MOSCOW – No wall plaque honors the victims of Josef Stalin’s purges, who met their end in the execution cells of headquarters of the feared Soviet security services on Lubyanka Square in Moscow.
Instead, the traffic races round a busy square and the building itself, known everywhere in Moscow as the Lubyanka, these days houses the Russian successor to the KGB, the FSB, as if the burden of history did not exist.
The lack of any hint of the atrocities carried out inside the Lubyanka — particularly but not exclusively in the mid-1930s at the height of Stalin’s purges — is richly symbolic of the strangely ambivalent way in which the Soviet tyrant is remembered in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
When Stalin died 60 years ago on March 5, 1953, ordinary Soviet citizens cried real tears in the streets and anguished processions of officials marched by his open coffin at the House of Columns.
Statues and iconography lauding Stalin, however, disappeared in the 1960s, when his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, revealed the extent of his crimes to the Soviet elite and the process of de-Stalinization began.
Yet in a country where tough and autocratic rulers — from Ivan the Terrible to Nicolas I and arguably right up to Putin himself — remain admired rather than criticized, Russia never turned entirely against Stalin.
His greatest perceived achievement was leading the Red Army to victory in World War II, despite the almost ruinous hesitations and mistakes in the early part of the campaign, not to mention the loss of much of the military elite in the purges. The 1930s purges, the murderous collectivization of the peasantry, and the feared network of gulag camps under Stalin that together claimed millions of lives are largely absent from the public discourse.
At the end of the 1980s, during the perestroika reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, Stalin’s crimes were largely denounced. But by the mid-1990s, his image had already improved as liberal reforms provoked a surge in nostalgia for the Soviet era. “Stalin’s image started to improve and this intensified with the arrival in power of Putin,” who first became president in 2000, said Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent pollster. “Certain figures started overtly defending Stalin and this discreet rehabilitation reached its apogee in 2004 to 2005 with the 60th anniversary of the war victory when he was described as an ‘effective manager’ in a book approved by the ministry of education.”
A 2012 poll by the Levada Center found that 37 percent of Russians know either nothing or almost nothing about the Stalinist repressions. The same year, Stalin topped a poll of great Russian personalities.
“Under Putin, the Russian authorities have taken an ambiguous attitude toward Stalin,” said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The current Russian political system is based on the same foundations as Stalin’s — “a centralized authority based on the security services and a submissive population,” she said.
The vice rector of the Moscow Plekhanov University, Sergei Markov, a political analyst close to Putin, says Stalin is still admired at a popular level as a symbol of a strong state. “The majority of the population consider that people want to destroy the Russian state under the cover of de-Stalinization and those who criticize Stalin want in fact to destroy Russia,” Markov said.
It’s usually not too hard at large bookshops in Russia to find words cataloging the horrors of the purges. But equally anyone wanting books eulogizing Stalin’s achievements will be able to find them piled high. When Russia marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad this year, buses decorated with Stalin’s face circulated in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities.
And those with a sharp eye can still find isolated monuments eulogizing Stalin in Russia. Look up in the entrance hall of Kurskaya metro station in Moscow and an inscription proclaims: “It’s Stalin who taught us the loyalty to the people and who pushes us toward achievement.”