Stalin Has Foot Back on the Pedestal

By David Holley

Los Angeles Times

May 1, 2005

MOSCOW — The last public statue of Josef Stalin in Moscow stands forlornly in a postmodern graveyard of Communist-era monuments here, missing part of his nose.

But more than 500 miles away, in the city once known as Stalingrad, the infamous Soviet leader is getting more respect.

Authorities in Volgograd are planning to unveil a statue of Stalin next week as Russia celebrates the 60th anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany. The dictator's supporters see it simply as proper recognition of the key role he played in World War II.

To critics, however, the move reflects an ominous and growing infatuation with a tyrant many Russians revere as a symbol of strength — never mind that he killed millions of his own citizens.

"Stalin's return to the pedestal…. would signify the political rehabilitation of one of the bloodiest dictators in modern history," said Memorial, a Russian human rights organization, of the plans for the monument of Stalin and other wartime leaders in Volgograd, where one of the most critical battles of the war was fought.

Despite fierce criticism from Russia's small number of pro-democracy activists, Stalin seems to have the upper hand as the Kremlin gears up for three days of high-profile international events marking the anniversary of the May 8, 1945, Allied victory in Europe. One of Stalin's famous quotes from the war — "Our cause is just. Victory will be ours" — is featured prominently on posters for the celebrations.

At the Reading City Bookstore, a window display is filled with copies of "Stalin: Throne of Ice," a sympathetic account of the dictator. "Without Stalin, neither this Great Victory nor this country in general would have been possible," author Alexander Bushkov says. "Those were heroic times, and such people will never be born again."

The store carries about two dozen titles on Stalin, reflecting the sharp increase in interest over the last year, said Olga Panina, 24, a sales clerk.

"It's our history. We can't change it or get away from it," she said. "During the war, our grandmothers and grandfathers were fighting and dying with the name of Stalin on their lips.

"I don't think we can whitewash Stalin," she added. "On the other hand … we should remember that we are all human, and it's in human nature to make mistakes. Some make small mistakes, and some make huge mistakes."

A recent poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that half of the respondents looked favorably on Stalin, with 20% describing his role in the life of the country as "very positive" and 30% calling it "somewhat positive." Only 12% described it as "very negative."

In Russia today, Stalin is a kind of poster boy for those who favor a stronger state and are angered by the post-Soviet erosion of job security and government-paid social benefits.

Alexander Prokhanov, a self-described Stalinist and editor of the left-wing nationalist newspaper Zavtra, said the "neo-Stalinist renaissance" was above all a rejection of liberalization policies launched since in the late 1980s, especially their effect of throwing many segments of society into poverty.

"When the 'democrats,' the 'reformers,' took power, they destroyed the strong state," Prokhanov said. "Today's Russia hates these reformers and loves everything they destroyed. In other words, the people love Stalin just because the reformers hate him."

Igor Dolutsky, author of a high school textbook banned for being too critical of both Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Stalin, said that popular memories of the dictator amounted to a myth that could do great harm in the future.

"The essence of this myth is that violence, terror and repression can be effectively used to build a great country," Dolutsky said. "I think that the return to Stalinist traditions is actually dangerous."

Putin has taken care not to associate himself too closely with Stalin nostalgia. But he and those around him still benefit from the strong-state symbolism, Dolutsky said.

Estimates of the number of Stalin's victims vary widely, but most historians say that 10 million to 20 million people died in purges, famines, deportations and labor camps as a result of his policies from the time he rose to power in the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. In addition, the Soviet Union suffered at least 20 million deaths of soldiers and civilians in World War II.

Few Russians are ignorant of the fact that Stalin killed enormous numbers of people. But for each category of his crimes there exists some sort of explanation, which those who respect him often take as at least partial justification for his deeds.

During his lifetime, Stalin's image among citizens was enhanced through a personality cult promoted by a powerful propaganda apparatus. Three years after his death, Stalin's crimes were denounced by Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev, and once-ubiquitous Stalin statues were taken down.

Those Russians who respect Stalin credit him not only for the Soviet Union's victory in its titanic struggle against Nazi Germany, but also for turning a weak agrarian state into an industrialized, nuclear-armed superpower. Those achievements, they say, outweigh his faults.

"There was law and order under Stalin, and people had a goal in their lives. That's why ordinary people didn't really feel the burden of all those huge repressions," said Karl Voinov, 82, a retired engineer and former Communist Party official. "We were patriots, and we could see that the country's life was getting much better."

The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center's poll found the most favorable views of Stalin among those over 60, with 67% of them saying his historical role was positive. The weakest support was in the 25-34 age group, with 38% viewing him favorably and 47% critically. In the 18-24 age bracket, 45% had positive views compared with 39% who viewed him negatively and 16% who had no opinion.

The unwillingness to thoroughly condemn Stalin has had repercussions on the country's diplomacy, including planning for the anniversary celebrations.

Moscow expects to host about 50 foreign leaders and heads of international organizations, including President Bush, at the main events of May 9 — the date Russians celebrate the war's end because it was already the next day in the Soviet Union when the Germans surrendered. A summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of former Soviet states, will be held May 8, and a Russia-European Union summit is planned for May 10.

But preparations have been soured, with the leaders of Lithuania and Estonia refusing to attend the Victory Day events. They say that the Nazi defeat was followed by decades-long occupation of their countries by Soviet troops — for which Moscow has refused to apologize.

The controversial monument to be erected in Volgograd depicts Stalin with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the 1945 Yalta conference. The 11-ton bronze, which has already been cast at a workshop in St. Petersburg, is to be unveiled May 9 in front of the Battle of Stalingrad museum, said Boris Usik, its director.

"We find it quite hard to understand all this latest turmoil around the monument," Usik said. "For us, the monument will symbolize an important event in the history of our own country. It is not that we are burning with a desire to swear allegiance to the past."

But Usik added that he thought Stalin's period compared favorably with the last 15 years in Russia, particularly in terms of economic development.

"People do not tend to link Stalin's name with a dictatorial regime and repressions," he said.

Critics say that this is partly because not nearly enough has been done to turn the sites of Stalin's crimes into memorials to his victims.

There are very few places in Russia today that honor the memory of those killed by Stalin. One endeavor is at an execution ground and burial site near the village of Butovo, 17 miles south of Moscow. It is now run by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Executions took place here "on an industrial scale" during the Great Terror, said Father Kirill Kaleda, who helps supervise the Butovo New Martyrs Church built on the site. "Some days they executed 500 people or more."

Records show that 20,765 people were executed and buried at Butovo between August 1937 and October 1938, during the peak of Stalin's repressions, Kaleda said.

"A majority were residents of the Moscow region, although you can find executed people here who came from all over the world, including from the United States," he said.

"When I saw the list for the first time, I was astonished to see very many ordinary people among those executed — workers, farmers. Famous politicians were shot here as well as military officers and intellectuals. Almost 1,000 people were executed here because of their Orthodox religious beliefs."

Among those killed was his grandfather, Vladimir A. Ambartsumov, a prominent Russian Orthodox priest.

"When our family found out that our grandfather was shot and buried here, I took part in organizing a parish here and constructing the church," Kaleda said. "We found out in 1989 that my grandfather was shot, and we learned in 1994 about him lying here. Before that, in the 1950s, we had been told that he died of kidney disease in a labor camp in 1943."

He is horrified by the argument that all this was somehow justified. Nostalgia for Stalin, he said, "is simply madness."