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The perception of Stalin

This survey took place between March 23-27, 2018 and was conducted throughout all of Russia in both urban and rural settings. The survey was carried out among 1600 people over the age of 18 in 136 localities of 52 of the country’s regions. The survey was conducted as a personal interview in respondents’ homes. The answer distribution is presented as percentages of the number of participants along with data from previous surveys. The statistical error of these studies for a selection of 1600 people (with a probability of 0.95) does not exceed: 3.4% for indicators around 50%; 2.9% for indicators around 25%/75%; 2.0% for indicators around 10%/90%; 1.5% for indicators around 5%/95%

a.Changes in Russian Public Opinion

When looking at changes in Russians’ attitudes toward Stalin, three different periods can be observed: one defined by negative perceptions (2001-2006), one defined by indifferent attitudes (2008-2012), and one defined by positive assessments (2014-2018). While initial samples showed that every other Russian had a negative view of Stalin (the aggregate share of feelings such as “dislike”, “fear”, and “disgust” was 43%), this stance accounted for less than a quarter of all opinions in 2008-2012. After 2014, about 17-20% of respondents had a negative view of Stalin. This position reached its minimum in 2018 at 12% of the total sample.

The relative increase in the number of Russians with a positive or neutral attitude toward Stalin is a less stable and more cyclical trend (compared to the clear decline in negative attitudes). While the number of Russians with a positive view (the sum of three positions: “admiration”, “respect”, and “sympathy”) was practically four times greater than the number of those with a neutral view in 2001, indifference became the dominant attitude toward Stalin by 2008. It was replaced by a positive view in March 2014. It has been noted numerous times in the past that “post-Crimean unity” has lead to the reassessment of many events and processes in the country and its history.

In addition to its psychological dichotomy (“good”/”bad”), more complex historical-cultural and ideological narratives can be highlighted in the public perception of Stalin’s image, including his role in the Great Patriotic War, his guilt within the context of the Purges and the Great Terror, the perception of him as an “effective manager” and leader of the country.

These changes reveal only one attitude to be stable: praise for Stalin’s contributions to winning the Great Patriotic War. This assessment is stereotypical amongst Russians, and its significance has not changed substantially over the past ten years (68% in 2008 versus 64% in 2018). Conversely, acceptance of the view that Stalin is guilty of killing millions of innocent people was almost one and a half times lower in 2018 than in 2016, having dropped from 62% to 44%. At the same time, the percentage of respondents who declined to answer increased significantly (from 16% to 29%). It is worth noting that the number of respondents who struggled to answer increased in relation to all positions, although such a substantial decline in support was observed only in relation to Stalin’s culpability in the Purges and the Great Terror. This is indicated by other data, as well (for example, decreased support for the opinion that the Stalinist Purges were “a political crime that cannot be justified”).

Interesting fluctuations (that cannot yet be considered trends) were recorded in 2018 in relation to the perception of Stalin as a desirable type of leader for the country who “comes in and enforces order.” Regardless of the fact that levels of agreement with this view have not changed overall, the share of respondents who previously disagreed with this view was displaced by respondents who struggled to answer this question.

IN GENERAL, WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL FEELINGS ABOUT STALIN? (respondents were presented with a card; single answer)

  Apr.01 Apr.06 Oct.08 Feb.10 Oct.12 Mar.14 Mar.15 Mar.16 Jan.17 Mar.18
Admiration 4 5 1 2 1 3 2 2 4 2
Respect 27 23 22 23 21 28 30 28 32 29
Sympathy 7 8 8 7 6 9 7 7 10 9
Indifference 12 19 37 38 33 30 30 32 22 31
Dislike, anger 18 18 12 12 12 10 9 9 12 7
Fear 16 15 7 7 7 6 6 5 7 3
Disgust, hate 9 5 4 5 4 3 5 3 2 2
I don’t know who Stalin is -* -* -* -* 1 1 -* 1 -* 1
It is difficult to say/no answer 6 8 10 7 16 11 11 14 10 16

 -* Variant not available

TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT: “STALIN WAS A WISE LEADER WHO MADE THE USSR POWERFUL AND PROSPEROUS” (single answer)

  Oct. 08 Oct. 12 Mar. 16 Mar. 18
Fully agree 13 15 18 20
Mostly agree 37 32 39 37
Mostly disagree 26 25 22 10
Fully disagree 11 13 11 8
It is difficult to say/decline to answer 14 15 11 25

TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT: “REGARDLESS OF THE MISTAKES AND FLAWS ATTRIBUTED TO STALIN, THE FACT THAT OUR PEOPLE WON THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR UNDER HIS LEADERSHIP IS WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT” (single answer)

  Oct. 08 Oct. 12 Mar. 16 Mar. 18
Fully agree 26 20 26 24
Mostly agree 42 40 45 40
Mostly disagree 15 18 13 9
Fully disagree 4 9 8 5
It is difficult to say/decline to answer 13 12 8 22

TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT: “STALIN WAS A CRUEL, INHUMAN TYRANT WHO IS GUILTY OF KILLING MILLIONS OF INNOCENT PEOPLE” (single answer)

  Oct. 08 Oct. 12 Mar. 16 Mar. 18
Fully agree 24 26 23 15
Mostly agree 44 40 39 29
Mostly disagree 15 14 17 18
Fully disagree 4 6 5 8
It is difficult to say/decline to answer 13 16 16 29

TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT: “OUR PEOPLE COULD NEVER MANAGE WITHOUT A LEADER LIKE STALIN WHO COMES IN AND ENFORCES ORDER” (single answer)

  Oct. 08 Oct. 12 Mar. 16 Mar. 18
Fully agree 10 10 8 9
Mostly agree 24 20 26 24
Mostly disagree 31 27 27 21
Fully disagree 19 25 22 16
It is difficult to say/decline to answer 17 18 17 31

b. Unique Generational Characteristics of the Perception of Stalin in Russia

Yuri Levada’s generational theory was used to understand how to differentiate Russians’ attitudes toward Stalin. This theory covers six “significant” generations [for more information, see Yuri A. Levada’s monograph Searching for Man: Essays in Sociology 2000­-2005. M., 2006]. Taking into account the fact that members of the first three generations (“the revolutionary crisis,” “the Stalinist mobilization system,” and “the war and post-war period”) are virtually gone and are not included in the samples for current mass polls, only three generations were used for analysis: “The Thaw”, “Stagnation”, and “Perestroika.” A “post-Soviet” generation, consisting of respondents born after 1991, was also added.

  Total Yuri Levada’s Generational Theory*
Birth years, according to Yuri Levada’s Generational Theory 1991-2018 1969-1990 1944-1968 1929-1943
Current age 18-27 28-49 50-74 75-89
  “Post-Soviet” “Perestroika” “Stagnation” “The Thaw”
Number of respondents     1612 260 650 610 90
WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL FEELINGS TOWARD STALIN?
Admiration 2 2 1 3 3
Respect 29 17 24 37 50
Sympathy 9 4 9 8 16
Indifference 31 31 39 27 14
Dislike, anger 7 5 7 7 4
Fear 3 3 3 4 3
Disgust, hate 2 3 2 2
I don’t know who Stalin is 1 2 <1 <1
It is difficult to say 13 28 12 10 7
Prefer not to answer 3 4 3 2 2
TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE STATEMENT THAT “STALIN IS A WISE LEADER WHO MADE THE USSR PROSPEROUS AND POWERFUL”?
Fully agree 20 12 15 25 47
Mostly agree 37 30 38 39 37
Mostly disagree 10 9 11 10 5
Fully disagree 8 9 9 8 1
It is difficult to say 20 37 22 13 6
Prefer not to answer 5 4 5 5 4
TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE STATEMENT THAT “REGARDLESS OF THE MISTAKES AND FLAWS ATTRIBUTED TO STALIN, THE FACT THAT THAT OUR PEOPLE WON THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR UNDER HIS LEADERSHIP IS WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT”?
Fully agree 24 16 19 29 42
Mostly agree 40 31 42 43 42
Mostly disagree 9 11 10 7 4
Fully disagree 5 4 6 6
It is difficult to say 18 33 19 11 7
Prefer not to answer 5 6 5 4 5
TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE STATEMENT THAT “STALIN WAS A CRUEL, INHUMAN TYRANT WHO IS GUILTY OF KILLING OF MILLIONS OF INNOCENT PEOPLE”?
Fully agree 15 13 15 17 8
Mostly agree 29 25 29 31 31
Mostly disagree 18 14 18 20 22
Fully disagree 8 4 7 10 18
It is difficult to say 22 37 24 14 12
Prefer not to answer 8 8 8 8 9
TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE STATEMENT THAT “OUR PEOPLE COULD NEVER MANAGE WITHOUT A LEADER LIKE STALIN WHO COMES IN AND ENFORCES ORDER”?
Fully agree 9 4 8 10 16
Mostly agree 24 17 23 28 32
Mostly disagree 21 19 20 21 25
Fully disagree 16 16 17 16 10
It is difficult to say 23 38 23 17 10
Prefer not to answer 8 7 9 8 6

The current generational differentiation related to Stalin does not take shape on the basis of the popularization of extreme views (“positive” or “negative” perceptions), but rather on the basis of “positive” or “indifferent” attitudes, that is, people forming “a good opinion or no opinion at all” about Stalin.

A positive attitude toward the leader dominates two generations: “The Thaw” and “Stagnation.” In total, two thirds (69%) of respondents aged 75 to 89 and nearly every other respondent (48%) aged 50 to 74 had a positive view of Stalin (“admiration”, “respect”, “sympathy”). “Indifference” dominates the “Perestroika” and “post-Soviet” generations (39% and 31%, respectively). Furthermore, if declining to answer (respondents who struggled or refused to answer a given question) is considered to be an indicator of societal and moral indifference, then the total “non-judgmental” attitude toward Stalin accounts for more than half of these generational groups: 54% amongst respondents ages 28-49 and 63% amongst respondents ages 18-27. An similar age trend was recorded in relation to nostalgia for the Soviet Union; in general, this nostalgia is reported by respondents over the age of 55 (that is, people of the “Stagnation” and “Thaw” generations), while young people do not express nostalgia for the USSR.

The support of different (positive and negative) perceptions of Stalin also has some generational characteristics. Equilibrium between opinions on whether or not Stalin is guilty of killing millions of people is observed only in the “Thaw” generation: 39% percent versus 40%. Amongst members of the “Stagnation” and “Perestroika” generations, the dominant opinion is that Stalin is guilty of these deaths, while the prevailing share of the “post-Soviet” generation consists of those who struggle to express their attitude toward Stalin in the context of the Purges and victims of that time (in total, 45% of respondents struggled or declined to answer this question). There is an excessive degree of indifference amongst 18- to 27-year-olds on the subject of Stalin as a leader without whom “our people could never manage.” About 45% of respondents in this group also declined to answer. It is worth noting that this generation’s socialization period occurred only while Vladimir Putin was in power (and it is precisely amongst young people that the highest levels of support for the current president’s actions have been repeatedly observed).

The only stance pertaining to Stalin that is shared by all generations is the certainty that “our people won the Great Patriotic War under his leadership”; at least 47% of respondents in every group support this position. A sufficiently high level of consensus is observable between generations in support of the opinion that Stalin should be considered a “wise leader who made the USSR powerful and prosperous.” However, there is some significant differentiation in the level of support: the older the generation, the greater the support for this position. While the support level amongst those of the “Thaw” generation is 84%, it is twice as low for the “post-Soviet” generation (42%). Moreover, an additional 42% of that group technically declined to answer.

c. Russian and Ukrainian Public Opinion of Stalin

The public opinion research results showing Ukrainian residents’ attitudes toward Stalin belong to the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS).

Russian and Ukrainian residents’ attitudes toward Stalin are occasionally studied as part of the Levada Center and KIIS’s collaborative monitoring projects. Polls in both countries are conducted nation-wide and representative. Both use identical methodology, which allows for comparison.

There are significant differences between Russians’ and Ukrainians’ attitudes toward Stalin. While 40% of Russians have positive feelings about him (“admiration”, “respect”, and “sympathy”) and 12% have negative feelings (“dislike”, “fear”, “disgust”), Ukrainians display this ratio in reverse—14% versus 42%. The share of respondents with a neutral attitude toward Stalin or who struggled to answer was practically identical.

The support for different opinions about Stalin was significantly differentiated in both countries. Ukrainians said that “Stalin is a tyrant who is guilty of killing millions of innocent people” almost twice as often as Russians (77% versus 44%). Conversely, Ukrainians disagreed with the statements “Stalin is a wise leader who made the USSR powerful and prosperous” and ” Our people could never manage without a leader like Stalin” three and a half times more often than Russians (52% versus 18% and 59% versus 37%, respectively).

Furthermore, while the share of Russian residents that recognize Stalin’s guilt in the Purges and the Great Terror is decreasing (62% in 2016 versus 44% in 2018), this share of Ukrainian residents is increasing (69% in 2016 versus 87% in 2018).

When it comes to generational differences amongst Ukrainians (comparable to those examined in relation to Russians), the data provided by the poll bears evidence of two facts. First of all, a negative view of Stalin (“dislike”, “fear”, or “disgust”) dominates all generations without exception, although sympathy for the leader is stronger amongst Ukrainians aged 75-89 from the “Thaw” generation than in other groups. Second, belonging to a certain generation, be it “post-Soviet”, “Perestroika”, “Stagnation”, or “The Thaw”, does not affect the degree to which the opinion of Stalin as a “cruel tyrant who is guilty of killing millions of innocent people” is supported; the level of support is over 70% in all age groups.

“Post-Soviet” youth from Ukraine gave substantive (negative) evaluations of Stalin more frequently without declining to answer, which points to a great degree of collective reflection on the past and the country’s history. While virtually every other respondent in the group of Russian youth aged 18-27 either struggled or declined to answer in relation to various statements about Stalin, no more than a quarter of Ukrainian youth amongst the respondents avoided giving their opinion of the leader.

WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL FEELINGS TOWARD STALIN? (single answer)

  Opinions of Russian residents (Levada Center, March 2018) Opinions of Ukrainian residents (KIIS, February 2018)
Admiration 2 1
Respect 29 10
Sympathy 9 3
Indifference 31 30
Dislike, anger 7 13
Fear 3 11
Disgust, hate 2 18
I don’t know who Stalin is 1 2
It is difficult to say/no answer 16 15

TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT: “STALIN WAS A WISE LEADER WHO MADE THE USSR POWERFUL AND PROSPEROUS” (single answer)

  Opinions of Russian residents (Levada Center, March 2018) Opinions of Ukrainian residents (KIIS, February 2018)
Fully agree 20 7
Mostly agree 37 21
Mostly disagree 10 19
Fully disagree 8 33
It is difficult to say/decline to answer 25 20

TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT: “STALIN WAS A CRUEL, INHUMAN TYRANT WHO IS GUILTY OF KILLING MILLIONS OF INNOCENT PEOPLE” (single answer)

  Opinions of Russian residents (Levada Center, March 2018) Opinions of Ukrainian residents (KIIS, February 2018)
Fully agree 15 47
Mostly agree 29 30
Mostly disagree 18 6
Fully disagree 8 3
It is difficult to say/decline to answer 29 14

TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU AGREE OR DISAGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT: “OUR PEOPLE COULD NEVER MANAGE WITHOUT A LEADER LIKE STALIN WHO COMES IN AND ENFORCES ORDER” (single answer)

  Opinions of Russian residents (Levada Center, March 2018) Opinions of Ukrainian residents (KIIS, February 2018)
Fully agree 9 7
Mostly agree 24 16
Mostly disagree 21 17
Fully disagree 16 42
It is difficult to say/decline to answer 31 18

Translated by Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (formerly Monterey Institute of International Studies).

The ANO Levada Center has been forcibly included in the registry of non-commercial organizations acting as foreign agents.  Read the Director of the Levada Center’s statement of disagreement with this decision here.