Stalinisation – just like the system of the Third Reich – was a source of the greatest tragedy of Europe in the 20th century. It meant deprivation of freedom, forced labour camps (the Gulag), prosecution and massive suffering of millions of people living in Central and Eastern Europe. In its Soviet form, totalitarianism has Stalin’s face.
While Europe has managed to, more or less successfully, hold those who created and implemented the Nazi regime accountable, Stalinism, in its light versions, which are often not associated with crime and genocide, has survived until today. Stalinism was one of the bloodiest and most inhumane forms of communist dictatorship. However, in the West, and especially in France and Italy, light versions of communism and Bolshevism had their own devout admirers. Thus, while in Central and Eastern Europe Stalinism is undisputedly associated with what Timothy Snyder calls “the blood lands”, its soft forms have been, for decades, nourished by the intellectual elite in the West.
In 2022 we are once again experiencing this brutal form of Stalinism, which future scholars will describe as Putinism. This is, nonetheless, not the only reason why Russia’s aggression in Ukraine should be treated as a consequence of not holding communism accountable for its crimes since 1989. The postulate for de-Stalinisation includes an intellectual decomposition of all the elements and areas where the totalitarian Bolshevik virus has developed.
Stalinism – beginnings
The beginning of the Stalinist period dates back to 1929. At that time, an ambitious Bolshevik activist, from the provincial Georgian town of Gori, named Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (Stalin, Soso, Koba were his pseudonyms) became the leader of the Soviet communist party. After having eliminated his opponents from the Leninist camp (mainly Leon Trotsky) Stalin quickly became a dictator who used murder as a weapon to eliminate not only his political opponents, but also every expression of intellectual independence and economic freedom. Stalin created an authoritarian model, becoming an example for different mutations of communism that developed in Asia and throughout Europe. After his death in 1953 a few attempts towards de-Stalinisation were undertaken, but they were all abandoned in 1964 after Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, stepped down. After that, during the period of Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov’s rule, the Soviet Union went through a cycle of thaws and “tightening of belts”, while from 1986 to 1991, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, it experimented with systemic changes known as glasnost and perestroika, which were a response to the economic crisis of the 1980s.
When the Soviet Union collapsed it seemed that the communist system would also follow and democracy and civil liberties would triumph around the world. However, events turned out differently and quite soon some political leaders inspired by the Stalinist totalitarian model started to gain recognition in different places. This was especially true in a number of post-Soviet states where in the last three decades the political elite have received a democratic ticket to rule with Stalinist methods. The most evident example here is Belarus where Alaksyandr Lukashenka won democratic elections in 1994 and became president of the republic. It then took him only two years to change the state system into a dictatorship (first soft but later hard), based on the Stalinist model.
A similar trend was seen in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. But also at different time periods in Moldova, the Kyrgyz Republic and Ukraine. In regards to the latter we are talking about the short period of Viktor Yanukovych’s rule. However, it is in today’s Russia where we see the true triumph of the Stalinist model with the strengthening of the position of Vladimir Putin and his camp.
Overall, the theoreticians and historians of Stalinism agree on a number of features that distinguish Stalinism from other totalitarian systems. They include: unlimited power based on unity rule (consolidation of the party of power that controls state structures); control of all areas of social and economic life through party nomenclature and state apparatus; development of terror and coercion institutions aimed at eliminating enemies (real and alleged) and intimidating the society; militarisation of large areas of public life; high level of state investments in the economy, central planning; and in the USSR there was also collective farming and focus on heavy industry and military sector (which in the first half of the 20th century was synonymous to modernity). Among other important features that distinguish Stalinism is also an imperial policy aimed at elimination of external threats.
The term integral Stalinism brings an association with another similar term, namely integral nationalism. The latter originated in the 19th-century France and was put forward by a controversial French thinker, Charles Maurras, who had a fascination with fascism. In his theoretical framework the sovereignty of the nation succumbs to a centralised power apparatus, which is expected to act in the name and interest of the people, even though it is independent of them. Other theoreticians of integral nationalism included Dmytro Dontsov, a Ukrainian nationalist inspired by Roman Dmowski, a Polish thinker and politician. Integral nationalism is thus based on an assumption that in democratic systems nations are threatened by different groups and foreigners, which is in contradiction with the main goal of nationalism.
The comparison of integral Stalinism and integral nationalism comes naturally in the analysis of the practice of power wielding in the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet states. Just like in integral nationalism, the principle of citizen’s agency is rejected in integral Stalinism. This system has been built by Vladimir Putin since May 9th 2005 when the former KGB spy, now president of the Russian Federation, declared a war against the coloured revolutions that had taken place in post-Soviet states (specifically Georgia and Ukraine).
In that year, the official celebrations of the Victory Day which are held in Russia on May 9th, were followed by Putin’s closed meeting with representatives of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The invited attendees included the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazerbayev, the President of Belarus Lukashenka, the President of Uzbekistan Islom Karimov, Emomali Rahmon the president of Tajikistan and a few other important politicians from the region. During the meeting the leaders agreed on adopting a shared cooperation strategy to counter colour revolutions, if they reoccur. Evidently, all these leaders were afraid of losing power due to a social rebellion or a civic revolt. They were very worried about the wind that was blowing from Georgia and Ukraine.
All of these leaders had been educated in the Soviet Union where they were taught theoretical models of political systems which do not foresee space for ideals such as freedom of choice and belief. Consequently, like Vladimir Putin, they were convinced that civic activism could never be genuine on the grassroots level. It had to be a result of a plot, a coup or foreign intervention. For them things such as the will of the people, a spontaneous reaction, a civic movement, civic agency, were simply incomprehensible. As a result, they believed that every social activity had to have a moving agency behind it; that agency was usually associated with power apparatus, either domestic or foreign. Thus, since that meeting, there has been a joke that captures their attitude to coloured revolutions: “Why there has been no colour revolution in the US? Because there is no US Embassy there”.
Let us now return to case of Belarus. After having seen Georgia’s Rose Revolution and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, Lukashenka started to clean his own political playground and remove all potential threats. He first eliminated civil society organisations, also those representing the Polish minority in Belarus. More precisely, after his return from the earlier mentioned meeting in Moscow, Lukashenka issued an order to state services to eliminate/demand subordination of the Union of Poles in Belarus. To put things in perspective let me present the sequence of events which took place in this process. In March 2005 at its sixth congress the union held elections to select a new leader. These elections were won by Andżelika Borys who then became the union’s leader. However, on May 12th 2005, that is after Lukashenka’s return from Moscow, the ministry of justice invalidated the congress’s independent and democratic decision and brought back the previous leader, Tadeusz Kruczkowski, who was an obedient supporter of Lukashenka’s regime.
Another important phenomenon that should also be pointed out here is that after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in Poland we saw an unprecedented level of social support towards democratic and pro-European Ukraine. Yet we also noted the opposite, namely mushrooming of the organisations which exploited historical sentiments related to Poland’s former territories in the East and therefore contribute to the stirring of disagreements and conflicts between Poland and Ukraine. As a result, old historical grievances over the Volhynia massacre and Stepan Bandera’s activities came to the surface.
In March 2006 after Lukashenka had forged the results of the presidential election in Belarus, protests were organised in Minsk and were crushed cruelly and brutally. This was the first such handling of demonstrators, which was repeated later in 2010 and 2020.
Supporters of integral Stalinism (in a light version) also include the extreme right in Poland. Its radical wing led by Bartosz Bekier, is known for such actions as hanging out posters supporting Syrian president Assad on campuses of Warsaw universities. Assad, with Putin’s support, also crushed an Arab coloured revolution in his own state. Besides Bekier, Leszek Sykulski and Mateusz Piskorski are known supporters of Eurasianism in Poland. This worldview is now popularised at Polish universities which it entered under the label of geopolitics. As such it exploits a certain nostalgia for a world that was ordered and resembles Fascist regimes which are based on anti-democratic assumptions, including those of integral Stalinism. Evidently, in such viewpoint there is no room for individual human beings. Instead, there are ideas and concepts aimed at wielding power over others.
Areas of de-Stalinisation
The first thing that requires urgent de-Stalinissation is Eurasianist thinking which has entered social sciences stemming from the science of geopolitics. This belief derives from the Stalinist interpretation of the world and has origins in Marxism. It assumes a materialistic approach to history and interpretation of social phenomena based on a conviction that human beings, as part of nature, are not subjects but objects of political processes. Among the key concepts and tools of Stalinist materialism are: determinism, which finds its basis in objects, consumed goods, production and natural factors which shape our surroundings and which, all together, are seen as the foundation of human existence. In this way, the geopolitical approach, now promoted in social sciences and humanities, reduces the human world to these material aspects.
Geopolitics thus derives its basic assumptions from areas of knowledge such as geography, demographics, economy, statistics, production relations and industrial outputs. Its proponents have been lobbying for including this “area of knowledge” into academic curricula. However, in their thinking they make an error of dehumanisation. They replace human beings (individuals) with objects and natural phenomena.
The hidden ally of geopolitics is an assumption that in a political system the agency is contractual while human beings (and their value systems) are only an intellectual convention. In this perspective, individualism is replaced by collectivism while group interest dominates over that of an individual. From the Judeo-Christian perspective this approach directly leads to a disdain for human beings and the value system where human beings are put in the centre; like in one of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poems which states individual – a zero, individual – rubbish.
Geopolitics is thus closely linked with the Stalinist concept of Eurasianism which is now being built anew and which since the beginning of the 20th century Russian social theorists have been using to explain Russian imperialism, has found its practical dimension in integral Stalinism. From the Polish and European perspectives, the traps and dangers of Eurasianism and geopolitical ideas that derive from it are linked to the recognition of Russia’s imperial aspirations based on domination; be it geographic, demographic or economic. That is why the de-Stalinisation postulate is crucial and urgent. It is tantamount to a recognition of the European Judeo-Christian value system and its tradition with respect of traditional values as a primary in comparison to all ideological viewpoints which reject anthropocentrism.
We should also recognise that the dehumanisation that is hidden in the postulates of geopolitics leads directly to totalitarian systems. Such as the Stalinist model currently experienced by the Russian society as it is – more or less – accepting Putin’s rule and his aggressive and materialistic version of integral Stalinism.
Another postulate regarding de-Stalinisation is made in regards to public space and its architecture. This, of course, does not apply only to monuments, public signs and communist symbols. The main feature of Stalinist architecture is the dehumanisation of urban space. Anybody who has seen at least one Soviet city knows all too well about it. In the Soviet Union, cities were characterised by having no, or limited, places which would allow for the nurturing of “bourgeois” social habits. Such places include cafés, small shops, recreation areas, community building places, and basic substitutes of local governance and civic initiatives. This landscape started to change in the 1990s, when small business started to develop. However, just a few decades later in Russia and other post-Soviet states we see a backslide of these changes and new bureaucratic barriers.
In Poland, Stalinism in the urban space is best exemplified by the architecture of parts of Warsaw, especially the area around the Palace of Culture and Science. The surroundings of this place still strike with emptiness and make an impression of a space that is inhuman with many challenges when it comes to planning and zoning. Czesław Bielecki, Polish architect and former dissident, has been pointing out to this problem for quite some time now, postulating the need for changes.
It is also important to point out that in many Soviet cities huge monuments were erected with a goal to deprive their urban space of religious character and elements. The point was to destroy, or hide, Christian symbols (crosses, church towers, chapels, etc.). An illustrative example here is Tbilisi and its monument called Mother Georgia, which is a gigantic metal-concrete statue of a woman who is holding a sword in one hand and a chalice in the other. The story that ignorant tourists are told by uneducated tour guides is that this is some kind of an ancient tradition – “chalice for friends, while the sword for the enemies”. However, the true reason of erecting this monument in the Soviet times was to remove Christianity and European culture from Tbilisi’s urban space. Nonetheless, we can frequently hear opinions against the elimination of communist signs in public spaces. They point to respect for history and heritage. Such argumentation yet leads to nowhere. In the same way, we could have preserved the Nazi symbols.
In many post-communist countries, the urban planners and visual artists already adhere to a grounded practice of separating the ideological layer from art. That is why the dispute whether the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science should be destroyed seems artificial. It is sufficient to separate (renovation, reconstruction) what creates the ideological waste of public space from what needs to be saved as a witness of an epoch (style, patterns, illustration of aesthetic sensitivity of our ancestors, etc.).
Symbols, signs and heritage
De-Stalinisation is also required in the realm of symbols and language (communication). Certainly, the discourse which is used in public and by public administration institutions in many post-Soviet states requires solid reflection. Such calls have already been made by linguists as well civil society activists who have been fighting for more citizen-friendly public institutions, humanisation of regulations and legal norms, and even the style of official correspondence. In the same vein, in Poland, back in the 1990s, one of the most important Polish dailies organised a large social campaign titled “Childbirth with Dignity”. Probably not many people associated it with de-Stalinisation, but the departure from the inhuman treatment of women giving birth in communist Poland which was included in this campaign’s postulates was indeed aimed at humanising public life. A symbolic, but not less important, element of de-Stalinisation is the gradual departure in many post-Soviet states (at the state level) from recognising May 9th towards May 8th as Victory Day.
Unfortunately, there is still not adequate respect towards dissidents, the people who fought against communism (former prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, repressed persons). In his works and numerous articles Aleksander Podrabinek points to the lack of legal and administrative infrastructure to allow post-Soviet states to make an effort to respect, honour and take care of the former dissidents. Shamefully, a majority of them live in poverty and oblivion. With some pride, we can say that in Poland the process of dissident recognition has been exemplary and can serve as an example to be followed by other of post-communist states. In Putin’s Russia, former heroes and dissidents who had the courage to oppose the oppressive communist machine are now subject to laughter and ridicule. Those who spent years in prisons and the Gulag in the name of European values are now living in poverty, which again is a sign of Stalinism’s triumph.
I will consciously not be using here words such as the church or Christianity as – since the passing away of Patriarchate Tichon in 1925 – the Russian Orthodox Church shrank to become an underground community or emigrated to other states. The role of the church was taken over by the church administration which was controlled by the Bolsheviks. The majority of the property of the Russian Orthodoxy was taken over by the renovationists of the Living Church. I wrote about this in my book titled Mistyka i Rewolucja (Mysticism and Revolution).
The conclusion which can be drawn from the tragic fate of the Russian Church can be illustrated by the symbolic meeting between Stalin and Bishop Sergei in September 1943. From that moment on the structures of the Orthodox Church became completely subordinated to the Soviet security apparatus. All with the consent of the humiliated clergy. The process of formatting priests, nominations, management of local churches, and remains of monkhood all became a part of state atheisation policy. Indeed, the bishops agreed to self-limit themselves and reduce the church’s role to liturgy service. In the 1970s, after some thaw, they tried, without much success, to point to this tragic fate of the Church and such priests as Alexander Men, Gleb Yakunin, dissidents or leaders of the Catacomb Church.
The reactions of Kirill I, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, towards Russian aggression in Ukraine which started in February 2022 only enforces the conviction that Russian Orthodox Church is deeply rooted in the deep waters of Bolshevik Stalinism. The destabilisation of the Russian Orthodox Church will require, first and foremost, a thorough exchange of the church elite, which is an extremely difficult and time-consuming task.
Stalin’s moustache peers from behind Katechon’s portrait
I found this sarcastic expression – “Stalin’s moustache peers from behind Katechon’s portrait” – in the text authored by Piotr Doerre, who is a Polish journalist with ultra-right media. However, it turns out that other Polish political analysts, including Marek Cichocki and Adam Wielomski, also use this expression. For example, in his texts written about a decade ago, Wielomski also called Putin a Katechon, meaning an authoritarian leader who is bravely leading his nation towards the future. Yet, by making such a statement, Wielomski did not realise that while searching for a conservative justification for Stalinism he fell into a trap, set up by Moscow for European extreme conservatives.
These two authors also point out that the term katechon (“he who holds back” or “that which holds back”) can be found in St Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians where we read: “the mystery of lawlessness” is active already … Nevertheless, once the “restrainer” is removed, “then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. (2:7-8).
The Greek term Katechon (κατέχων) means someone who protects people from the coming of the Antichrist. Katechon is supposed to stop the apocalypse, the rule of the antichrist and win the eschatological battle on the fields of Armageddon. Until today we do not know who, or what, could actually be a katechon as it is described by St Paul. A discussion about this has been going on for almost 2000 years and we will never have any certainty in this regards.
Contemporary researchers provide a few theories. Is it God himself who is trying to stop the collapse? Or maybe this role is played by the Catholic Church led by the Holy Spirit? It cannot be excluded that the term katechon is actually a political term and the Roman Empire was a katechon whose established order was protecting the world and securing the earthly dimension of human existence.
In contemporary thinking there is one more concept of katechon. It is the sublime Eurasian “sacral geopolitics” which is aimed at conservative elites inside and outside Russia. In line with this view, the image that is sent to the international audience presents Vladimir Putin as a representative of the so-called modern conservatism. This conservatism is not an ideology, but rather a political standing made of some kind of “common sense” rules which are in a strong contrast to the collective “progressive craziness” (climate, ecology, cultural revolution, etc.) which has affected a majority of European and American politicians.
It would, nonetheless, be an exaggeration if we said that Moscow has established the network of concepts and ideas that seduced the intellectual elite in the West. Intuitively, we see that, just like in earlier times, also now the Kremlin simply relies on the “useful idiots” and windows of opportunities it finds abroad. The post-Soviet ideology is a desert of ideas. This is a soil that since the collapse of communism has been poorly ploughed. Thus, it bore fruit in the form of different ideas necessary to maintain dictators, on the one hand, and lost wanderers, on the other. This refers to the eremites of the intellectual Armageddon of the Euro-Atlantic world, meaning the defenders of traditional values.
A Roman Catholic pope crying over the death of the daughter of the Euroasian ideologist (keep in mind that Darya Dugina was actively calling for the killing of people) is – in my view – a measure of an intellectual confusion. In the 1920s and 1930s a large part of the European right got caught in a similar trap. At that time, seeing the successes of socialism, enforced by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, it welcomed – with great hope – the mushrooming fascist movements, which may have been revolutionary and progressive – but their aim was to halt the communist march.
This belief led them to tragic consequences. Doerre correctly points out that the best illustration of this was the fate of Belgian Catholics who joined Leon Degrell’s royalist movement. Their “love affair” with the fascists led them to an alliance with Nazi Germany. The Walloon Legion which was formed by Degrell – as part of the anti-communist crusade – marched along with the German troops all the way from Ukraine to Western Pomerania and its members were still being killed as late as May 1945, on the ruins of Berlin! Were the Catholics right in their decision to stand against Satanist Bolshevism by making an alliance with a no less dangerous demon of the nihilist Nazi regime?
I can imagine that the most ardent defenders of Stalinist Russia in Luhansk and Donetsk in a similar scene to that of the falling Nazi regime; how now, on the ruins of Putin’s empire, they are giving up their lives in the name of their leader. Degrel’s role has been taken on by Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, the late Arsen Pavlov, known as Motorola, Alexandr Dugin, or Vladimir Solovyov.
How many of those who hope that Russia would stop the LGBTQ+ offensive and the so-called grand reset would agree with the statement that also here there is a false alternative? How many will come to the conclusion that they are following a false katechon, like children allured by the Pied Piper of Hamelin – who is leading them for destruction? The LGBTQ+, green ideology, and other radical left movements are supported by Russia because they are food for the development of integral Stalinism. Stalinism bred itself from Nazism, because it needed it, like oxygen, to develop. Today with the war in Ukraine we can clearly see that without the myths created by Moscow political technologists there would have been no justification for Russia’s brutal aggression against an independent state.
While ending this essay let me just add that the Home Army soldiers, who were the true Polish patriots, were imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag until the late 1950s. They ended their lives marked as fascists imprisoned together with the Wehrmacht soldiers, members of the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union and Japan’s imperial army. For Stalin, humiliation of freedom had to be crude and strong. That is why also today we can witness the show in Russian media where Ukraine’s Azov soldiers are presented as the embodiment of evil.
The postulate for de-Stalinisation is thus not only limited to an intellectual dimension. It is also a valid political proposal for our times. It serves as a basis for hope that once it is achieved, nobody will want to take our freedom away.