I’m not sure there’s anything more than expert opinion as an answer:
Levada sociologist Karina Pipiya told BBC Russian: “There is growing nostalgia for the Soviet period and Stalin as a leader. Stalin is seen as the main figure who defeated fascism, who gets the honours for victory in the Great Patriotic War. And that war victory is a symbol of national pride for all Russians, even for those born in the post-Soviet period.”
That positive opinion is boosted by current frustration over social policy and economic hardship, she said. Reform of the pension system ran into much opposition and “many felt the state was neglecting its social responsibilities”.
The sharpest rise in support for Stalin is among the youngest group – those aged 18-30, she noted.
“Their perception of Stalin is based on myth, fed by older generations,” she said.
The fact that Russia has been increasingly confronting the West, annexation of Crimea etc., is probably correlated with that as is state propaganda and the “rally around the flag” effect.
Both men promised to bring stability after a period of war and social chaos. They both promoted the same historical narrative: Russia requires a “strong hand” to prevent internal disorder and protect against external aggression. This narrative enabled both men to forge political systems that allowed for no challenge to their personal authority. Both leaders saw the outside world as a hostile and threatening place — while much of the outside world in turn saw Russia as a source of instability and a threat to its neighbors.
The core principle underlying both men’s ruling philosophy was patriotism, meaning protecting the long-term security of the Russian/Soviet state above all else. That meant valuing collective duties above individual rights. It also meant using military force to expand the reach of the Russian state […]
Protecting the popularity of his authoritarian brand is what drives Putin to work to safeguard Stalin’s reputation. Putin seems to perceive attacks on Stalin as threats to his own legitimacy. […]
Putin’s most direct discussion of Stalin came in a 2017 interview with filmmaker Oliver Stone. Putin compared Stalin to Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte, saying that “Stalin was a product of his time,” which can be understood as excusing his flaws. Putin complained that “excessively demonizing Stalin is a means to attack Soviet Union and Russia” — though he did go on to say “that does not mean that we should forget the horrors of Stalinism.”
This answer illuminates how Putin aims to position himself: as Stalin-lite, with all of the virtues and none of the vices. The patriotism and strong leadership without the paranoia.
It is the Russian version of MAGA, if you like…
when Russians think of Stalin, more and more of them are nostalgic for the days when Russia was “great,” in the sense of big and strong and able to dominate others. Part of Putin’s popularity (to the degree that it can be honestly measured in the current Russia) is similar.
Our own dear nation is currently presided over by a politician who was able to capture a feeling, hard perhaps to justify logically, that something great about a former version of America had been lost and that he, without being coherent about how, knew how to get it back.
Somewhere on the more factual side:
ratings for Stalin have been rising across the board, and they have directly correlated with rising approval ratings for Putin. […]
Why do so many people continue to admire a tyrant who stood above the law and literally slaughtered thousands of their own relatives? Perhaps Russians refuse to believe in the repressions? A closer look denies us that caveat: the number of Russians who know about Stalin’s repressions has remained steady at a little over 50 percent and the number of Russians who believe the repressions to be a crime has gone down from 51 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2017. But here is another interesting nugget – the same poll found that 49 percent of respondents said they believed that nothing justified the human sacrifices made during the Stalin era.
The data is alarming and, above all, contradictory and confusing. But so is the collective id, and not just for Russians. Warm sentiments towards Stalin are primarily about power […]
We can blame these numbers on some nebulous idea of the masochistic Russian soul, or we can look at the conundrum presented by World War II from the Russian perspective to try to find actual reasons why so many people feel this way. Stalin (and Stalinism by extension) repressed its own population, but in the popular imagination it also defeated pure evil. It would be demanding a lot of the popular imagination to accept that, in the case of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, pure evil was defeated, to a great degree, by pure evil, even if that is, to an extent, exactly what happened.
One important factor motivating this sentiment is top-down validation of pro-Stalin sentiment that would otherwise have largely remained latent. During his third presidential term, Vladimir Putin has overseen a campaign to whitewash Soviet history and promote a positive view of Russia’s past – all of which has spread to education and propaganda. Concrete government-sponsored efforts to rehabilitate Stalin have become the norm today. Lawyer Henri Reznik has just resigned his position in protest over a plaque commemorating Stalin in the central Hall of the Moscow State Judicial Academy. […]
But sentiment about Stalin in the populace is also genuine, and, latent or not, exists for a number of complex reasons. For instance, a great deal of Russians wish to let sleeping dogs lie (50 percent believe those who took part in repressions should be left alone, and 47 percent of people believe that repressions shouldn’t be discussed so much), but 52 percent of respondents also remain in favour of keeping archives open.
See also some related questions here