Russia reconsiders: Was Stalin really so bad?

The country's attachment to its Soviet past is growing stronger. Some Russians are horrified at what their comrades now glorify.

November 02, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — When Russian businessman Yevgeny Ostrovsky decided to name his kebab joint Anti-Soviet Shashlik, he thought of it as black humor.

It was a little tongue-in-cheek, a little retro, a little nod to the old-timers who still remembered when the meat grill, across the street from the famed Sovietsky hotel, was known by just that nickname.

But it was also, in that ambiguous, extrajudicial way so common in today's Russia, a little bit illegal.

Three applications for an "anti-Soviet" sign were rejected by the city without explanation. And when Ostrovsky went ahead and hoisted one without a permit, a local politician warned him that he was insulting the veterans of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is locally known.

Then came the coup de grace: a crane and work crew, accompanied by police escorts. With a groan and a clatter, the government of Moscow erased all evidence of lingering dissidence against the bygone Soviet Union.

Ostrovsky hadn't banked on the burgeoning admiration and nostalgia for all things Soviet -- a sentimentality tangled up with pride that has come about as the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seeks to restore Russian patriotism and reawaken imperial self-regard.

"The authorities are just taking advantage of Soviet symbols and values to secure their own personal interests," Ostrovsky griped.

But the visceral attachment to the icons is also the consequence of a country that never quite shook off the shadow of the Soviet system. The world may regard Russia as a place utterly distinct from the Soviet Union, but here in Russia, where government buildings are still festooned with hammers and sickles, there is an abiding sense of continuum.

"The same doctors, teachers, builders and steelworkers continue to live and work in the same country, and everything in our midst was built by the hands of people in the Soviet Union," said Russian author Mikhail Veller. "The state changes, but the country remains the same."

The kebab house quarrel was one small battleground in a swelling war over identity. The unresolved question of how modern-day Russia ought to relate to its Soviet past continues to rattle through society, one culture clash at a time.

On Friday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took to his blog to decry the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens killed "as a result of terror and false accusations" -- and to lament the revisionism that seems to blanket contemporary Russia's remembrance of its past.

"It is still possible to hear that these many victims were justified by some higher state goal," Medvedev said.

The president cited with dismay a poll in which 90% of young Russians were unable to name a victim of Soviet purges and prison camps. Russia must remember its tragedies, he said.

It was a striking departure from the general drift of the country, which takes a nuanced, if not positive, view of longtime Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. But Medvedev, who has often provided a rhetorical softening to the ruling elite's hard-line stances, is regarded as politically weaker than Putin, and so far his more liberal statements have done little to change the Russian status quo.

Last month, a Moscow court heard a libel suit filed by Stalin's grandson, who claimed that a lawyer had besmirched Stalin's "honor and dignity" in newspaper columns that referred to him as a "bloodthirsty cannibal."

In the end, the court ruled against the Stalin family. But the finding was cold comfort to many in Russia, who were appalled that the case had even made it to trial.

The defendant, Anatoly Yablokov, said that even a decade ago, he couldn't have imagined being summoned to court for having written pejoratively about Stalin.

Today, however, he isn't particularly surprised.

"The main point of the lawsuit was political," he said. "They have decided it's time to start whitewashing Stalin again."

There's no question that Stalin is undergoing a sort of renaissance in Russia. Despite the many millions killed or sent to labor camps during his reign, many now view his rule with a sort of hazy nostalgia.

True, they say euphemistically, he made difficult decisions, but on the other hand, it was a time that called for tough measures. And at least in those days, they often add, Russia was powerful.

Others go further. "The personality of Stalin is covered with lies and slander. There is tremendous injustice done to this person," said Leonid Zhura, a former government bureaucrat who spearheaded the lawsuit against Yablokov.

Like other "Stalinists," Zhura regards the leadership of the Georgian-born dictator as a time of prosperity and power for the Russian people.

"The cynical position of the Stalinphobes is that only innocent people were kept in the gulag," he said. "Criminals who violated the law were kept in the gulag. And let the Western reader ask himself, should criminals be kept in spas or resort hotels?"

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