How did the nickname “Stalin” become a praise word? Why are the dictators characterized by violence and terror? Which societies are predisposed to dictators? Why is Vladimir Putin as astute as Joseph Stalin? Why do they consider that the people “lived” well in the time of Brezhnev? Why is the genesis of the dismemberment of the USSR in Stalin’s governance? What is the paradox of 2014 for the Moldovans? Why did the Moldovans remove Voronin and Plahotniuc from power? What cures does history offer for nostalgia for dictators and how good pupils are the Moldovans at present in this respect? Responses to these and other questions can be found in the interview with doctor habilitate of history Valentin Constantinov, a senior scientific researcher at the Institute of History, conducted by Valeriu Vasilică.
- IPN: Mister Constantinov, I would like to start our discussion with a personal story. I have a close relative who is actually the last representative of the generation of my parents alive. Even if he is old and suffers from chronic diseases, he continues to be robust physically and morally. In his native village, he is nicknamed “Stalin”. It seems to me that neither he nor those around him realize that a serious injustice was committed with regard to him throughout his life as he has been a kind and just man. I consider Stalin was his antipode. We cannot name a character who killed millions of innocent people in his own country a just person. By this dialogue, I would like us to clarify somehow this injustice with respect to my relative, Badea Efrim and to a lot of other people who are nostalgic for Joseph Stalin and others like him. Is the story involving my relative a singular or typical situation?
- Valentin Constantinov: The case invoked by you is as difficult as society in which we live. In principle, the people as human beings are credulous. If the people are told that what is said on TV or what is written on newspapers is true, they believe this. I would like to remind of the cult of Joseph Stalin’s personality that was exposed by Nikita Khrushchev but not till the end. The exposure actually lasted for approximately ten years, since 1953, when Beria was arrested and was charged with all the evil things committed in the Soviet Union, even if a number of stages were witnessed earlier. It was Yagoda – minister of internal affairs, Yezhov – minister of internal affairs. In fact, during the time of Yezhov, there were committed the largest number of injustices, the repression with the formation of Gulags, etc. Only after the 22nd Congress of the CPSU, Stalin was taken out of the Mausoleum. Look, ten years, year by year, and the people only started to get used to the opposite of critical thinking. “Until then, Stalin was Zeus, God. Stalin dies and we all die and World War III starts. Now we are told that Stalin was ... I don’t believe this. I believe in what I was told once”.
Remember how many opportunists who earlier acclaimed Lenin – “Long live, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin!”- joined the National Renaissance Movement. They changed the message into “Long live, Stephan the Great!”. This metamorphosis, the manifestation of opportunism, occurred before the eyes of Badea Efrim. Badea Efrim, who is an upright man, doesn’t like this. He and others like him would say: “I will better remain with my faith... But it is not good. They killed, destroyed bridges. But others came. Not Stalin destroyed bridges”. In their minds, they will consider that someone badly fulfilled the orders that came from the center. The center said: “bring the wheat” not “leave the people to die”. Consequently, not Joseph Vissarionovich, not the Communist Party, not the famine of 1946-1947 but local activists who didn’t correctly understand the Party’s order are to blame...”.
- IPN: Which of the state leaders are considered dictators and/or autocrats and why? To what extent the violence and terror to which they resorted put them into this category?
- Valentin Constantinov: Violence and terror characterize them as long as they need to eliminate any opposition. There is no dictatorship without overburdened repressive bodies. There are repressive bodies in democratic states too but in the dictatorial regimes, it is mandatory to suppress any opposition. There are different types of dictatorship. In the Russian Federation, there are now a number of parties and some of them even express their opposition to Vladimir Putin’s party. This is controlled opposition. They are told that they can criticize up to a certain point. They know that they cannot cross the line. Those who cross the line are eliminated, jailed and are not allowed to demonstrate. There is particular predisposition or sympathy for such a regime in Russian society. Many people there are satisfied they have a job. It is interesting that revolutionary situations appear not where the people are very poor and have nothing. A revolutionary situation arises when a middle class with objections to the government appears and the government neglects these objections.
- IPN: To what extent do the high-ranking Soviet leaders fall into this category of dictators and/or autocrats. There weren’t many in fact: Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev. I don’t know if we can examine Andropov and Chernenko separately. I think we should speak about Gorbachev separately...
- Valentin Constantinov: Vladimir Ulyanov died at the age of 53, exhausted, tired, sick. We cannot say what would have happened if he had lived longer. We know how Vladimir Ulyanov behaved in the civil war, when a lot of people were massacred. Vladimir Ulyanov was always interested only in power. Besides the Bolshevik Party, there were a lot of other parties in Russia and these were more vivacious and determined to apply a particular form of terror. The revolutionary Socialists had the physical extermination of their opponents stipulated in the party’s program. Vladimir Ulyanov came against such a background. In 1921 yet, in the height of the crisis in Russia, he started that New Political Economy. Stalin liquidated that policy. He said that it is not good. A return to the policy of industrialization and collectivization by exhausting agriculture was staged in 1932-33, when many million people died from starvation. And industrialization could be secured only this way. There was also the Gulag that was to work also for the Russian military complex that was very costly and implied very great human sacrifices. Lenin and Stalin committed a lot of crimes and gave orders to this effect. Lenin signed the orders, while Stalin, since he launched that machinery of terror, took care not to sign the document alone.
- IPN: Did this mean he realized what he was doing, that he was committing a crime?
- Valentin Constantinov: Stalin was a very astute man. Only think about the Soviet Union’s participation in the first phase of World War II. Stalin didn’t attack Poland the same day as Hitler did. He waited for the Government of Poland to go into exile: “Let’s go and defend the civil population, our Belarusian and Ukrainian brothers”. The ideological aspect always played an extraordinary role. If we look today at what is going on in the Russian Federation, we see that the postulates used in the time of Joseph Stalin are accurately reproduced today.
- IPN: Can we examine Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev together as belonging to the same category of autocratic managers? To what extent did they become involved in acts of mass violence?
- Valentin Constantinov: We can say this rather about Khrushchev who in 1962 cruelly suppressed the strike of workers from Novocherkassk... But not much was known about this then. Everything was hushed up.
- IPN: What are the roots of this type of leaders of the USSR? Why namely this type of people could rule one after another the largest state on earth? Where they brought to power by hazard or by a rule?
- Valentin Constantinov: If Khrushchev hadn’t existed, another kind of Khrushchev would have existed. If Stalin hadn’t existed, Lev Davydovich Trotsky existed. The situation could have been even worse in the case of Trotsky who was one of the ideologists of the left-wing movement.
- IPN: Why wasn’t Gorbachev, for example, invited to govern?
- Valentin Constantinov: When the Bolsheviks seized power, half a year earlier no one would have believed something like this was possible. They seized power and what should they do with it? What was the situation at the local level? Anarchy. We should not forget that there was full anarchy in Russia during the Civil War. They started to bring things in order. They ensured their order...
- IPN: ... with 11 million victims
- Valentin Constantinov: They would have solved the problem with as many victims. They were interested in power only. They reasoned this way: “What shall we do to remain in power? There are only two ways: order by violence or by democratic ways. But in democracy one loses power. We should liquidate any democracy so that we do not lose power”. In parallel, a confrontation inside the Bolshevik Party appeared as the power means ‘my power’. I think that if Stalin hadn’t existed, there would have been someone similar to Stalin.
- IPN: The dictators commit the crimes in the name of the state or by state instruments. Is the philosophy of violence with which the state is invested in general and which has been used for centuries to blame for this?
- Valentin Constantinov: The law of the jungle says the most powerful wins. They put this law into practice and established that framework of actions in which everything was to be decided by one political party and there was a struggle between different groups. Initially, Stalin struggled against Trotsky and Stalin won. A struggle between Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Buharin started and Stalin won again. In 1937-38, he exterminated them all. It goes to regimes that destroy themselves from inside as the genesis of the fall of the Soviet Union is in Stalin’s governance. There was no person with initiative left around Stalin. They were all to adjust themselves to the leader. Putin’s Russia will have the same fate. What does it happen when the leader dies? Everything collapses. There are no persons who are able to take decisions, to take over. There are only persons who wait for orders from the center.
- IPN: And when someone ultimately appears, someone like Gorbachev appears and stages the dissolution?
- Valentin Constantinov: The dissolution was inevitable. That system was doomed to fall one day and it did so. There was a period that the people remember well. It was in the time of Brezhnev. The fuel prices soared. There was a crisis in the Middle East. The Arab countries gave up supplying the necessary quantity of oil and the Soviet Union then came with its offer. The people remember that they lived well and had a job and weren’t worried about the future. But that period is over. The people weren’t ready to ensure the efficient management of a country. This reminds me of the current days. These ties of ours with Russia continue to be vital as we continue buying gas from there. Are we ready to pay more for gas? Not yet. One day we will say “yes”. We haven’t yet realized that we started to live better in the Republic of Moldova in 2014, when we began to pay more for gas. It is a paradox but the further we are from Russia from economic viewpoint and the closer we come to the European values, the better we live. Take some pictures of the Chisinau-Căușeni-Ștefan Vodă highway – one of 2010, one of 2015 and one of 2022. When I saw how many hypermarkets were opened, I remained pleasantly surprised. These hypermarkets as a sign of a better life are opened in other regions too.
- IPN: What cures does history and the contemporary life offer for nostalgia for dictators?
- Valentin Constantinov: This is first of all education. Who would be now ready to adopt a national strategy in education? No one. This strategy implies the education of everyone, the modification of the way of thinking. This first of all means that we need to go and vote. Society in the Republic of Moldova should propose political parties. We should not go and vote blindly for a party. If so, all those who deal with politics will listen to civil society. Civil society should give a roadmap to the politicians for these to implement it.
- IPN: If no one adopts such a strategy, will things in Moldovan society follow the path of nostalgia for the past?
- Valentin Constantinov: I will start from the slightly optimistic precondition that our society, as it is, is not so bad. The Republic of Moldova, with 2.5 million people, cannot provide models for other states. Bur it tried to borrow models of politicians from outside. Traian Băseascu was a model. Vladimir Putin was another model. Lukashenko was a model. But when Vladimir Voronin tried to assume prerogatives of farther of the nation on April 9, 2009, the young people took to the streets to say that they no longer wanted to see him. We had also Vladimir Plahotniuc and this was removed by the Moldovans. The Moldovans do not have this attachment to one person. Some can be attached to Vladimir Putin as he is somewhere far away and is the President of a large country. Many Moldovans in the 2000s believed that Russia becomes stronger with Putin. In the 2000s, we didn’t yet realize that a strong Russia led by Vladimir Putin does not help the Moldovans at all.
We have this nostalgia because this idea was imbedded in our minds and because we had the very difficult period of the 1990s. We survived and now started to develop step by step. I repeat that it does not mean that we should not criticize. There are monopoles, there are imposed prices, there are schemes by which some enrich themselves overnight. But step by step, by education, protests, political parties, we will definitely succeed based on a new view.
The interview was held in the framework of the project “100 years of USSR and 31 years without USSR: Nostalgia for Chimeras” that is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The video version of the interview can be seen here.