Legacies of Stalin or Putin? Public Opinion and Historical Memory in Ukraine

AuthorVitali Shkliarov,Vera Mironova,Sam Whitt
Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 966981
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211041633
Legacies of Stalin or Putin? Public Opinion
and Historical Memory in Ukraine
Vitali Shkliarov
, Vera Mironova
, and Sam Whitt
Our research considers the relationship between historical memory and political evaluations of the past and present. We
f‌irst examine how historical ref‌lection on the Soviet Union under Stalin is inf‌luenced by memories of f amilial suffering
during World War II and victimization under the widespread Soviet gulag prison system. Based on a 2019 representative
survey of Ukraine, we show that respondents who recall family members being injured or killed f‌ighting during World
War II and those who recount families being imprisoned in Soviet gulags have increased positive and negative app raisals of
the Soviet Union under Stalin respectively. However, we also f‌ind that favorable opinions of Stalin are strongly predicted
by approval of Vladimir Putin, who has actively promoted rehabilitation of Stalins legacy to bolster personalist rule at
home and justify revisionist agendas abroad, including in Ukraine. Our results underscore interactions between the
present and past in shaping historical memory such that what appears as enduring legacies of the past could also be a
function of present political circumstances.
public opinion, historical memory, Stalin, Putin, Ukraine, World War II
There is a burgeoning research program uncovering long-
term legacies of historical violence on present-day po-
litical attitudes and behavior (Walden and Zhukov 2021).
Prominent studies have found enduring, detrimental ef-
fects of violence and political repression on norms related
to social trust and tolerance, as well as voting behavior.
For example, Nunn and Leonard (2011) reveal destructive
effects of the slave trade on modern-day trust in Africa.
Grosjean (2014) and Conzo and Salustri (2019) f‌ind that
exposure to violence during WWII still resonates in lower
trust in Europe. Homola et al. (2020) expose how intol-
erance and far-right support in Germany is greater in areas
where there were former WWII concentration camps.
Rozenas et al. (2017) trace present-day ethnic parochi-
alism in Ukraine to repressive measures under Stalin,
while Zhukov and Roya (2018) highlight the enduring
negative consequences of Stalin era political repression on
contemporary voting behavior. The literature largely af-
f‌irms the long reach of historical trauma in shaping the
beliefs, attitudes, and behavior in contemporary polities.
In terms of mechanisms, most research has focused on
intergenerational transmission. Lupu and Peisakhin
(2017) identify familial drivers of parochialism among
Crimean Tatars resulting from Soviet forced resettlement.
Acharya et al. (2013) f‌ind a similar transmission mech-
anism in terms of slavery and conservative political at-
titudes in the American South, as does Mazumder (2018)
in how civil rights protests shifted partisanship among
white Southerners. Beyond the family, Balcells (2012)
and Villamil (2020) reveal how local networks help
sustain historical memories of the Spanish civil war for
future political mobilization. Furthermore, Costalli and
Ruggeri (2019) examine how early organizational ad-
vantages have persistent downstream effects on political
preferences and mobilization, as evidenced from com-
munist party strongholds and leftist politics in post-WWII
Italy. Overall, the literature underscores the importance of
intergenerational, organizational, and network-related
transmission mechanisms to sustaining the enduring
legacies of the historical past.
Davis Center Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA
Department of Political Science, One University Parkway, High Point
University, High Point, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sam Whitt, Department of Political Science, One University Parkway,
High Point University, High Point, NC, 27262, USA.
Email: swhitt@highpoint.edu
Building on existing research, we examine an alter-
native mechanism acting on historical memories, which is
based on the inf‌luence of present political actors in re-
constituting the past for their own entrepreneurial pur-
poses. We assume that historical memories may not be
static but vary across time and context (Bartlett 1932;
Kann 1958;Moscovici 1988;Halbwachs 1992). While
scholarship on the contemporary political impact of
historical memory is emerging (Lee 2012;Kesebir et al.,
2013;Bobowik et al. 2014;Rim´
e et al. 2015;Bouchat
et al. 2019), more work is needed as the topic is largely
underexplored. Our work is distinctive because we go
beyond questions of historically transmitted traumas and
experiences that is common in the literature. Instead, we
underscore how present-day political forces can shape
historical narratives impacting how the past is remem-
bered, reimagined, and then handed down to future
Our research adds to the growing case literature by
examining the long-term historical legacies of violence in
Ukraine. We focus on the effect of historical memories of
within-family gulag imprisonment and World War II
battlef‌ield deaths and injuries on appraisals of the Soviet
Union under Stalin. However, we also consider how
appraisals of Stalin could be inf‌luenced by contemporary
attitudes toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, who
has adopted a revisionist perspective on Stalins legacy to
justify his own expansionist machinations in Ukraine. By
exploring how contemporary support for Putin inf‌luences
memory-driven appraisals of the Stalin era, we can il-
lustrate the power of present political forces in shaping
historical awareness of the past.
Untangling the relationship between historical actors and
events, historical memory and the inf‌luence of present
political actors is a challenging task. First, linkages be-
tween historical facts and historical memory are often
tenuous (Bartlett 1932;Kann 1958;Moscovici 1961;
Schwartz 1982;Halbwachs 1992;Olick and Joyce 1998;
Olick 2013;Rieff 2016). As Moscovici (1988) contends:
We derive only a small fraction of our knowledge and in-
formation from the simple interaction between ourselves and
the facts we encounter in the world. Most knowledge is
supplied to us by communication which affects our way of
thinking and creates new contents.(p. 215)
Following social representation theory (Moscovici
1961), individual memories of the past are largely un-
derstood and communicated through socially constructed
and representative systems of collective values, beliefs,
narratives, and behaviors. Rather than f‌ixed and rigid,
these representations are subject to movement and change
over time.
Dynamic social representations of individual and col-
lective memory may be especially prevalent for experi-
ences of conf‌lictand violence (Paez and Liu 2011;Vol h a r d t
et al. 2018). Research suggests that memories of collective
trauma can increase group bonding, reinforcing shared
narratives,and it may also intensify adversarialreactions to
out-groups (Wohl and Brans combe 2008;La ˇ
sas et al.
2018). Furthermore, studies in the psychology of mem-
ory indicate that historical memories are often unreliable as
they are shaped by emotional experiences and outcomes
from historical events (Bartlett 1932;Levine 1997;Levine
et al. 2001;Safer et al. 2002).Individuals are also prone to
moral rationalizationsof the past (Tsang 2 00 2), and
memories can become distorted through misinformation
(Loftus 1992). There may also be concerns about prefer-
ence falsif‌ication, social desirability bias, or non-
responsiveness with respect to memories of personally
sensitive traumatizing experiences (Kuran1987;Matanock
and Garc´
anchez 2018;Blair et al. 2020).
Historical memories are often politically sensitive and
contentious as well (McGrattan 2013;Ver o v ˇ
sek 2016).
Memories involving individual or collective pain and
shame(Logan and Reeves 2008;Wang 2014); guilt and
responsibility (Frie 2012;Olick 2013), and traumatic
events such as wars and massacres can be politically po-
larizing and therefore exploitable (Boyd 2008;Lagrou
1999;Maier 2000;Uhl and Golsan 2006;Youn g 1 9 94 ).
We underscore how present-day political actors and or-
ganizations have incentives to reshape and mobilize his-
torical memories to serve strategic goals, especially when
they possess organizational advantages to do so (Costalli
and Ruggeri 2019).This process can occur throughaltering
both the memorial hardware that exists to symbolically
commemorate past events (monuments, mass gatherings
and other institutionalized social representations) as well as
memorial software involving historicalnarratives, salience,
and beliefs (Blacker and Alexander 2013;Etkind 2004).
Although elites in democracies also have incentives to
manipulatepublic opinion for politicalgain (Druckman and
Jacobs 2015), authoritarian regimes have greater control of
informationto alter and distort collectivehistorical memory
for political purposes (Arendt 1973;Geddes et al. 2018;
Svolik 2012).
Our work illustrates how appraisals of historical actors
and events are affected by both present political cir-
cumstances and relevant past experiences. To examine the
inf‌luence of past experiences on historical memory, we
follow work by Lupu and Peisakhin (2017) and Vilamil
(2020), who argue that transmission of information and
framing of historical experiences take place through
social networks involving family and local community.
Such memorialization could be reaff‌irming of positive
Shkliarov et al. 967

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