re right, Admiral, democracy was simply a name for the chaos of the 90’s. I remember a political cartoon from that era when Nixon was advocating a Marshall type plan to get them going– and it scared me that his eloquent arguments made the most sense. What was the world coming to when the only politician that made sense was tricky Dick? Now, in hindsight he was probably right.

    So, that leaves the big question– how to treat with a country that is moving in the opposite direction from our end of the political spectrum? They don’t seem to be a military player in the world field as their armed forces still seem to be struggling, but the use of natural gas and oil as a weapon is a bit frightening, especially since it can short out entire economies without firing a shot. No matter how many nukes we have that’s not a good deterrent to economic warfare.

  • Paul:

    Unlike the post WWII 40’s, our national sense of direction and priorities were quite different following the end of the Cold War in the 90’s. It wasn’t just the focus on quick gains from the “Peace Dividend” either. I think it is safe to say that the coitre of strategic-thinking planners that were present in the late 40’s and early 50’s (like George Kennan) were either absent or roundly ignored in the 90’s. Consider the mountain that Senators Nunn and Lugar had to climb in order to gain funding to help Russia establish control over its stockpile of weapons-grade uranium (cf Project Sapphire ), that alone should point out the degree of short-sightedness present at the time…
    w/r, SJS

  • Paul


    Do you think the lack of well, national urgency had something to do with the attitudes of the 90’s? Considering of course that hindsight is 20/20, it seems that after the Gulf War we were lulled into a sense of complacency from trashing the Iraqi Army so quickly. Perhaps the thinkers thought that this would send a message the world at large that we were the big dogs and not to mess with us.

    What concerns me now is the lack of strategic thinking of the “what nexts?” for after Afghanistan and Iraq– someday those wars are gonna end and will we be caught behind the 8 ball for a lack of thinking ahead?

  • Lou

    Folks here might be interested in my/Rokossovsky2’s Guardian newspaper ripostes to Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s personal PR guy, before Guardian purged me from posting on Comment Is Free … right.