Ovid once wrote that dripping water will hollow a stone, and time can erode memory with similar ease. Josef Stalin’s legacy as the twentieth century’s bloodiest dictator should have been cemented by the millions who perished in his purges, yet Vladimir Putin has been rehabilitating his reputation with an aggressiveness that suggests that Russia has finished atoning for its Soviet sins. A new instructional manual for teachers argues that Stalin was “the most successful Soviet leader ever,” and that the maladies he visited upon the Soviet Union have been exaggerated by rival nations that all too easily overlook the faults of their own leaders. And though survivors of Stalin’s terrors live on as witnesses to his savagery, a sizeable number of Russians regards him in favorable terms.

Stalin’s lingering grip on the Russian psyche testifies to a “clumsy but all-embracing cult of personality that...


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