A spectre is haunting Russia

The spectre of Stalinism

Article en anglais

Variegated matreshkas in rows, patterned wooden spinning-wheels, traditional scarves, fur hats — all these can be found in one of Moscow’s most popular tourist attractions, the Izmailovo market. But the perfect row of ochre icons is suddenly broken by a painted canvas. There is a squinting, cunning eye, a bushy Caucasian eyebrow and part of an impressive moustache portrayed on it. “Stalin. 600 dollars. By a painter of the end of the ’30s,” a young seller explains. “We have smaller ones as well, for 300 dollars.” There are many Stalins in Izmailovo : bronze busts, posters, plates with the profile of the so-called Father of Nations … But it is not so easy to dig them up among the heaps of old field glasses, watches, cameras, Soviet flags and decorations. The salesmen keep Stalin a little bit in the background, not understanding clearly if the Vojd (the Chief) is back in fashion, whether he attracts the client or frightens him off. According to a poll taken by the Russian Analytical center of Yuri Levada in April 2006, 36 percent of the population sympathizes on the whole with Stalin, while 38 percent disapprove of him. Joseph Stalin’s purges left tens of millions people dead, created an enormous slave labour system known as the Gulag, and brought about the forcible deportation of whole nations of people. Half a century ago, in 1956, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union took place, where Stalin’s cult of personality was denounced. Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech began the process of de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union : the majority of political prisoners were released, and many of Stalinism’s victims were rehabilitated posthumously. The pupils of all Soviet schools, under the direction of their teachers, thoroughly cut out the page with the Vojd portrait from their Russian language textbooks. In Stalingrad a 40-meter monument to Stalin at the Volga-Don Canal was replaced by a monument to Lenin on the same pedestal. However, many cities did not find the means for such a reconstruction, and for a long time empty marble and bronze pedestals stood in the middle of the splendid flower-beds in the squares of many Russian cities. And now in 2006 the inhabitants of a number of Russian regions have taken up reanimating the memory of the Father of Nations. Last May in Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad), on the initiative of local war veterans and with businessman Vassili Bukhtienko’s sponsorship, a museum of Joseph Stalin was inaugurated. For almost ten years local patriots have been struggling to rename their city back into Stalingrad. In the opinion of Colonel Vladimir Turov, a participant of the battle of Stalingrad, by burying the role of Stalin in the Stalingrad battle, the new generation is betraying the victory in World War II itself. Another museum of Stalin has appeared recently in Dagestan (Northern Caucasia), on the initiative of a local pensioner, a well-known double of Iossif Vissarionovich. In North Ossetia (Northern Caucasia as well) communists have inaugurated an entire two monuments to Stalin. “Under Stalin our country was respected, it was taken into consideration, not like now” - this is the main argument of the veterans, pensioners, and communists who long for the Stalin era. Not knowing how to adapt themselves to the new, often tough rules of play in modern capitalist Russia, they pine for “a strong arm”. Presently, 15 percent of the population is convinced that “Russian people will never be able to do without a leader of Stalin’s type, sooner or later he will come and establish order" (the Analytical center of Yuri Levada’s data). According to well-known Russian human rights activist and Soviet-era dissident Sergey Kovaliov, such a time has already come : “The devotion of today’s authorities to the Stalinist past is evident, although the president does not mention the name of Stalin in his speeches to the nation. The censorship is present, although there are no organs of censorship. Our courts make decisions on orders from the authorities. The president is a KGB lieutenant colonel, and his nearest milieu is from the KGB too. It’s a national shame, and we are looking at it calmly.” People of the older generation perceive Stalin seriously, some with unreserved admiration, as a true Father of Nations, others with sincere disgust, as the murderer of millions of people. Meanwhile, young people seem to play with the image of the Vojd. Certainly the number of young "Stalinists” is less impressive than the number of elderly ones, but even among Russians between 18 and 35 years old, 39 percent says that Stalin’s role in Russian history was positive “on the whole” ( “Public Opinion Foundation” data, Fabruary 2006). “Young people are enthusiastic about Stalin not because Stalin era appeals to them, but because the present disgusts them. It is a kind of epatage, a means to manifest a challenge to the present which they do not accept. These boys, National Bolsheviks [a radical youth party led by Eduard Limonov, known for their street actions], who cry out ’Stalin ! Beria ! Gulag !’ simply do not remember and do not know those times”, Sergey Kovaliov said. In today’s Russia, however, it has come into fashion to recall “those times.” Television series set in the 1930’s to the 1950’s have been shown on almost all nationwide channels. Views of monumental Moscow “of the Stalin era”, huge apartments belonging to the families of the confidantes of the Vojd, dances with the gramophone music…In the majority of television dramas the Stalin era looks like an expensive movie set, while the horrors of war, the prisons and the executions are left somewhere aside. But one cannot do without the Main Villain, charming or abominable. Sometimes he is a kind and wise grandfather, other times he is a mustached cockroach, a being devoid of anything human. Igor Kvasha, who played Stalin in “The First Circle,” a television adaptation of the book of the same name by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which was shown recently on Russian TV and which is rather more critical of the period in comparison other series, has an unambiguous opinion on his character : “Stalin is a monster. I think that he is the most terrible man in human history. He is more terrible then Hitler. Much more terrible. Because the last did not annihilate his own nation at least”. Yes, Russians are aware that Stalin was a bloody tyrant. But somewhere deep in their slave soul, they slightly regret his era. Yes, there were victims, but it was a great era, with great achievements, great victories — our grandfathers and grand grandfathers lived on a grand scale !

Lisa Alissova (Moscou)

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