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Stalin or bust How a Soviet tyrant is returning to Russia

Meduza
Photo: Danil Semenov / AFP / Scanpix

On February 23, when Russia celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day, Pskov unveiled yet another monument to Joseph Stalin, whose image is increasingly prevalent throughout the country today. Last year, several museums dedicated to Stalin appeared, along with busts and a few full-body statues. And that's not all. Russians still name streets after Stalin, and Russia's Culture Ministry is currently hosting an exhibit in Moscow that showcases work by Stalin's favorite portraitist. Meduza looks at a few examples of how cities across Russia memorialize the cruelest man ever to rule the land.

Pskov's Stalin bust

The latest Stalin memorial appeared on February 22, 2016, in Pskov, where the “Stalin Line” national park installed a bust 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) tall. It was the day before Russia celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day, a holiday born during the Russian Civil War nearly 100 years ago, and one that took on new significance after the USSR's victory in World War II. 

“We are not politicizing this event,” the museum's director, Petr Grinchuk, said. “The achievements of this man during wartime are undeniable, and in the era of the country's reconstruction that followed such a terrible war.”

The memorial bust stands at the beginning of a defensive line constructed in 1930 along the old Soviet old borders, running all the way from Karelia to the Black Sea. Even during the war, the fortifications were internationally known as the “Stalin Line,” which Grinchuk believes justifies the installation of the memorial bust. “Why are we afraid of our history? In France, there are busts of Napoleon everywhere, and he's responsible for no less evil,” says Grinchuk.

Meanwhile, the Austrian online news site Die Presse noted the bust of Stalin was placed next to Latvia's border, while the Russian-language website Baltnews ran a story titled “Stalin at Latvia's Borders! Do We Handle This Ourselves, or Appeal to NATO?”

A bust of Stalin standing at the start of the “Stalin Line” in the Pskov region.
A bust of Stalin standing at the start of the “Stalin Line” in the Pskov region.
Photo: the Pskov region Museum of Military History

Lev Shlosberg, a local opposition leader and a member of the Yabloko political party, takes a much more serious view of the appearance of monuments dedicated to Stalin. “It's part of a process to Stalinize society and rehabilitate repression. Any monument, any bust of Stalin, stands on the bones of millions of victims of repression, wherever these monuments and busts are placed,” he said in a statement.

Shlosberg has already appealed to the district attorney's office demanding the dismantling of the Stalin bust. It's a long shot, though. First, on May 9, a large Patriotic War museum complex will open at the Stalin Line. Second, the bust of Stalin was installed with money from the Russian Military History Society, whose chairman is Russia's culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky.

Exhibitions in Moscow

In Moscow, with Minister Medinsky's support, an exhibition on the chief artist of the Stalinist era, Alexander Gerasimov, opened in early February 2016. He became famous first for his canonical representation of Lenin, and later for his portrait of Stalin with People's Defense Commissar Kliment Voroshilov. This second piece with Stalin was unofficially titled “The Two Leaders After the Rain.”

“When you look at these paintings, you understand that we're not just talking about Communist propaganda, but about people who truly believed in what they were depicting—they were trying to make the world better, to perfect it. Perhaps not everything worked out for them, but they had faith, multiplied by a lot of talent, which led to the creation of remarkable works that need to be studied and displayed,” Medinsky said at the exhibition's opening.

Museum director Alex Levykin and gallery owner Leonid Shishkin (who is a big fan of social realist art) have devoted no small effort to convincing journalists that the exhibition is not intended to celebrate Stalin. Rather, they say, it highlights Gerasimov's great artistic talents. “This exhibition has no relation to Stalin other than the fact he, like Lenin, is depicted in many of the paintings,” Levykin said. Shishkin spoke lovingly about each of Gerasimov's paintings, calling him a student of Valentin Serov (1865–1911) and an impressionist. In particular, Shishkin praised Gerasimov's still lifes and later work, such as “The Polovtsian Dances.”

Valentin Dyakonov, a journalist from the newspaper Kommersant, visited the the exhibition and wrote, “The organizers' touching desire to prove that Gerasimov was, in fact, a talented artist leads to catastrophic results at the moment when the propagandist, in his later years, freed from his chairman duties, decided to paint ‘for himself.’ ‘The Polovtsian Dances’ is a funny, almost naive painting where instead of the brutal energy of the East, there is a selection of disjointed maidens in stereotypical heroic poses and banal hues.”

Generally speaking, though, visitors seem to enjoy the exhibition. Some people coming to the show have recalled how Gerasimov's paintings were removed from state museums during the Khrushchev era. The exhibition, they say, reminded them of their childhoods. Others said they came to see what other things the artist had painted aside from portraits of Soviet leaders. This certainly will not be their last chance. Exhibitions dedicated to Stalin and other Soviet leaders now seem to take place regularly in Moscow. In 2014, the same museum hosted an exhibition called “The Myth of the Beloved Leader.” In autumn the next year, the Moscow Manege housed an exhibition of paintings from 1925–1945 under a theme of “romantic realism.”

Vistors to the Alexander Gerasimov exhibition contemplate “The Artists at Stalin's Dacha.”
Vistors to the Alexander Gerasimov exhibition contemplate “The Artists at Stalin's Dacha.”
Photo: Vitaliy Belousov / Sputnik / Scanpix

A life-sized monument in the Mari El Republic

Busts of Stalin and exhibitions dedicated to him have appeared quite frequently throughout Russia over the past few years, for example in Yakutsk, in Lipetsk, Chita, Vladimir, and Novosibirsk (and this is in no way an exhaustive list). The Russian republic of Mari El (430 miles east of Moscow), however, surpasses them all. The village of Shelanger is said to host Russia's first contemporary, life-sized monument of Stalin. The sculpture stands at the entrance to a meat-processing plant.

The Mari El branch of the Russian Communist Party reacted to the event with due reverence. “September 9 will become a landmark day in the modern history of the Mari El Republic and, perhaps, the entire country. Recent surveys show that more and more members of Russian society relate sympathetically to the individual character of the leader—a man whose name has been unjustly forgotten for 60 years,” the party said in a press release.

At the opening ceremony for the monument, the meat factory's director, Ivan Kazankov (who also serves as the first secretary of the local Community Party branch), said with some agitation in his voice, “I would like to draw the attention of our government to where to get the resources to restore Russia. For 25 years, we have pulled Russia down. It will likely be necessary to turn again to Comrade Stalin, to see how to act in this situation,” he said. 

The Mari El Communist Party has advised looking to the Stalinist experience as a way to combat Western sanctions.

Together with its pedestal, Mari El's Stalin monument is 5 meters (16 feet) tall. It faces a Soviet monument of Lenin. A local newspaper reports a family of sculptors, the Medvedevs, worked on the statue for three months. “The commission was unexpected, but it was very interesting,” says sculptor Galina Medvedev. Local authorities say the monument was installed on private land and has nothing to do with them.

It's not just the local Communist Party branch that thinks this monument is monumentally important, either. Dmitry Novikov, the deputy chairman for the party's Central Committee, promised to attend the opening ceremony, saying, “The waves of filth from Russophobes and anti-Soviets can't negate the fact that Stalin was and remains an outstanding statesman and one of the central figures of world history,” he said, explaining that the new monument is “original and interesting.” He added that Stalin's name is associated with great achievements in the years of industrialization, the years of cultural revolution, strategies for victory, postwar reconstruction, and even in the preparations for Russia being the first nation in space.

A cottage museum in Tver

In 1943, Stalin spent one night in a small cottage in the village of Khoroshevo on his way to the front lines. In July 2015, the cottage was officially opened as a museum dedicated to Stalin. Allegedly, this is where he came up with plans to hold the first victory salute in honor of the liberation of Oryol and Belgorod, two cities south of Moscow.

Officially, the cottage is named the “Kalinin Front: August 1943” museum, but it's mainly devoted to Stalin. “The exhibition consists of a memorial office where the leader worked, historical information about the arrival of the supreme commander to Khoroshevo village, and statements from other prominent military leaders on Stalin's character,” according to reports by local media.

The same Russian Military History Society put forward the idea to make the cottage into a museum. “We learned about the existence of this house by chance when we conducted a contest for cross-country routes that related to military history. We decided to take part in the renovation of the cottage. It is an episodic and concrete account of historical fact. The exhibition is ready. There is also a small bust of Stalin and space in front of the cottage to install it,” said the deputy executive chairman for the society, Vladislav Kononov, in June 2015.

Stalin's Cottage Museum in Russia's Tver region.
Stalin's Cottage Museum in Russia's Tver region.
Photo: Pavel Golovkin / AP / Scanpix

Public opinion is divided on the cottage museum. Locals reacted positively to the opening of the museum in the village. Human rights activists were naturally opposed. “We see this attempt to create a small museum as a precedent, as a foothold that could be turned into a place of pilgrimage, an ideological rallying point for supporters of the ‘strong hand,’ working to reverse the course of history… The way this museum has been presented by the people who renovated it, it doesn't have a place either in Tver or anywhere else in the world. It wrong to sing the praises of evil, portraying it as something worthy of respect and emulation,” the Tver branch of Memorial, a highly respected Russian historical and civil rights society, said in a statement.

“With regard to the creation of the Stalin museum, I can say there are many hundreds of thousands of museums devoted to Stalinist crimes. They exist wherever there are graves to victims of the political repressions,” said Presidential Human Rights Council head Mikhail Fedotov. 

Vladislav Kononov feels otherwise. Kononov, the deputy executive chairman for the Russian Military History Society, says talk of repression under Stalin makes him wonder, “Is there any exhibition in the [Paris] National Residence of the Invalids that addresses Napoleon's plans to build an empire and subjugate the entire world?”

The bust of Stalin now stands in front of the cottage and the museum is open to the public. Kononov attended the opening ceremony, along with several regional officials, war veterans, and even a representative from the Russian Orthodox Church—the dean of Rzhevsky parish, Priest Konstantin Chaykin. That day, the newspaper Izvestia featured an op-ed by Culture Minister Medinsky, where he proposed that people “stop blaming all their problems on Stalin.”

A Stalin-themed historical and cultural center in Penza

In 2015, the chairman of the Russian Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov actually asked Medinsky to build a full-fledged Stalin museum in the village of Khoroshevo (rather than just a cottage). The museum, though, did not end up in Khoroshevo. Instead, it came about thanks to a grassroots Communist campaign in Penza, a city of half a million people, about 400 miles southeast of Moscow, in December 2015. The museum has been christened the “Stalin Center,” drawing an analogy with the “Yeltsin Center” that opened just a month earlier in Yekaterinburg.

The Penza center's stated goal is an ambitious one: “the popularization and actualization of practices in use during Stalinist times, which are relevant to today's world.” The first secretary of the Penza Regional Communist Party Committee, George Kamnev, spoke of creating an “academic-historical and cultural center where experience from the Stalin era will be studied and shared with all of Russia, along with roundtable events and public discussions.” Kamnev says the opening of the center is an historical event, which will also attract tourists to the region.

A bust of Stalin in the courtyard of the Stalin Center in Penza.
A bust of Stalin in the courtyard of the Stalin Center in Penza.
Photo: Daniel Turovsky / Meduza

One gets the impression, however, that Kamnev's project does not have the approval of the Russian Communist Party's main office. Two State Duma deputies from the Russian Communist Party attended the center's opening. “In order to realize ideas of national reconciliation consistently, we ask you to consider the opening of the J.V. Stalin Center as a reflection of a complex, controversial, but nonetheless historic era in the history of our country,” the two deputies, Valery Rashkin and Sergei Obukhov, said in a joint statement. They added that the Stalin Center deserves public funding no less than the Yeltsin Center.

For the ceremony, Communist supporters laid carnations before Stalin's bust in the center's courtyard (a bust that's been there since 2011).

Meduza visited the Stalin Center. There are no exhibits or archival documents. There were only stacks of printed-out newspaper copies and photos from various years during the Stalinist period.

But there's still hope for Russia's Stalinists: the Communists have declared 2016 to be the Year of Stalin in Penza. There are plans to hold readings of Stalin's writings, post portraits of him on city buses, arrange tours of Penza's Stalinist architecture, and organize a festival for books on Stalin.

‘Stalin Prospect’ in Dagestan

Stalin had a deep love for the Caucasus. In Makhachkala and Nalchik, two cities that span Russia's Caucasus region, there are private museums dedicated in his honor. The Russian region with the most monuments to Stalin still standing is North Ossetia. Locals believe, perhaps to spite the Georgians living not far to the south, that Uncle Stalin is their compatriot. 

Then there are street names. In Dagestan, there are six streets named after Stalin, and in North Ossetia there are fifteen. The longest of these streets is in Dagestanskiye Ogni, a town in the south of Dagestan near the border with Azerbaijan, where “Stalin Prospect” appeared in 2002. “This was my own initiative. For me, Stalin is one of the great personalities in the history of mankind,” said the city's mayor, Galim Galimov.

An actual statue of Stalin, however, has yet to appear in Dagestanskiye Ogni. “In the Stalinist era, most of the residents of Dagestan were victims of repressions. Since then, anything that creates positive associations with Stalin is considered an insult to the memory of their ancestors. So, we decided to stop at having a street named in his honor. A monument, though, would be a bit much,” said Galimov in 2015.

For years, the Russian Communist Party has persistently tried to rename Volgograd back to Stalingrad. Lately, two organizations—the Communists of the St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region and the Communists of Russia—have been more proactive. On March 5, 2015 (the 62nd anniversary of Stalin's death), they unofficially renamed Soviet Street in St. Petersburg to Stalin Street. Between buildings numbering 10 to 20 along Soviet Street, Communist activists hung signs bearing Stalin's portrait along with the “proper” street name (“Stalin Street”). In 1917, it was on this street at building 10 that Stalin briefly lived in hiding with the Alliluyev family. For a short time, on Google Maps, 10 Soviet Street appeared as “10 Stalin Street.” “We know who entered the name Stalin Street on Google, but we will never give his name. The fifth column might kill him!” his activist friends say.

A metro station in Moscow

Perhaps the first serious sign of the restoration of Stalin's “good name” was back in 2009. Renovations to the Kurskaya metro station included quotes from the USSR national anthem along the entrance walls: “Stalin nurtured us to have faith in the people, and inspired us to work and to deeds of valor.”

Entrance hall to the Kurskaya metro station, following renovations.
Entrance hall to the Kurskaya metro station, following renovations.
Photo: Alexander Fomin / PhotoXPress

(The quote mentioning Stalin, it goes without saying, has not been removed from the station's entrance.)

A restaurant in Novosibirsk

In Novosibirsk in 2011, the Koba restaurant opened for business. “Koba” was Stalin's nickname. “It so happens there are practically no conceptual establishments in Novosibirsk where the creative concepts go beyond the interior and menu. We decided to go against the grain and launch this exciting project,” said the restaurant's director, Elena Larionova. After it became more widely known, management issued an announcement that there would be a lifetime discount for all those who share a namesake with Marshal Zhukov, the USSR's most celebrated general from World War II. 

Novosibirsk seems to have mixed feelings about the Koba restaurant. “Perhaps someone in the near future will have the idea to open a restaurant named [after the serial killer Andrei] Chikatilo. Or perhaps not. Chikatilo was not in the same league. Dzhugashvili [Stalin's birth surname] sent millions to the hereafter, but Chikatilo had only 50 or so victims,” wrote one visitor to the restaurant on a Novosibirsk foodie website.

In most reviews, critics praised the food, but were horrified by the interior. “All the Christian world would tremble to look at the artfully illuminated pictures that line the walls down to the basement. In the setting composition of the ‘Last Supper,’ Stalin is appears as Christ bathed in light with 12 quasi-apostles near by. There oil paintings with giant mustaches, bloody walls, and identical busts of the general secretary pictured in silhouette at the exit,” wrote another reviewer on a Novosibirsk website.

Koba did not stay open long. The restaurant closed after a couple of years.

An icon in Belgorod

Writer Alexander Prokhanov, who also heads the Izborsk Club (a group of political science experts), consecrated an icon of Stalin at the Svyatskaya monastery in Bryansk. “For Victory Day, the Izborsk Club commissioned an icon of the Reigning Mother of God. It is a large plaque at 80 centimeters [about 2.6 feet], with the Reigning Mother of God depicted above. Below the Reigning Mother of God, and taking up the majority of the icon, is the image of Generalissimo Stalin surrounded by these marshals of victory,” said Prokhanov.

Prokhanov showed no sign that he is bothered by the destruction of temples or the persecution of priests under Stalin. “They were destroyed, and then they were rebuilt. There are examples of Roman patriarchs who once persecuted Christians, fed them to lions, and then turned around and converted to Christianity and became saints,” he said.

The icon depicting Stalin among his marshals with the Mother of God above.
The icon depicting Stalin among his marshals with the Mother of God above.
Photo: Pavel Golovkin / AP / Scanpix

In 2015, Prokhanov brought the icon to the Prokhorovka Field Literary Prize awards ceremony, which is held in Belgorod. There, together with the icon, Prokhanov held a prayer service for the St. Athenogenes monks who reside at Mount Athos. However, the Belgorod archdiocese later disowned this prayer service. “Several of those depicted in the painting were open persecutors of the church,” clergy members said.

Ilya Azar

Moscow