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Stalin Has Foot Back on the Pedestal

May 01, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

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.

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