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Stalin's back

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With new monuments and museums afoot, Russians are warming again to Stalin's legacy. But is there any communist content to post-communist nostalgia? Русский

In this year alone, Russia has seen the appearance of a new Stalin museum in Tver Region and a monument to the 'Big Three' (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) in Crimea in memory of the participants of 1945 Yalta conference. Statues to the Generalissimo have been unveiled across the entire country—in Lipetsk, Mari El, North Ossetia, Stavropol, Vladimir and in the Kuban region.

In Yekaterinburg, the designer of the city's new sculpture of Stalin also designed a monument to the Tsar's family, executed by the Bolsheviks in the very same city. In Luhansk—capital of a self-declared republic in south-eastern Ukraine—promises have been made to erect a statue of Stalin by the end of December. Although, in the words of local activists, its placement 'depends on many external political factors'.

Recently, United Russia's youth wing, the Young Guard, held a fashion show in which models decorated themselves with immense medals on their chests. A procession in full regalia was later held in Ramenskoye, a town just outside of Moscow, where children led Germans prisoners through the streets. The 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War has given carte-blanche to present the 'era of Stalin', as the American writer Anna Louisa Strong called it, in a more positive light.

'The reason for this large number of new monuments this year is obvious,' Aleksandr Shubin, a leading researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of General History, tells me. 'Its the 70th anniversary, so this year naturally saw glorifcation of the victory of 1945 hit a certain peak, and I don't think it will be the last. As commander-in-chief, Stalin is a symbol of that victory. Whether you like him or not, that's a fact. Few people can say anything new about Stalin. But obviously, as a historian, I must be ready to defend both Marxists, even though I'm not one, and Stalin from baseless accusations. Yes, he was responsible for many tragedies and crimes. But, as they say, he didn't eat children.'

Shubin has authored hundreds of academic and encyclopaedic articles dedicated to theories of socialism and the history of Soviet social movements.His more famous works include 1937: Stalin's Anti-Terror and Leaders and Plotters: Political Battles in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930sShubin is an active member of the Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists, one of the most popular left-wing mass movements of the perestroika-era Soviet Union (another famous member of the organisation is the current deputy chairman of the State Duma Andrei Isayev). 

Stalin has become part of a myth embodying anti-democratic values.  

‘Tourists don't ask about the repressions’

'Our museum takes a stand against the rabid campaign being waged against Stalin and other distinguished people in our country's [history],' says Vladimir Vtorov, director of the Republic of Bashkortostan's Stalin Museum in the city of Ufa, discussing the purpose of the museum's establishment. 'The people who served us have been transformed into cruel, wicked men. To deprive a society of its heroes is to deprive a society of its memory.’ 

In this museum, there's a plaster bust of the general secretary himself, binders of old newspapers, veterans' medals, early Soviet-era posters and modern books about Stalin with catchy covers.

The exhibition is organised to show gratitude for the fact that Bashkiria (the former name of Bashkortostan) was the first autonomous republic within Soviet Russia. It has since become a 'powerful, blossoming region with industrial growth'.

The modest and publicly-funded museum was opened in December 2011 under the same roof as the offices of the local branch of the Russian Communist Party, a party some communists criticise for its stagnation and dogmatism, others for its co-operation with the authorities.

'As commander-in-chief, Stalin is a symbol of the victory of 1945. Whether you like him or not, that's a fact. ̓ (c) Yildiz Celik / Demotix.'The Bashkir Republic was the first founded in Soviet Russia by a sovnarkom [Council of People's Commissars] document signed by Lenin and Stalin. Why is the museum dedicated only to him, and not to the entire Soviet people?' says Vtorov. 'All in all, because the [merits of] the Soviet authorities have been conflated with those of the people, while Stalin's own merits have gone unacknowledged. We're not saying that it was all Stalin and nobody else. But thanks to the economic system which he founded, we were able to rise from the ruins of the first world war and the Russian revolution and became—for a short time—a first-rate power.'

In the meantime, the Communist Party wants to start working with schools, where they will offer elective courses, and activists from Yevgeny Fyodorov's National Liberation Movement have become interested in the museum. Its members believe that the Russia's post-Soviet constitution was written at the behest of the USA, and that the document must be amended to provide the president with power without any oversight from the State Duma or the constitutional court.

Much of the modest collection was gifted to the museum by sympathisers. The communists return the favour by providing them with intensive courses on Stalin's youth. The guided tour commences with a half-hour film, followed by an inspection of the exhibition, and finally a lecture on the current political situation.

'We don't have anything about the cult of personality—what the radio and newspapers harp on about is more than enough,' says Vtorov, in a tone which brooks no objection. 'It all began with [Nikita] Khrushchev, who was the first to remove one of the bricks from the foundation on which the entire communist movement rested. At the time, neither China nor Albania or North Korea accepted [such a step]. Of course, we do discuss the repressions, we explain why they happened. It's clear that those people who lost their plants and factories weren't going to be paid for them, after all. So, they resisted by all means possible—and were helped by the west, just as they are today. Usually visitors do not ask about the repressions, but about our lives today: why the Soviet Union collapsed, why our utilities are so expensive, why we have got used to constant price rises or why wars break out.'

‘Supporters of popular Stalinism don't just want rule with a firm hand’

'This creeping rehabilitation activates a popular Stalinism which emerged during the [Khrushchev-era] Thaw,' says Ilya Budraitskis, coordinator of the Russian Socialist Movement, one of the country's leading socialist organisations. Budraitskis is certain that today's Stalin is a figure cleansed of communist connotations and historical details—a figure excluded from serious political discussions. 

'At the time, contrasts were made between the unpopular leadership and a golden age from which they were distancing themselves. Memories of the Stalinist era declined, and colourful details increased.' 

Victory bus, St Petersburg, 2013. (c) Yury Goldenshtein/DemotixThe Russian Socialist Movement was founded in 2011 after several left-wing organisations, primarily Trotskyist, merged, hence the critical attitude towards Stalinist experiments. Other prominent participants of the movement are the poet Kirill Medvedev and Yevgeny Babushkin, editor of the journal Snob (owned by the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov). 

'Stalin has become part of a myth embodying anti-democratic values. Stalinism itself was the rejection of such politics, when it was forbidden to act together. The main thing for the authorities now is to inscribe in every historical epoch the legitimacy of today's rulers. That is why we display gold-plated busts [of Stalin] stand while we also shed tears for the Tsar's family,' says Budraitskis.

'But supporters of popular Stalinism don't just want rule with a firm hand, but one based on [their] understanding of justice. This dissonance is part of today's growing social inequality. The contradictions here should be self-evident, but the government constantly glosses over them in an attempt to appeal to the general public: “we have a great history”, “we feel a connection to our ancestors”. The government uses these Soviet attributes while around [us] is paid education, closed health clinics and the boorish refusal to index wages during a period of crisis. At the same time they constantly repeat, “we have a market economy”, “everybody for themselves” or “think for yourself where to find money”.'

Budraitskis says that under such circumstances it can be very difficult to be on the left—one must fight supporters of the authorities who use Soviet phraseology as well as liberals who continue to blame Marxist ideas above all else.

For his part, Shubin believes that such conditions—in which the government adopts Soviet symbolism—are not completely hopeless. 'Personally, I'm quite comfortable being on the left,’ begins the historian. I am a supporter of an entirely different tradition of socialist movements, based on self-management—not paternalistic statehood. People I speak with are interested in finding out more about the traditions of the narodniki [Russian populist, socially conscious movement of the 1860s and 1870s], of Herzen, Lavrov, Bakunin and the Socialist Revolutionaries—about new trajectories in socialism which take a post-industrial perspective […] a socialism adapted to the problems of the 21st century.'

Stalin versus Lenin

Budraitskis used to work as a researcher at Russia's State Central Museum of Contemporary History, the National Centre for Contemporary Arts and Leninskiye Gorki, which incorporates Lenin's dacha, and is now a museum. His collaboration with the latter eventually fell through—the left-wing activist proposed to examine why the place was famous, but the management wasn't interested.

Lenin was simply a redundant symbol of the past, uninteresting and dusty.

'Despite the wide variety of exhibitions about Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin], for the museum's administrators, Lenin, a complex historical figure, was simply a redundant symbol of the past, uninteresting and dusty—a bag of old Soviet rubbish. They wanted to organise horse rides for children and fill the park with young couples with prams, strolling among granite monuments romantically reminiscent of an incomprehensible Soviet past,' writes Aleksandra Simonova on her experience working at Leninskie Gorki.

Simonova, a graduate student of the European University of St Petersburg, adds that 'these new, effective managers don't really know who Lenin was, nor what the museum really is. The final conversion of Leninskiye Gorki into a cemetery came with the construction of an Orthodox church right outside the entrance to the museum entrance.'

Nikolai Starikov's book 'Stalin: let's remember him together' claims to help readers come to terms with this 'ambiguous' figure. (c) ukrafoto / Demotix. So how has Stalin, leader of the nation, come to overshadow Lenin, the leader of the international proletariat? Budraitskis believes that while the Russian authorities use Stalin's image, Russia today cannot offer a single idea that could be deployed by other countries of the world against the existing model of global capitalism.

Furthermore, Budraitskis notes that the figure of Lenin, thanks to whom Stalin came to power, is gradually sinking into oblivion. 'The authorities don't want to disturb the historical consensus on Lenin and Stalin, but to ignore it any further will prove difficult. Lenin is now a mischief-maker, a destroyer, while, on the other hand, Stalin both restored the empire and expanded it.'

'The story of why Stalin is more popular than Lenin came up on the Name of Russia show,’ Aleksandr Shubin tells me. 'Not only revolutionary Lenin, but statesman Stalin are both symbols of social justice and the defeat of the bourgeoisie for parts of Russian society. This is important given the extremely strong social stratification in our society. For another electorate, Stalin signifies a strong state. These two electorates, communist and state-nationalist, can unite under the figure of Stalin, not Lenin.'

In 2008, Russian television decided to repeat the UK's experience of 100 Greatest Britons with Name of Russia. In the first half of July, Stalin led in the polls, followed by Soviet-era musician and actor Vladimir Vysotsky, then Lenin. In August, the results of the previous vote were annulled, and the third round of voting had to be held again, citing hacking attacks and flashmobs. At the end, the votes were distributed as follows: in first place came the old Russian price Aleksandr Nevsky, followed by Pyotr Stolypin, the late Tsarist prime minister, and then Stalin. Lenin took sixth place.

'Today, a popular Stalinist can be either a striking worker, or the police chief who subjugates them. Both will find a justification in their own mythological Stalinism,' declares Budraitskis. 'We need to talk to them about the present day: should we support the authorities in everything and knock around our neighbours or do we need, for example, justice or nationalisation. There's no need to resort to quasi-historical disputes based on figures or certified documents. The level of education has fallen significantly and society has forgotten how to read ambiguous, equivocal books [on the subject]. And that's why popular historical books such as those of Nikolai Starikov sell so well.'


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