MOSCOW – In one of Moscow’s central subway stations — Arbatskaya — the escalator leading up to the city exit ends in a spacious vestibule. On the front wall, a classic frame several meters high is covered with white plaster. It bears no image, and the white paint must be regularly renewed to avoid ugly cracks.
Not many Muscovites know that beneath the white plane is hidden a magnificent mosaic depicting “the Great Leader” — Josef Stalin in the apotheosis of victory in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).
I still remember how big and pompous that image looked and its intimidating influence on the weary people riding up the escalator.
Nowadays, at least to me, it is a “time bomb” of a kind. I cannot hide my sense of relief when the wall with the white frame comes into view. Thank God, the plasterwork remains intact! So far.
In recent days, as the country goes through a regular frenzy connected with the great date in modern war history — the crashing defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad in February 1942 — I’ve worried about the destiny of that mosaic image.
These celebrations overshadow all other current events. There are military parades and festive meeting. Russian President Vladimir Putin arranged a great reception in the Kremlin and delivered a fiery speech about the decisive role of the Stalingrad battle in world history.
In line with the 70th anniversary of this great event, private city transport companies in St. Petersburg, Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and the Siberian city of Chita, inspired and partly financed by the local branches of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, have put out fleets of special cruising buses bearing colored portraits of Stalin on their sides.
City authorities of Volgograd have issued a special resolution renaming the city back to Stalingrad — albeit, only for the six memorial days a year signifying the great events in the war epic.
However, Valentina Matvienko, the former mayor of St. Petersburg and now speaker of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament — the Federation Council — has aired the idea of calling a referendum on the city’s name.
At the same time, three deputies of the St. Petersburg city legislature from the Russian United Democratic Party (Yabloko) appealed to Gov. Georgii Poltavchenko with the futile request to ban “Stalinbuses.”
“Any glorification of Stalin, any justification of Stalin’s crimes and mass repressions against his own people are in themselves criminal,” the opposition deputies stated in their appeal.
In St. Petersburg, which for many decades was called Leningrad, the appearance of those obscene portraits is “especially shameful,” because it was the Soviet High Command that was mainly to blame for the prolonged German blockade of the city during the war. “People died of hunger, while Stalin’s retinue denied themselves nothing.”
The social and ideological split over the Stalin issue has taken on new dimensions. Although ardent “Stalinists” are said to account for no more than one-fifth of the population, their vanguard is aggressive.
On a recent Sunday late-night political talk show moderated by Vladimir Solovyev, hard feelings reigned supreme. The country’s main pro-Stalin ideologist and advocate of a strong, centralized, imperial-style state, writer Alexander Prokhanov, mockingly identified his opponents with German Wehrmacht commanders such as Friedrich Paulus and Erich von Manstein.
The opposite side resorted to facts and figures. For example, professor Yuri Pivovarov (well-known as a “historian among political scientists and a political scientist among historians”) and others named the major social groups that suffered from Stalin’s mass repression: World War I officers and other representatives of the nobility, industrial leaders, clergymen of all confessions, intellectuals and scholars, peasants and other working groups, military commanders of all ranks, and writers and artists. The list may be endless.
Stalin is to blame for the violent deaths of more Russian people than Adolf Hitler or anyone else in Russian history. Hitler is the only other comparable cannibal of the 20th century (though I would add Mao Zedong to this short infamous list).
De-Stalinization was not, as Prokhanov argues, a “foul move” that ended the great Soviet Union but rather a necessary cleansing process to let fresh air into the half-dead country. The 20th Party Congress of 1956 — the first major step in denouncing Stalin’s crimes and misdeeds — was something in league with the Nuremberg process in Germany.
There is a lot of pro-Stalin propaganda these days in the mass media and on the Internet. What makes this situation somewhat tolerable is the parallel presence on a main TV channel at prime time of the great TV series devoted to the Battle of Stalingrad.
It is a screen version of the legendary war novel by Vassily Grossman, “Life and Destiny.” In Stalin’s time, the story’s manuscript was confiscated, but fortunately not lost. This great book was first published in 1968.
The pathos is straightforward: The Battle of Stalingrad was the moment of truth in World War II; the battle was won thanks to tremendous efforts, sacrifices and heroism.
As for Stalin, he created so much unhealthy tension in society and made so many rough political and strategic blunders that this victory truly borders on a miracle. In many respects, Stalin’s “leadership” aggravated rather than facilitated the war effort. (Before Stalingrad, for example, there was the “pocket” encirclement at Kharkov, where hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were killed or taken prisoner).
In this brilliant war epic, we see ruined human fates; hypocrisy and grotesque instances of rage by the state and party bureaucracy; cases of crying injustice and anti-Semitism; false accusations and torture; meanness, cowardice and servility; as well as military command incompetence. There is mighty public resonance for its anti-Stalin orientation.
As for city and street renaming, the best solution would be to issue a special anti-totalitarian law that would ban any reference to odious names, events and symbols. In the case of “Stalingrad,” I have two reservations about a referendum:
First, participation should not be limited to the population of today’s Volgograd. All citizens of Russia (and perhaps other interested people living in the former Soviet republics) also should be eligible.
Second, the choice should not be between two names only — the heroic but odious Stalingrad or the faceless Volgograd. It should include a third option — the original historic name of Tsaritsyn (which means “city of the tsarina”).
I am quite sure that a referendum structured along those lines would reflect a more fair result and the widest possible public opinion.
Andrey Borodaevskiy (email@example.com), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.