‘The Red Army could have defeated Nazi Germany without Allied help,’ records The Times of London, ‘according to two thirds of Russians, who are adopting an increasingly positive view of Joseph Stalin’s wartime leadership despite the enormous casualties suffered under his command.’ These worrying sign of increased ultra-nationalism under Vladimir Putin was based on findings from a poll conducted by the respected Levada Center in Moscow. Whereas 34% of Russians in 1997 – the year Putin came to power – believed that the fact that ‘Stalin acted regardless of casualties’ and that was the main reason that 27 million Russians died in World War Two, today only 12% believe that, a tribute to the two decades of Putin’s ceaseless propaganda sanitizing Stalin’s role.
In June 2015 Putin claimed that ‘excessive demonization’ of Stalin had been used to ‘attack’ and slander post-Soviet Russia. History is a political battlefield in modern Russia, where the historical and civil rights society Memorial, which investigates the extent of Stalinist crimes in the Gulags, has been repeatedly disrupted and attacked by the FSB. This was taken to a new level in June when Yuri Dmitriev, who dedicated his life to finding and identifying the burial sites of Stalin’s victims in his native Karelia, was arrested for child abuse. Dmitriev played a huge role in uncovering the hidden history of the Solovetsky Islands and the White Sea Canal, and the accusations made against him appear to be a pure act of vengeance carried out by the FSB – the institutional descendants of the NKVD and KGB.
Campaigners such as the Pulitzer-Prizewinning historian Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag, who demand that the accusations against Dmitriev are investigated properly and independently – here – point out how the FSB persecution tactics come straight out of the old Soviet playbook. Alexei Navalny, the charismatic Russian opposition leader, was also being barred from contesting the presidential elections against Putin in March 2016 because he has a criminal conviction for fraud, also on trumped-up charges.
The claim that Stalin could have beaten Hitler without help from the Western Allies has meanwhile sparked a debate between British historians Sir Antony Beevor, who points out that the Combined Bombing Offensive and huge Anglo-American aid to Russia were vital in allowing Russia to survive Operation Barbarossa, and Sir Max Hastings, who believes Russia ‘probably could have won the war on its own, because the German war economy was much weaker than everyone understood at the time.’
Andrew Roberts is the author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny, and Masters and Commanders.