This time, the enemy they marched against was not the Nazis, they declared, it is NATO. But the man they wish were still leading them is Joseph Stalin.
In the middle of the demonstration, a big banner showed the Soviet leader, famous for his moustache and his brutality, knocking down president Barack Obama. “NATO is the fascism of the 21st century,” the banner declared. As the communist demonstrators passed by the Bolshoi Theater, they waved red flags and chanted: “No to the war! No to NATO!”
Although that basic sentiment follows the party line of current Russian President Vladimir Putin, it seems that Putinism just isn’t as attractive for these partisans as is their idealized notion of Stalinism, especially at a time when hostilities with the West are on the rise.
NATO’s plan to station up to 4,000 troops in Eastern Europe, and the participation of thousands of American troops in military exercises in Poland this week, scares many Russians.
Putin stoked those fears, urging his army commanders to get ready: “NATO is strengthening its aggressive rhetoric and its aggressive actions near our borders. In these conditions, we are duty-bound to pay special attention to solving the task of strengthening the combat defenses of our country,” he declared.
Hearing such statements, 19-year-old Sergei Mikhailov told The Daily Beast: “The war is back, it’s real—a war with NATO could happen and just like in 1941 we’d have to volunteer, go and give our lives to our country’s defense.”
“Russia needs a really strong commander,” said Mikhailov, and in his view Putin is just not as strong as Stalin was.
Gennadi Zyuganov, leader the communist party (KPRF) in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, called on the young demonstrators to “take the best from your courageous fathers and grandfathers who defended our independent power.”
Zyuganov, who has been leading Russia’s communists for 21 years, is trying to take the mantle of anti-Western patriotism away from Putin’s United Russia party ahead of legisative elections in September. The KPRF hope to win 226 seats, up from 93, and enough to form a majority.
That is within the realm of possibility. United Russia’s approval rating has fallen recently from 42 percent to 35 percent, and by October, when the looming economic crisis is expected to be knocking on everybody’s door, the communists might well turn out more voters than anybody expected a year ago.
Neo-Stalinist nostalgia is part of this trend.
The Party, as it used to be called, has for a long time lacked young activists. Some 70 percent of its members are 30 years old or older. So KPRF leaders have been putting on what might be called a Stalinist charm offensive. They praise the glorious power of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and deny that during the rule of Lenin and Stalin the NKVD and KGB security services killed millions of innocent people in prisons and labor camps.
Indeed, KPRF activists have pushed the Kremlin to stop using the words “victims of Stalin’s repressions“ in history classes in Russian schools.
“These accusations against Stalin serve the West’s interests,” State Duma Deputy Vadim Soloviev, one of KPRF leaders, told The Daily Beast. “NATO countries fear Stalin’s power. They are terrified that Russia might once again turn into an almighty monster and beat them.”
KPRF’s propaganda is competing with pro-Putin and pro-United Russia media. The communists have their own television channel, The Red Line, as well as the newspapers Pravda and Soviet Russia, which altogether claim an audience of 34 million. Pravda alone has a circulation of some 11 million, compared, for instance, to the liberal news outlet Novaya Gazeta, with 184,400.
“Their success is easy to explain,” Moscow-based political analyst Yuri Krupnov told The Daily Beast. “Russians are disillusioned by the overwhelming corruption of the current leadership, they want Stalin, as a scourge. They are hoping one day somebody like Stalin will come and execute all the liars and thieves in Putin’s feudal system of management.”
One of the headlines in the Thursday issue of Soviet Russia, referencing the NATO exercises, said: “Two thirds of Russians would agree to let their loved ones go to war and defend our country.”
“We explain to young people that right now thieves and liars are in power in Russia, that there is a big danger of war and the only way to make Russia strong again is industrialization, strengthening the patriotism—Russians know that communists keep their word, as Stalin did,“ Soloviev added.
President Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu also have prepared young Russians for joining the military: the state plans to spend millions of rubles on a newly created Youth Army movement involving Soviet-style pre-induction military training.
Last month the first Youth Army gathering of 500 delegates from 85 regions took place in Moscow’s Patriot Park. Defense Minister Shoigu declared that “hundreds of centers of patriotic training and hundreds of centers of the Youth Army will operate throughout the country.” Those centers will be teaching young Russians to assemble and dis-assemble Kalashnikovs, throw grenades and drill as if they were in the professional military, which many will be, since Russia still has conscription.
Just how successful these programs will be over the long run is an open question. While pro-Putin and pro-communist politicians compete over who gets more young patriots on their side, the majority of Russian young people seem to have more interest in taking selfies, partying, playing computer games or listening to punk music.
A famous Perestroika song by a rock star Victor Tsoi said about young Russians: “We might be a little crazy, but we simply want to dance.” And that attitude still applies for many Russians.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Pussy Riot spokesman Pyotr Verzilov was skeptical about the Kremlin’s plan to militarize Russian youth.
“Young people have no interest in military uniforms, they like to look cool like guys in New York or London, “ Verzilov said. “Look at the new star from Yekaterinburg, Monetochka. She grows very popular by writing her political songs, and mocking the Crimea crises, from her apartment in Yekaterinburg; young people are not blind, they can sense the false propaganda,“ Verzilov said.
A notable line from one of Monetochka’s songs: “My father takes out the Kalashnikov, pokes my eye with a fork. We argue if Crimea is ours.”
Earlier this month, young music fans, some with their hair died blue or pink, listened to psychedelic and punk music con the central street of Pokrovka in Nizhny Novgorod, a provincial city on the Volga river.
It was The Day of Russia, and the entire city center was crowded with young people. “Most of these people despise both Stalin and Putin,” said Anna Nistratova, an expert on street culture. “Arts, music, creativity and successful careers are what interests them.”
Stalin can’t help with any of that.