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Joseph Stalin Meets Social Media: Russia Remembers the Great Terror

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The year 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of Stalin’s Great Terror. On July 2, 1937, Joseph Stalin signed the resolution that ordered an immediate arrest, trial, and sentencing of any active “kulaks” and criminals. The sentence often was a death penalty performed by firing a gun into one’s nape. If not killed, people were sent to the labour camps, including the infamous Gulag. Their homes were ravaged and parents and children were separated, the latter carrying the stigma of their parents’ “treachery” for years, until the rehabilitation.

These were not the only outcomes of the years of repression. By sending multitudes of statesmen, men-at-arms and scientists to jail or the deathblock, Stalin practically decapitated Russian armed forces ahead of Hitler’s invasion. The attempt to secure the power cost the improbable losses at the start of the Great Patriotic War.

Stalin died in 1953. The year 1954 saw the famous defamation of Joseph the Terrible, and for a while he remained just one of the Russian leaders of the Soviet time. Then perestroika began, with all its notorious revisions of the Soviet past, and Stalin came back to life, figuratively speaking, as a symbol of strength of the Russian state, the symbol of power and fear.

This ambiguity in attitude toward Stalin continues to this day and is unlikely to ever subside. Both supporters and haters choose to see but one side of the coin: Stalin is either a strong leader who secured Russia’s place in the international arena, or a ruthless dictator and murderer who orchestrated the purges, repressions, the war, and who knows what else.

Such are the opinions of the older generations of Russians. Yet there are younger people who are extremely susceptible to brainwashing, as are many youngsters. History teaching at schools has deteriorated in the last ten years, while the number of popular books that cite sometimes fictional, or at best unreliable, sources has grown. Younger generations are practically caught between the lack of knowledge and historical chimeras, and this needed tackling.

The Organisation for the Victims of Illegal Political Repressions thought they had a cracking idea. Since Russian youngsters spend their time browsing YouTube, Facebooking and Twittering, there was no better way to alert them to the problem of political repression than through the use of those familiar symbols. So seven posters appeared, each comparing Stalin to one of the social media services.

As witty as it was, the project backfired. The Facebook group comments indicated that people did not consider the use of social media appropriate. One user stated that “this could be used against anyone”, and in many ways he is right. Those who denounce Stalin for purges found the posters “too funny” for the occasion. Some still pointed out that the campaign managed to create a rather positive image of Stalin.

Incidentally, in Russia and elsewhere social media continue to be vilified. Be it the time they consume, the sharing opportunities they offer, or the data they request at registration, all attract criticism from those who think they are a dangerous loss of time. “Stalin is like Facebook: he urged to share information” sounds more like a pun on Facebook than on Stalin.

One is puzzled at the fact that Google is nowhere to be seen in this campaign. You may put it down to Russia’s love for Yandex. The Yandex poster parodies its slogan: instead of “Find everything” it is “Find everyone”. Meanwhile, both Yandex and Google, especially the latter, provide a wealth of information on people in search engine results pages (SERPs), whereby “find everyone” is not even funny anymore.

One cannot predict whether the campaigners have succeed at educating younger audiences about the atrocities of Stalinism. What is true is that in the long run this has been a most intelligent and witty PR campaign. Perhaps its cleverness and plays on words will be the reasons why it is not a massive hit: masses rarely enjoy subtle jokes. But those who are capable of appreciating the subtlety will see the point of Orwell’s 1984: be it Stalin or social media, Big Brother is watching you.


Stalin is like Apple: he cost a lot


Stalin is like Facebook: he urged to share information


Stalin is like Foursquare: he showed each their place


Stalin is like Twitter: he spared words


Stalin is like vKontakte: he captured millions


Stalin is like Yandex: he sent queries


Stalin is like YouTube: he allowed to load and send.

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About Julie Delvaux

A Moscow-based journalist, author, and translator. Fluent in Russian, English, and French, in love with Surrealism.
  • Glenn Contrarian

    I remember one time I was working in the Post Office as a clerk, and a tall, old man walked in to send a small package to Lithuania (or was it Latvia – I forget). I made it a point to try to say “thank you” in the language of foreigners who patronized us, and as he began to turn away I told him “Spasiba, tovarisch”.

    He stopped and turned slowly back to me. I don’t remember the color of his eyes, but they were deep and full of tragedy. He said “Don’t ever say that to me again” in a deep, rumbling voice that one just knew to take seriously or else.

    I thought to myself, Oh, crap! Did I say it wrong, or somehow offensively?, and replied, “I’m very sorry, sir. But what did I say that was wrong?

    He looked at me with those sad, sad eyes and said, “When someone says that where I come from, they’re about to take you away and you will never be seen again.” He turned away again and walked slowly out the door.

    I apologized again and profusely, and I’ve kept that in mind, a whole lot of lessons to be learned from that one short conversation.

  • Doug Hunter

    I’ve been meaning to pick up a biography of this man for many years, it’s on my bucket list. I have always held a macabre fascination for the Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, etc. of the world.

    Hitler was a mediocre painter and soldier for years then in a whirlwind rose to control the most powerful single military machine in the world, ordered the genocide and murder of millions, and ultimately was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 60 million+ humans.

    If someone has read or knows a good one (Stalin Biography) I’d be interested. My interest lies not only in details of the ascent and (mis)use of power but in learning about the person an their background before they came to prominence. I want the story of a human not the caricature of a monster, I know the latter from history books.

  • http://andrewcasso.wordpress.com Andrew Casso

    So, the problem with history books is the information is often unreliable… and your solution is.. the internet??

  • http://avidadollars.org/ Julia

    Thanks a lot to your comments!

    @Glenn – thanks for your story. A lot of people in the Baltic countries, Ukraine and Russia take that experience very close to heart. With Stalin dead since 1953, younger people are less “concerned”, and the entire episode appears like a battleground for historians and politicians. We found out in the last couple of years that some members of our extended family had also perished during the Great Terror; one of them was a village priest, very poor, a father of several children. When my Grandma heard what we discovered, her instant reaction was: “Why him? He didn’t even have painted furniture in his house!” Painter furniture was a sign of economic well-being back in 1920-1930s.

    @Doug – I’ll bear your interest in mind, but frankly, I don’t know if there is an English biography that would suit you. I’ll double check and send a message. I agree, it’s important to understand the person behind the image, especially because no politician ever acts on his own.

    @Andrew – that’s a very bizarre conclusion, but you are right. Or better, it’s because people think that history books are unreliable and don’t speak in “layman’s terms”, it’s best to use the language the youngsters can understand. However, the comparisons they drew in those posters are so subtle that an average rapping teenager may not grasp them.