In Putin’s Russia, The Neo-Stalinist Tipping Point
Putin’s appointment of a Stalin-apologist ideologue as education minister is, for many intellectuals, the last straw.
MOSCOW — For the first time in his adult life, Russian author and journalist Arkady Babchenko is planning to escape from his Moscow life, to take his family away from his home country to Europe.
Babchenko has been one of the sharpest, most irrepressible critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics. In 2012, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation over one of his articles, but Babchenko was not one to be intimidated. He is a journalist veteran of two Chechen wars. So it is not a threat to his own life that is pushing him out of his country today. Babchenko is terrified about the future of his 9-year-old daughter, his only child, if she stays in Russia.
“In two to three years, Russia is going to be like Iraq under Saddam Hussein,” Babchenko told The Daily Beast. “It will be full of miserable people, of children receiving poor education, facing street violence, and police at checkpoints—not a good place for my daughter,” the writer said.
A few months ago Babchenko was upset to see his daughter, a 3rd grader at a Moscow school, marching in a semi-military uniform and singing patriotic songs at a school event.
“We see examples of obscurantism all over the place: Communists running around with Stalin flags, Orthodox priests attending state events; but I still did not expect the appointment of an Orthodox fanatic and a Stalinist as the minister of education and science.”
During a recent visit to Crimea, President Putin named Olga Vasilyeva to the post. She seemed to be a deeply religious bureaucrat who devoted her academic research to the patriotic role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Soviet times.
Vasilyeva is also known for defending the record of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator notorious for executing political dissidents, including hundreds of thousands of Orthodox believers. (According to an analysis by Prof. Nikolai Yemelyanov at the Russian Academy of Science, Soviet security agencies killed as many as 500,000 Orthodox Christians.)
The shadow of new repression is the reason many Russian professionals are leaving the country today. The new trend inspired by the Kremlin is to label its critics “russophobes.”
But even inside the government officials are at odds about the glorification of tyrants in the name of patriotism.
“Our Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which has up to 30 percent support, is against putting Stalin up on the ideological flags, he was a tyrant, he killed our best intellectuals, and we the state are responsible for it—we should never go back to repressions,” State Duma Deputy Vadim Dengin told The Daily Beast.
Earlier this year, Timur Olevsky, a Russian journalist who had covered the war in Ukraine for the independent TV RAIN made a decision to move to Prague. In May 2015 Russian security services had detained the Olevsky in the provincial Russian town of Tolyatti where he was working on a story about Russian officers fighting in Ukraine, and the families left behind.
“They must have put me on some list for interrogations, as after that episode every time I tried to cross the border, I was pulled aside and questioned,” Olevsky told The Daily Beast. “I do not want to sink in darkness and spend my life explaining that the darkness is back.”
As with Babchenko, Olevsky’s own future was not the main reason for leaving Russia; the journalist said that he was thinking mainly of his children’s education.
“My son Artemy was seven years old— that is the age when the society begins to limit freedom. I wanted him to have a different experience— freedom gives a bigger chance for success, I believe,” said Olevsky, who now works for Radio Free Europe.
The state media criticized Olevsky for employment by an American government-run operation, and accused him of being a Ukrainian agent. “Those, who escape the country instead of sacrificing their lives for it will be outsiders abroad all their lives,” State Duma Deputy Dengin told The Daily Beast. But Olevsky said he did not regret his departure, and once again the appointment of Vasiliyeva seemed to be the final tipping point in his mind.
Vasilyeva’s lectures about shaping “the national idea” are the talk of the town in Moscow these days, as she tries to articulate the Putin ideology, that many in Russia struggle to comprehend.
Public concern first began to grow after the lecture Vasilyeva gave for Putin’s United Russia party members in 2013, when she insisted that Stalin was good for the USSR—that he united the nation before World War II. Russian and ethnically non-Russian citizens wanted to know what exactly it means for a child to grow up thinking mass murder by many means, including mass starvation, political purges and forced deportations are all worthwhile to “unify” a nation.
The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia asked Vasilyeva to clarify what she really thought of Stalin, who they considered a despot guilty of slaughtering hundreds of thousands. “Any attempt to speak about Stalin’s epoch with more understanding frightens me very much, because I believe that the Stalin period was deadly for Russia,” Borukh Gorin, a spokesman for the federation told Interfax news agency.
A Christian zealot, a Stalin supporter, and the minister of education in one package? Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper summed up the situation in a headline: “The New Minister of Education is a Symptom of Creeping Stalinization.”
So far the new minister of education has not made any comments about her attitude toward Stalin and how it would reflect on the reforms of Russian education, which Vasilyeva said she intended to pursue.
But Stalin’s return to Russia’s system of education, as an “effective manager,” already has many parents concerned.
“To my astonishment I found out from my daughter that she had constantly heard about Stalin at her Moscow school, even more often than during the education at our Soviet school,” Olga Bychkova, a presenter and editor at Echo of Moscow told The Daily Beast.The minister of education was not the only Russian official promoting the long-dead dictator. Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky talked of Stalin as the foundation of Russia’s heroic past; in 2013 Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin called for renaming Volgograd once again Stalingrad.
“Russian authorities talk about the harmony between the state and church, the rejection of critical thinking, to me Vasilyeva is not a Christian, as any Christian knows that Stalin was a despot, she is a representative of the new ideologist, talking of Russianness and Orthodox belief, rejecting the memory of Stalin’s horror,” Bychkova, whose daughter now studies in Great Britain, told The Daily Beast.
For Babchenko, Putin’s appointment was the last test of his patience. In a post on Facebook, Babchenko told his friends that he had a job offer from a friendly European country and that now he was considering emigration: “They are not going to let my child complete her decent education, they will spoil the last bit that we could hold onto by staying here,” Babchenko wrote.
“It takes too much effort to create the protective capsule of a normal world around my child,” the former Russian soldier, Babchenko, said in his post. More than 8,000 of Babchenko’s friends and readers pushed “like” in reaction to the post and what seemed significant, over 2,400 comments supported the idea of escaping from Russia. The writer was surprised that nobody even tried to persuade him to stay.
“I wonder why not a single of my readers told me that Russia is a great place, that its future is bright, and there is no reason for escaping it,” the writer said.